Editorial: A Fruit Explained: Shadow of the Colossus

In all the right ways, I can't believe this game exists.
Far and away one of my favourite moments in gaming.

See that, reader? See the new position of my first picture? Notice its hideous placement at the very top of the article? This is not my decision. I have committed this aesthetic tragedy at the request (see: command) of Lusipurr.com Overlord and King: Lusipurr Himself. Do not blame me for the vomit that its placement will surely summon. Now with that certainly-not-melodramatic disclaimer out of the way, it is time for the third entry in this surprisingly resilient series.

Yes, I have returned for a third installment of A Fruit Explained when no other multi-part series that I have penned has made it so far. My theory is that this is my most narcissistic series and therefore it comes most naturally to me. I am sure all LusiEthoses agree. Anyway, the avid reader will notice that I promised Final Fantasy IX to be the focus this week. That was the plan, but then I watched my girlfriend beat Shadow of the Colossus and felt that I needed to take advantage of the freshness of the experience.

Shadow of the Colossus is a game that – on paper – should not work for so many reasons. The only enemies in the game are the sixteen colossi, the cutscenes are scarce and generally short, Wander grows slightly more powerful, but his arsenal does not change and he does not interact with other humans for the majority of the game. It is a game that combines emotional subtlety with the still-standing most epic moments in all of gaming. It is a game that works best as a complete story. The entire game informs the ending and the ending informs the rest of the game. It is a game that – more than most – uses actual gameplay to tell its story and drive home its themes.

The game opens with a very simple but very powerful premise. We know that our hero has entered a forbidden land with a sacred sword in hopes to revive a sacrificed woman named Mono whom he brought along on his horse. The powerful entity that lives there tells him that his wish might be granted if he defeats the sixteen colossi scattered across the land. Yes, that is correct. He has to slay sixteen giants to have his wish potentially be granted. And even if he survives the fights, the process of the spell itself might take a fatal toll on him.

Such a wonderful 'oh shit!' moment.
This moment would also crack the Top 10

What this game understands is that Wander and Mono’s specific relationship is entirely irrelevant. It does not matter if she is his sister, friend, or lover. All that matters is that she is important to him. Important enough that he does not hesitate to do literally whatever it takes to bring her back, no matter the risk. And then the entire game goes to prove that point. There is no cheesy dialogue of Wander saying he will do whatever it takes or saying that this girl means the world to him. He just spends the entire game risking his life in one of the better examples of “actions speak louder than words”.

But despite Wander’s unwavering resolution and the game’s simple premise, Shadow of the Colossus is not interested in simple ideas. Except for Dormin, the game does not paint any distinct pictures of good and evil. Wander stole a sword and entered a forbidden land to attempt to resurrect a girl who was sacrificed. Wander believes her death was unjust, but the game never truly gives that information. Lord Emon, who seals away the land at the end of the game, appears to be both a hero and a villain. He appears to have no sympathy or understanding for Wander, but he also seals away Dormin and expresses a forgiving tone at the very end.

At the end, so much is lost and so much is gained but the player still wonders if anybody learned anything. Mono has no chance to learn of what happened and Wander saw no payoff after what must have been the most difficult time in his short life. The ending is optimistic, but still leaves a gaping hole in the player’s heart. Wander’s sacrifice seems so important and so trivial all at once. Argo’s loyalty and innocence feels like the most important thing in the world and one does not know whether to be happy, angry, or sad when considering Mono.

The ending is not just a good cutscene, it makes the rest of the game make sense. The lonely rides to the colossi suddenly gain meaning. It is hopeless, lonely, and unavoidable. Wander’s actions take on a greater meaning after it is proven that his resolve is true. It causes his loneliness to have greater weight.

I would have considered 'beautiful', however.
I would choose ‘lonely’ if I were forced to sum up the game in one word.

