Rock in His Pocket: Reading Shadow of the Colossus

By Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh [08.23.07]

 Judging from his two major brain dumps, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, game designer Fumito Ueda is a complicated guy to put in charge of a video game. He's an ivory tower idealist with only a passive understanding of practical architecture.

As a dreamer, his ideas are too organic, too personal to fit the clichés that most of us consider the building blocks of game design. Ueda sidesteps convention where it gets in his way, yet not necessarily where it might get in the player's way. Thus we get deliberate and cleverly designed games, meaningful and painfully gorgeous games, that are nevertheless a nuisance to actually play, leaving Ueda's statements, in all their profundity, accessible only to the most devoted.

Paired with a more down-to-earth design team to translate his ideas (someone with a Valve mentality, perhaps) Ueda could change the world of games. But so far, he's been the master of the golden arrow. His ideas are so poignant yet so tediously executed that they create a certain cognitive dissonance in the player, inspiring not so much awe as transcendence, a deep need to puzzle over what went wrong and how to better it.

As far as human experiences go, that's a pretty healthy place to be. Ueda still succeeds on a level, if not quite the level he's shooting for.

And he's learning, even as his ambition balloons. For all its faults (and they are mostly superficial) Shadow of the Colossus is far better implemented than Ico. Many of the game's problems seem like they were introduced at the last minute, more out of insecurity than inattention. The three things that we, as an audience, can in turn take from the game are the theory behind it, the problems Ueda still hit in applying that theory, and where those problems came from in the first place.

The Theory
The game's premise is right there in its title, literally translated from Japanese to Wanda and the Colossus, where the name Wanda is more loosely configured to "wanderer" (the English title tells its own story). Therein lies the central conflict: wandering in the shadows of giants. The game presents a huge, gorgeous, and lonely world to explore, completely at the player's discretion, punctuated by a handful of intense and violent scripted boss encounters.

 The game's story is one of greed, sadness, obsession, and more than anything, ambition. There's a dead girlfriend, and the only way to revive her is to kill -- and not just kill, but kill huge and dangerous, beautiful and mythical creatures. For the sake of his love, the player must go out of his way to destroy all. With every life he takes, you the player die a little inside and become a little less human.

The violence in Shadow of the Colossus is nauseating, yet thrilling. It's not so much an act as a release. Our hero character does not so much plunge his sword into the beast's skull as allow it to sink in, giving himself over to the inevitable. Gore shoots out, and you the player panic, stabbing again and again, grasping to the beast's fur as it screams and thrashes in pain.

As the monster dies, you pant. You just had the most exciting video game moment in years. You try to run from the black threads that stream out of the carcass, but there's no escape from your actions. Sooner or later, the darkness penetrates you. And you wake up haunted by yet another shadow.

What's genius is that the game offers a choice. The player doesn't have to be violent. A whole world exists to explore, full of nooks and crannies and grandeur. The game offers a loyal -- and actually rather bright -- companion in a horse, which the player can pet at will.

Granted, the player has to find his or her own meaning in that world. The world does not exist for the player's benefit. It simply is what it is.

The Experience
If one were to abandon the beasts and take off in the world in non-violent exploration, what that world would offer to most players, unfortunately, is boredom. In games, meaning and purpose come from acting, from fulfilling tasks and progressing toward a preordained goal. Finding the best place to sit and look at the skyline is not the experience most people expect from a PlayStation game. They want mindless catharsis. They want to know they have a place carved out just for them and a defined series of tasks to fulfill in order to win. That's meaning.

So the choice the game offers is not much of a choice at all: Either be content with nothing but beauty and your own liberty, or do your work and get your reward, however horrible it might be. At least you won't be bored, and when the game is over, you will have accomplished something.

If the outcome is inevitable, what is the point of the central conflict between wanderer and giant?

Mostly, having to choose enhances the emotional resonance of the choice itself, as whatever the player does, whatever violence he eventually undertakes, it is of his own volition. Because the player is at liberty to choose, the consequences and sense of morality carry more weight.

