The true brilliance behind Shadow of the Colossus: Part 1

A colossal creature skulks through a wide, cavernous valley, shaking the very foundation of the land with each sluggish step. The shattered horns atop its head, reminiscent of a minotaur’s, seem to pierce the sky itself. A young man — that’s you, Wander — stands at its feet, gripping an ancient sword tightly in his hand. Leaping into action, you hold the sword high above your head, pointing it toward the heavens. It begins to pulse with light magic. To form an effective attack plan, you reflect the beams toward the massive creature, revealing its vitals. Now your task is clear: a few stabs to its towering cranium should bring the beast down.

You initiate your approach, inching closer and closer to the hulking behemoth. The creature pays no attention to the pint-sized human nipping at its heels. Yards away from the creature’s immense hooves, the reverberations from its steps send you cascading to the ground. You try again, this time successfully leaping onto the fur above its left hoof. The creature continues to shamble along as you scale its leg, torso and finally neck. It routinely twists and turns, trying to shake you free. Between its broken horns, a sigil glows pale blue. Kneeling there, one hand gripping the creature’s rough fur, you draw back your sword and stab its head. It emits a series of thunderous cries as you stab and stab again until it can take no more; black blood spewing from its skull, it collapses, smashing into the earth with a deafening crash. Murky black tendrils emerge from its corpse and slither into Wander, causing you, too, to collapse. A bright white light appears at the end of a dark, shadowy tunnel.

Congratulations: you’ve toppled Valus, the first Colossus. Fifteen to go.

In Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus, players roam a vast landscape as Wander, a young man tasked with destroying sixteen epic Colossi in order to resurrect a mysterious, lifeless girl named Mono. Oddly routine as this might sound, Shadow of the Colossus is an atypical action-adventure experience, refusing to conform to genre norms; minus the occasional critter crawling in the brush, the world is completely barren, devoid of inhabitants, towns and traditional enemies.

Fictional worlds “will always be smaller than the real world,” Clara Fernandez Vara says in her dissertation “The Tribulations of Adventure Games: Integrating Story into Simulation through Performance.” No fictional world is ever “complete;” certain aspects of the world will always remain unexplored and unexplained. Still, Shadow’s open world is remarkably well realized — it feels, if not complete, both hugely expansive and incredibly engrossing and immersive. This is true for a variety of reasons, but primarily — and also paradoxically — because it doesn’t aim to reproduce the real world in any way, shape or form.

In terms of story line, Shadow of the Colossus certainly falls into the realm of fantasy, but it’s not typical fantasy fare. While most fantasy games include elements that would never exist in the real world — like magic swords or floating islands, or colossal monsters for that matter — they usually incorporate familiar aspects of human society, such as towns and cities, institutions, economies and so on. These elements, and others like them, are wholly absent in Shadow. Yet the world’s bareness, its inhuman strangeness, isn’t a problem; rather, these qualities instill the game with a sense of purity, giving greater gravity to what is present. Exploring Shadow’s minimalistic landscapes is an enchanting experience. Hypothetically, you could ignore the Colossi entirely and spend all your time exploring Shadow’s haunting landscapes — they’re that entrancing. Shadow of the Colossus is virtual tourism at its finest.

As a byproduct of its immersive and striking world — and also its gameplay, for which the same descriptors apply — Shadow of the Colossus has a strong “magic circle,” a concept pioneered by Johan Huizinga in his book, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. “Play is not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life,” writes Huizinga. “It is rather a stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own.” Play is always fantasy, then, whether it occurs through a few children playing tag in the schoolyard or a multimedia experience like Shadow. But there are differing levels of unreality, of immersion, and Shadow’s is particularly strong for a video game. “Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life [play] brings a temporary, a limited perfection,” Huizinga continues. Yet often, when a game becomes too complicated, too fragmented, this “limited perfection” of play becomes something closer to unlimited frustration, effectively fracturing the magic circle.

Indeed, video games have become increasingly complex over the last few decades, especially in era of 3D graphics. Although outstanding franchises like Grand Theft Auto and The Elder Scrolls are evidence that complexity can work, game developers routinely pile extraneous features, HUD elements, environments and control mechanisms into already complicated, unfocused games. Sometimes, by the end of the development process, the developers will have lost sight of creating a deep but accessible gaming experience. Shadow of the Colossus avoids such problems. The game’s design methodology ensures that both the gameplay and the visuals are of the highest possible quality, allowing for the “limited perfection,” the beauty that comes from play within a dense magic circle.

Famito Ueda, director and lead designer of Shadow of the Colossus, outlined his philosophy of game design in a keynote speech at the 2002 Game Developers Conference as “design by subtraction.” Although a desolate landscape without a population, towns or more than 16 foes might sound empty and unengaging, it actually feels quite substantial. Removing visual and gameplay elements — reducing the game’s “volume” — allows both the artists and designers to focus on improving the “quality and density” of what remains. “Emotional reality does not equal photo-realistic reality," says Ueda. “Our target is ‘immersion’, a reality you feel inside your dream.” The more elements there are in a game, says Ueda, the harder it is to maintain immersion — in other words, to preserve the magic circle. “In pursuing artistic reality,” he elaborates, “sometimes reality does not [feel] real.” (Ueda) This also explains why Team Ico opted to use handcrafted animations over motion capture data for both Ico (the development studio’s first game) and Shadow of the Colossus. It was clearly the right decision: the animations for Wander, Agro (Wander’s horse) and the Colossi are both visually arresting in themselves and beautifully integrated in the gaming experience as a whole.

There are dozens of jaw-dropping moments in Shadow of the Colossus, but a few stand out above all others. One of the most spectacular moments in all of gaming occurs during the fifth Colossus battle, where Wander must fight Avion, a Colossus in the shape of a giant phoenix. Perched on a faraway pillar, the creature occasionally swoops down to glide above the water. At just the right moment, you have to jump and grab onto him. If successful, you’re cast into the sky, a tiny speck on Avion’s giant, flapping wing. There’s really no other word to describe that experience other than “magical.” It’s one of those rare moments that literally take your breath away. “Play has a tendency to be beautiful,” notes Huizinga. Though he wrote Homo Ludens over a half-century before Team Ico developed Shadow — before the first video game, in fact — he’s absolutely right: in Shadow, play is most certainly beautiful.

Part 2 is available here.