The Dubious Morality of Shadow of the Colossus

Once again, the Duck has finally seen fit to try out another beloved video game many years after its initial release.  Today’s review shall be focusing on the critically acclaimed Shadow of the Colossus, which was already covered on Virtual Bastion in a wonderful two-part post written by Cary (part 1 and part 2 are here).  Originally released on the PS2, I will be discussing the stunning PS4 remake.  The premise is simple: you play as Wander, who must defeat 16 massive colossi in order to revive a young lady named Mono (her relation to Wander is never explained).  You are armed with nothing more than a magic sword that points the way and a bow, and you are joined by your loyal horse Agro.

Shadow of the Colossus is one of those games that does a lot with a little.  The story is very minimalistic, and even after I watched the ending, there was still some room for interpretation as to what happened, including speculation as to the morals of those involved.  Gameplay is pretty simple, too.  The colossi are fought in a specific order and can be found all over a massive environment.  You can raise your sword up wherever there is enough sunlight in order to point the way to the next colossus.  It typically took me 5-10 minutes of riding Agro through the wilderness to find my next opponent.  And while I cannot comment on the PS2 (or PS3) version of the game, I can say that the PS4 version is absolutely stunning.  The environment looks very realistic, and although there is very little to do outside of the colossus fights (I did find a few shiny things…don’t know what they were, though), I found it very relaxing to just enjoy the scenery as I made my way to my next climactic battle.

Obviously, the most noteworthy aspect of the game were the colossi, massive beasties that seem to be comprised of a combination of flesh, fur, and stone.  These things are truly enormous in scale (well, save for a pair of small, fast ones that were a major pain in the backside), and I’ve seen their battles described as “puzzles”, which is kind of true.  The usual, simplified method for fighting a colossus is to find its weak spots (your sword will point them out), scale the giant creature via fur and any other handholds, then stab away at said weak points while hanging on for dear life.  The puzzle element comes into play when you’re trying to figure out how to make a colossus expose its weakness or when you’re simply devising a method for climbing up its body to begin with.

The colossi come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and dispositions.  Some are humanoid and don’t seem to want to fight unless aggravated.  Some walk on all fours and are terribly aggressive.  But the feeling when you fight them is largely the same, a mixture of exhilaration and guilt.  Sure, scaling the body of a massive monster, clinging to its fur as it tries to shake you off, is a pretty thrilling experience.  But at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel kind of terrible for killing these things.

The first colossus, Valus, hardly seems eager to fight

I mean, as gamers, we battle against all manner of foul creatures across an assortment of genres.  So why did I feel so bad about these things?  I don’t know.  Maybe it’s the sound the sword makes when you stab into them.  Maybe it’s the colossi’s bellows as you attack them and the way they shake and thrash around in an effort to toss you off.  And yeah, maybe the sad music that plays as you watch its lifeless body collapse at the battle’s inevitable conclusion doesn’t help, either.

Whether a particular colossus was aggressive or not, I couldn’t help but feel this overwhelming sense of guilt as I fought them.  I apologized for attacking them.  I tried to justify why I was doing this.  Some of them had started the fight.  Right?  Some of them had exchanged the first blow.  Maybe…maybe they’re bad creatures.  Maybe they’re not really alive to begin with.  They are partly made of stone.  Perhaps they are sentient statues without any real feeling.  Yeah.  Maybe.

Oh yes, as relaxing as the trek between battles was, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I shouldn’t be doing this.  This was…wrong somehow.  Maybe I was the bad guy.  Maybe this was all just an awful idea.  Sure, we were doing this to revive Mono, whoever she was, but was her life worth killing 16 creatures who, as far as I could tell, were just minding their own business?

Shadow of the Colossus is a massive game, from the expansive environments to the titular colossi themselves.  It does a great job of making you feel very small.  And very lonely.  It gives you plenty of quiet, idle time to think about your actions.  If it wasn’t a video game that I was intent on completing, I think I would have thrown in the towel.  As each miniature journey came to an end, dread would begin to overwhelm me.  Not because I was afraid to face my next foe.  But because of a great reluctance to inflict harm upon another creature.  Rarely has a game ever made me feel so conflicted over my actions.

Of course, no game is perfect, and I want to end this post explaining one major area of frustration, the camera and the controls.  For one thing, I felt like the camera and I were in a constant struggle.  It would zoom in while I was climbing a colossus, causing the screen to be overtaken by fur so that I had no idea what I was actually doing.  Or I would try to see where the beam of light from my sword was pointing, and I would adjust the camera accordingly, only to receive a big, fat “nope” in response as the camera immediately returned to its original angle.  While I managed to conquer all 16 colossi, I never managed to fully gain control over that rascally camera.

The other issue I had was with the controls.  Sure, at first, I received no shortage of trouble because I didn’t totally understand how climbing worked, stamina, etc.  But even once I fully came to grasp how the game was played, I would still find myself baffled as to why Wander would not climb up a surface or why he would let go and fall even when I was definitely holding the right trigger.  When you’ve gone to all the trouble of scaling a massive beastie, the last thing you want is to fall off even when you have full stamina and you’re most certainly holding the correct button!

Lastly was my aggravation with Wander’s horse, Agro.  Again, my initial woes stemmed from not yet understanding how the horse moved.  But after a while, I came to realize that Agro was still incredibly annoying to control no matter how much practice I had gotten.  The worst part was getting Agro to just…you know, move forward.  Normally, you need only hold triangle, and Agro will pick up speed until he’s running at a full gallop.  But there were times that I could not get him to move, and I would just keep mashing the triangle button in supreme annoyance until Agro finally saw fit to obey me.

Shadow of the Colossus is considered one of the best games ever made and for good reason.  Games don’t need to have constant things to do and countless items to collect to be fun and immersive.  In fact, those very things would have detracted from the game more than adding to it.  The focus remains where it should be.  On the 16 colossi you came to slay.  When you’re not fighting said beasties, you’re anticipating the next battle…and questioning if you’re doing the right thing.

Have you played this game, dear readers?  If so, how did you feel about the colossi?  Did you feel guilty fighting them?  And which colossus was your favorite?  Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Video from Youtube User: Virtual Bastion

1 thought on “The Dubious Morality of Shadow of the Colossus

  1. I watched a Let’s Play of Shadow of the Colossus as well as the other two games in the Ico Trilogy and yeah, all you said about how it’s bittersweet when you defeat a colossus. Each victory becomes more hollow and then you find out why at the end. I still have this game and ther other two on my docket for review, and I’ve watched videos breaking down the themes. Maybe one day I’ll get to it.

    Liked by 1 person

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