shadow of the colossus
(aka wanda to kyozou, wanda and the colossus, or wander and the colossi)
a game by sony computer entertainment japan
directed by fumito ueda and kenji kaido
a review by tim rogers
In September of 2004, Sony Computer Entertainment Japan's Fumito Ueda told me in an interview that Shadow of the Colossus, his current project, was, "first and foremost, and action game people of all ages can pick up and play," and that his main reason for making it was to "impress grave size disparities on the user." What mysterious statements; I had mistaken Fumito Ueda for many things during that interview: squirrelly one second, boring the next, stiff another, drunk . . . well, drunk several times. He might have actually been drunk. Most of the time, he was just tired. His tiredness was due to his having just sat through a barrage of interviews with French and British journalists. I was the last interview on his list. I was speaking in a low voice because he was speaking in a low voice. There's a rule of interviewing someone that goes, if you detect they're irritated or tired (or drunk (or gravely ill)), don't raise your voice above a whisper unless they do so first. Ask your primary questions in a tiny voice; they will answer in a slightly bigger voice. You match their tone. This escalates until you're speaking in normal voices, where it levels off -- or, in the case of Hideo Kojima, you're screaming and punching one another on the shoulder.
Fumito Ueda's team's previous effort, a game called Ico, was the critics' darling and the consumers' nothing. It didn't sell very well in Japan, which makes its recent addition to the PlayStation Best line kind of ironic. We hear "best" in this day and age and we automatically assume "best-selling." No, no; Ico was put on the "Best" line because the people who made it believed it to be one of the best games on the system. Ueda was flattered by the inclusion. Though at this point, he's past Ico. When I asked him what his "dream" was in my interview (it was for a rag; questions like "what's your dream?" are optimal), he told me, "to make a game lots of people buy." Why did he want this? I asked. Was it because that would earn him more respect from his parent company? He'd expressed such manly, flattered gratitude that Sony saw fit to put his game in the "Best" series; obviously their word meant a lot to him. Or maybe he wanted to, one day, be rich and famous, and his testifying that his dream was to make a big-selling game was his way of evading a confession. This was not the case, however. His answer was noble: "I want to make something that many, many people will see."
Ico was, as Ueda freely admits, a game "designed by subtraction." Not at all content with the modern Japanese design aesthetic that requires Final Fantasy VI to have a dark story, VII to have a dark science-fiction story, VIII to have a dark science-fiction story starring hip teenagers, X a dark science-fiction story starring hip teenagers and a jock dude, X-2 starring hip teenagers in bikinis searching for a jock dude while changing costumes and dancing ? well, yeah, Ueda looked at all this and felt kind of ridiculous. He wanted to make a game where, more or less, the player reacted in much the same way he'd react if he were really in this world. Ico's secret was not that it did what it did do so much as it refused to attempt what it didn't want to do. It's a game made, then, by a hive mind -- a whole floor of hard-working men and women in Aoyama, overlooking Tokyo Highway Route 246 (from the Gran Turismo games, yes) -- whose consensus was apparently to regard the game industry the way a seventeen-year-old high-school dropout approaches his dad. The game is nearly silent, auspiciously desolate, and frequently beautiful. The story was bare-bones: a boy with horns is locked in a sarcophagus in an ancient castle. His captors disappear. The boy somehow escapes. He finds a pale girl, dressed in white, locked in a hanging cage, and he saves her. Black shadows rise from the ground. They want the girl. You beat them off with a stick. The girl reveals she can open doors with her magic palm. One such door leads toward what is apparently the exit of the castle. You're motivated: go.
Ico was not for everyone. This is mostly forgivable. There were those who loved it, and those who didn't get it. I suppose I am one of those that didn't really get it. Ueda told me that after he wrote the story and held a meeting with his team, they asked him what "kind" of game it was supposed to be. Ueda did not want to admit to a genre. So instead, he chose two specific games of the past and said, "It's going to be like Out of this World plus Lemmings." If there were two games he could combine into one, those would be them. The team then racked their brains and produced plans for the puzzles Ico and the girl Yorda would face on their way out of the castle. Ueda and producer Kenji Kaido then looked at these plans and decided which ones not to include. They shuffled them "like making a mix CD" and put them in "the correct logical order." The game, "quite without my really doing anything," "appeared finished after a couple of years."
And it was the critics' darling; it was invited to all the balls, and it showed up in a wonderful red dress, and sat in the corner with its chin in its palm, its elbow on the table. Even in moments of sloth, it was an elegant situation.
Ico, as a game, didn't do much for me personally.
