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SummaryBig is not scary; small is scary
The GoodVideo games are a lot of fun. Hot damn, one thing the modern age has brought us is a never-ending supply of entertainment in the form of internet chatting, web surfing for information, compiling information for an online database as well as just playing video games. In fact, video games are at times so fun that they are difficult to put down and compel the player to not stop. This is called addiction, and there are some gamers who believe a good video game should have this addictive quality; at one time the video game magazine GamePro had it as one of its rating requirements. The assessment is a fair one in this context; fun is what people want and expect in a game, so it makes sense for them to have a game that doesn’t stop being fun. If a game is addictive, then it serves its own purpose very well as a leisure activity or “time-killer”, if you will. That’s what a game is: an activity that you partake in and, win or lose, you enjoy yourself during the time you are doing it.
Videogames are also a burgeoning expressive art form. What once was quick, simple fun has evolved to telling complex stories of ambiguous morality that may resonate deeply with the player’s emotions. From its crude beginnings, videogames have become a billion-dollar industry as a pop-culture sensation and a technological marvel. However, this balance of being both a game and as art has never been resolved. Take for example, this issue: “Do video games make people think? Do videogames challenge people such that they are different people at the end of the experience?”
This “thinking” is actively thinking, thinking to come to a conclusion that hasn’t been thought of before and not just thinking mechanically. Sure, there’s a lot of thinking going on in games. This takes a myriad of forms in the plethora of different videogame genres: action games require fast, reflexive thinking; puzzle games require abstract problem-solving; RPG’s may require moralistic decision-making. The differences are vast as are the heated discussions to which is better, but they are all the same in the as they require the player to operate within the set parameters that the game lays out for you. You are following the game; the player is making decisions only based on what the game asks of you. Once again, this is pretty much just using your brain and not thinking on your own and coming to your own conclusions.
The game play aside, what success video games have achieved somewhat in terms of thinking are games that “make you think”. Games have matured in the recent past by tackling social issues and telling compelling stories that people affect people long after the game is over. One quick example is Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, where despite fighting cute monsters in random battles the main story has themes of child abandonment, sibling rivalry, a death in the family as well as racism (or monsterism, though this is minor). Modern video games are not slow to tackle new and unproven themes that once may have been too edgy for an audience.
However, a video game is still a game, no matter how well a video game tells a story or challenges the player to think outside the box. Besides anything else a game aspires to be, they must be fun to play. The entire experience of having a wonderful story told to you with amazing graphics and wonderful music is compromised by one thing: you are playing a video game with the purpose to win it. Almost every game made has a “game over” screen, and as a gamer you’ll do everything you can not to be staring at it. Whatever thinking you do while playing a video game usually has to do with the video game itself; if it is a smart and good video game then it will shape your thinking to become addicted to the game play. Addiction is not thinking; addiction is doing something without thinking.
And then you have Shadow of the Colossus, a masterpiece of a game that is so good people are usually left sputtering adjectives of praise but not able to describe why it’s so good. The likes of this game, which pits the unknown protagonist against 16 epic boss fights in order to save a dead woman, has never been seen before and likely its kind won’t be seen again. It’s a unique experience that raises the bar as to what a video game can achieve in terms of artistic expression. Lots have been written about the various colossi and the “purity” of boiling a game down to just the boss battles in which a boss is the anthropomorphism of a video game level. Shadow of the Colossus is an unique blend of having action/puzzle game play in an adventure game; it tells a touching story that is very out of place for a video game, and succeeds because of it. It is an extremely immersive game that is emotive without being crass and manipulative. It is the most well-made video game created because you will understand and appreciate exactly what the developers are trying to say and do.
You’ve read it all before in any of the hundreds of reviews that universally praise this game. While the praise is well-deserved, Shadow of the Colossus succeeds as a work of art because it does something that just about no video game ever made does: it lets you think.
That’s right: it lets you think. It doesn’t crowd your brain with superfluous decision making or needless details. You have a set objective, and to achieve that you must best these colossi, whom you can figure out how to beat by just looking at them. This takes place in a set world that is extremely detailed and immersive with no loading times. This is a simple and pure game, and because the set parameters are so few and unexplained—you must kill these colossi in this beautiful world without knowing why—as you play the game it lets you think.
That’s “let you think”, not “make you think”. Shadow of the Colossus isn’t so self-important to take itself so seriously. If it has anything important to say, then it challenges you to figure it out. This game is similar to the brilliance of Bioshock that permits the player to be as immersive in the story if they choose to do so, but in Shadow of the Colossus the details must be filled in by the player themselves because the story is told so sparsely and mysteriously. As in both games, a player can blaze through from beginning to end, enjoy themselves and be witness to a marvelous experience, and not know why.
