A Look at the Philosophical and Ethical Questions Presented in
Shadow of the Colossus
For most people, a video game is just that: a game, presented through the mediums of video and audio. Often times, it is designed around the premise of having certain challenges or goals that must be met, and having a linear path towards that. You are stuck, as it were, in a certain set of rules created by the game’s creator, and simply play the game to “win” it. Perhaps it can be less linear, allowing you multiple paths or choices, but at its core there is always some set motivation, and for most people, that motivation is simply completionist in nature: the player seeks only to get through the game in whatever way they can, sometimes, driven on by “Achievement” systems, going after arbitrary goals. This is part of the addiction model that most MMORPG’s use today.
This sort of system has led many to disregard video games as a potential art form. They argue that a game does not have the same capability to measure up to older cultural forms such as movies, literature, poetry, or visual art. They argue that the interactivity detracts from its power as a cultural extension, and that it is not intellectually stimulating, nor is it capable of conveying a message. For most games on the market, I could agree (although, I could also present a significant argument that most forms of media can suffer from the same problems, but this is a topic for another paper entirely).
However, there are some games that fly in the face of this notion, and that number is rising every year. The game that I wish to examine here is Shadow of the Colossus, released in 2005 by Team Ico. It is available only for the Playstation 2 (although they’re re-releasing it for the Playstation 3 this year!), however, it is an incredible experience. The game uses its story, character role, and visual and auditory elements to present the willing player with an opportunity to explore questions and concerns that transcend the game itself. The interaction considerably heightens an experience that could not be captured in any other way.
I am not, here, going to espouse the virtues of its incredible artistic style and stunning visuals, nor the ambient and beautiful soundtrack that goes along with the game. The numerous awards that the game has received speak for themselves. It is an aesthetically pleasing game on par with any other form of media we have created up to the point of its release, and easily stands up to, or even surpasses, traditional forms of media in its beautiful presentation.
What really drives the game, and makes it into such a remarkable work of art, is the story, in many ways. For those who have not played, I’ll offer a brief overview of the story and characters throughout this paper, as it is needed to understand certain elements. I assure you, that though it might “spoil” the storyline, playing through with knowledge of the story only enhances the experience.
We’re introduced to the story as our protagonist, known only as “Wander”, enters an ancient, forbidden land, accompanied by his horse, “Agro”, and a beautiful girl, named “Mono”, who is, at the moment, dead. It is never explained what the connection is between the Wander and Mono, and this is part of the beauty, that you can draw your own conclusions. It’s, altogether, a relationship that doesn’t matter to the story itself, or the questions asked. Wander eventually arrives at a temple in the forbidden land, where he places Mono on an altar, and soon is called by a disembodied voice, known only as “Dormin”. Dormin gives Wander the opportunity to revive Mono, but warns that it will have serious consequences for Wander. Wander must then travel the forbidden land, slaying sixteen enormous giants known as Colossi in order to give Dormin enough power to revive Mono.
Wander sets out, and travels through the beautiful forbidden land, mostly empty save for a few small altars. It is dotted with trees, lizards, birds, mountains and hills, but not much else. It’s clear that this is a land that has long been abandoned. Wander is in possession of a mystical sword that allows him to seek out and fight with the Colossi, and it soon points him in the direction of his first opponent.
An aside: This is a game that breaks from the norm of such adventures. There are no “minor” enemies. No “hack and slash”. Instead, you are faced with only the 16 Colossi, one at a time. The first one you meet is a wonder to behold, and you are seized with awe. A giant, perhaps 20 times the size of you, seemingly made of the very ground and rock that it walks upon. It is an enormous construct, and the first time a player goes through this game, it is likely they will simply stand and gaze at the lumbering giant before them for minutes on end. Once one enters its view, and present oneself as a threat, it becomes hostile, and will seek to smash you with a large club. Now you’re locked in, it’s fight or flight, and flight isn’t an option anymore. So, as Wander, you must seek to climb this beast, seek out the “weak points” of it, and plunge your sword in, destroying it. It’s a struggle, hanging on to a monster that seeks to shake you off, feeling much like a mosquito being swatted at. It’s one of the most challenging gameplay experiences I’ve ever endured.
However, eventually, you find that your blade rings true, and the beast crumbles below you as you are tossed off. It is at this point that something interesting occurs, and it is something that requires a great bit of thought to make sense. You are quickly seized by tendrils of blackness, which knock you unconscious, and you wake up in the temple, to the sound and sight of one of the sixteen statues inside crumbling. One down, fifteen to go.
And therein lies the beauty of this story, and the very incredible question that lies at its core. But it’s a question you won’t even find yourself asking, maybe not until your second or third playthrough of the game (and if you’re like me, you WILL give it a couple), but there is, I think, a key moment in the game that really forces you to ask the question of yourself. That moment, I feel, is on the 13th Colossus.