I played it and played it; I didn't beat it until shortly before I got my hands on Shadow of the Colossus, and even then, it had failed to really move me. There are moments of beauty, as I said; the sunlight is blinding, the crumbling rocks of the castle gleam, birds sing, water trickles. Yet the puzzles themselves were rather simple. The urge to progress sprang merely out of desire to see what happened to the characters. Even so, when you get this messed-up Disney evil queen popping in and around and screaming at you an hour in for a couple of minutes, you learn a little more about Yorda than you want to know, even if you have the subtitles turned off and you don't know what's being said. The game works best that way, by the way; Ueda says so. Then again, he's that kind of introvert, the kind who would automatically assume the tone of a person's voice tells you more than the meaning of their words. I agree with him, though only sometimes. For example, if someone means to hurt you, you can tell, because they might be screaming.
What Ico does, for a "subtracted" game, is talk just a little bit too much. There are rooms, and buildings, and these shadowy creatures rising out of the rock to steal back Yorda. We're reminded at every turn that Yorda is a wanted girl, because these . . . things keep trying to get their hands on her. And then they do get their hands on her. Some complained that Ico's "battle system" was too simple, and therefore boring; I found it evocative of the proper emotion: desperation. Ico is about a boy with horns, obviously a bad omen where he comes from, exiled to a place where he's meant to die (we assume this, at least), scared and surprised that people would go out of their way to do such a thing to him. Then he meets a girl who's white as snow and just as fragile, and he decides right away, once he grabs a plank of wood and beats back the things trying to lay their inky hands on her, that she's coming with him, and together they will be free. Every time those inky bastards pop up, and one of them throws Yorda over its shoulder and starts goose-stepping for the portal, we shake with a familiar vibration. Maybe it's the same vibration we felt when, getting off the train, we pat our rear pocket and notice our wallet it missing, then realize we put it in our backpack. There's that little pins-and-needles twinge of sudden dread, and that cold wave of refreshing relief. Ico gives us that a few times, until the effect wears off and we're desensitized to it. It also makes us feel accomplished for solving puzzles, every once in a while. Though hell -- a few hours into my first playthrough, what with how spare, dreamlike and wispy the game was, I didn't feel compelled to find out what became of Ico and the girl. I felt like anything I could imagine would be as good as anything Fumito Ueda had imagined. This is not to discredit the game; Yasunari Kawabata, a Nobel-Prizewinning Japanese author who often wrote desperate tales of sad, dreamlike beauty (though his were all grounded firmly in the modern world), said that the highest literature tells the full story once in every sentence. In this way, his novel Snow Country has little more to say than "The train exited the long border tunnel, and it was Snow Country." That it goes on to be about a young man and a geisha who loves the ballet without ever seeing the ballet hardly matters. We can imagine a train entering a tunnel -- a border tunnel -- where it is not Snow Country on one side, and it is Snow Country on the other side. There we have it -- a hero (the train), a setting (the tunnel), and a journey (to the Snow Country). There is change (not Snow Country, then Snow Country) and the journey is adjectivized (long) -- that's description. And that's about all the meaning you're going to get out of Snow Country by the end of the day. In the same way, when I see the protagonist of Ico, a boy with horns, being delivered, by men without horns, to the stone box where he is to die, the sense of despair the game intends to push on me is appropriately pushed on. When a miracle occurs and Ico's box falls to the ground and breaks, freeing him, I feel something like the ultimate relief that I'd feel if I escaped from the castle proper. There you have it: microcosm/macrocosm. Life ends in death; love (as Ico's relationship with Yorda) is everything in between, and as such, usually quite inconsequential.
Ico was lauded ("blamed," says Ueda) as a rare work that validated the claim that games could maybe kind of be art. A lot of the people seemed to never pick up on the literary side, and instead compared it to other games. Ueda, who's as humble and modest a Japanese guy as you're going to meet this side of Katamari Damashii's Keita Takahashi, didn't pay attention to the acclaim until it started reaching out and touching him physically. Journalists wanted interviews; they wanted answers. They wanted him to stand on a pedestal and shout revolution; he didn't do this. Instead, he decided to make another game.
Ico had taught Ueda and his team that, in the end, the most fascinating element of videogames was the graphics. Ueda admits this: games need graphics more than anything. This doesn't mean more, bigger, faster polygons as much as it means it needs to flow. The visuals have the biggest impact on the player. That's why they call them videogames, after all. We watch them. Sometimes the music is interesting, though for the most part, we watch them. What makes them potentially more fascinating than movies is that we're watching someone who is not us do things we are willing them to do. Visuals evoke emotions; surveys indicate that more men have, historically, cried at the sight of a golden sunset than men who have cried at the song of a nightingale on a spring morning. Some men cry when they have sex, though I don't think that's normal, for the most part. (See your doctor.)
