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  • Game Narrative Review: Shadow of the Colossus

    - Nicholas Rotondo

  • Strongest Element

    Fumito Ueda along with composer Kow Otani designed the music of Shadow of the Colossus not as a background element but as an integral narrative component. Most of the game, the player is exploring vast, deserted terrain in search of the colossi, during which time there is no music at all. The only sounds heard are those of the player's galloping horse or possibly a far-off bird's cry. This virtual silence helps to emphasize the isolation of the protagonist in a strangely unpopulated land. Then, when the player does come upon one of the colossi, gentle orchestral music begins to fade in. Though the player knows his or her mission is to kill all the colossi, the music seems to be indicating that this creature is in fact benign, creating an internal conflict within the player, without any dialogue being uttered.

    However, the player must pursue the mission, so he or she sufficiently provokes the colossus into fighting. But again when the colossus has been defeated, the expected triumph is instead replaced with a deepening sense of uncertainty, triggered again by a change in the music. During the battle the music was the charged and confident tempo of an action sequence. Yet after the colossus falls, the music abruptly becomes mournful and heart wrenching, causing the player to question his or her role in the situation.

    Similar to the important role of music as a narrative element, the art design also plays into the game's story. The vast landscape the player moves through is notable first for its breathtaking vistas, and further for its variety. The terrain shifts from verdant fields to sun-bleached deserts to dense, mossy forests, moving the player between darkness and light; just as he or she is moved between the role of hero and villain, the game having loosened these roles from their traditional moorings. Not only are the landscapes visually engaging metaphors, but the colossi themselves are visually impressive symbols. Their large statures and lumbering movements make them intimidating opponents, but at the same time their docile eyes and soft fur call into question their role as monsters, so that the art adds another layer of ambiguity to the game's narrative.

    Unsuccessful Element

    While Shadow of the Colossus is a beautiful game with an innovative storytelling mechanic there are a couple of noteworthy shortcomings. The first one worth mentioning is the subtitled translation of the made-up game language. Though it does give the player a more immediate understanding for the foundational narrative of the game, it is a bit incongruous with the rest of the game's pattern of unraveling the narrative expectations of the player. It would have been more consistent to leave the player without a clear explanation for what they are witnessing, and where they are meant to go next.

    The second weakness of the game actually comes out of its strength; the deeply layered narrative requires a patient audience, which increases the commitment required of the player and therefore limits the game's potential audience. Through its vast deserted lands and abandoned ruins, Colossus forces the player's imagination to invent scenarios that are more vivid and personal than that which can be conveyed through traditional narrative mechanisms. In other words, Colossus' sparse narrative facilitates the player superimposing him or herself onto the game's protagonist, the act of which establishes a deep bond between the narrative and the player, but only if he or she is willing to nurture this sort of an imaginative relationship. Because of this, Colossus can never be a crossover title.


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