The Method
Nearly every design element is geared to convey either a sense of scope or a sense of intimacy. The game world is supremely node-based, to use Brian Upton's term, with an endless horizon and landmarks up the wazoo for navigation. There are a few paths, which primarily pace the approach to a colossus battle, and districts, which in combination with the horizon and landmarks orient the player. The edges that do exist serve mainly to encapsulate the node-districts (the tower area, forest, and mountain region) and give each its own sense of place.

The central tower is visible at nearly all times. Save points are clearly visible in the distance and can be scaled (they take the form of small watchtowers) for a view of the surrounding area or maybe a glimpse of the next watchtower. Whenever the player defeats a colossus, the monster leaves a streak of light in the sky, another directional beacon.

Height and distance provide a continual sense of perspective in relation to the game world, as well as a sense of belonging and ownership. As the hero climbs each landmark, he is in effect claiming them as personal discoveries.

Although there's little purpose to most locations and no explicit reason to explore them, the node-centric design of the game emphasizes downtime or exploration. But the moment we as a player grow bored, the dominant landmarks remind us of the pending quest and tether our attention back to the game. The downtime helps to pace the action in a way that heightens the drama and immediacy of the battles, which are so overwhelming they require a recovery period.

 The Purpose
More than that, the majesty of the world and the lack of a driving reason to progress lead the player to question the mission. When the player seeks out and encounters colossi, they are mostly minding their own business. Generally, it's the player who must pick the fight, and go out of his way to do so.

But there's no rush, really. The dead girl is hardly going to become more dead. And the colossi aren't going anywhere. This mission is no one's but the player's. After a certain point, the game starts to feel a bit like jousting at windmills.

Were the game a boss rush with a linear route or sequence of events leading to each encounter, the player would feel a driving sense of purpose. Of course he is meant to fight the colossi, as doing so or preparing to do so, is the entire fabric of the world.

Ueda gives us liberty coupled with uncertainty. Clearly, the player is meant to progress and finish the game. Yet do we care? Must we care? And if we don't, then why are we playing? What other meaning does the game hold?

Shadow of the Colossus is almost post-Campbellian in that the hero quest -- the framework that we normally think of as the meat of a video game -- is actively questioned. The player can subvert the quest and turn down the call to arms at any time.

Still, the game doesn't abandon the quest structure so much as approach it at a different angle. There's only so long the average player can live with "but you must!" before caving in. Unless we stop playing altogether, we will ultimately surrender and accept our fate, similar to how the sword's plunge is more of a release than an act of aggression. For all the introspection it inspires, Shadow of the Colossus is about giving up and doing anything to escape emptiness, even being a false hero.

The Details
It's worth noting that what makes Ueda's game work, as far as it does, is its wealth of subtle details (which so many other games lack) that humanize the world and its population and make it feel genuine.

One of the most significant details that most games skimp on is animation, but here, it's the soul of the game. The player, dubbed Wander by fans, is a gangly and awkward young man. He's uncomfortable wielding a sword. When he runs, he swings his arms and legs with abandon, occasionally tripping over his own feet. He has no idea how to jump, and nearly falls on his face each time he tries. The only place he is greater than inept is on his horse, bow in hand. And he can cling to things pretty damn well. He has a whole button devoted to clinging.

The game's main button serves to interact with the horse -- call to it, spur it on, cling to it, bond with it. You can perform tricks like standing upright at a gallop. When you're off the horse, you can pet it, though it gets spooked by weapons.

When you're on the horse, you don't have to touch a control. You barely have to steer. The horse is smart enough to keep you on course, even down a winding path, without running into a wall or slowing down more than is necessary. It's a loyal companion who will follow you to the grave.

Curiously, the player is given a separate button to "use" the sword than to attack with it. "Using" the sword means holding it up to the sky, when there's sunlight, which reflects off the blade and forms a beacon, pointing the way to the next colossus. The sword, which is clearly not a part of Wander's normal life, considering how awkwardly he wields it, is what directs the player toward the next leg of the quest, keeping him on the path of action. The sword symbolizes the player's decision to choose action over inaction, to stay with the quest and move forward. This, alongside the sword's hold-and-release stabbing action (or inaction, as it were, since it's more of a reflex) shows us that the hero is driven by compulsion and not necessarily purpose.

