Game Narrative Review ~ Shadow of the Colossus

Game Narrative Review

Game Title: Shadow of the Colossus

Platform: Playstation 2

Genre: Action-Adventure

Release Date: October 18, 2005

Developer: Team Ico

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

Game Writer/Creative Director/Narrative Designer: Fumito Ueda

Author of this review: James Manley-Buser

Overview

Shadow of the Colossus is a story about a young man who travels to a distant forbidden land and braves the challenges of a forgotten god in order to bring a young woman back to life. Wander, the young man, is assisted by his steed Agro, as he travels the forbidden land. The young woman, Mono, was sacrificed because she was believed to have a cursed destiny. The god, Dormin, sets Wander to the task of defeating sixteen colossi that wander the forbidden land, so that Dormin will have the power to resurrect Mono.

The game uses a rather different form of storytelling than most epics told today. Instead of explicitly telling the player all the little details of the characters and the story, the game provides all the elements and detail necessary for the player to infer the relationships between characters, the motivations for their actions, and the deeper meanings behind actions taken. The implicit nature of the storytelling also helps to accentuate the fact that there is no clear cut villain in the story. There are protagonists and antagonists, but no one is explicitly evil or explicitly good. I believe that if the story were told a different way it would not be as impacting or entrancing, making it a less good story than the magnificent one it is.

Characters

  • WANDER – Wander is the aptly-named protagonist of the game, as he spends the game wandering the far corners of the Forbidden Lands. He is a young man in possession of a specific holy sword that is known to Dormin to have the ability to open the way to the forbidden land and destroy the colossi. Throughout the narrative it is shown that he most likely stole the special sword, possibly from Lord Emon, and that he is doing something potentially dangerous in interacting with Dormin. His premise appears to be that everything has a cost. There can not be death without there first being life. And, conversely, in order to restore life to Mono he must first sacrifice the lives of the colossi. There are consequences for his stealing the sword. There are consequences for releasing Dormin. Everything comes with its own price to pay.
  • AGRO – Wander’s horse. Judging by his size and muscle, he is a steed bred for battle. From the way he interacts with Wander, he is clearly the young man’s companion of some time, as is apparent by his gentle demeanor and faithful behavior towards the protagonist.
  • MONO – Mono, the suffix denoting that the word is a “person” in Japanese, is the name of the dead maiden. She was sacrificed because she was believed to have a cursed destiny. Wander seeks to revive her.
  • DORMIN – An ancient god with the ability to the revive the dead. It is for this reason that Wander sought him out. Dormin was sealed away in the forbidden land, his power drained away and stowed within the colossi. Dormin’s voice acting is two voices, one male and one female, laired over each other, representing his duel nature of life and death. Deeper meaning in Dormin’s actions can be found when one realizes that his name is Nimrod spelled backwards. Nimrod was a hunter & king who was opposed to God in Hebrew texts. In the game, Dormin is sealed within the Tower, the tallest point that is visible anywhere in the land, an allusion to the fact that Nimrod was the one who ordered the construction of the Tower of Babel. Nimrod’s body was also supposedly severed into several pieces after his death, further linking to Dormin’s power/soul being trapped within the 16 Colossi after he was sealed away.
  • LORD EMON – A shaman from the land Wander and Mono hail from. He follows Wander in an attempt to stop him from releasing Dormin and performing the ‘forbidden ritual’ to revive the dead.
  • THE COLOSSI – These gigantic creatures of stone wander the forbidden land. Some are docile. Some are aggressive. Some are bestial. Some are bipedal. They are the creatures that Dormin’s power has been sealed within. If one examines another Hebrew myth, as we did with Dormin before, you can gain some interesting insights into the nature of the colossi by taking into account the story of the Golem. The Colossi, like the Golems, are tremendous creatures made from the earth & rock. The Golems are activated by inscribing special symbols on their persons, and de-activated by rubbing out those symbols; the colossi are defeated by destroying the strange glowing symbols situated on their bodies. Most telling would be that the Golems could only be created by a holy personage, “one who was close to God.” This casts insight to the fact that the Colossi are apparently the key to Dormin’s imprisonment, and that Lord Emon, an apparent holy man or shaman, is in opposition to freeing him. Finally, on a more literal note, the word “golem” is a Macedonian word, meaning simply “big” or “large”, further linking the so-called Colossi to the the Golem myth.

Breakdown

The tale of Wander’s journey through the Forbidden Land actually begins much much earlier than the start of the game. By analyzing the Jewish folklore associated with various aspects and characters, we can piece together some deeper meaning and backstory for the setting and some of the characters. Next, by examining the Forbidden Land itself, we can come up with some conclusions about it’s histories and its inhabitants, which doesn’t contribute directly to the narrative of the game, but does add depth and breadth to the world and the narrative’s place in it. Lastly, by examining the interaction between central characters, as well other of their aspects, as they progress through the stages of the tale, we can surmise deeper meanings behind some of their actions as well as making connections that may not have been readily apparent. All of these aspects, those that exist within the world of the game without being explicitly handed to the character, coalesce to present a deeper and richer layer to the already well-told story that appears on the surface of the game.

