Shadow of the Colossus and Wander as a Tragic Hero

Spoilers for the entirety of Shadow of the Colossus below.

In description, Shadow of the Colossus is a game about about defeating 16 colossal bosses, contrasted with light exploration. This description alone might allow it to fall in the awfully loose genre of “action/adventure” if I wanted to be a little more specific, perhaps a “boss gauntlet”. These genres, in gaming, almost always delve into the realm of power fantasy, an approach to genre that emphasises wish fulfillment, the power of the protagonist to overcome all obstacles in their path and topped off with a joyous ending in which the protagonist is rewarded for their actions. Shadow of the Colossus is none of those things. It is something far more interesting, something not often approached in gaming, and far less often done well. Shadow of the Colossus is a tragedy.

Right from the start, our stakes are set. The protagonist, Wander, wishes to save the girl, Mono, from death. Her relationship to the protagonist remains unknown, all that is known about her is that she was sacrificed “for she had a cursed fate.” Like all of Fumito Ueda’s games, the world building is incidental. It’s what we don’t know, what can only be implied by the little information we have, that makes the setting so interesting. To achieve Wader’s wish he travels to a land “to trespass upon… …is strictly forbidden” then laying Mono’s body on an altar he makes contact with a being known as Dormin. At this point Dormin appears as a collection of shadows and then a collection of voices. The shadows, more analogous to demons, the voice, appearing from a beam of light, appears to be analogous to a god. “I was told that in this place at the ends of the world- there exists a being who can control the souls of the dead.” Wander claims, and Dormin confirms. A being like this could not give something for nothing, but the quest is made clear, defeat the 16 colossi contained in this land and Dormin will restore Mono’s soul.

“I understand.”

“But heed this, the price you pay may be heavy indeed.”

“It doesn’t matter”

From that point, in the first cutscene, before the player ever takes control, Wander has made his fatal error. Only then is the player given control.

Shadow of the Colossus, in its setting, is an open world. You’re free to explore anywhere within The Forbidden Land. In every other sense Shadow of the Colossus is wholly linear. You cannot leave, you cannot turn around and give up. You must defeat all the colossi in a set order, you must fulfill Wander’s cursed fate. This puts Shadow of the Colossus in a position not too dissimilar from many other games of ludically open, narratively linear. I often find myself critical of games with overly linear stories, when the characters could have made different choices, but they player could not, because any opportunity to take a different path is met with a cutscene to take control away. Let’s use The Last of Us as an example of a popular game with a cutscene driven story. By the end of the game Joel wakes in the Firefly’s hospital, looking back on how they got this far he says “Maybe it was meant to be.” but was it? At any point Joel or Ellie could have taken different decisions that would not have lead them to the Fireflies, but this decision was not the player’s, the decision is entirely out of the player’s realm of control.

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In Shadow of the Colossus, the player similarly lacks a control over the fate of the protagonist. The crucial difference is that Wander no longer has control of his own fate, either. When he enters the Forbidden Lands the only exit seals behind him. The only choice that may even exist is to finish his quest or perish, the only choice for the player is to complete the game or give up. A lack of choice here is narratively consistent in Shadow of the Colossus, while it may be narratively dissonant in other games. Wander is the tragic hero, his fate is sealed.

Enforced in every moment of the game is Wander’s normality. In battle with the collossi he can often appear to struggle. It’s testament to the expressiveness of the animation of Shadow of the Colossus in reinforcing just how small Wander is. When climbing a colossus, he will tremble as it shakes and moves. Wander will flail, desperately gripping on, as the colossus tries to shake him off. He runs with a certain limpness, when he jumps his arms flail about wildly, he swings his weapon loosely as if he has had no training with it. Wander is not suitable to be a hero, but he tries to be one regardless. Director, Fumito Ueda’s study was in animation and his expertise shows in all his games.

The soundtrack perfectly reflects the arc of every colossus battle from Wander’s perspective. From afar it is curious, with an anxious undertone. You don’t know what this beast can do to you, but it is far bigger than you. As Wander scales his foe and he gets closer to victory, the music becomes more epic, more triumphant, that is, until the final blow is landed. The music stops immediately, the creature, that before was only seen from below or never fully in frame to emphasise it’s size, is now seen from a more neutral angle. The music melancholic as the colossus falls to it’s death. Instead of triumph in success, any triumph that existed in getting closer to your goal is wiped, for a sense of loss and a moment of reflection to see the slain beast before the black tendrils come to possess Wander. Each of the colossi vary in size and personality. Each have their own quirks, some are more aggressive, others hardly aggressive at all. Regardless, they all fall. When Wander awakens in The Shrine of Worship after slaying a colossus, a new shadow appears around him, just as a new dove appears besides Mono’s body. Wander’s quest is not easy but the symbolism is clear: it is not virtuous, either.

By the end of the game, after overcoming an immense amount of challenge, Wander is weakened and exhausted. His clothes more ragged and his appearance cursed and corrupted. After the defeat of the final colossus Lord Emon, who is implied to be an important figure in Wander’s society and possibly involved in Mono’s death enters the Shrine of Worship with a group of armed men, but it is too late, Wander has fulfilled his duty and done as Dormin requested. When Wander, demon-like and limping appears, he is stabbed, a black corruption sprays from his body like it once did from the colossi he pierced, before he is fully consumed by Dormin, now revived and in physical form.