The Frame
As in Resident Evil 4 and the scene outside Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, when the player rides the horse, the camera lists off to the side. More descriptively, it points straight ahead as it frames Wander in a low corner. In Shadow of the Colossus, this is the camera shot for approximately half the gameplay time.

Slowly, game designers are learning the value of subjective yet functional camerawork. With the character off to the left, you can see the horse and the boy, but your eye focuses on the horizon and what you're riding toward. The alternative would be to stare at the horse's rump for the half dozen hours you're riding around, and that's probably what would have happened had the development team used a more traditional tracking camera.

On a similar note, pressing the map button causes the camera to swing up and rapidly zoom out until the player's location fades into a pinpoint on the (cartographic) world map. This shot serves a couple of purposes. It contextualizes the menu screen by tying it into the game world as an abstraction. It also helps to illustrate exactly where the player is in the world. The viewer's eye, following Wander, is drawn to the correct point on the map and from there can scout out the surrounding territory. Pressing the map button becomes similar to climbing to the highest point possible. It thematically ties into the game's stance on relational navigation, and it's stylistically incorporated as another subjective viewpoint among many.

 Ueda is so concerned with camerawork that he gives the player control over three camera buttons, each with its own subjective view and function. Having these controls allows the player to minimalize the confusion that occurs during the colossus battles. Unfortunately, the three-camera solution feels a bit cumbersome, and in the heat of battle -- when the player is staring up at the beasts, running around them, dangling from them, and shaken around like a handkerchief -- none of the cameras does much good anyway. The player is often just waiting for the camera to right itself.

Still, the effects are valuable. There are light blooms, dust clouds, and a camera blur during quick motions. You can hear wind and echoes where wind and echoes belong.

Saving the game is important in Shadow of the Colossus, and the way it's implemented makes thematic sense. In Dead Rising, you save by sleeping or going to the toilet. Here, you save by praying at an altar, taking a natural pause that is part of the narrative. It all serves to enhance the integrity of the game.


Suspended Disbelief
For all the game does right, there are two big areas that diminish that integrity: the interface and the colossus battles. Not only do they break the immersion and irritate the player, but they also interfere with the game's themes.

The interface issues are weird. They are just as clearly a last-minute change as they are a concession to the fear that a traditional audience would fail to "get" the game, quickly giving up simply because they might be confused as to what to do.

Some of the problems, like the heads-up display, are just cosmetic. When there are only two weapons, both of which are obvious in the character's hands, is it really necessary to provide large, cartoonish sword, bow, and fist icons? If there are prominent visual and aural cues when Wander is exhausted and about to lose his grip, do we really need a separate grip meter, which, to study, requires taking your eyes off the action for what might be a vital split-second?

That said, the icons and meters do little harm. Their major hindrance is that they clutter the screen and remove the player from the immersive experience.

 Actually, the problem of disengagement starts before the game even opens to play; between the long and wordless approach to the tower and the start of the player's mission, there's a new bridge cutscene that yaks at length about the plot, about the player's quest, his destiny, who he will fight and why, and how the game is played. At least it's all in a made-up language, though even imaginary speech feels out of place here.

More significantly, if any game should trust the player to explore and discover the game's story and nuances for himself, this is it. If Ueda wanted to point the player toward the first goal and hint toward a method for finding the beasts, a better solution would have been simply to place the sword in the player's way as he leaves the tower. Make it an obstruction.

Picking up the sword for the first time, Wander could hold it to the sunlight and a beam of light would shoot out toward the horizon, pointing the way. There would have to be a simple and elegant way to inform the player of what button to press in the future, should the player wish to do repeat the action, but that all the set-up the game needs. The player (unless supremely unobservant) would then or eventually follow the beam out of curiosity.

Distraction and Direction
The plot dumps would be inane, if harmless, on their own. Yet the game does not reserve its condescension for the margins between episodes. Some of its most obnoxious moments come when the player can least afford to be distracted: in the heat of battle with a foe way too big for comfort.