What Ueda wanted to do with his second game, Shadow of the Colossus, was evoke an emotion. That emotion was to be the same emotion Ico evoked. According to Ueda, it's impossible for him to go out and declare which emotion that is. It differs from player to player. Whatever Ico made you feel, Shadow of the Colossus will make you feel the same thing. If you claim it makes you feel something different, then, Ueda says, you must have grown up a little bit since you played Ico. When asked how Ueda feels when he plays the game, he says, "Tired." When asked to elaborate, he says, "Because I made it."
That's Ueda's sense of humor. When I first met him, I swore he didn't have one. He does; it's just kind of hidden.
At any rate, ask Ueda's goal as a graphic designer and you'll get a better idea: size disparity. Perhaps inspired by his friend Keita Takahashi's game Katamari Damashii, Ueda wanted to forge a cathartic relationship between a player of one size and an object of great personality -- yet vastly different size. In Katamari Damashii, the catharsis comes when you realize the size of one object is the size of the world, and the size of the other object is, in relation, nothing at all. This sounds deep and kind of scary; it should. Nonetheless, Katamari Damashii had a sense of humor. It was a game about a one-centimeter-tall little green guy of Hello-Kitty-inspired Japanese quirky design, rolling a ball collecting quirky telephones and tabby cats and sumo wrestlers, until he was picking up hills and buildings and cars and clouds, and eventually all of the cosmos. According to that game's producer, its wild success is attributable to its flawless fusion of content and execution. The concept is pretty neat, too: roll a ball using the two analog sticks on the Sony Dual Shock 2 controller; roll over something smaller than your ball, and you'll pick it up. The ball gets bigger. Takahashi says, if the ball were a sphere, and the only objects you could collect were cubes and rectangular prisms of varying size, maybe colored depending on how large they are in real-world scale, it would still be endearing design. It would be something addicting to do with the fingers, so long as the objects were arranged. In fact, I would go out on a limb and say that if the game consisted of just one neverending outward spiral of cubes that increased in size, the player would feel satisfied to pick them up, because it involves the use of both of his thumbs, and maybe the music and sound would be interesting. Maybe the colors would change. Takahashi went above and beyond this: every object has a personality. Should we have ever once in our decades and halves of decades of life stepped outside and walked down a street, we will know that a mouse is smaller than a cat is smaller than a Siberian Husky is smaller than a parking meter is smaller than a schoolgirl is smaller than a sumo is smaller than a car is smaller than a tree. That they have voices and faces tips the scales. That the music is wonderful breaks the scales.
Ueda beheld this, in beta build, with "something resembling great fear." In the string of moments it took the player to form a ball fifty times larger than it started, when the ball rolls out of the house and into the yard, out from under the roof and to a place within view of a blue sky, the "flow" hit him.
At the end of the day, Katamari Damashii is a videogame. Enjoying it very much, Ueda went back to the drawing board and crafted Wanda and the Colossus, which would be insertcredit.com game of the year if I weren't a selfish, elitist type who is going to pick something else just because I like it better. Katamari Damashii and its sequel are a wonderful experience and a wonderful videogame, respectively. Shadow of the Colossus is a spectacular entertainment, all at once rollicking and dreadfully depressing. It is a moving piece of work; it is what Hideo Kojima would call "possible only in videogames." The question of whether or not something is art is really a tired one, at this point, and at all points; if there exists one man who would aim a shotgun in the name of screaming "videogames are not art," then I could very well be the man to say "well, neither is anything else." Shadow of the Colossus is moving, and deeply so, and it is because of its careful study of videogames past, present, and future (yes), of its creator's uncanny gift for thinking up concepts unheard of and then removing most of them before even putting them into the game, and mostly because of the breezy, no-nonsense nature of its execution that it rises to the ranks of Mother 2 and Metal Gear Solid as a videogame that does exactly what it wants to do. Mother 2 and Metal Gear Solid were not perfect games; as such, they were constructed like newspaper articles. A newspaper article can be perfect with regards to grammar, style, and spelling; who can objectively judge the contents? And what do we get out of them in the end? These questions don't matter in the least to Shadow of the Colossus; its creator chooses to acknowledge them all, and then act as though oblivious to the tired notion of artistic conscience. What we end up with is the most thought-provoking game of the year, or even of the current generation, the most comfortable with its status as a videogame and enthrallingly entertaining as such, even if it's not the most raw fun to play. By being an unintentional original and making games that aspire to be like human beings themselves rather than other forms of expression human beings create, Fumito Ueda and his team have created a game that (to ignore the spirit of this sentence), were it compared to a movie, would be more like Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" than Arnold Schwarzenegger's "The Last Action Hero." In other words, it is not self-serving, it is not self-referencing, it is not pandering, and it is hardly "stylish"; it is very gentle. It does what it does, and it will most likely be remembered in many decades as an early masterpiece, even if the print is blotchy and the sound is weird.
