Our Special Topics In Gameology series about bodies in games continued this week with an illustrated essay on Shadow Of The Colossus by Nick Wanserski. For many players, Shadow was a galvanizing work, a game that artfully folded emotion and subtle storytelling into its action (and abundant inaction) at a time where that reserved approach was even more of a rarity. It’s an important game for a lot of people, and the comments bore that out. TheLastMariachi cheekily pointed to Gaius (that’s the third creature, the one with the giant sword) as one of the better Colossi. Needlehacksaw made the case for a few others:
Gaius certainly is one of the most distinct ones. Others were more beautiful or intense for me, though, maybe because Gaius is too humanoid in appearance. (I’m a terrible person who feels worse about slaughtering what looks like an innocent incarnation of nature in the form of a giant beast than a giant human. How could you kill a creature like Pelagia, who reminded me of the giant turtle in The NeverEnding Story and is all the more adorable because of its misplaced teeth that you strike to remotely control it?)
As far as exciting battles go, I absolutely adored the thrill of hanging on for dear life while soaring through the air on Avion or being pulled down into the waters by Hydrus. And of course, there is Phalanx, a giant presence that can’t really be placed anywhere on the spectrum of beast, or plant, or just peaceful manifestation—which makes the fight against it kind of meditative and even introspective.
But the most moving encounter for me was Phaedra. The fight plays out like a perverted variation of hide and seek. You gain its attention by whistling, and it runs to the place it thinks you are while you crawl out of a tunnel behind it and start killing it. It’s probably so bad because Phaedra has a playful demeanor. It resembles nothing more than an oversized, petrified dog, or even a puppy. I’m usually not too sentimental a person, and games especially aren’t likely to hit me on an emotional level, but I have to admit that I teared up a little the moment my sword came down on Phaedra for the last time and it broke down in a wordless animation that somehow communicated not just agony but also an utter lack of understanding of what had happened to it.
TheLastMariachi came back to talk some more about Phalanx:
There’s a real beauty in how, like the article and needlehacksaw’s story illustrates, each encounter just feels so personal, and that’s the best (yet worst, from an emotional standpoint) part about it for me. While Gaius is one of my favorites, Phalanx is my number one. It never even attempts to attack you. It was just flying around, minding its own business, until I came along and decided to ruin its day. Then the black tendrils come out when it dies, and no matter where you to try to run, it’s gonna get you. Karma’s a bitch.
Phalanx was also one of Wolfman Jew’s favorites:
It also has an inspiring, unique beauty. We’re accustomed to seeing flying serpent monsters in games, but compared to how literally grounded so much of the land and Colossi are, Phalanx was such an otherworldly sight, as if going further into the desert would take you up to another planet.
Elsewhere, Duwease notes that your constant equine companion also serves to highlight the animalistic nature of the Colossi:
I always thought it was brilliant of the game to give you a horse to be attached to. Having a beloved animal on your side, with its animal reactions to the world, really highlighted the similar innocent, animal qualities of most of the Colossi. And that similarity, in turn, made the Colossi’s reactions seem less like a monstrous attack on you and more like the panicked reactions of a gazelle lashing out at a lion with its hind legs, desperately trying to get it away so it can escape.
And Eric J. Baker expanded on the relationship between Wander and his horse:
I was especially impressed with how they developed the relationship between Wander and Agro through the way you control Agro. A lot of people complained about the controls, expecting it to work like Epona in the Zelda series (i.e. you would control it like you would Wander, by pushing in the direction you wanted to go).
But Agro controls more like an actual horse. You don’t control Agro, you control Wander and make him give Agro commands. You can motivate Agro to move faster, which she will do at her own pace. You can try to steer or nudge Agro in the direction you want to go, but sometimes she decides it’s too dangerous and flings herself in another direction. You can even let Agro slowly find her own path through certain areas. All of it preserves Agro’s identity and agency as her own character that Wander is imploring to assist him. The occasional gap in communication (brought about through the player’s inexperience) also seems to imply that Wander and Agro didn’t have much of a relationship before the events of the game, like maybe Wander stole some random horse so he could escape with Mono (which fits in with the rest of the narrative). The relationship has a great payoff toward the end, and I’m just amazed at how well the design team built up to that.
Similarly, Venerable Monk applauded the animation details that helped flesh out the characters, and one moment in particular:
Agro has lots of idle animations and loops that make him feel like a living horse rather than the game’s only mode of transportation. Wander has such moments as well, like the stumbling and flopping animations that trigger when he’s walking on a colossus and it starts shaking him off.
Probably my favorite of these “humanizing” moments is right at the end of the game. Wander returns to the temple after killing the last Colossus, and a strong wind starts pulling him toward the well at the end of the long hall. There’s a shallow flight of stairs leading up to the well, and you can grab onto them, just like you can with any other ledge or outcropping. If you try to grab the stairs out of some sense of self-preservation, you quickly realize that your grip gauge is going to run out eventually. The wind is not going to stop. Do you hold on until your grip gives out, or do you let go and embrace the inevitable? It’s a small moment, but it resonated with me because it’s a rare opportunity for the player to have full control of the character’s actions but only nominal control over the character’s fate, all distilled down to the simple act of holding a trigger on the controller or releasing it.
Even though he appreciated the ending’s ambiguity, PaganPoet hoped we’d someday find out what became of Wander and whether he’d been punished for his actions:
I’d wonder about seeing a sequel, or at least some sort of follow-up to the plot (maybe as some sort of Easter egg if/when The Last Guardian ever comes out). I realize there is some beauty in an ambiguous ending, but in this case, I think it would be justified if we can learn that Wander was never redeemed for his actions and, say, became a colossus himself. I’m okay with the girl becoming some sort of hero (although I like the theory that she becomes the evil Queen from Ico), but I think it would cheapen the mood and lesson of the game if we find out Wander’s punishment was cut short, or that what he did was somehow justified.
And AtoSaizo points out that the fate we do know Wander suffered seemed pretty bad as is:
Well, Wander’s rebirth as a horned baby at the end of the game could have been the start of the curse that led the other horned children in Ico. Having countless generations of your descendants destined to be left to die in a castle is a pretty severe punishment, and I’d say it’s a good indication Wander was unable to redeem himself and undo the consequences of his actions. And poor Mono, being left in that wasteland with no idea of what happened. I don’t think I ever considered her becoming the Queen in Ico, but it’s an interesting and rather tragic thought.
That does it for this week, folks. As always, thanks for reading and commenting. We’ll see you next week!