All this praise for a game and I have not even mentioned the excellent “level” design of the colossi. Sixteen varied beasts that create the only moments in gaming that have put me on the literal edge of my seat. I remember being terrified to enter the water for – no exaggeration – ten minutes as I watched the shadow of a water dragon circle in the deep. I remember my horse wailing in fear and determination as it barely evaded blasts from a particularly aggressive giant. I remember thinking to myself how cool it would be if I had to jump from that same horse at full speed to climb onto the back of a massive dragon in the sky; and then discovering that it was what I actually had to do. I remember the fear and adrenaline that rushed through me as an oversized bat swooped down in anger after I shot it with an arrow.

The colossi are clever, varied, and exciting in ways that only a video game could pull off. Shadow of the Colossus is a game that could have gotten away with being so much less and would have been considered a fun game. Instead it is a game packed with statements while still managing to never get in the player’s face about it. The landscape and mood is lonely and desolate, but it is thematically and emotionally focused. It takes the medium extremely seriously and – eight years later – is still one of the better examples of how to uniquely take advantage of it.

The game is good, is what I am trying to say, LusiPhalanxs. Finally, hopefully, probably, maybe next week I will get my chance to unabashedly rant about what makes me love Final Fantasy IX the way that I do.

15 comments

  1. “…it is a game packed with statements while still managing to never get in the player’s face about it.” This is the biggest reason I still look back fondly on this game. And that quality is true of a lot of my favorite games. Demon and Dark Souls come to mind.

    If there are any games out there that share this sense of subtly and atmosphere, but not necessarily the old world theme, then I should like to play them. And if they don’t exist, I think they should be made.

    Also, Ethos you will not do a FFIX piece next time. Instead it shall be about Skies of Arcadia. Because.

  2. WELCOME BACK MEL I BET YOU MISSED THIS.

    At first I was like “Oh! Skies of Arcadia! That’s a good one!” But although I love that game, I think it’s a bad idea for this feature. I’m choosing games that I think have a lot more under the surface. I think Skies is a great RPG, but it doesn’t really say much.

    @Lusipurr – You always know just what to say <3

  3. He appears to have no sympathy or understand for Wander
    Because I’m a pedant.

  4. Damn it! I was literally about to start that sentence in my spot-check. I keep getting distracted today. You win again Kiryen.

  5. Can you give me an idea of how long it takes to complete? This game has been “on my radar” for a couple years, but I don’t have a lot of time for more games. Sounds like it’s worth it, though. Also would you definitely recommend buying it with Ico? How do the two games compare, in short?

  6. I haven’t played Ico in quite some time, but I still feel pretty confident in saying it’s distinctly not as strong, but still worth playing. The HD collection is worth it. Not because it looks particularly better (it’s a bit negligible), but because it runs so much better.

    The game is short. A speed run is 5-7 hours and a normal playthrough should take 10-15. I’d say absolutely worth it. Even if you don’t connect the same way, it’s a very important game, I think. But I will say that if you plan to play it, I recommend that you play to beat it. Also, play it before Ico even if it came out later and is better. I expect Ico will be a lot cooler to play after completing Shadow.

  7. You know what, Ethos, you’re right. SoA doesn’t really say much. Thinking on it, one of the more endearing qualities is its simplicity. In that regard it probably wouldn’t fit this series.

    And you want to know if I missed this? I have several in person friends who are essentially Lusipurr but with science and engineering related degrees. Why else would I stick around and come back if not for the comfortable familiarity of it all.

  8. Well I can assure you that NOBODY is essentially Lusipurr, but a penchant for enduring abuse is a good quality in a regular commenter!

  9. People who think they are essentially me often meet me, and find out that in person I’m so much larger than life and worse than they ever imagined.

    I’m exactly like this in person, except amplified by presence.

    Also, I’m 1,000 meters tall.

  10. So when I read your comments, that’s not just my internal dialogue I’m hearing. I’m actually just hearing you all the way down to New Jersey.

  11. A little known fact is that Lusipurr is the seventeenth colossus, hidden in a gigantic castle surrounded by a moat of lava.

  12. One of my favorite games it is. James reminded me that Fumito Ueda made about 5 or so other colossi that that were removed from the final version and it drives me insane when I think of how awesome they could be. One of them was said to be removed simply because it was too hard. That’s the worst reason to remove something, in my opinion.

    I think ICO is a completely different experience than Shadow of the Colossus is. Play it if you like solving puzzles.

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