Actually, going back over some of Shadow of the Colossus's spectacular, monolithic action sequences in my head, I'm recalling explosions of rock in Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 silent film "The Battleship Potemkin." That film is almost brutally simplistic in its aims and its progressions. If one picture is worth a thousand words, then "Potemkin," in all its frames, is just one picture. The underlying politics don't matter as much as the feelings we feel when we see what we see. I, personally, as a human being of the 21st century, would rather watch "Lord of the Rings" than "The Battleship Potemkin," and I'm probably not alone. In the same way, on a bored Sunday afternoon years after I've completed Shadow of the Colossus, I'd sooner pick up Super Mario Bros. 3. This comparison is mostly irrelevant, however; we're talking about narrative. What Shadow of the Colossus does is pin down the way narrative should be in videogames. That is, it should be spare: in the beginning of the game, we see a young man in a fine poncho riding a horse with a black-wrapped bundle in his lap. He descends down a long, wicked spiral. The scene cuts halfway, and we see his horse stepping carefully around a circular pool in the middle of the floor. Then it's into a hall lined with colossal stone statues. He reaches a stone altar at the end of the hall, jumps off his horse, and sets the bundle atop the altar. The sunlight shines down. He removes the black sheet from the bundle. Beneath it is a girl. The camera slides past her, giving us a good look. She is fair and pretty. The young man hears a sound; he turns, to see four inky, black, archetypally evil shadow figures rising from the rock. He raises his sword aloft and reflects the sun's light at them. They retreat.
At this point, a Spooky Voice intervenes, from the heavens. It is speaking a language different from the one the hero speaks. It is nonetheless an imaginary language. His words are subtitled, though I think it might be better off if they weren't. He's saying that the hero has come from a far-off land to do something he can only do in this land, and that he has brought the legendary Ancient Sword with him to do it. The voice reminds him that what he is doing is forbidden in the land he comes from, and it may cost him his life. The hero looks wildly around, and shouts that he is prepared. The Voice (which has a name, actually) then calls attention to the sixteen stone statues, and says, if he wants to revive the girl, he must destroy these sixteen statues. Yet he cannot do it with his sword alone; he must seek out the spiritual incarnations of the statues and destroy them one at a time. The hero looks forward, facing away from the sun. At this point, we're able to play. If we press the X button, the hero shouts "Agro," which is the name of his horse. The horse then shows up, if he feels like it. We get on the horse by pressing triangle; on-screen prompts tell us to press X to spur the horse on. Eventually, when we get used to cornering -- the horse doesn't seem as determined in the quest as the hero -- we find the stairs out of the temple, and from there, we're set galloping under a gray sky over solarized, spotty plains.
That's all the introduction the game gives you. Yet it is slightly more than it needs. The road to the first Colossus includes a rather smooth jumping/climbing tutorial, which even includes information on how to switch and use weapons. I'd prefer the tutorial be absent; it's fine to leave that first jumping sequence in, just don't tell me what to do. The world is so huge and desolate, empty of all life excepting the hero, his horse, and the majestic colossi. Remains of mysterious architecture lurk on the horizons; the first time I saw that far-off, tusk-lined white bridge, I gasped. In a game that relies so strongly on provoking emotions, why not let the player's emotions provoke his learning?
Ueda says that while his goal was to make a relatively bare game, he did not want to make it lifeless. Just nearly lifeless. There are birds in the sky; yet they are as close to the hero in situation and position as the player in front of the television. Ueda is a quirky man when it comes to representing life with onscreen avatars. I don't reckon he'll ever cast a non-player character with a distinguishable human face. It is Ueda's distaste for townspeople in role-playing games who repeat the same hints over and over again ("The port city is in the west") that resulted in Shadow of the Colossus's hero not ever having a conversation with a fellow human being. Rather, to find the Colossus you seek, you press the circle button to hold your sword aloft. Aim with the analog stick, directing sunbeams. The game explains to you how this is done, not ten seconds after you're given your freedom. If it didn't do so, how long would you waste time wandering the world, wondering what to do, until you hold the sword up, swing it around a bit, and are finally rewarded with the electric jolt (the controller vibrates) and flash of light that indicates . . . something important, and probably very large, is in this direction? Even with the tutorial, it's a thrill, yet I wager it would be a bigger thrill if the player was forced to figure it out on his own. For once it's done the first time, it can never surprise the player again. You defeat the first colossus, are pierced by a wave of black evil energy, scream, pass out, and awaken at the temple. You get on the horse (cleverly, the horse is never left anywhere it would be impossible for him to return to the temple on his own), rocket out of the temple again, aim your sword skyward as you ride, and go in the direction of your feeling. The process for finding the Colossi becomes routine. Darn.
