Shadow of the Colossus – Tenth Anniversary Retrospective

Shadow of the Colossus is unquestionably a masterpiece and possibly my favourite videogame of all time, and with the tenth anniversary of its release imminent I thought it would be nice to write about what the game does right and why it’s still so important to me, both from the perspective of a storyteller and more generally as someone who likes interactive art. I’ll be talking about the game in its entirety, including the ending, so fair warning. If you haven’t played the game I’d strongly recommend that you do so.

Death is ever-present in videogames, partly because it’s an easily understood failure state that the player will reach if they play poorly, but the list of games that deal with death and grief as a major story theme is smaller, and games that attack the subject of loss as subtly and effectively as Shadow does are very few. The game uses some of the ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ tropes that have been present in videogames since their inception (there’s a magic sword, huge monsters, a girl you’re trying to save), and initially appears to be a familiar power-fantasy romp, but as you progress it becomes apparent that the game is about something more.   

This promo screenshot was the first image of the game I ever saw.

This promo screenshot was the first image of the game I ever saw, a striking depiction of the battle with the second colossus.

Like its predecessor Ico, Shadow of the Colossus is an exercise in minimalist design, and the story is appropriately minimalist as well, with all but one of the characters introduced during the game’s opening cinematic. The game begins without music, only the sound of wind, as the protagonist Wander makes his way across the iconic bridge into the Forbidden Lands, mounted on his horse Agro. At the entrance to the Shrine of Worship – the game’s most important location – the horse shies, tellingly unwilling to enter, but Wander urges him on. The Shrine is enormous and cathedral-like, one of the very few artificial structures you’ll find in the Forbidden Lands and by far the largest, and Wander rides on through the building, eventually coming on a sunlit altar. Wander places the bundle he’s been riding with onto the altar, revealing in the process our third character, Mono. She’s dressed entirely in white, beautiful even in death, and as she lies in the light a disembodied and clearly supernatural being begins to speak from above, a mixture of both male and female voices, noting immediately that Wander possesses an ancient sword. This is Dormin, the final character we meet in the opening. Wander says that he has heard that Dormin can control the souls of the dead, and asks that the being restore Mono to life, saying she has been sacrificed as she had ‘a cursed fate’. Wander is told that this resurrection is possible, but first Dormin will require that he seek out and slay the sixteen colossi that inhabit the Forbidden Lands. The entity also mentions that the price Wander pays may be heavy, a very obvious clue to the Faustian nature of the deal Wander is making, but the warning doesn’t stop him. He accepts, and the game begins as you ride out into the Forbidden Lands, mounted on Agro. All of this happens during a cinematic less than eight minutes in length, and until the end of the game this is essentially all the direct story-telling we get

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Wander carries Mono to the altar.

What struck me immediately, and still does, is how much is created with so little. We aren’t told who Wander is, what his relation to Mono is (she could either be his sister or his lover, as I don’t find it credible that any other bonds would motivate the actions he takes during the course of the game. I tend to lean towards lover or wife, since this would resonate with the ‘rescue the princess’ trope we’re so familiar with, where part of the hero’s reward is implicitly romantic or sexual in nature. However, as far as I’m aware Shadow never comes down on side or the other, so we’re left to assume.), what the Forbidden Land is or where Wander has come there from, why the place is forbidden, or what exactly Dormin is or how Wander knows about it. None of these details matter, and we can pick up what’s important about the story immediately. Mono is dead and Wander will do anything to get her back – he seems to have gone beyond bravery into a kind of madness. When Dormin warns him that the consequences of his actions may be dire, his sole response is a quiet ‘It doesn’t matter’. We don’t know exactly what Dormin is, but its supernatural nature is obvious, as is the fact that the being is probably dangerous (it’s not immediately clear that destroying the colossi will free Dormin and restore its former power, but the clues are all there). Both Wander and Dormin want something desperately, and they are locked together by their promise. We’re given just enough information to set up the story’s main conflict, and no more than that. All I can say is that I wish more games could exercise such a lightness of touch.

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The Forbidden Lands.

