Each day this week our writer Vaughn will be putting up an article about one particular level, place, moment, in a game that’s really captures the titles essence but because of this there could be spoilers ahead.. It’s called Levelling Out and for day three he’s looking at Shadow of the Colossus.
The long and tired debate ‘are video games an art form’ is so bulky that I could write many articles citing examples of why. However, this isn’t an article about that topic, and if it was it would be incredibly late to the party. Although I won’t be drawing upon artistic merit, I will be talking about one game that supports the argument more than anything else that’s come in the last few years: Team Ico’s dark and powerful tale of a young mans love for another and the lengths he will go to save her. I am, of course, talking about Shadow of the Colossus – but in particular, the Colossi themselves.
Numbering sixteen in total, these hulking beasts stand in the way of the protagonist Wander and his chance of saving the girl he loves, Mono, from her cruel cursed fate. Wander must fell these powerful beings to bring her back to being the woman he loved. Setting out atop his horse Agro he heads out into the Forbidden Land where each Colossi patrols a section of the vast region. It’s here that Wander strikes down each beast one by one. With every creature slain Wander himself changes, a dark wave washes over him. Slowly you begin to wonder exactly why you’re carrying out such abhorrent acts, and why you’re doing exactly what the game expects you to do. Ultimately, Team Ico have capitalised upon your blind faith with the paradigms of video games and have turned your willingness to adhere into a game in itself. You’ll commit selfish and heinous acts in the name of gameplay.
Because each Colossi is unique, and utterly astounding to see up close, killing them feels so very wrong. As a player you’re torn. You’ve become drawn into Fumito Udea’s minimalist world and sucked into the turmoil within Wander’s heart – after all who wouldn’t do anything to save the one they love? But you find yourself not wanting to erase such majestically powerful creatures from the face of the earth.
You may be wondering why these ‘characters’ are being featured in a series of articles focusing on levels and places. Well for those that don’t already know, each Colossi is, in fact, a level. Their hulking frames are puzzles for you to overcome. Clambering up their back and finding places to rest before holding onto their fur and plunging Wanders sword into their backs is the goal. You just have to figure out how to get up there – and hold on when you do.
In terms of gameplay mechanics they aren’t anything more than moving levels. They can be boiled down to ledges, gaps and goals. However, in the emotional context of Shadow of the Colossus they become so much more. You feel ultimately satisfied about climbing up and around the living assault course. You feel pleased that you can plunge Wander’s sword into their soft skin. You feel great for having overcome the obstacle before you. It’s totally immersive and gripping gameplay, made all the more poignant when you realise exactly what you’ve done.
No other game manages to evoke such a reaction from overcoming a challenge. Ever defeated a wise-cracking boss or mowed down an individual in Grand Theft Auto to only pause the game afterwards and take in the fact you’ve ended a completely unique life? Probably not. And if you have, then you’re a better person than I.
It’s odd to think that such a connection between you and these creatures could be formed. They don’t speak, most aren’t even vaguely human in appearance – not that, that would stop some people. As I said before, they’re just levels that move. However, they seem so real. What with each one being an individual creature, they’re majestic in appearance and – for the most part – they all come across as innocent victims of Wander’s, essentially, selfish goal. They writhe when you climb them; before you approach them to attack they’re aimlessly going about their own business. You’re hunting them down like animals for the slaughter, and I’m willing to bet than when push comes to shove many of us wouldn’t feel comfortable going out and killing an animal in cold blood.
While many loved Shadow of the Colossus, others did feel cheated by Team Ico for – what they believe was – tricking them into killing the beautiful Colossi. However, it’s thanks to the Colossi’s legacy that more and more games are questioning player morals when it comes to avoidable loss of life. It took these sentient trials, along with some jiggery-pokery from Team Ico, to make the industry sit up and listen. While we may be slipping back into the big guns, big explosions and black and white moral conundrums, no other title has managed to match up to the magnificence found within Shadow of the Colossus’ Colossi.