The realm of fantasy is boundless.
The worlds we create are reflections of our imaginations and desires. Yet we tend to see similar worlds represented in fantasy, ones we can all understand and relate to. This is by no means a mistake. If nobody can relate to our fantasy, nobody can join us in our world. And so, thanks to well known fantasy epics and centuries of composite folklore, we have a schema for what a fantasy world looks like. Fantasy oriented video games often reflected this.
Our fantasy worlds are full of goblins and dragons, giant insects and fire. There is good and there is evil. You can be what you want, but the lines are there. We fight with swords and we fight with magic. We struggle for make-believe glory and for the greater good of unreal worlds. We find friends and foes, we live life as we expect life to be led, albeit in a place we will never see. We have never experienced anything like Shadow of the Colossus. This game has taken elements of fantasy that are so ingrained that it almost seems like just another take on an old concept. It's not. It's new. All of it.
First it's important to see what makes this game familiar. Young boy protagonist with sword, damsel in distress. Pretty standard. Fantasy world: monsters, magic sword, lack of technology, large European style architecture, vibrant natural surroundings, horse.
Okay I think that's about it for the environment. Now for gameplay. Largely puzzle oriented. Use environmental and behavioral clues to figure out monster's weak spot. Prince of Persia style platform obstacles. Finding hidden items in the world boosts your stats. This is basically the game. This doesn't even begin to describe the game.
Shadow of the Colossus is amazing because of the intensity and complexity of the emotions that the game evokes. Playing creates a visceral, palpable reaction which I feel is more powerful and tagible than in the majority of the games. While it is an important quality of any game to be emotionally engaging (or you simply wouldn't want to play it) Shadow manages to create an environment that is staggering in its emotional depth. While many of the game and environment basics are familiar, the way they are presented makes the game a unique play, as does the multitude of familiar game and genre aspects that are left out.
The way the player interacts with the graphics is different from nearly every other game, especially one with a fairly straight forward platform engine. The vast, beautiful landscapes and haunting, glorious Colossi draw the player in purely on the basis of wanting to touch and experience all that can be seen. The slow, meditative pace of the game (including the absence of plot, believe it or not) forces onto the player an intense focus on the immediate and enables the player's unconscious interpretations of the world and events to exist unchallenged.
One of the most valuable experiences one gets from playing SotC is the mesomorizing effect that playing it has on all who view it. The act of traveling from one places to another in this game is an event. Vast landscapes and monolithic terrain dwarf Wander and much of the time spent moving from one place to another is spent looking at where you are going and what you are passing by. This means that players are less able to think about the act of traveling a means of getting somewhere, and must instead view it as something to be paid attention to in and of itself. From the start of the game, the protagonist's slow trek across the tremendous bridge that separates the game's environment from the rest of the imaginary world sets up the player to anticipate entry to the foreboding castle at the end of the path. Yet because the bridge is so great and the time spent crossing so long, the player must begin to notice the surroundings and the immense bridge itself. This coupled with the fact that the bridge and the path to the castle are so breathtakingly beautiful makes the idea of reaching the end secondary to the wonder of watching the journey to get there. Such becomes the case with all travel in the game. Whether through mountainous valleys or by gigantic cliffs and always through vast open fields, it often becomes necessary to stop and remember where you were going after getting lost in the scenery. Like a zen garden this focus on the immediate small details of the world means that the player becomes more familiar with the world, more immersed in what the character is doing moment to moment. The game environment stops being simply a background to be passed through, and becomes an examination of the sublime nature of things huge and vast. Players are therefore more likely to consider what would in other games be an unremarkable progression of gameplay (such as the arrival at the resting place of a Colossus) to be a more meaningful and powerful event. After riding with Wander, scouring valleys and meadows and becoming lost in the environment, the arival of battle becomes more impactful and more significant. Victory and defeat become more intense when the player is more focused on and invested in the subtleties of the world he/she is playing in.
It isn't just the journeys that make the game enchanting though. Because of the game's heavy use of the puzzle-like gameplay needed to figure out how to get Wander up onto the Colossi, it becomes necessary to watch the monsters go about their animations for a few minutes while trying to figure out the solution to a given problem. This is something players are welcome to do, too, since the animation and style of each Colossus is so amazing that we would sit and watch even if it wasn't necessary.