Yet when you do find them, they are gorgeous. Lumbering stone statues that are either alive or animated by some magic power. The story doesn't explain which one they are, and that's mighty courteous; we can use our imaginations to fill in the gaps. And we can use our emotions to fill in our imaginations. Free of snappy dialogue, the camera shots that establish the Colossi's individual entrances are as economical and profuond as a wordless cut scene in Metroid Prime, as impacting and simple as a pull-away car crash scene in Burnout 3 (Ueda's favorite game of 2004; Burnout Revenge is taking up all his time these days); when the camera finally pulls back from the Colossus, we see our young hero, and we all at once feel so small. Shine the sword at the Colossus to reveal its weak point. One or more blue crests appear on the beast's body; stab the crest on its head repeatedly to win -- stab any other crests to open up new possibilities. The first Colossus has mossy hair on the back of his left leg. His right leg is bare. Climb onto his calf and stab the crest on the back of his leg, and he'll kneel. Use his lapse to climb up his leg and onto his waist. Inch over to a platform, pull up, and position yourself so you don't fall off. When it seems safe, climb up onto the beast's back, stay low, and find his head. Position yourself over the crest; hold the attack button to raise the sword. When the controller vibrates, let go. The sword sinks deep into the beast's head, he flails his arms, morbidly black blood sprays into the air, and the hero holds on to hair by his fingernails. Maybe you'll get thrown off at this point, if your grip meter runs out. If you do, maybe you'll find yourself seperated from the Colossus. Maybe you'll have to hit him with a couple of arrows to get his attention. He's otherwise rather oblivious to you. Climb up and strike the final blow, and just as the sword sinks in, all sound cuts out, everything slides into slow motion, and the camera pulls back to show the magnificent creature go limp and fall crashing to the ground. A stream of floating black worms echoes from its cracked body. However you may try to run, you cannot escape them. They strike the hero, and he falls, and he wakes in the temple.
And then, yes, you hunt the next colossus. They never cease to amaze in their size. Eventually you have to use the bow and arrow to take down specific targets on the colossi's bodies. Fortunately, it never gets any more complicated than this. You are a man with a sword and a bow, destroying mammoth beasts because there's a girl in a temple, and she's most likely dead. Whatever may happen in the end, the things you imagine in the game's opening "sentences" are, in fact, the "point" of it all. I imagined, when I first saw that dead girl, when I first saw the desperation in the hero's eyes, that her death was no accident, that it was perhaps wished by someone who was right in his wishing, and that this boy was willing to complete a monumental (or should I say "monolithic" haHAH) task to bring her back, knowing full well that it will probably kill him. Again, your feelings fill in the blanks. Why is she dead? This doesn't matter so much as why the hero wants her back. He's a good-looking guy (again, in a hell of a poncho), and she's a good-looking girl. Obviously they had something going on. Then there are the shadow figures, ominously evil yet never overtly threatening. And then there are the Colossi. On top of all this emotion, after giving us free reign over the rolling hills of the mythic land, after giving us minutes as the master of a horse, galloping freely, we're struck by the vision of something so infinitely huger (and therefore implicitly wiser) than we are or could ever be. Trying to mount each Colossus and strike at its head is a towering, amazing feat. We're amazed when realize what we have to do, and we're even more amazed we finally do it.
On the plains, standing before a stone altar after saving the game, we are this tall: shoulder-high to a horse. In the clearing that stands atop a wrecked dome in the middle of a black lake, we stand shorter than the toenails of a stone, human-like beast. The experience humbles us; anyone who calls the Colossi of Shadow of the Colossus "bosses" is missing the point. They are no mere bosses; they are the game's story. Just looking at them is all the narrative the game needs. Climbing them is all the gameplay the game needs. Killing them is all the heart it needs. The game's Japanese television commercial shows the first colossus (rare that a Japanese commercial for any kind of entertainment wouldn't just go out and show the ending) falling, blood spraying from its head, sad music playing. The female narrator then says, speaking rather like a young boy, "Saigo no ichigeki wa . . . setsunai." "The final blow is so . . . sad." (There are other ways to interpret it. "Sweetly sorrowful" or "despair'd," or something else Shakespearean.) Ueda is a big fan of this commercial, which is interesting, given his usual aversion to overstating. "It's just a commercial," he says. "It's not like the game tells you, in words, like that, 'feel sorrow for this magnificent thing thou hast killed.'" Under a gray sky, the sun shining like a pearl in a bowl of milk, after seeing what you saw in the beginning, after feeling what you felt on the plains, you can't help feeling sad. The game is drenched in that emotion.
