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  • Rock in His Pocket: Reading Shadow of the Colossus

    [08.23.07]
    - Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh
  •  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.

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