This one is a bit unique. Its appearance is much like a Chinese dragon, and it flies through the sky much the same. Yet, it’s interesting in that, unlike all of the other Colossi you fight, it is not inherently hostile. It doesn’t seek to hurt Wander at all, though it will certainly make attempts to knock Wander from its back. Yet, when you meet it, you are already so deep into the game that the question of whether you should slay it is an automatic “yes”, and you enthusiastically draw your bow to shoot it down. It was my second time through this game when it finally struck me. This creature, so majestic, so beautiful, so perfectly constructed, and so non-violent, floated before me, adorning the desert like a work of art. I had already drawn my bow, an automatic action at this point, and yet, as I gazed at the creature, I couldn’t do it. I dropped the controller. I shut off the game. The questions began pouring forth, infecting me like a virus, questions that needed answers. “What am I doing? How could I get sucked in like this? How could I be drawn in so completely to strike down a creature that is so beautiful and so marvelous?” And I realized they weren’t my questions. They weren’t my problems. They were Wander’s problems. But they were problems that echoed so powerfully, uncertainties that needed to be clear, and I realized that was the purpose of the entire game. It’s not just a story to be told. It’s a message.
At its very heart, this is a story about corruption. It looks at the motivations that lead us to corruption, and forces us on the path. It shows us exactly how it occurs.
What is Wander’s motivation in this story? It is this girl, Mono. What we know is that he desires her to live again, and he is willing to go to any length to see that happen. This is why he enters the forbidden land in the first place. He breaks the rules, he steals her away, along with the sword, and brings her to the temple, because he must revive her. And when presented by Dormin with the knowledge that such an action will have consequences, he shrugs it off, because he will do anything to bring this girl back. He is motivated by love, something that we all can understand. And so he ventures off, to slay his first colossus. He sees it, enormous, powerful, a beautiful magical construct. He could turn back, then. Would anyone think less of him? Facing such a mighty beast, would you really call him a coward for running away? Sure, he would face minor consequences when he returned to his homeland. Maybe even some major one. But when he speaks of what he had seen, surely the elders would forgive him. It was done out of love. Yet, instead, he sinks his blade into the colossus, and brings it down. He has taken his first bite of that tempting apple, and there is no turning back.
The story itself, here, is so analogous to the player’s experience. The player could, at any moment, simply turn off the game, and walk away. The story ends there. These are marvelous constructs. Is it right to destroy them? But they’re driven on, by a motivation just like Wander’s: to succeed. They don’t share Wander’s love of Mono, but they share in the desire to see this through to the end. Just like Wander, they will do anything to see it through. And after that first kill, you are driven on. You become more and more ignorant to the fact that these majestic colossi are actually beautiful, and you regard them merely as beasts that are in the way of what you must do: finish your story. The corruption takes over you, just as it takes over Wander. Each time he slays a beast, the black tendrils reach him, corrupting him that little bit more. Slowly but surely, he becomes more sickly, more pale and vile-looking. Yet, he soldiers on through, because these are enemies. They are nothing more than another challenge. What started out as mere motivation, of love or of success, became a corrupting force, that blinded you to everything except your goal. You become robotic. You become a machine that does what it’s told, what its instructions say to fulfill in order to achieve the end.
And I believe that the 13th colossus was made in order to jar you. Its peaceful nature causes a crisis. Perhaps you are embedded in the experience at that point that you miss it completely, and this just proves the corruption. You have been blinded to anything other than that it’s a beast to be killed. And as the 13th in a series of 16, it’s likely that by the time you meet it, that’s all you’ll see it as. You have slain such monsters over and over again, this one is no different. But I believe the hope is that its peaceful nature can call out to that last vestige of humanity contained within the player, and Wander himself. It’s striking. At the moment you realize it, you can’t help but feel utterly ashamed. What was once a good intention has melded itself inside you, twisting you, in Wander’s case visibly, to a disgusting creature that seeks only pain and violence on these creatures. You’re not the same person you were when you started. I think the story shows, however, that by this point, Wander is so deeply enmeshed in his craze and corruption that he can’t be saved. He was already broken when he slew the first colossus, and it has only progressed from there. So he continues on, defeating all sixteen, and his reward, in the end, is that he is taken over by Dormin, before being slain by one of the elders from his village.
The game explores the question of corruption so deeply, by forcing the player to experience it. It shows how good motivations can lead to terrible results. It demonstrates how a drive so powerful can blind you to anything else. And it works so perfectly, every time. You aren’t just playing the game, because it has sucked you in, it has drawn you into the spirit of corruption that is crippling Wander’s spirit, leading him down a dark path.
It’s a story that, with minimal dialogue, has as much meaning and power and emotion as any movie out today. It captures you, enraptures you, and makes you question yourself. By forcing you to take on the role of the protagonist (I hesitate to call him a “hero”), you are drawn in, implicit in the destruction caused by Wander. Your soul in this game becomes just as damaged as his does. It’s a presentation that is unparalleled in most media forms, with a key question that digs deep into human nature, and evokes the darkest and most powerful thoughts of all of us, who go into it with a clear mind.
I hope that you read this and decide to give the game a try. It is one of my favorite games of all time, and each time I play through it, each time I explore it with that little bit more depth I gained from the last time, it becomes more interesting. It is truly a wonderful experience, to find yourself stabbing at the shoulders of these giants, and understanding the story and message only makes it better.