The bulk of the gameplay consists of this: Wander seeks out the sixteen colossi, and kills them. There are no other enemies, no NPCs, no shopkeepers. The only living things in the Forbidden Lands are the player and Agro the horse, along with some lizards and birds. I’m not entirely certain the colossi themselves can be counted as living beings, although they certainly move and think. They are among gaming’s strangest and most memorable creatures, with art direction that I think is unrivaled anywhere in the gaming canon (Shadow’s lead designer interviewed well over 500 candidates before he found an artist he was willing to work with on the colossus designs), and provide the main obstacle in Wander’s quest to restore Mono’s soul. Although unquestionably antagonists in the sense that they stand in opposition to the protagonist, I’ve never been comfortable thinking of the colossi as enemies or villains in the conventional sense, not least because many of them won’t even attack the player when they first see him.

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Colossi sketches from the official artbook, showcasing the wide variety of designs. Two can fly, one swims, and one colossus burrows.

Each colossus is unique, although they follow a few overarching design rules and have some aesthetic features that all hold in common. They’re a strange mixture of human, animal, vegetable, and mineral, calling to mind not just giants and trolls but also the living statues found in some Greek myths, as well as Tolkien’s Ents. They have flesh, it’s true, although the game makes it difficult to tell if what covers their bodies is meant to be fur or moss, and every colossus has elements of stonework or masonry as an integral part of their form. Most follow either humanoid shapes or appear to be gigantic stone animals, although one late-game colossus, the flying sandworm, has an abstract shape that’s difficult to map onto any existing animal. Each one inhabits its own specific portion of the Forbidden Land, from cave systems to deserts to an enormous submerged city of some kind. The battles against them act less as the traditional boss fights found in most games, and more a combination of a puzzle and a rock-climbing challenge, with Wander able to scale their bodies in search of a weak point he can attack with the ancient sword. Although some colossi are quite aggressive and provide a more conventional combat challenge (especially the smallest two: the tiger-like ‘temple guardian’ colossus is barely larger than Agro, and puts up a ferocious fight), others barely seem to notice Wander at all, and their efforts to stop him from ending their lives amount to little more than a pitiful bellow and vain attempts to shake him off. Felling a colossus results in no triumphant music, just a scene of the mighty creature falling lifeless to the ground. Returning to the scene of their death later in the game will reveal that the colossus has turned into a mound of earth and rubble, giving weight to my feeling that they’re less actual living beings and more the Forbidden Land itself, given a kind of life.

One of my favourite designs is the 'knight' colossus, a formidable foe who echoes Wander.

One of my favourite designs is the ‘knight’ colossus, a formidable foe who visually echoes Wander.

The experience of fighting these beings is mythic in the purest sense of the word. Many videogames draw from the work of Tolkien, who in turn was inspired by Anglo Saxon and Viking myths and legends, but for me Shadow has always felt like it’s pulling directly from these mythic sources, taking water from the mountain spring rather than the same fantasy reservoir other games drink from. The oldest myth we still have knowledge of – Gilgamesh – is explicitly about death and grief, and in it Gilgamesh tries to find a way to rescue his dearest friend from death, facing monsters and other challenges along the way. Shadow isn’t trying to be realistic, instead aiming for the same kind of primal space that Gilgamesh or Orpheus’ stories occupy, and for me it succeeds. The sixteen colossi feel very much like they’ve stepped from one of these stories, the kind of guardian spirits of the land that were worshipped in pagan cultures. Sometimes to me they feel like death itself: not malicious but uncaring, beyond our understanding, enormous dark beings watching over an empty land. In a game about a character who is trying to unwind death, they make fitting adversaries.

With each colossus that falls the game moves towards its final act. The sense as you progress is not necessairly one of triumph, as I have said, but of gathering melancholy and doom. As each colossus is slain, a dark energy will emerge from their body and enter Wander, causing him to fall to the ground. Each infusion of energy results in him looking paler and thinner, with darkening eyes and blue veins in his face. Every time you reawaken at the Shrine of Worship after a victory there are more and more shadow figures surrounding your body, watching you sleep. The only visual clue that provides any hope of a happy resolution is the growing number of white birds that settle around the altar where Mono lies.