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Was this Mono’s “cursed fate”? To bring the revival of Dormin? If so her sacrifice was the inciting incident in his process. As is the nature of prophesy, attempts to avoid it only bring it closer.

The game, in a role reversal, now allows you to play as the colossal Dormin as you attempt to crush the humans below you, but it is no use. They escape and in a last-ditch attempt to seal Dormin back away, a sword is dropped into the basin from the beginning of the game and a vortex appears. Dormin begins to dissipate and is sucked away leaving only Wander. In what is probably one of the greatest pieces of storytelling through gameplay I have ever experienced, you are given control as Wander is sucked in. Being pulled further from Mono’s altar and closer to your end. You can jump and run, you can struggle as much as you possibly can, but it is no use, you will always be pulled into the basin. You have control of the minutia, you do not have control of fate. A idea the reflects the whole of Shadow of the Colossus.

Dormin keeps his promise. Mono awakens, when all is passed, to find a horned child, reminiscent of Ueda’s last game, Ico, in the basin Wander was sucked into. Despite paying a huge price, it appears Wander has achieved exactly what he wanted. Wander can then be differentiated from the prototypical tragic hero in that his own downfall was not related directly to personal gain. He sought to save the life of another, uncaring of the consequences. Respectfully to this the ending appears peaceful. Mono takes the baby and ascends the Shrine of Worship to a Garden of Eden like land of pure nature. At first glance every human character has appeared to get what they wanted, Mono is alive and Dormin appears to be sealed away. Wander has payed a great price, but he accepted this fate. It may appear to be bitter sweet, but perhaps something more terrible has happened. In the final cutscene, the female aspect of Dormin’s voice is missing and maybe that’s what it took to revive Mono. In the beginning Dormin does claim “Souls that are once lost cannot be reclaimed… Is that not the law of mortals?” If Mono were revived with an aspect of Dormin, then Dormin would live on in her soul, she would have a cursed fate indeed. As for Wander, he truly would be, as Emon claims, a “poor ungodly soul.”

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Resident Evil 2: What Makes Mr. X Such a Compelling Enemy

The Resident Evil 2 Remake really impressed me in how it so elegantly translates a PlayStation 1 era game into a smooth modern experience. I want to clarify that I haven’t played the original, meaning my thoughts on the game will be somewhat limited. So instead of giving a full review I want to focus on one element of the game that really impressed me and I feel elevated the game as a whole. The enemy T-00 also known as Mr. X.

On first glance Mr. X isn’t functionally far too different from the Predator-like enemies common in many horror games, like Amnesia or Alien: Isolation. Overwhelmingly powerful, you can’t defeat him through conventional combat, the only option is to run. This is the major difference, though. You can run, but you can’t hide. Hiding can be a great horror trope. Hiding is pure tension, stillness in hope that the monster cannot find you. The problem with hiding, is when you build a lengthy game around that idea, hiding becomes routine. You see the monster, you hide, you wait, then you go back to what you were doing before. After several hours playing a game this becomes unexciting and predictable. This is a major reason I feel many horror games become tame and lose their fear factor as you get further into the game.

So why is running more compelling? This is because of Resident evil 2’s incredible level design, at least in the Raccoon City Police Station. The Police Station is like web of interconnecting spaces that loop back on each other, comparable to the Metroid games, though on a much smaller scale. Mr. X forces you to think about this level design. If he blocks your path to an area you need to get to, you better find another path to take. If he storms into your room while you’re trying to fulfill your next objective, you better find a way to loop back around. He is introduced so perfectly, effortlessly lifting the crashed helicopter that once blocked your path, now this huge, imposing figure blocks your path instead. Good luck getting back to the main hall. You can instantly tell he’s someone not to be defeated easily. By this point you will have explored almost every required area of the Police Station. All that’s left of the area is some backtracking to find certain items and solving certain puzzles. Mr. X prevents this backtracking from becoming boring by remaining a constant threat throughout and he will test your established knowledge of the layout of the Police Station you have gathered from your previous playtime as he hunts you down. While the smaller scale of the level design keeps his obstructions from wasting too much of your time.

The next reason Mr X is so frightening, is how he heightens the threat of other enemies in the game. The obvious example is the Licker, an enemy that reacts only to sound. Running from Mr. X will alert a Licker. Run into a room with a Licker and suddenly you’re in a lot more trouble then you were before. This heightened threat also applies to standard zombies. If Mr. X pursues you down a narrow path, where a zombie awaits, you now have a limited amount of time to take that zombie out, before Mr. X catches up to you.

On my first playthrough I was already impressed with Mr. X as an enemy. Yet the B route develops him even further, by making a simple change to the game. After Finishing the game, you will have a good knowledge of the level design, the combat and the puzzles. How do you keep that stuff interesting on a second playing? Add Mr. X into the game right from the moment you enter the Police Station. Now all the puzzles you solved previously, all the enemies you fought, all the items you have to collect, right from the get-go are accompanied by the ever looming threat of Mr. X. His pounding footsteps haunting your quest right as you’ve started. This is an excellent way to add an extra layer of challenge to a game you’ve already completed and kept me engaged on my second playthrough.

