Friday, August 6, 2010

Top 50 Games - 6. Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus is the argument for video games as art. I don't much care which side of the fence you fall on, but there's no way in hell you'll convince me that this game is anything less than a visionary masterpiece, one capable of provoking just as much thought and emotion as any authored work out there. Shadow receives much end-of-decade hoopla today, but it wasn't always like this. I played it back when it came out five years ago based on a stirring trailer, some pretty screenshots, and a few glowing reviews. These five years have seen its stature rise from that of an intriguing action/adventure experiment to a study in artistic expression through video games. There are only a select handful of games that deliberately employ every resource available to them in service of a few worthy goals. In other words, games without mistakes. Shadow of the Colossus is such a game, and if you're still wondering why, I hope I can be of some assistance.
An eagle soars across the moonlit night air. The camera lowers to find a dark gray steed trotting along the narrow side of a mountain, a young boy on its back. The boy and his horse travel far across the land before coming upon a narrow passageway through ancient ruins. On the other side is a magnificent stone bridge, unparalleled in length. Upon crossing the bridge, the two enter into a large temple of unknown design. The boy, Wander, dismounts before lifting a limp body from the back of his saddle. He carries it solemnly up to an altar, then puts it down and pulls off the black cloak it has been wrapped in. It's a girl. Suddenly, a disembodied voice (two actually: one male and one female) speaks to the boy from an intensely bright hole in the ceiling. He cryptically informs Wander that to bring his late love back to life, he must destroy sixteen idols that line the halls of the temple. To do this, he must travel the Forbidden Land in search of their sixteen representative colossi and defeat them. The voice, named Dormin, warns however that the cost of breaking the rules of mortality may be dire indeed. The boy accepts. This intriguing introductory sequence sets up the story for Shadow of the Colossus, and there are no other cutscenes of its kind until the game's conclusion. Traditionally, the princess is alive and needs to be rescued. In Shadow, the hero already lost her, but he hasn't yet given up hope. With his magical sword and the power that dwells within the Forbidden Land, perhaps she can still be saved. This quiet desperation, amplified by the acknowledgment that there may be serious consequences, drives a good deal of the game and provides for a remarkably interesting story, stark as it may be. The dramatic conclusion is intensely bittersweet; at once rewarding and unbearably tragic.

Fumito Ueda and Team Ico embrace a tenet rarely seen today: economy. Ueda calls his approach "design by subtraction." Where most games are either missing intended components or are padded with bloat, Team Ico's games are purposefully minimalist. Sure, this style helps conserve resources, but it also allows those resources to be used with great care and precision. Ueda's directing debut Ico was, at least  according to him, too minimal. Shadow of the Colossus takes design by subtraction and somehow makes it epic. Arguably no game in history has done so much with so little. SotC is roughly ten hours of riding your horse around a barren expanse of terrain, slaying sixteen gargantuan beasts, and that's about it. By taking such a risky approach to game design, Fumito Ueda was able to imbue his labor of love with a sense of originality severely lacking in today's gaming landscape.