Apart from the hypnotic visuals, the game implants it's emotions in the player with numerous ambiguities and it's considerable lack of exposition. There are next to no clear explanations for the reasons behind any of the events in the game or what is going on at any time. Where many games would begin an adventure with murky questions and slowly reveal details until a clear picture is presented, Shadows maintains its secrecy the entire way through. This is infuriating and brilliant. Like the extensive trecks that are necessary to move about the game, the limited information that is dangled in front of your face throughout serves to force your attention to the task at hand and immerse yourself in the moment. Yet there is just enough information provided to you for you to feel like you know what's happening at some level. Wander is trying to save a girl (don't know who she is or what is wrong with her) and enlists the help of a deity (not sure what sort) who provides him the solution of killing the Colossi in order to save the girl (unknown why this will help). The end of the game does enlighten us to one of these mysteries, which allows just enough closure for the player to not feel cheated. In the mean time, this ambiguity allows the game to be so recognizable, yet so indefinable, that it approaches surrealism. Players are searching the entire game for clues as to what is going on, and as such are paying attention to every detail. Players begin to see Wander's appearance changing, make note of the subtle changes in the game after each conquered boss, and explore the landscape and starting castle for anything out of the ordinary. This search not only strengthens the emotional focus on the immediate, it allows each player to fill in the information slightly different. The plotline becomes largely subjective, and the value of certain tidbits changes from one player to the next when so little is made clear, making the plot very personal to each player. The male-female relationship, the tremendously melodramatic self sacrifice and the utter impossibility of the feats that Wander must face lead the player to search for meaning in the task at hand and form his/her own motivations for Wander. The longer the player plays, the more they become immersed in the world and invested in searching out and defeating the Colossi, the more they stretch to understand what is driving this boy to such a task. By the end of the game, Wander's beaten and deformed body compliments the mental state of the player.
Of course none of this would matter if the actual gameplay, the Colossus battles, were not something special. Well, the Colossus battles are something special. The emotional attachment and intimacy created by these battles completes the effect of the game as a whole. Shadow is nothing if not visually beautiful, and nothing shows this off more than the Colossus introduction animations. The very first encounter the player has with one of the giants is immediately an emotionally complicated experience. Subtle nuances of the game ensure this. The game forces the player, in true Shadow fashion, to watch the beast before being able to engage it. Even when the player is allowed to control Wander and approach the Colossus, it moves to quickly for Wander to catch up. There is no music and no sound save the tiny crunches of Wander's feet, and the enormous tremors of the giant's. The player is likely to be overtaken by awe at this point. The creature is not a threat yet, and the size and creative desing of its body is amazing and unexpected. When the monster sees Wander, the music enters and calm awe turns to "how the hell am I going to kill this". The entire battle is a combination of recurring excitement, anxiety and tension. Once the puzzle is solved and the creature's defeat is only a matter of time, the player is once again able to gaze at the Colossus with an affectionate eye, soaking up the rich detail of its texture and the oddly familiar, aboriginal design of it's character. Excitement heightens as the final blow draws near and as Wander's sword finally plunges into the behemoth's sigil relief and joy washes over the player at the completion of the seemingly impossible task! And then a funny thing happens. That relief is clouded by guilt and sadness as the monster falls. Bittersweet music accompanies the glorious creature as it topples from it's graceful stance. For a moment I become sad and secretly wish I had not done what I spent so much effort doing. I remind myself that it's for a greater cause, which I course I don't understand. With conflicting emotions battling in the player's mind, he/she is sucked back to the starting castle, where numerous bizarre visual recurrences provide a disturbing and confusing congratulation.
Such is the nature of each battle. Each creature is surprising and majestic, each one scares the hell out of you, each is a joy to explore and a feat to destroy, and each time the victory is soured by the destruction of something amazing. Except for the last one. That guy was an ass.
Investment of this sort is next to nonexistent in most other games. The depth and variety of emotion that is interwoven in a careful and sophisticated way makes this game feel like one of the few truly complete games that exists. Nothing feels like it was left out by accident, nothing feels overdone to a fault. The melodrama makes sense when you feel it so clearly. Playing this game expands the notion of what fantasy is and what it means to be part of another world.