The plot of Shadow of the Colossus can be adequately summarized thus: “A boy steals a sword and rides with it and the corpse of a girl on horseback to a forbidden land in hopes of reviving the corpse. In a central temple, the god Mordin tells the boy that if he defeats sixteen colossal beasts he has a chance of bringing the girl back to life. He defeats the beasts, but loses his horse down a steep valley along the way. He is deceived by Mordin and through his deeds has become a vessel for the cursed god. Men who had pursued the boy into the forbidden land arrive in time to seal Mordin – and the boy – away. The men escape and destroy the bridge into the land behind them. The boy’s injured horse returns to the temple just as the girl awakens from death. They discover a newborn with horns where Mordin had been banished and find a beautiful garden on the top of the temple, destined to live the rest of their days in the forbidden land.”
The summary takes a paragraph, but even other narratively simple games would often take much more room without losing important details. Whether a reader finds the summary poignant or not matters little because the effectiveness of the story of Shadow of Colossus is found in its experiential expression of the theme. The game derives its impact from attempting to make the experience of theme and story be told only through the pace and ability of its hero, regardless of if the player knows the details of the plot. It is a video game story told at the pace of a video game.
Games that successfully voice narrative themes via interactive expression are rare. Most often a game is too obsessed with its themes – strongly developed or not – and repeats them ad nauseam through text. The Tales of series is one of the most obvious examples. Even the strongest game in the series in terms of mechanics and story, Tales of Graces f does nothing to tie the experience of playing the game to the experience of witnessing the story and has cutscenes that would not miss losing seventy per cent of their bulk.
Even Final Fantasy IX which is a paragon of suggestive and character-focused story-telling in long format does little to nothing to tie its themes to gameplay. The two elements are simply strong on their own and are both paced well enough to not detract from each other which is more than most Japanese RPGs can claim.
But perhaps fifty hour epics are a poor place to begin a criticism of an already complex story-telling medium that – despite the glossy sheen of rapidly evolving technology – is only beginning to walk on its own.
Maybe it is because the form is so new that games which use gameplay itself as the narrative have been the most successful. Single player games with little story but a strong sense of their form, mechanically tight multi-player games, these are games that succeed because their scope is focused. Super Mario Kart does not need a story, nor does Counter-Strike. Some would argue that Super Mario World has too much story.
The impact of Shadow of the Colossus is cumulative and reflective. Singular astonishing moments stick harder because they serve a central theme and reflect against what has already come and what will soon pass. A careful rhythm is struck between lonely, slow, sometimes frustrating, awe-inspiring landscapes, and lonely, horrifying, sometimes frustrating, adrenaline-stirring battles. Both Wander – the hero – and the player are eager to complete their task but can’t help but be caught up in the moment-to-moment reality of their surroundings and situation. Discovery and emotional reaction are inevitable even if what will unfold is either implicitly or explicitly obvious.
The inevitability of a good story is what draws people back to them time and time again. The best works will shock the same or harder when re-encountering them. The water flows down the same place and carves out a deeper riverbed each time it passes through and when it empties we ache to feel its familiar flow again, whether it is comforting, painful, or something inexplicable in between.