What I Learned From: Shadow of the Colossus
I completed Shadow of the Colossus just a few months ago, nearly 8 years after it had first been released for the PS2. Thanks to a smart HD update of the game for PS3, I was saved a hell of a lot of blur and came away finding the game just as wonderful as I had anticipated. This was a game that had remained special across the years, much more so than you would expect from a third-person action game. What is it then, that is special about this game? Is it just the premise of fighting awe-inspiring boss monsters or is there something truly special in its approach?
Even when the SotC was first released, it stood out far from its peers. This era had a glut of third-person action games and nearly all had reams of dialogue, endless encounters with low-level enemies, and secrets and upgrades galore. SotC contrasts all of this by featuring a minimal story with few actors, no enemies besides the bosses, and a barren world that is open but empty. Whoever approved the funding must have been as brave as the game's director, understanding that the key to the game's success was a sharp focus on its core mechanic with only the slightest of set dressing and intrigue.
Many games similar to SotC are designed with a bit of a 'kitchen sink' mentality, piling on additional content via side quests, collectibles, and puzzles. But Team ICO plays it straight for the most part, only ever allowing you to navigate to a boss, learn a boss' patterns, and then use that knowledge to defeat the boss. That formula and its 16 iterations are nearly the whole of the game. And yet I would venture to say that in its relatively short 10-hour running time, it produces far more memorable moments than a game two or three times its length and feature list. As a player, I certainly enjoy finding secrets and gaining upgrades and equipment on a moment-to-moment basis, but I can see now how little that adds to the overall experience.
That's not to say that SotC flawlessly executes its core mechanics either. Climbing on the colossi can be sometimes glitchy and what little jumping and climbing there is on static geometry can be very fiddly as well. While it's very clever to have the horse occasionally disobey you, asserting its own agency, it can occasionally lead to frustration. And yet, none of that quite matters in the end, because it's in service of something that feels truly new and different.
And just what is different or fresh or exciting about the game? Playable set-pieces. In many 'cinematic' big-budget games, the grandest, world-changing events take place during cut-scenes. This is still a major problem in narrative-action games, how to link player actions to big changes in the game world. Though there are a handful of cut-scenes in the game, usually just delivering you another target and some mysterious words that hint at the real story. On top of this is a wonderful conceit where each colossus you slay becomes a ghost watching your actions in the introduction of the next colossus. I don't think you even see another human being until over half-way through the game, and don't make contact with them until the very end. It's a wonderful example of restraint and the ability of the director, Ueda Fumito, to focus on keeping us grounded in the game world.
That sense of player presence is paired with and influenced by the long stretches of horse-based exploration between each big battle. This is something like the of-cited descriptions of music group The Pixie's music as "Quiet, Loud, Quiet." These calm moments provide more than just reflection, they allow you to sense just how small you are in this world, and then takes that into overdrive with a colossus battle. But that is just another way of how the design principles manifest, with the action matching the story and the audio-visual presentation. SotC is more than just boss battles, obviously, and it is one of the rare few games where it feels like every system is working together in harmony. Ueda and Team ICO's subtractive or minimalist design ethic helped them find the core of the experience, and build everything out from there. One of the most powerful, and perhaps least used, tools available to game designers is restraint.
- Right off the bat, I have to address how weird it is to have praised the game for such restraint and focus when it contains such wonderful tiny interactions. Instead of having NPC's or a shop-keeper, the team behind SotC felt it was best to allow the player to grab onto fish and birds. You can even grab onto the doves that start around the girlfriend-in-a-coma each time you defeat a colossus. They don't do much, mostly fly you straight into the ground, but the team had to know about it and just said "Yes, this is the thing that fits our vision." And they're totally right! The weird salamanders, grabbable fish, and sparse world decoration really do fit the tone somehow. Incredible.
- I think it's also interesting that the game is never very difficult. It is sometimes frustrating or confusing. Some colossi are a little too easy, some provide a wonderful arc of intrigue and struggle, and some just don't make sense for whatever reason. Communication can be fickle in design, and I'm sure many players would be frustrated or not for all of the colossi, but the result is good but maybe not great. And that's fine! Difficulty is often overrated and I had a good time with this game, despite its little niggles.
- This will always be a game I recommend to people, for how different and truly unique it feels. That said, I would also be curious to see how someone younger, with less experience of that era in games, reacts to the minimalism. It seems like third-person game design has gotten even more flabby in the last ten years, so I can only imagine the culture shock of going from an Assassin's Creed style game with a million things on a map to this, with only a couple dozen.