If the player takes more than a few moments to study a colossus for patterns and formulate a strategy, the game begins to scream. An enormous text box will appear at the bottom of the screen, obscuring the player's view, and hinting at nothing more edifying than, "EASTMOST PENINSULA HOLDS THE SECRET."

The box stays on screen for what seems like forever, with no way of closing it manually. If the player continues to fail at the precise action the game expects him to, the box pops up again and again. This design decision on its own caused me to put the game on the shelf for more than two years. However much I like a game's ideas, I refuse to be a monkey boy, especially if a game screams at me -- especially if, in its concerted effort to patronize me, it causes me to fail at the very task it is demanding of me. Life is too short for that kind of frustration.

If the game must have a hint system, make it optional, for example as in Metroid Prime. Why so few games follow that model is beyond me.

Game designers never, under any circumstance, want their players to ask, "What am I supposed to do?" The question the player should ask is, "How can I do this?" The player should be focused on juggling the available options and working out the best course of action, not second-guessing the designer's intentions.

If Shadow of the Colossus has a major problem, it's in direct communication of its ideas. The thematic hints and suggestions are expressive, yes. But to explain something outright, Ueda's only recourse is the text box or nothing at all. For instance, one of the first steps toward reaching the first colossus is climbing an ivy-coated wall. The game gives no sign that Wander can climb or that the wall is in any way remarkable beyond its inconspicuously green texture. Had Ueda noticed the possible hang-up, he would have thrown in a text box or some other clue that would have invited the player to jump toward the wall and hold the grip button.

The problem really manifests in the colossus battles. Each is rigorously scripted, with a specific and correct course of action expected of the player. Occasionally, the context is sufficient to suggest a technique, as when a flying beast swoops at you when you shoot it, but then flies in a set pattern. Another example is an aquatic beast that surfaces in a set pattern. Other times, though, the player is left grasping at straws, trying to work out just what is expected. One colossus is only assailable if the player backs under an overhang and waits for the beast to bend far enough over that its beard dangles close to the ground.

These are cute solutions. The thing is, they are overly specific, not particularly intuitive, and not well signaled. Discovering them happens by trial-and-error and luck, not triumph of mental or technical skill or even persistence. Time spent until the player happens to stumble across these solutions is completely wasted, as there's nothing else of importance to learn. Then typically the beast will shake Wander off once or twice, forcing the player to run through the same scripted motions over and over, making their tedium all the more obvious. Learn one arbitrary note and repeat. It lacks growth and reward.

Mixed Messages
Mired in the annoying and insufferable gameplay, Shadow of the Colossus certainly put me off, even though I admire the hell out of what Ueda is trying to do with it. The real problem is that it subtly affects the game's thematic balance. On its own, the world is idyllic and serene, while the game is hard and obtuse. With ambition, the player unlocks what darkness is to be found, but must put in a lot of effort to do evil or discover his own opportunities. Even if you know what to do, the tasks are time-consuming and arduous. Evil is a burden that players must bear on their own accord, lending all the more poignancy to the game's central dilemma.

When the game specifically tells you what to do, where to go, and how to complete your missions, rushing you from place to place, it changes the tone dramatically. Whether you decide to take action changes from being a difficult choice to one that leaves you asking why you should take action at all. This question too will pass many player by, as they charge ahead to run through the motions, ride the roller coaster, as if this were other action game.

Is the game less successful for its faults? Added up, I think so. The message is different. It's more pessimistic and a bit more obvious, I think. Without the blinking lights, the game would have been more about the subtle, narcotic appeal to evil (in the form of traditional video game motivation), compelling the player to destroy the beauty around him. Now it's more about whether the player is even aware enough to notice that he has an option other than evil, then how far and how long he takes that option before giving in to the inevitable.

The new message is certainly valid. Perhaps it makes a more classically entertaining game. But Ueda missed the chance for something more unusual here. Still, I sure would like to see a director's cut of this game. Maybe in another 10 or 15 years?

Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his dreams and his clutter. Sometimes when the sun hits the leaves outside his window, he remembers fond times that never were. He also likes ice cream.

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