This concept of “letting you think” is no better exemplified than by the game’s most important characters: the environment and the player’s horse, Agro. It is riding through this “cursed land” on your beloved horse that is the essence of the game, not the novelty of solely fighting epic boss battles where you have to climb on somebody to kill them. Take for instance: it is evident a vast percentage of the resources available for game development where allocated to making the world environment and to making the horse run and operate properly. The gigantic world is beautifully detailed and well designed and runs without any load times whatsoever. Agro is the most realistic depiction of a horse in a video game (compared to Gun, for example), and besides accurate, realistic-type controls Agro features a smooth transition from a walk to a trot to a gallop, no mean feat for an animal with four legs.
If the stars of Shadow of the Colossus are the colossi themselves, then wouldn’t a prudent development decision be to focus just on the colossi themselves? If you devoted the resources making the world environment and the horse (who is only used to as part of the colossi battles for a regretful few) to making the colossi, then we would have a game that could feature twice as many colossi, or ultra-smart colossus A.I. that could quiz you what your favorite color is before you cross a bridge. Wouldn’t more and better colossi make a better Shadow of the Colossus game?
No. If this decision was made and, for example, the game took place in a castle where you walk from room to room (like ICO), all the inspiration and magic would be gone because there isn’t a context for things to happen in. This can be seen in the game itself; after beating it once, the game features a challenge mode where you can walk up to the statue of any one colossus (all located in the same room) to play and replay the boss fights; fun, but not part of the amazing game experience.
Riding through the huge world is the real essence of the game. Just like every other part of the game, the environment is simplified and devoid of any real animals, save some tiny animals—it’s just riding. There are no random battles to encounter to level up your stats, as there are no NPC’s to encounter to take quests and buy weapons. It is a pure element, just like all the elements in this game. After receiving orders as to which colossus to whack next—the fantasy world equivalent of a GTA crime boss you take missions for—the player rides to the next destination with only your magical sword to serve as a compass. For a game that tells its story so subtly and is very stingy with any concrete details, this journey is the best part of the game because even though you are riding to the next colossus the real action takes place in your own damn brain.
That’s right, for this day and age where everyone demands better graphics the best part of Shadow of the Colossus takes place in your own imagination. As the distance grows, so does the anticipation. The mind fills with questions: What will the next colossus look like? If the last one was so tough to beat, how will I beat this one? What is the purpose of these colossi? Who is the mysterious woman I’m trying to save? But most importantly, why? Why am I trying to kill these magnificent creatures? Why do I feel regret even as I inch closer to my objective?
Shadow of the Colossus doesn’t ask you these questions; no, it lets you think for yourself. As you’re riding and thinking about these things your thoughts will drift to other subjects, but since your mind is already in a critical state of mind you are likely to do some more. That’s right, this game fools you into thinking for yourself. Genius, this is nothing short of genius. This game transcends the parameters it sets itself becomes something much more by using the best story teller you know: yourself.
Shadow of the Colossus is a “pure” game where everything is exactly as it should be. It is a perfect blend of technology, art and inspiration. Everything about this game is as it should be: the mysterious story matches every blade of grass on the lush landscape; the tense gripping battles matches the long, silent, contemplative ride through the wilderness. This is a game that will never, ever age. 100 hundred years from now people will still appreciate this game because it couldn’t be any better, not now nor then.
The BadNo customizable songs available on non-existent horse radio. Can’t stick a sword up a colossus’ ass. Was expecting a final boss so big that a spaceship is required to build and fly to the moon from which you can time a jump to grab onto the colossus’ toe hair.
The Bottom LineMan, I was a bit disappointed by the difficulty of this game. I breezed through a couple of them and said out loud to the TV, “Wha? But that’s so easy!” I did need to look up a faq for the two smallest “lion” colossi, shamefully, and the last guy I just spoiled it for myself and read it before I started because I was getting “colossi-itis” and just wanted the satisfaction of ending this great game.
I went and read through a faq that tried to explain EVERYTHING about the story, and I just have to say: man, you nerds, stop trying to figure magic out. The game is great because it’s mysterious. As in the cult film “Donnie Darko” (2001), it’s cool and interesting because you have no pin-wheelin’ idea what’s going on; later on in the Director’s Cut release where everything was explained, the movie just wasn’t cool nor interesting anymore. Man, just because you think you know something doesn’t make it better or your enjoyment of it better.
The tagline to this review comes from David Lynch; he replied thusly when asked why he often has very tiny people in his movies (for example, the end of “Mulholland Dr.” (2001)). Dave’s got a point, you know; it’s tough being a giant colossus.