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Shadow of the Colossus

Year: 2005  Company: Sony Computer Entertainment Japan Studios, Team ICO
Designer: Fumito Ueda   Writers: Junichiro Hosono, Takashi Izutani, Masahi Kudo
Music: Kow Otani   Cast: Kenji Nojima, Kazuhiro Nakata, Kyoko Hikami, Naoki Bando, Hitomi Nabatame
Reviewed from the Ico / Shadow of the Colossus Collection, released September of this year for Playstation 3, and available for purchase through Amazon.com. The original Playstation 2 edition is also still available.

While I’ve toyed with reviewing books, comics and even a bit of music here at Wtf-Film, the one medium I’ve always wanted to cover, but never have, remains video games. I play quite a lot of them, after all, and unlike any number of naysayers I don’t see the medium as being any less a legitimate art form than the others I mentioned above. That’s not to say I think that all art is good art, and personal taste certainly enters into things, but the potential is there for video games to rattle off complex symbolism, big ideas and the just plain aesthetically beautiful every bit as well as the rest of the more lauded forms. What’s more they can do so in collaboration, while at the same time offering a brand of personal interaction with the material that’s unique unto themselves.

But I digress. I’m really not here to argue how the video game should be considered a valid artistic medium – really - you’ll find plenty of that elsewhere, and just as many dissenting opinions. Instead I present for your consideration a game that I certainly consider to be “good art”, the epic Shadow of the Colossus (or Wander and the Colossus / Wanda to Kyozou) from Japanese designer Fumito Ueda and Sony Computer Entertainment’s Japan Studio in 2005. As is too often the case I took a good long while catching up to Shadow, having never owned a Playstation 2, but its recent remastering for the Playstation 3 (along with Ueda’s freshman effort ICO) gave me all the excuse I needed to finally check it out.

Taking place in a nameless expanse at the “edge of the world”, Shadow posits the player as the boy Wander, who travels to the forbidden land with his faithful horse, Agro, and the body of the dead girl Mono in hopes that a mythical demon said to reside there can return her to life. The demon, little but a few wayward shadows and a disembodied voice echoing about an immense shrine, agrees to help, provided that Wander destroys the sixteen Colossi – the vessels for the demon’s divided evil – that roam throughout the territory. As each Colossus is defeated the evil essence within is absorbed by Wander, whose mortal form grows more corrupted and diseased with each conquest…

The simple narrative of Shadow of the Colossus is a familiar one, but is refreshingly free of the heroic ego that so often comes with the territory. Wander proves himself uniquely selfless as video game protagonists go, flinging himself out into the abyss and confronting certain annihilation with unflinching determination, but his singular devotion is to the point of fault. He is driven to sacrifice himself, agonizingly, to save a fellow mortal unjustly struck down (the scant dialogue suggests only that she was sacrificed for being “cursed”), but is so obsessed as to be blind to the consequences of unleashing the greatest evil known to his civilization. In his singular, destructive drive he reminds of Captain Ahab, neither villain nor hero, just a man slowly destroyed by his own obsession. It’s an allusion that becomes all the more fitting once the nature of the game’s action is taken into consideration.

With rare exception the Colossi Wander is fated to extinguish are appropriately massive in scale, and often appear as though they are built from bits of the landscapes from which they emerge. Alternately magnificent and horrifying, the Colossi are the fantasy equivalent of the sea-beasts of old, which a dwarfed humanity once sought to conquer at its own peril, though the odds against Wander, armed only with a sword, a bow, and his wits, seem even more heavily stacked. Each Colossi is a lumbering level unto itself, either to be tricked into allowing Wander passage on it or to be scaled outright so that its vital points, glowing sigils revealed by the sword, can be reached. The gameplay here is harrowing stuff, and quite unlike anything I’ve encountered before. Appropriately, it becomes as much a test of will for the player as for Wander, as you’re dangle perilously from the shaggy, debris-strewn bodies of skyscraper-sized humanoid giants and bizarre, impossibly proportioned animals with your stamina running out all the while.

Even so, success against them is rarely satisfying on its own terms. Much of that is to do with the context for the Colossi themselves, awe-inspiring titans tucked away in some forbidden corner of the world as guardians against the evil banished there. They aren’t the villains of the piece, even if Wander must approach them as such. Each is individual, unique, from a proportional pseudo-mechanical bull (one of the rare small Colossi) and a tremendous electric eel to the earth-shaking bludgeon-wielding humanoid bear that graces the cover art, and each is never to be seen again. For every ounce of awe their appearances inspire there’s just as much poignancy to their defeat, the Colossi crumpling tragically to the ground with venomous black mist spewing from their wounds. Wander’s reward for killing them is to have himself slowly destroyed, with no way of knowing whether or not the demon with whom he has bargained will keep its promise in the end.

Shadow of the Colossus balances its intense action set pieces and grimmer subject matter with an environmental design ethic that’s breathtaking. The forbidden terrain Wander must traverse to reach each Colossi is a vast, seemingly boundless affair, winding from darkened mountain passes through arid deserts and verdant hills to secluded wooded oases, imposing canyons and hot springs. It’s a world unto itself, separated from the outside by a towering, endless bridge and devoid of any living distractions beyond a few lizards, tortoises and birds. Though obviously once inhabited – a monolithic central shrine and other edifices of civilization past, including Asiatic temples, European castles and a massive buried Greco-Roman amphitheatre, are all testament to this – Wander is the only human life to be seen. It’s a place unencumbered by endless hack-and-slash antics, load screens, or droning soundtrack loops, a wide-open expanse both somber and beautiful, ripe for contemplation and all but demanding of the hours it takes to explore it all. I found myself wholly immersed in it, enchanted even, and after a work week worth of play I’ve yet to tire of it – something few of anything, much less games, can claim.

In lesser hands it would have been easy for Shadow of the Colossus, basically a series of boss fights scattered by lengthy violence-free trekking, to feel tired and insubstantial, but Fumito Ueda and his devoted creative team have made it into something truly special. The simplicity of its premise belies the supreme artistry with which it is related, and the sum experience of it all is quite unlike anything else. I’ll not open the can of worms that is the “best game ever” designation, but it’s certainly one of the best I’ve ever played, a potent mix of thrilling action, aesthetic wonder and quiet humanity that really is second to none. This is must-play material, through and through, and one of the easiest recommendations I’ve had in years.

Reviewed from the Ico / Shadow of the Colossus Collection, released September of this year for Playstation 3, and available for purchase through Amazon.com. The original Playstation 2 edition is also still available.

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