And yet playing it still feels -- as it must -- like pleasant work. "Work" is the key word here. It's tough to get to the top of the first colossus. (It's even tougher to get to the top of the second one, or the third one, and so on.) Yet tackling each platform, sighting the next one, jumping for it, and missing -- it's all part of the working experience. Our hero is a task-oriented man, after all. Setbacks are part of the business of being task-oriented.
"They're not bosses," says Ueda. "They're more like -- inverted Zelda dungeons." This was his philosophy from the start. Why make a "dungeon" something deep and dark and emotionless, rather like a dangerous playground, like something out of a videogame? Again, it's worth emphasizing that Ueda loves videogames, and he plays a mean game of Burnout, probably the most videogamey videogame in the last half a decade. Still, he wants to show you something interesting. He wants to make you feel sorrow. He wants to portray a feeling. He has made the dungeons walking, sentient towers that object to your trying to bring them down only when they feel you cause them pain.
Shadow of the Colossus () is a better game than Ico (1/2). Any emotional weight Ico presses on the player is prudently multiplied efficiently, focused in a more correct place, or spread out to prolong the effect in Shadow of the Colossus. Take, for example, perspective and combat. Ico's combat was criticized as being shallow and tedious. Yet, as I said, it was all about emotion -- desperation. Flail at the inky shadows with your plank of wood to get them to unhand the sweet young girl. The perspective -- I'm thinking about the first time you encounter the crow-like shadows, on the tower, with a view of swirling clouds -- is pulled back far, looking down at the characters as though with objective pity. Pity for all of them -- the horned young boy swinging the broken-off piece of wood, the pale young girl in a snow-white dress, and the shadows so consumed by their task that they should be reduced to black, inky husks of being. Yet who are we to judge who is right, or who is wrong? The girl does not protest, she does not try to escape. Our whacking at the inky monsters is something like a psychological accident: they are black and dark and archetypes of evil we and our forefathers' forefathers have been trained by primordial instinct to, should we be holding an adequate piece of wood, whack to smithereens. On another level, we want the girl back, because she is white and pretty and virginal. On the most intimate level, we want them back because until a moment ago, we had been holding hands with that girl, and when we move our own left thumb, the one who moves on the screen is the young boy holding the weapon. We attack the black beasts, on the deepest psychological level, because, suddenly, things have changed, and we wish to restore order Never have players' psyches and the game been this close; we are like the needle in a record groove. This sign of love is spoiled when we realize that if we don't destroy the archetypal evils, it's game over.
Ueda agrees with my interpretation, and agrees when people say the fighting might have been tedious. "It wasn't big enough. It wasn't grand enough. It was emotional, though it never changed. Emotions tend to usually work the same way, over and over again. There aren't many levels to them. They're profound, they're big; you just need to make something that, visually, matches up with that."
I'd argue that's what he did with the colossi; the musical score supports this. Sounding not unlike any Hollywood blockbuster where glorious things happen on-screen, the music that plays when a colossus is angry fits the mood perfectly. The sudden muting of all sounds the moment before the sword, in slow-motion, sinks into the beast's skull serves only to heighten the emotion, multiply it, and send it out of control. Like a poem embedded in a novel, it asks: what are we fighting for? What is the goal of this fight? The question is immediately answered with the player's unspeakable, wordless feeling. As a cathartic experience, in its strongest Shadow of the Colossus is unparalleled and enthralling.
