It probably isn’t.
But Shadow of the Colossus is the one game that I can look to when I need a reminder of why I should still kinda-sorta have an interest in my childhood hobby.
The game is, on the one hand, an extreme exercise in minimalism, and, on the other, downright operatic in its baroque excesses. You control Wander, a boy who is trying to bring a girl (who was ritually sacrificed for obscure reasons) back to life. This leads him to trespass into an abandoned, forbidden realm to seek out an entity called Dormin. Dormin has the ability to bring the girl back from the dead, but on the proviso that Wander slay the sixteen monsters (the titular colossi) that live in the realm.
And that is pretty much the whole game. Aside from taking down those colossi with your magic sword and bow and arrow, there is not much else to do aside from checking out the scenery. Exposition and cutscenes are also pared down to a bare minimum, giving only as much as the player needs to understand what to do. The backstory of the characters is never fleshed out at all.
But, of course, that sort of focus allows for the game to put all its effort into those sixteen fights. And this is where the game really shines for me, because if there is one thing I like about video games, it is boss fights. So the idea of a game dedicated entirely to having really good boss fights seems just tailor-made for me. Everything is focused on making them as over-the-top as possible, from the sheer scale of the colossi, the orchestra playing full blast on the soundtrack, and the frequently insane and death-defying stunts that the player is required to make in order to win. It’s an almost perfect marriage of games-as-challenge and games-as-experience. Shadow wants to have its players gape in awe at its technical and artistic accomplishments while simultaneously having their palms sweat.And it is a testament to its design that what it does is still impressive and thrilling after almost a decade.
Now, if it were just a series of set-pieces and no more, Shadow would be fun, but it wouldn’t have it’s peculiar, haunting quality. That is, in part, created by the ambiance of the game – it’s mythic/fairy tale setting, the huge expanses of empty fields, forests and ruins. The solitude of it all. But it also has to do with its inversion of a typical video game formula.
A lot of games like to introduce a moral element – players are offered the choice between doing the ‘good’, or the ‘bad’ action, but it usually doesn’t work, since it tends to just reduce the moral choice to another variable that effects the way the game is played (like choosing a physically strong character over an agile one). Although there really is no choice of what you can do in Shadow, it in an odd way drives home the point that actions have consequences.
It is made clear from the outset that in coming to this land, Wander is transgressing the laws of his people. And although the sacrifice of the girl appears to be an injustice, as the game progresses it subtly suggests that the taboos against visiting this place are there for a good reason, and that Wander is getting involved with dangerous and corrupting forces. Indeed, the whole, “I will bring my beloved back to life no matter what it takes” plot should be an indication that the story is going to go to some dark places.
Every Colossus that Wander kills seems to be a sort of ‘death’ for Wander. Mournful music plays, and – this is difficult to describe – he seems to somehow become infected by the death of the colossus. His physical appearance slowly deteriorates over the course of the game, until he looks a bit like a walking corpse. It quickly becomes clear that Wander’s actions come with a heavy price indeed.
Thus Shadow is a curious inversion: while progress in most games pushes the characters towards the happy ending, Shadow follows a tragic trajectory, where the player’s actions move the situation towards catastrophe. By separating the moral component from the mechanics of winning/progress, the game has more of a sense of conscience than if it offered good and bad as two means to the goal. Or, if I wanted to be more pretentious about it, I could say that the fact that winning the game leads to tragedy underlines how there is a moral law above and beyond mere utilitarian concerns about how to achieve our ends.
All this would be too much, and perhaps a bit emotionally manipulative, if Shadow actually tried to have more of a plot. It would become an exercise in making a point, rather than an exercise in making a game. And, if all this weren’t cloaked underneath a fairy-tale garment with a minimal presence of humans, it would likely be too unsettling to play.
The absence of humans leads me to another point I like about the game. Wander does have one companion – a horse called Agro. Unlike Epona, who is probably the most famous video game equine, Agro is designed to behave like an actual horse. You never really control her when riding her; you just tug on the reins and whatnot. While I usually dislike when games opt for realism at the expense of some convenience, in this case it pays off. Especially given the lonely setting of the game, the horse does grow on you over time.
And before you ask, yes, someone has made MLP crossover fanart with this, and stuck it on a T-Shirt:
So, um, I suppose I have come full circle with this post.