Art direction is very, very important to me. I feel as if graphics are merely a vehicle for art direction or immersion or visual communication; they should exist to serve another, more worthy master. Shadow of the Colossus has a limited supply of polygons, somewhat low-res textures, and relatively rough geometry. So what? It has probably the best art direction of any game ever (personally, only my #5 pick beats it out), and PS2-era graphics cannot hide that fact. The stunning scenery, the artful bloom lighting, the washed-out, slightly desaturated color, the brilliant character and enemy design... Each visual item coheres beautifully with the next to form an unmistakably distinct world. Fumito Ueda's background is in art (he painted the Giogio de Chirico-inspired Japanese and European cover for Ico), and his dedication to the discipline shines through clearly.
Not to be outdone, Kow Otani has produced an epic soundtrack uncannily able to translate the player's current feelings into beautiful symphonies. From the fluttering flutes and string plucks of the game's first seconds to the overwhelmingly gothic organ tune in the Temple of Worship to the exciting melody of heated battle, the music never disappoints.
Team Ico's flair for the minimal is glaringly apparent in the game's controls. A typical dual-analogue third-person setup is used, with the left stick controlling Wander's movement and the right swivelling the camera. L1 works as a sort of lock-on, pulling the camera towards the colossus, and R2 zooms in. This involved but unimposing degree of camera control allows players to direct the on-screen action as they wish, even during cutscenes. Wander is equipped with a small handful of abilities: he can jump, grab, stab, shoot arrows, and direct light to his sword. That's it. You start the game with one sword and one bow, and you end the game with just that. Hell, arrows aren't even useful for much more than attracting the attention of the colossi. Zelda and Metroid convince the player that they've become more capable by outfitting them with more and better equipment. The player in Shadow of the Colossus understands his growth by acknowledging that he has received no gifts, that all he has gained is skill and thoughtfulness. It's an amazing feat of design that there are new strategies to master in every encounter, and proof that less really can be more.
The titular colossi are positively breathtaking. The true meat of the game, each and every colossus battle is treated as a platforming level, a boss fight, and a head-scratching puzzle all bundled in one. There are no secondary enemies, no sidequests, nothing but sixteen lumbering beasts for you to find and topple. Their designs are guided by a consistent aesthetic: each appears to be an amalgamation of human, animal, god, and machine components made up of stone, grassy fur, and dirt. Most sport round stone eyes that glow blue when calm and orange when agitated. At first imposing, maybe even frightening, the sad expressions of the colossi soon betray a disarming innocence, making them appear almost cute. This surprising notion is augmented by fantastic animation; each colossus behaves differently from the next, with their unique and unquestionably believable movements revealing tons of personality (one, for example, backs away from fire). Some are slow and weary, some are nimble and fierce. All are unforgettable; more than boss battles or puzzle-platform challenges, they are some of the greatest characters in gaming.
Speaking of the greatest characters in gaming, I have determined who deserves to be named my favorite personality in video games... Agro, the horse. Yes, the horse. Animated even more convincingly than the colossi, she guides Wander through the Forbidden Land with courage, intelligence, and grace. Because of her unflinching loyalty, she is the centerpiece of one of the most heartrending scenes in gaming. It may sound crazy to be so enamored with a digital horse, but trust me, Agro is special.
I love exploring in video games. That sense of discovery and freedom appeals to me, and I feel that video games are wonderful opportunities for people to live out their inner explorer. The world in Shadow of the Colossus is large and relatively empty. The varied terrain blends so seamlessly that it's easy not to realize you just emerged from a dense forest into a wind-swept desert. One reviewer comment I'm particularly fond of said that (to paraphrase) "In Shadow of the Colossus, a waterfall is just a waterfall. It's not a place to hide from pursuing helicopters or the entrance to the final dungeon. It's just water meeting gravity in one of the world's most beautiful natural phenomena." Instead of robbing the environment of meaning, this realistic simplicity imbues every location with a sense of beauty and magic. Look around enough and there are even some things to find in Shadow's desolate wasteland. It's possible to climb up the side of the Temple of Worship and reach the secret garden at the top, and there are certain ponds where you can ride on the tail of a large fish! This may sound like nothing to you, but to SotC veterans, any form of interaction within the world is a pleasant surprise.
I mentioned this in my entry on Ico, but I feel it needs to be reiterated: I am really, really jealous of Fumito Ueda. Two games into this young man's career and he's already more venerated than designers who have had decades to cement their legacies. He adheres to exact personal philosophies, designing his games according to a singular vision from the ground up, without compromise. Shadow of the Colossus, his greatest creation, is able to communicate with players through a unique, beautiful language. It is not a work of art because it has pretty visuals and nice music. It represents a bright, artistic future for video games because every facet of its composition, inside and out, was deliberately placed there to enhance the experience and drive its themes foreword. Upon defeating a colossus, fountains of oily black blood spew from its glyph-marked weak spot as a long shot captures its fall and sad music plays. Upon regaining control, Wander is chased by shadowy black tentacles emerging from the body of the fallen colossus (now nothing but a large mound of dirt), though he cannot escape them. Upon returning to the Temple, another idol crumbles. Over the course of the game, Wander's appearance deteriorates; first his hair color darkens, and then small horns can be seen protruding from his head. Once signalling triumph, the defeat of a colossus soon fills the player with dreadful remorse; a rarity in video games. By the time the credits roll, the consequences of Wander's actions have been revealed and the player has given serious thought to what he's done. The barren world contributes heavily to the game's loneliness, though it is successfully counterbalanced by the companionship of Agro. The mystery of the lifeless girl Mono only adds to the desire to revive her, which is the motivation provided for the game's entirety. Again, every detail was taken into account to ensure that the all the right emotional strings would be pulled.
If you're going to play one video game before shrugging them off as a juvenile waste of time, make sure it's Shadow of the Colossus.