As a videogame, there are a few things that it doesn't need. The heads-up display is one of them. Do I seriously need a little icon telling me I'm holding a sword or holding a bow? I mean, there are only two weapons. Why not just leave it out? Ueda takes a deep breath through his teeth. "Yeah, yeah, I guess not. Too late to fix that now!" He looks like he's just written a note in bold, red marker in the back of his brain. Really, the system is so simple -- just the bow and the sword -- why have the window? Why not make it purely visual? Why not make the bow always visible on the hero's back, the sword always visible at his side? If you're going for minimalism, that seems pretty obvious to me. Why not get rid of the grip meter, while we're at it? This one is harder to suggest: why not make the clues that you're about to fall off the colossus more visual, contextual? Make the hero holding on firmly with his hands and his legs, body pressed tight against his target, at first. As the colossus shakes and moans, maybe make one of the legs come loose, then the other, then one hand, then finally the other hand. Maybe make the hero scream a little bit when the first hand is coming loose. Then have him shouting and grunting up until the last hand comes off. Wouldn't that work a little better? The hero already has so many other intriguing visual traits, it's a wonder they didn't make the "grip meter" purely visual. Most of the hero's background is discernible just looking at the way he animates. There's a clumsy little misstep when he lands from a short jump. He overswings his sword like he's only ever seen people use a sword. Yet he holds and fires his bow with a professional rhythm and a steady hand. Obviously, this tells us a lot about his fighting technique. Also, why do we hear a metallic "ping" when we hit the horse with our sword? (Moreover, why am I hitting the horse, anyway? What's wrong with me? I guess games make me too curious.)
To nitpick even more fiercely, the graphics could be a lot better. So could the animation. Ueda says he wanted the game to look realistic; he wanted each of the bosses, giant, animated, beastial castles though they may be, to look like things that could really exist. He wanted the task of killing them to feel like work, like how you would really kill them if they were really real, and you only had a bow and a sword. His task has both suceeded and failed. Hanging onto the hair-mossy neck of a beast and waiting, waiting, waiting for him to calm down so you can inch up and strike is perhaps not a Halo fan's idea of a good time. What it feels like, in movie terms, is what a battle scene would look like if they left even the boring, depressing parts in. This is not a complaint; I like this part, especially. If someone else has a problem with it, to hell with them. No, this is the complaint: the graphics could be a lot shinier. Less gritty, less occasionally pixilated. Less . . . jagged. Also, the collision detection can be a little weird. Due to the hero's limited range of moves, there is typically only one or two (or three!) ways to defeat each colossus, which is interesting, yet sometimes it feels almost like there could be another, if just the collision detection would allow it. This is a small complaint, and a big job to fix. Ueda would tell the player to just play the game how it's supposed to be played. Yet I suppose some players don't always feel that way. They want their freedom. As Epic Games' Cliffy B says of his new game Gears of War, "Never underestimate the ability of the user to undermine the narrative you're trying to tell." That Cliffy B's games' players want to undermine the narrative probably has something to do with his giving the character a gun and plenty of incentive to pull the trigger. Ueda's game only makes players wander, meander, stare at turtles on beaches, admire oddities in the architecture. This is part of Ueda's intent. The player and the hero both harbor fascination for the world they occupy. The game's wonder is logical, though it may dispossess you of any desire to complete it, at a point. Even then, maybe that's what Ueda wants.
D3 Publishers is releasing a game next month called "Zonbi tai kyuukyuusha," which translates to "Zombie versus Ambulance." In the game, you are an ambulance driver beneath a charcoal-gray sky, careening down streets in a city full of zombies. Find a survivor and stop in front of him. There's a big glowing circle around the survivors -- kind of like in Crazy Taxi. The passenger gets in the back of your ambulance, and you see a little health meter at the bottom. There are zombies all over the street. Run into them at high enough speed to kill them. The passengers' health meter indicates their state of infection with the zombie virus. If the meter reaches full, the passenger becomes a zombie, and your high-tech ambulance ejects them. Your goal is to get them to the hospital before the virus kills them. When you rescue them, they shout a hearty "THANK YOU!!" and hop in your ambulance. Their gratitude (in English, yes) is a warm feeling. Get them to the hospital, and, depending on their class, they'll upgrade your ambulance in some way. Then it's back to careening through that city, smashing zombies.
What this game is, you must understand, according to its developer, is "Crazy Taxi with logic." In Crazy Taxi, passengers jumped out of your car, even into oncoming traffic, if you took too long to get them to their destination. Their destinations were usually places like Pizza Hut or Kentucky Fried Chicken, places I reckon no one ever takes a taxi to. (Even if they did, wouldn't they go to a drive-thru, order the food there, and then ask to be taken to their real destination?) Though the game takes place in a realistic setting (that of a modern city), it is not at all logical (passengers rarely jump out of a taxi because it takes more than thirty goddam seconds to get somewhere, even in New York City). What Zombie versus Ambulance (we can only hope the next game is Technology versus Horse) does is craft a world where this kind of behavior is tolerated, because everything surrounding the protagonist and the ones he's trying to protect is so messed-up it calls for such reckless driving and reckless behavior. Says the lead producer, and they're a shameless bunch, always raising chuckles at pitch meetings and getting equally shamelessly drunk afterward, "We wanted to capitalize on the current popular trend of freedom-based games, by combining the simple and addictive play mechanics of Crazy Taxi and the zombie phenomenon. We plan to sell 100,000 copies of this at 2,000 yen each to curious gamers." He's very proud. This is the man who produced "The DAIBIJIN," in which the player controls a military unit sent to deal with a fifty-foot-tall woman, pin-up model Futaba Ringo, as she stomps toward Tokyo. "It's a combination catostrophic disaster, military shooting simulation and girl-get game," was the pitch.