The game is layer in references and parallels to various Hebrew folk-tales. By examining them and how they correspond to aspects of the game, we can draw a sharper picture of the history of Dormin and the Forbidden Land than is explicitly stated in the game. Firstly, we can surmise some of Dormin’s history by examining the tales of the great hunter-king Nimrod, whom Dormin shares a name with in reverse. Nimrod was a great hunter and king who was in opposition to God and a rival to Abraham in some stories. It was he who ordered the construction of the tower of Babel, and after his death his body was severed in to several parts. In the game, Dormin’s soul is confined to the Shrine of Worship, a great spire in the center of the Forbidden Land. The Shrine is the tallest object in the Land, visible from even the furthest corners of the map, and is a nice parallel to the Nimrod’s Tower of Babel. We can surmise from this correlation that Dormin was in some way responsible for the construction of the Shrine, and that its purpose was somehow heretical to the higher powers-that-be, possibly having something to do with his command over life and death and may have been a contributing factor to the reason he was sealed away as he was. Like Nimrod, Dormin’s soul/power was severed into multiple parts, and sealed away within the sixteen colossi that roam the Forbidden Land. The colossi themselves are a parallel to the Hebrew Golem. Golem itself is a Macadonian word meaning Big or Large; an excelent parallel with the title name of Colossus. Like the Golems of myth, the Colossi are beings made of the materials of the earth. Also like the Golems, the Colossi can be “killed” by destroying the symbols on their bodies that give them life. The humanoid Colossi even have the symbols on their foreheads. Folklore tells us that a Golem can only be created by a holy personage, “one who is close to God.” From this we can surmise that it was a holy person or person of some standing, presumably representing a higher or more good power than Dormin, that sealed his powers away within these Colossi and forbade entry to the lands.

The Forbidden Land itself bears some examination beyond its myths and gods. Scattered throughout are the ruins of vast cities and areas. At one point Wander comes across and battles Colossi in a vast subteranean city area, a multy-tiered colloseum, a grand set of burial mounds, and several smaller shrines, mimicking the symbols and etchings in the Shrine of Worship. From these we can surmise that it was a fairly religious society from the number of shrines and the intricacies and shear size of the burial mounds for the area. There are also several parallels of size. The smaller shrines scattered throughout the land are the Shrine of Worship in miniature. The non-humanoid colossi mimic the animals that can be found in the Land, salamander-like lizard colossi, colossi in the form of turtles and snakes, two avian colossi, etc. Wander actually comes across and can observe these smaller animals on his travels, and it can be seen that the larger Colossi have the same mannerisms of their natural-born counterparts. The Shrine of Worship also has smaller, though still fairly large by our standards, statues in the form of effigies of the sixteen colossi that roam the land. All of this further establishes the history of the land, and furthers its religious nature, while establishing that it must have been something dire that would cause a culture of such magnitude to just up and leave, locking the doors behind them, so to speak.

Finally, by examining the actions and interactions of the characters during the main bulk of the tale itself, as well as other of their aspects, we can draw conclusions about the characters that are not explicitly stated within the pages of the manual or within the script of the game. The game begins with a long collage of scenes of Wander traveling by horseback through many strange locals, eventually coming to a giant doors of the Forbidden Lands. This establishes his conviction, having traveled for at least a fairly extensive distance, with plenty of time to have second thoughts about breaking so many taboos of his culture. Inside the Shrine, Wander reveals to Dormin his mystical sword, which is known to Dormin, letting us know that the sword a) probably does not actually belong to Wander, and b) is suitably ancient and powerful. Wander wants Dormin to revive Mono. He is willing to defy the taboos surrounding life and death for her. Dormin explains that he first needs for Wander to take that sword and defeat the sixteen colossi that wander the land, as their existence is the source of Dormin’s imprisonment. When he is free, he can revive Mono. As the player leads Wander through the lush and empty Forbidden Land, defeating colossi, we get scenes of Lord Emon following Wander’s trail across the land and eventually arriving in the Forbidden Land. Lord Emon and Wander wear similar garb, though Emon’s is more elaborate. We can surmise that Wander and Emon are from the same culture or group, and that Wander held a lower position in the social structure. From the way Emon speaks accusingly at him, as well as some other cues, we can probably say that Wander stole the sword from Emon. The symbols on their garb are very like those that appear on the Colossi, meaning that the culture Wander and Emon hail from is probably descended from those who once lived in the Forbidden Land. After Wander has killed all of the Colossi, it is revealed that Dormin is released because Wander is now housing all of his power, Wander is killed in order for Mono to live, the Forbidden Land being sealed away again by Emon. Wander is reborn as a baby in a concealed garden in the Shrine, possibly an allegory to the Garden of Eden, though he bears a mark of his dark possession, a set of horns sprouting from his temples, which we know his descendents will bear due to this game being a prequil to the designer’s first title, Ico. These horns could also be seen as a metaphorical “mark of Cain,” showing that he broke the taboos of the society, and now he and his descendants will be marked because of it.