A final set of actors is introduced in a brief scene after the fall of the twelfth colossus. We are given a short wordless scene of masked horsemen, riding swiftly towards an unknown goal. Dormin begins urging greater haste on the player, indicating that he is aware of the approaching warriors.

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A troll-like colossus.

To me the final colossus is one of the most interesting designs in the game, although it’s far from my favorite section to play. By this point it should be reasonably clear to the player that killing the colossi is not a good idea, and some people may have guessed that whatever spell keeps Dormin imprisoned within the Shrine of Worship is being broken by Wander’s actions. There is a deep sense of foreboding as the player approaches the final colossus, and the mood is further darkened by the death of Agro, your faithful horse, during the last stretch of the approach to the battle. Agro is the only interactive character who is in any way sympathetic to Wander during the course of the game – the horse is deeply important to gameplay, and some colossi can’t be defeated without his help – and his loss here has always hit me very hard whenever I play. The horse throws Wander to safety as a bridge the pair are crossing begins to collapse, which serves to both sever you from any hope of retreat and remove your only friend from the narrative. The final colossus is the largest of any you’ve faced, and attacks ferociously with ranged energy blasts from the moment it sees you – something I’ve always interpreted as a final desperate attempt to prevent the seal being broken. The colossus is humanoid, and seems to have the form of a large robed figure, with some kind of restraining structure built around it to prevent the being from moving. Although many fans refer to this colossus as ‘the magician’, I’ve always seen it as female, and possibly its shape is intended to mimic Mono’s. It just seems appropriate to me that the final challenge to overcome would take the shape of the woman Wander is trying to resurrect. As for the structure constructed around the colossus, I have no idea what purpose this was intended to serve or why the entity is prevented from moving. We’re really given no clues as to what the colossi were originally intended for (aside from sealing Dormin away), or who built them, but there’s something about the positioning of the final colossus that makes me think of a watchtower, or maybe some kind of military installation, as opposed to the other colossi who are mostly encountered in their lairs or wandering the wilderness. The creatures are clearly animated by a fragment of Dormin’s essence, but the final colossus is the first time when I started to wonder if the vanished civilization which inhabited in the Forbidden Lands actually used the colossi for some purpose. Again, it’s not possible to know.

Sheltering from the final colossus. This creature's design echoes both a watchtower and a woman in a flowing dress.

Sheltering from the final colossus. This creature’s design echoes both a watchtower and a woman in a flowing dress.

With all the colossi slain, Shadow’s final sequence begins. The masked soldiers, led by a robed figure who the internet informs me is named Lord Emon, force their way into the Shrine of Worship, just before Wander makes his reappearance in the main hall (the player is returned to the Shrine after the death of each colossus). Wander is in a terrible state, surrounded by shadows, and Emon orders one of the soldiers to kill him, saying he has been ‘possessed by the dead’. Wander is fatally stabbed, but this seems to be the moment Dormin, whose divided body the player hass been freeing as the colossi fell, has been waiting for, and the entity possesses Wander completely, revealing itself to be a towering being of darkness, horned and clawed, strongly resembling Satan. At this point the player is unexpectedly given back control, in a stroke of genius, and the final battle against Lord Emon and his men begins. After hours of nimbly fighting against enormous dark beings, clambering over their bodies and driving a sword into their weakest points like a flea feasting, the player is suddenly cast as the colossus, battling against a swarm of tiny soldiers. Intriguingly the player does not feel powerful at this point, as Wander/Dormin is sluggish and intentionally awkward to control, and you’re given no explanation of what various buttons will do. As you desperately flail around the Shrine, Lord Emon and his soldiers always just out of reach, it’s impossible not to feel an even deeper sympathy with the colossi you’ve spent  the game killing.

