Developed by Team Ico & SIE Japan Studio, released on the Playstation 2 in 2005 then remastered on the Playstation 4 in 2018, Shadow of the Colossus is up there as one of the most memorable and innovative video-game experiences of all time. It’s beautiful visuals, ground-breaking gameplay and minimalist design assemble together to create a unique journey that is as much a poetic tragedy as it is action-adventure game.
Since playing the rereleased version on Playstation 4, I’ve become captivated by how Shadow of the Colossus uses design exclusive to gaming to tell a story through its gameplay alone. I will not focus on the opening or closing cut-scenes (so will not spoil the end of the game), or on how delicately the mechanics of each battle is designed but will instead look at how the game uses duality in structure, character design, physical landscape and the ramifications of conflict to tell a story that follows patterns used in dramatic tragedy.
The poetry of gameplay
Shadow of the Colossus follows Wander, a young man whose motive is to restore the life of a girl named Mono. Wander enters a forbidden land and is guided by a God like voice named Dormin, who instructs him to travel across this forbidden land and defeat sixteen colossi. We are led to believe this will save Mono. And so we set off, atop our trusty steed Argo, with a bow on our back and carrying an ancient blade that shows us the path to our next foe.
The bulk of the game is split into 16 parts, all of which follow the same repeating pattern:
- We start of at the Shrine of Worship, a temple that sits at the centre of the region. Dormin instructs us where to go and whom we shall face.
- We ride atop Argo and travel across a vast landscape, heading towards a colossi.
- We face the colossi and have to figure out how to defeat it.
- We slay the creature and are transported back to the Shrine of Worship.
- A statue of this colossi collapses to show what we have defeated. The camera pans to the next statue. And so the cycle begins again
16 times, 16 colossi, all of which you must kill to proceed in the game. And it’s in this simplicity where the tragic hook of the game works so well.
This truth may not seem apparent at first as, similar to playing most games, the motive to kill anything that stands in your way seems hardwired into the motive and moral compass of your character. However, the repetition of this act done over and over again slowly makes you realise the impact of your decision and the design of the game highlights the tragedy of each colossi’s death.
Dual Wielding Design
Shadow of the Colossus’ opening scene creates a lonely yet adventurous atmosphere, giving very little backstory to any of the characters and simply setting up the relatively basic plot: You are the Wander. You have arrived in a forbidden land. You have travelled here to save Mono. Argo is your horse. You are being guided by Dormin, a divine presence.
We are all familiar with the structure of this plot so the game uses our expectations of a hero on a voyage. We’ve seen some or all of these traits in a plethora of stories from the Odyssey and the Golden Fleece to Lord of the Rings and Raiders of the Lost Ark. I found myself creating my own backstory as we are given such little information about Wander. Our expectations anticipate a traditional quest yet the lack of any backstory leaves the player with questions.
This minimalism can also be seen in the design of the game. There are two primary modes of gameplay:
- Horseback journey
- Boss battle
These are of course split up with short events like cut scenes, hunting for lizards, some basic platforming, but the journey and battle are our two primary functions as a player.
So what if the game has a simple story and simple structure? By using the player’s expectations to get us into this dual rhythm of voyage and return, the game encourages us to look for the smaller details. Rather than anticipate a break in pattern for structure or story, we instead know what will come next so begin to inspect the world we are travelling through in greater, more specific detail.
An empty world
Why is this world so empty? When galloping off to fight our first couple colossi, this may not be something we think about, instead focused on our target. But as time goes on, its fair to say we are left in this empty world with plenty of time to think as everything is placed so far apart. The player knows very little about the forbidden land they travel through but through observation alone, we start to string a narrative together.
The province is scattered with ancient ruins amongst a wide, empty landscape. There was once a civilisation here, but no more. Is there a reason for this? Rather than travelling through a brimming kingdom, you are alone in an abandoned expanse. Your presence perhaps disrupting the balance of this empty world.
The designers’ of the game have clearly made an effort to emphasise the passivity of the world. The sun never shines triumphantly golden but instead paints the fields a pale white. This light can blinds your character for a moment every time you walk out from the shadows, glaring down at Wander for even being in this place.
This mimicking of the human eye isn’t the only choice the designer’s made to make your protagonist seem distinctly human. You are not a noble knight or hero bolstering from location to location; Wander falls and stumbles, almost pathetically. During battles, Wander clings courageously to the side of these colossi but is flung around like the rag doll he is, affected by their every movement. Even your horse seems realistically unreliable, growing distracted and distressed as you try to tame and control it. Argo is not just a mode of transport but a horse in the most horse like sense of the word!
The world’s lack of splendour and the hero’s lack of heroism become more and more realised as the game goes on. This is not to say either are flawed but instead beautifully designed in a way to steadily undermine the player’s expectations of this being a classic quest. The story and structure build the repetitious framework so the world and character design come to the forefront.
Your First Kill
So you’ve killed your first colossus and the 5 step process I outlined earlier repeats. You feel one step closer to your goal, but nothing’s changed. Wander has no new abilities, no magical weapons or powers. Just another target. So you carry on, and the pale world and humanity of Wander begin to resonate with you the more you play. But as you kill these creatures in what are, for the most part, majestically designed boss fights, it’s clear that you are the one bringing death to them as you travel to their home, not the other way round. Rather than framing these creatures as evil entities you must kill in order to save the kingdom or restore peace, they are instead natural and peaceful beings in their own right. Most of them, upon arriving to their location, are simply wandering the wild without any kind of malicious intent. And as this comes more evident, one thing about your character does start to change, you grow steadily sick
After defeating every colossus, a dark energy rises from their dissolving corpse and pierces your hero in the heart. The music avoids creating a feeling of triumph as your character collapses moments after each colossus’ murder. And as you wake, the shadows of every fallen creature stares at you as you return to the location most like a home for you. Shadow of the Colossus isn’t a great quest or a tale of voyage and return but instead closer to the tragedies of Shakespeare or the plays of Arthur Miller.
Rather than replicating the tropes of other action-adventure games based on a traditional, quest-like structure and heroism, Shadow of the Colossus uses gameplay and design to tell the story of a tragedy. By slipping the hero into a limbo of journey and battle, the player begins to recognise the not only the imbalance of the world but also the flaws of their actions. Actions that may come back to haunt them in the games’ finale.
This is just one example of how games are unique in how they can tell a story not just through plot, character, design and language but also in the very fabric of their gameplay.