A lot of the points I’ve made really don’t come from anything unique about Mr. X as an enemy. My original point remains right, in that it really doesn’t take much of a different approach from similar enemies in other horror games, in terms of literal enemy design. This, though, is praise to how much of an incredible game the Resident Evil 2 Remake is. This one elements slips in and heightens the other elements of the game. The enemies become harder, the level design more important and the puzzles more stressful. Mr. X makes Resident Evil 2 a better horror game. When one element of a game can blend with and elevate all over parts of a game, like this, then the designers have created something truly special.

A short criticism of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Contains boss spoilers.

There are a lot of good things to be said about Senua’s Sacrifice, most notable is the binaural audio and how that overtly draws us into Senua’s state of mind with several voices. I’m far from an authority on the subject of psychosis, but the way the game handles the voices feels very mature. They explore a variety of emotional states, reassuring Senua, sometimes encouraging her, but often are more negative, expressing a lack of confidence or determination. It’s this that is probably the most unique element of the game and with some other interesting elements is what makes the game stand out, but I think the game, as an overall package is lacking, particularly in its gameplay, which is what I want to talk about.

The gameplay has two major parts to it. Slower open areas or paths in which a puzzle must be solved to continue and closed off combat sections where you face several enemies or a boss. The combat is okay, the mechanics of it work fine and it feels reactive enough, nothing incredible, but the lack of enemy variety, or any kind of combat variety at all to explore the combat mechanics means combat often feels out of place and doesn’t add much to the game, outside of a few examples. The Northmen are the the primary enemy and there’s only 4 different kinds of them. Every combat encounter other than bosses are a different combination of Northmen in a slightly different environment, with environment having little to no effect on combat. So since the combat is so limited in scope, what is it bringing to the game? Compare it to the combat in something like Ico or The Last Guardian, other games where combat isn’t complex. In those games the combat is a tool to heighten the theme of companionship between the player protagonist and their companion. In Ico enemies will try to escape with Yorda and you must prioritize who to fight in order to prevent that. Likewise, in The Last Guardian enemies will try to escape with you, and Trico takes on most of the combat, while you assist in small ways and calm Trico down after combat. So my question is this: How does Senua’s Sacrifice’s combat reinforce its themes? The most I could say to this for the vast majority of combat encounters is how the voices react to your success and failures and warn of incoming attacks, but that’s far more of an impressive detail then it is a main pillar of the combat.

There are two main answers to my stated question. The first being the bossess, who are often built up as a character in the level before you fight them overcoming them is a real victory for Senua, particularly Fenrir, who torments her relentlessly. Through defeating him Senua can gain back a piece of her sanity. The other is a section of drawn out combat where you walk through a hellish landscape of lava and endless hands reaching out to you, you’re overwhelmed with enemies. It works brilliantly as a low point for Senua. A similar part happens towards the end but I feel it is less impact considering Hela had been built up as the major villain, yet she is not our ultimate challenge instead a gauntlet of enemies we’ve already faced many time are. The vast majority of combat encounters don’t feel anywhere near as important my examples above, and I have a feeling regular combat encounters are in there because it’s a game and people expect games to have combat.

Puzzling, on the other hand, does feel more integral to the game. Many areas having their own unique puzzle gimmick. There is a reoccurring puzzle, in which the player must find certain symbols in the environment. This is meant to encourage exploration, I guess, but exploration in this game just isn’t very fun, considering how uninteractive and linear the environment is. The areas where you have to look for the symbols are clearly marked by floating symbols, so you don’t have to look too hard, you go to the right area then walk around a bit to find the right angle to view it from. It’s not complex, doesn’t require much thought and it’s far more common than it needs to be. I pose the same question again: How do these puzzles reinforce the themes of the game? Other puzzles are better thematically, like in Valravn’s area, where you must walk through arches which can change the setting slightly for you to continue, Valravn being a “god of illusion” this works. Many puzzles in various areas follow a similar structure, with the setting around you being altered in some way for you to continue, but these puzzles are disappointing in their lack of complexity. They are not iterated on enough, but it’s not just that, the formula of the puzzles themselves are not fluid enough. They revolve around exploring the setting in two different states the goal being to find which state has the correct path. While, the effect is cool, it’s not really a puzzle at all, and doesn’t require much lateral thinking.

I have mostly focused on criticisms but there is another element to Senua’s Sacrifice that I would really like to praise and that is its horror set pieces. They manage to really convey a sense of unease. The most memorable one sees you chased by a fiery beast through a maze, just looking at the beast will damage you. This happens to be pretty much the only time where the rune puzzle work well, because of rush you’re experiencing to quickly find each rune and line up your vision. The visual effects, the overwhelming audio and the voices’ conflicting messages really stand out during these moments.

Despite not particularly enjoying Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, I’m glad it has managed to find success with its development model. Lower budget, shorter games for a lower price is generally something I want to see more coming out of the larger game studios.