Connection to Shadow of the Colossus? Oh, isn't it obvious? Here: at E3, one of the readers on the insertcredit.com forums took a picture of Shigeru Miyamoto and Eiji Aonuma as they stood, arms crossed, watching a man play Shadow of the Colossus. Shortly after the convention, they told Famitsu that "Twilight Princess" would be the last Zelda game for a long while. They said they needed time to "reconsider" a few things. I take it these two events are not entirely unrelated. Ueda, on the one hand, bears Zelda no ill will. He was a fan of the original, which was a rather despodent and creepy game, if somewhat accidentally. Shigeru Miyamoto said that Ocarina of Time, with its blotchy 3D graphics and that one ugly prerendered town, and its otherwise gorgeous three-dimensional control and its toy-like heads-up display and exciting dungeons, was more or less exactly the big, brassy game he wanted to make when he made Zelda. Ueda loved the Zelda Miyamoto ended up first making, and now Miyamoto has taken notice of Ueda's reinterpretation. The difference between Ueda and Miyamoto is striking; Miyamoto makes brilliant videogames because he has a god-given talent for doing things brilliantly. Ueda, on the other hand, is trying very hard to tell you something. Ueda has, at a point in his life, loved certain videogames; Miyamoto might not have ever loved them at all. Miyamoto is rather like a man who doesn't play baseball himself, yet inspires his son to play baseball, and then doesn't show up when his son is pitching in the World Series. Nonetheless, he's inspiring. He has spawned many children, many of whom have gone on to make games that aspire to his, games that are fun and silly; the most famous Miyamoto-inspired developers include and Shinji Mikami, whose Resident Evil invented a new genre in 1995 and whose Resident Evil 4 threw that genre away and made something gamers can play over and over again. Hideo Kojima, whose Metal Gear started as an exercise in simplicity, now seeks to educate players on the "sense" of what makes his games not literature. Gouichi Suda, director of killer7, a jumbled, movie-loving game that I hate as much as I greatly admire, loves Miyamoto like a little child loves the hamster he accidentally pets to death. Fumito Ueda, a former protege of Warp's president Kenji Eno, and one of the staff that worked on the infamous D2 -- "A videogame about snow" -- has seen the artistic side of the videogame industry and the "human resource management" side of it (where the consumers are basically the employees in one world-spanning corporation, and you want everyone at their desk ideally eight hours a day), and he has come away from his previous experiences and his critics' darling first effort with the idea in his head that he's going to care less about the norm and make what he feels like making.
What Shadow of the Colossus is, at the end of the day, whatever emotions it evokes in you as a player, is the grandiose vision of Zelda, retrofitted with a cold, awesome lonesomeness, and grounded firmly in logic that does not seem out of place in the world it has lovingly constructed. Yes: call it Zelda versus Logic. Mostly silent and powerful, it nonetheless remains a videogame even when the player isn't doing much of anything. It is not perfect with regards to its presentation and control; the original Zelda makes the number-three slot on my list of the 108 best games of all-time because it, for the most part (that is, for the parts outside grammar in its localization), in what it does within the world that was set up for it, is perfect. In this respect, Shadow of the Colossus is better than Zelda in concept and content and weaker in execution, though only because it is free to do the things that Zelda was not; it is free to show us terrible, moving events. Nintendo's Revolution looms; it will change the way many people design games. I look forward to it, personally, and Shadow of the Colossus, making use of neither a stylus nor a magic television remote, fills me with this vague, yet clear hope that games in the Old Style can coexist with whatever new genres might come. Let the Revolution come, let player interaction change; much as I groan at statements of people who have no imagination, or no desire to see things change for the more exciting, I have room in my heart to wish to see Fumito Ueda be given access to a bigger console with better, faster, smoother graphics and sound, with higher storage capacity. Shadow of the Colossus is not the pinnacle of its medium, because no medium has a pinnacle as long as men and women continue to spawn future generations, and it is not art, because nothing is. However, it is confident in its existence, it provides a stunning experience, and is undoubtedly one of the more noteworthy videogames ever yet made.
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