The lights are on
Power Member - Level 9
It took me a while to consider the light. I understood its mechanical purpose, the way it functioned as a guide to help me find the next creature made of earth and stone and kill it. Still, I did not even ask myself why specifically the light is important, what it means in the context of the game’s world. It was the first mystery I noticed in the game that was both mechanical and visual, and it was the first one I solved—no, not solved, never solved. But that’s where I began with Shadow of the Colossus. I discovered an appreciation for the ways games create meaning by chasing a beam of light.
I played Shadow of the Colossus when I was sophomore in college. I picked it up over the winter break and played it at home, completed it once, and left it when I returned to school. I liked it enough to keep it around, and I appreciated that it did something different. Wander, a young boy, seeks to revive Mono, a maiden, who had been sacrificed because “she had a cursed fate.” To do this, he journeys to a forbidden land and entreats Dormin, an imprisoned spirit, to restore her, making a pact to free the spirit by slaying sixteen stone colossi in exchange for her life. The game’s quiet austere game design and ambiguous story wove together a thoughtful fairy tale, yet I found its narrative and its often clunky gameplay unsatisfying. I wouldn’t come to appreciate it until a year later.
In the fall of my junior year, I took a class on the modern novel and encountered for the first time James Joyce’s Ulysses—a monument of high modernist style for some, an incoherent pile of word vomit for others. It became one of the most grueling semesters I remember due in large part to my struggles with the text. Fueled in equal parts by cheap whisky, caffeine, and self-loathing, I finished a mediocre paper and went home for winter, where I found my copy of Colossus still in my Playstation 2’s disc tray. I figured it’s quiet, meditative structure could provide some much needed decompression after a semester of Joyce’s textual noise. With vague memories of towering giants and a ghost of a narrative, I decided to replay the game.
It was then that I noticed the light.
Wander arrives in an eternally sunlit forbidden land, yet I could not find any singular source, until I remembered the spirit imprisoned there. I wondered if perhaps the light emanated from the ethereal Dormin, that being that speaks from an illuminated hole in the temple’s ceiling. Focusing the light to find a colossus causes the world around Wander to go dark, and the ornamental sword that serves that serves as your guiding prism is the only instrument capable of freeing the spirit. It seems painfully obvious now that the glow came from the trapped spirit, but for me it was a revelation. A simple mechanic of following a beam of light to my next objective revealed something tangible about the world and its mysteries in a way I had never considered.
I started to dig. I played the game twice that winter, taking note how each part informed the whole. I saw how Wander clumsily swings his sword, and I surmised that he’s clearly not a warrior, maybe some type of page or acolyte who stole the blade (which looks more ceremonial than practical). The frustrations of unresponsive controls when climbing gigantic beasts evaporated. I understood my frustrations as Wander’s struggle to cling to each behemoth. I found that what I initially thought were bad controls for the horse, Agro, were actually just controls for the reins; the horse operated as an independent character. Since Agro dwarfs his young rider, I initially assumed that Wander stole him to travel to the forbidden land, but the ways in which they interact—the horse’s readiness to come when called; the ease with which Wander mounts, stands on, and leaps from him; the moment when Agro throws his rider to safety as a bridge collapses—reveal that they share a bond deeper than a horse thief and his quarry.
As I looked closely at the intersection of mechanics and narrative, the story of an old world and a fallen god began to take shape. I imagined an ancient civilization that once worshiped Dormin, erecting temples and shrines across the land, and then, for whatever reason, the people left this land and culture behind and sealed their deity within its own temple by binding its spirit to sixteen statues. I surmised that Dormin’s spirit gave life to the land itself as giants made of earth and stone, each resembling one of the sixteen totems, rose to a placid existence or to confused and angry animation. As the giants rose, ignorant of the land’s previous inhabitants, the people built new cultures and traditions as the world they abandoned drifted into legend until one young boy was called to sacrifice a girl to appease the new gods. Wracked with guilt the boy follows the myths and taboos of his people to an all-but-forgotten place to beseech an old god for help.
Of course, this story is composed of as much inference as it is evidence, and the game’s lack of exposition until the final act supports numerous readings. I'm sure the internet is filled with theories much more complex and nuanced than anything I could put together. The game has become something of an storytelling enigma, a protean digital myth that changes depending on the storyteller. But an encyclopedic detailing of the game's world and its characters is not going to be what I remember most fondly about this game. I remember the ways the game taught me to read it.
Shadow of the Colossus encouraged me (without insistence) to recognize subtlety, to connect the form and mechanics to the content on display. I found substance in the way Wander moves clumsily. I understood why the wonky camera tended to frame the game’s protagonist so he appears as small as possible. I could validate my distrust of the game’s initial insistence that something malevolent stirs in the forbidden lands when I slew a colossus and felt more regret than victorious jubilation. No matter how many massive giants I brought to ruin, Wander still scrambled around in the dirt and struggled under the weight of his sword.
This summer I returned to Shadow of the Colossus (likely due to my current work on a dissertation chapter involving Ulysses), and I was surprised at how much I owe to the game for its hidden lectures on mechanics and meaning. A few years older with more books read and critical papers written, I found more still to appreciate in the game. Perhaps that’s what the best games do. They never stop teaching the player new ways to appreciate them as texts to be read, played, enjoyed.
This time, I found pleasure in the long stretches of travel and loneliness between encounters with colossi. They juxtapose the tranquility of empty traversal and the thrilling sequences of climbing each behemoth to bring it crashing down that enhance the impact of both types of play. I saw these moments as meditations on the place of violence in game design, the tension between the promises of an open world and the inevitable mournful draw of the kill. But that’s probably material for a different article–another lesson to learn while slaying giants.
So, any particular game teach you to appreciate the nuances of game systems or narrative? Let's get a conversation going.
David is working on his PhD and currently writes for awesomeoutof10.com, where this article was originally published. Follow his hilarious acts of academic vigilantism on twitter and please feel free to ask questions and offer criticism!