In closing, all of these lead to a deeper and richer meaning behind the surface-level story of the game. The various links to Hebrew folklore and mythology serve to broaden our understanding of the background of the world as well as deepening our comprehension of the exact nature of the ‘god’ Dormin. The various elements scattered throughout the world serve to tell us about the society and civilization that our principle characters may hail from. And the non-explicit aspects of the interactions and aspects of the principle cast of characters serve to tell us much about their backgrounds without actually having to take the time to tell it to us. All of these implicit storytelling aspects serve to give is a look at the deeper meanings behind the various aspects of this already wonderful story.

Strongest Element

I think the strongest element of the narrative is the implicit nature of its storytelling. While the game does not require the player to be attentive to all the detail put into the game, for those players who take the time to notice all the little details crafted into the game, a richer and deeper side of the story begins to emerge. On a surface level, you have a young man with a magic sword and trusty steed asking a fallen god to revive a dead girl while older shaman tries to stop him. By examining the little details, like clothing, patterns, architectural styles, musical cues, the manner in which characters perform their interactions, and the like, you can begin piecing together deeper details to the surface level story. Because of this, the amount of depth the player experiences from the story of the game is the exact amount that they put forth the effort to find.

Unsuccessful Element

I think the poorest element of the game is that the story, while suitably epic and legendary, is rather depressing. Throughout the tale, there are no real moments where you feel really good about what you’ve accomplished. For every Colossus you defeat, somber music plays as the beast falls in pain and the power of Dormin flows into you. As you defeat more and more colossi, collecting more and more of Dormin’s power, Wander looks more and more diseased as he houses the powers of the forsaken god. In the end, Wander does succeed in reviving Mono, it is at the cost of his own life, and even though he is reborn, it is as a deformed infant, bearing horns on his head. We know, since this title is a prequel to the creator’s other title, Ico, that all of Wander’s descendants will also bear these horns, being subjugated and killed because of social stigmas and a witch-queen who rules the land. The only real “happy” part of the ending is that Wander succeeded in his goal of reviving Mono, but as she doesn’t seam to recognize him, it is unclear exactly what it is he has actually accomplished. The fact that the weakest element of the story is that it is a bit of a downer just lends itself to the strength of the game’s storytelling.

Highlight

Near the beginning of the game, after being sent out by Dormin on your quest to defeat the colossi, you come across a cliff that it is indicated you must climb up to find your first foe. Before this point you have had no indication of any other forms of life bigger than the salamanders and pigeons you occasionally come across while riding around the enormity of the Forbidden Land. As you scale the cliff, the ground begins to shake, and the music turns hesitant and ominous. As you scale higher up the cliff, the rhythmic shakes of the ground begin to loose debris from the cliff-side and the music begins to build. You come over the lip of the cliff-side and pull yourself up, and the camera pans up and out as the first Colossi plods past, quaking the ground with each step, unaware of the speck that is you by the cliff-side. You, as Wander, come halfway up the foot of this giant earthen behemoth. For the first time, you as the player are struck with the enormity and challenge of this quest Dormin has set you upon. It is a truly dramatic scene that lays the tone for the remainder of the game. Truly, it is the highlight of the title.

Critical Reception

1up.com – James Mielke – 9.5 out of 10

IGN.com – Chris Roper – 9.7 out of 10

gamespy.com – Sterling McGarvey – 4.5 out of 5

The general opinion of these three, and others, is that if you haven’t played Shadow of the Colossus then there is something fundamentally wrong with you. Chris Roper actually said as much in his review. Praise is given for the simple story setup and subtle depth to the telling of it, as well as the driving need to complete more of the game to uncover more of the intriguing tale.

Lessons

  • Storytelling doesn’t have to be explicit. You, as the author, don’t need to spell out every facet of your story in order for it to be rich and deep. Shadow of the Colossus shows that you can have a rich, engrossing story and world without actually explicitly feeding it all to the player.
  • There don’t have to be clear-cut “good guys” and “bad guys.” While Shadow of the Colossus does have cut-and-dry protagonists and antagonists, neither are necessarily good or bad.
  • The story does not have to be complex in order to be “deep” or “rich.” Shadow of the Colossus is a fairly simple tale layered with depth and background, should you choose to look for it. The fact that is as simple as a young man with a magic sword trying to revive a dead maiden does nothing to diminish the richness of the world-building or the storytelling.

Summation

Shadow of the Colossus employs a unique method of storytelling to bring new life to an old story. The story is not a new one, but is a new take on an old trope, “young warrior saves the life of a maiden.” While the bigger picture is fairly simple, it takes advantage of the implicit nature of its world-building and storytelling methods in order to bring a level of depth and richness into the fine details of the tale that is rarely seen in today’s games. While a majority of titles of this age of impressive graphics merely use their visual capabilities to make things pretty or impressive, Shadow of the Colossus actually uses all that raw graphical power to bring life to its characters and world as well as using it as a storytelling aid. The nature of how its story is told, and the richness of the story itself are why Shadow of the Colossus is worthy of this analysis.

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