Shadow of the Colossus is a game of emergence whose rules are “easy to learn but difficult to master.” Players quickly come to grips with the game’s cyclical progression structure: using Wander’s magic sword to guide the pair towards the next Colossus, ride Agro across the Forbidden Land; find the Colossus and use the sword’s magic to reveal its vitals; figure out how to scale the Colossus (often requiring use of the surrounding environment) and attack its weak points for massive damage, eventually killing the Colossus; and, finally, pass out from the creepy black tendrils that emerge from each downed Colossus, reawakening at the central temple where Mono lays, lifeless. Wash, rise, and repeat fifteen more times.
The fact that Shadow of the Colossus has a mere sixteen enemies does not make the game easy — far from it. After Valus, the game’s first foe, each Colossus poses a substantial and growing challenge. Toppling the Colossi requires just as much brainpower as brawn, if not more; scaling each one is a puzzle in and of itself, though climbing and combat skills are undoubtedly part of the equation. “An emergent game will generally not present challenges that have been designed to be misleading,” writes Jesper Juul in Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, “but the player may in actuality be led to attempt to solve a challenge in a wrong way.” This holds true for the emergent Shadow; battles will inevitably contain some trial and error — “perhaps an arrow to the eye will blind it momentarily… oh, no, that doesn’t work” — but none of the Colossus encounters are intentionally deceptive. Some of the Colossi can be defeating by employing “straightforward reckoning” while others — like Dirge, the sand tiger Colossus — require “insight thinking.” In terms of Shadow, straightforward reckoning means solving a puzzle by using the tools at Wander’s disposal, trial and error style. Insight thinking involves stepping back from the situation, thinking outside the box and conceptualizing a complete strategy or solution before actually executing it.
Such “a series of interesting choices,” according to Sid Meier, design of the Civilization franchise, makes for a high-quality game. But how do game designers or players decide what makes for “interesting choices”? Meier argues there are three criteria: no single option should be the best, the options should not be equally good and the player must be able to make an informed choice. Though there’s only one way to kill each Colossus — stabbing its vitals — there are usually multiple ways to achieve this end, allowing for engaging, thought-provoking gameplay. For example, there are three strategies to approach Phaedra, the horse-like fourth Colossus. Two of them involve hiding in the nearby tunnels. When the Colossus is close, you sneak up from behind and scamper onto its back, or jump onto the reins dangling from its face and progress from there. If you’re particularly adept with Agro, on the other hand, you can ride up alongside Phaedra, jump onto one of its legs and start your climb.
There is no “best” option, but there are varying levels of difficulty. Certain strategies are also “better” in some respects than others. The Agro method is hypothetically faster, but it’s also harder, so it may take more time for unskilled players. Lastly, players are able to make an informed choice based on the information the game provides. When all is said and done, this is what makes each Colossus battle an enormously engrossing, entertaining experience.
For this very reason, it’s tremendously gratifying to defeat each Colossus. Since they pose such a significant challenge, watching them collapse is supremely satisfying. Yet, strangely, this can provoke a good deal of guilt, too. Though they can be downright terrifying at times, the Colossi are beautiful creatures. They aren’t out to harm anyone; they only fight back out of self-defense. Paradoxically, Wander’s mission is both selfless and incredibly selfish. He’s killing these majestic creatures to resurrect Mono, but his ultimate motive for doing so — perhaps he loves her, perhaps he is driven by a lust for power — is both mysterious and takes no account of anything else in the world of the game besides itself. On some level, the desolate external landscape of the game may be reflective of the interior aspect of Wander as well.
In The Ethics of Computer Games, Miguel Sicart discusses ‘Players as Moral Beings’ in the context of Grand Theft Auto IV. “From the outset, we know that Niko despises the man he was and wants to begin anew,” writes Sicart. “But as players, we are given the task of completing these criminal missions and fulfilling the fate of Niko Bellic. Grand Theft Auto IV is built around the fundamental tension between a character who does not want more violence, and a player who is commanded to play this violence.” For a fantasy game that has nothing to do with crime, city life or even society, Shadow of the Colossus presents an eerily similar scenario: Wander is cherishes life — specifically, Mono’s life — but to attain his goal, he and the game’s players are forced to slay a train of godly Colossi. To kill a Colossus feels terrible — and fantastic. Different players will react in unique ways, to be sure, and there are a variety of interpretations surrounding the Colossi, Mono and Wander himself, but one thing is certain: the creators of Shadow have created an absorbing exercise in player morality.
If there’s yet one more certainty about this revolutionary game, it is this: Shadow of the Colossus is a masterpiece. The gameplay is engrossing, the visuals stunning, the story both mystifying and gripping. Taken as a whole, it is perhaps the most compelling experience ever created on a PlayStation platform. Every self-respecting gamer should experience the mystery, excitement and wonder of Team Ico’s magnum opus: Shadow of the Colossus.