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Lord Emon and Dormin.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not a fight you can win. Lord Emon is clearly a sorcerer of some stripe, and he casts your ancient sword into a pool of water within the Shrine, creating a whirlpool of howling light that pulls Dormin’s essence from Wander’s body and begins to draw both of them into the pool. The player is given control one final time, this time desperately trying to reach the altar where Mono still lies dead as the hurricane of white light pulls you away from her. Again, giving the player control here is a stroke of genius, as it enables us to experience Wander’s grief rather than being shown it. Although videogames can’t match up to novels when it comes to giving us a character’s interiority, one thing they excel in is making us personally identify with the character, something other storytelling media have to work hard for. When I move the analogue stick, Wander moves too, and a connection between us is built moment to moment almost without my noticing. When both of us are struggling to reach Mono, I am not just shown or told of his desperation, I experience it as well, since the apparent goal of this section is impossible to achieve. Even with a fully upgraded stamina meter, the player cannot resist the pull of the warding spell Emon created, and is drawn into the pool. Lord Emon and the soldiers flee the Shrine, destroying the bridge behind them and sealing the Forbidden Lands from the outside forever.

This is a bleak ending – the protagonist is shown as the pawn of a dark spirit, a naive youth who nearly unleashed an ancient evil because he couldn’t cope with loss. Fortunately the final scenes give us some hope. Mono finally awakens – it seems that Dormin kept its end of the bargain after all – and is greeted by Agro, who apparently survived his fall into the river. I’m a little torn on this move, as I felt that the horse’s ‘death scene’ was one of the most affecting moments in the game, and discovering he (implausibly) survived the fall felt a little cheap to me. It’s not that I’m unhappy to see him but I couldn’t help wishing the loss had been more permanent. Mono and Agro discover Wander in the dried up pool, transformed into an infant with tiny horns. Taking the child in her arms, Mono ascends into the upper reaches of the Shrine, and the game ends with the three characters emerging into a high walled garden.

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Mono cradles a reborn Wander.

Shadow of the Colossus, as I’ve said, is maybe my favourite game of all time, and I enjoy it on many levels, from aesthetic to gameplay. I’ve barely touched on some aspects of the game, such as the deliberately awkward controls that will cause Wander to occasionally stumble or clumsily fall, a design decision which hammers home his inexperience and makes the colossus battles even more daunting. As I said, one of the things I admire most is the game’s dedication to ambiguity and mystery (after the ending many questions still remain. Why did Emon and his men wear masks, and is there a reason Wander and Mono do not? To what entity is the Shrine of Worship dedicated? Is it Dormin? How it did it come to be trapped there? Were these desolate lands once its kingdom?), and the laser-focus on the themes of loss and grief. The Forbidden Lands themselves are a vision of loss made into a place, a trackless wasteland of sand and stone, with the occasional mute ruin submerged in earth or water. Riding through them I can’t help but think of the poem Ozymandius, and the fallen colossi could easily serve as stand-ins for the poem’s broken statue. A ruined world is hardly an innovative setting for a videogame, and one could write an entire essay about the ruined structure in videogames, so prevalent is the trope, but I can’t think of a ruined world more beautiful or evocative of the game’s driving theme than the world of Shadow. Wander is driven less by traditional heroism than a madness, a refusal to deal with grief, mourn Mono, and learn to live again. I’ll admit this may be too neat a piece of analysis, but it seems appropriate to me that a game with a protagonist who can’t let go of a deceased loved one has gameplay that literally revolves around not letting go, as the colossi must be desperately clung to during their encounters, and I’ve already talked about the final segment in which you can’t claw your way towards Mono no matter how hard you try. Dormin is described as having control over the souls of the dead, but even this being seems only to desire a return to life. The titular colossus and its shadow are both surely death itself, and Wander’s actions in the face of such an adversary, no matter how misguided, are difficult not to sympathise with.

Although it lacks conventionally deep characters or a complex plot, Shadow of the Colossus is to my mind a triumph of interactive storytelling and has remained in my thoughts for a decade at this point. It still remains a benchmark of videogaming for me, and despite my spilling thousands of words in its praise I still feel I haven’t adequately described the experience. For its strange beauty, its innovative gameplay, and its understated, haunting story, the game stands alone.

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