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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Thoughts on The Last Guardian

Spoilers below.

Obviously, The Last Guardian is a game I’ve been waiting for. Obviously, I’m a big fan of Team Ico and Fumito Ueda’s previous work, with Shadow of the Colossus being one of my all time favourites. Obviously, The Last Guardian is exactly the kind of thing that appeals to me, so it’ll be no surprise to find out that I really liked the game and it’s definitely my game of the year.

What really makes The Last Guardian is the many little moments scattered throughout. One of the earliest points where I realized I was going to like this game was just after I solved a puzzle, standing outside with Trico, who goes into a shallow pool of water and rolls around in it. The boy laughs “I thought you didn’t like water” I go up to stroke Trico, before continuing onwards. This is a slow paced game, a very slow paced game. If you rush through this you will miss all the important little character moments, the tiny pieces of foreshadowing. If you don’t stop and smell the roses, then there’s really not much to the game at all. This obviously means that this game wont appeal to many people who play games for very different reasons, but I don’t think that makes the game any less valuable.

In most respects The Last Guardian is more of a successor to Ico than it is Shadow of the Colossus, following on with the puzzle solving, character escorting, and exploration of a linear space, that made Ico so unique at the time. Trico is a large creature which the player will need to climb at various points, so there’s the big parallel with Shadow of the colossus. All 3 games explore the connection between the protagonist and another prevalent character, who you often rely on and explore the game with. The Last Guardian is the most prevalent and best example of this so far. Despite it being more comparable to Ico I think this is an element in which Shadow is more relevant. In Ico Yorda, was the ghostly girl we assisted through the world, but most of the time it was us helping her, occasionally she’d help us up or open a door for us, but we solved the puzzles, it’s only right at the end where she saves us in a major way. Shadow has a more mutual relationship, imagine travelling The Forbidden Lands without your horse, Agro. There’s even a few colossus that are unbeatable without her assistance.

The Last Guardian goes a step even further, in what I would call “interactive character development” Starting the relationship with an aggressive, chained up Trico, who will even attack the player and ending up with a Trico who whimpers when we’re not in sight. One of my favourite moments, towards the end, sees the player stormed by an army of knights, while Trico is held back by a stained glass eye which, throughout the whole game Trico has been in fear of, not being able to go near. Seeing us in an unhelpable situation he overcomes the fear jumping in to save us.

All of the puzzles in the game serve the purpose of furthering this relationship, they often aren’t complex, but they involve working with Trico or achieving some task that will help Trico and that’s what really sells the bond between these two characters, the interactivity of the relationship. Ueda knows, arguably better than any other, how to use the medium of games to tell a story.

One of the places where this bond really comes through is the combat. Here we see a major parallel with Ico. Where Yorda was captured by shadow creatures who would try to drag her away, the player had to beat them with a big stick to fend them off. In The Last Guardian the roles are reversed, kind of. Trico, will be doing most of the fighting, and enemies will attempt to pick you up and drag you away, but we’re not completely helpless. While the combat in Ico recieved many complaints. (I thought it was serviceable, but definitely felt out of place, and too “gamey”). The combat encounters in The Last Guardian are very interesting, they make sense, why would I be taking on these enemies when I have giant monster besides me. The most this little kid could be is a distraction, keep yourself safe while Trico deals with them, your role afterwards is to calm Trico down and remove any spears. Despite this less dominant role I still found the combat very engaging and enjoyable. It does shake itself up every now and again, which makes it feel more relevant and never like it’s just been inserted because it’s a video game and “video game need combat”. The combat furthers the relationship between the boy and Trico while remaining enjoyable and varied. The most memorable encounter for me was when two knights were holding up stained glass eye shields, preventing Trico from entering the area. The player has to go on ahead, alone. Taking on the knights without Trico’s help, you feel weak, but all you need to do is knock the shielded knights off the edge they’re standing by. It’s a challenge since there are more knights chasing after you, but it really drills into you just how important Trico is. It isn’t a mere NPC for us to escort, in fact sometimes you feel like the NPC being escorted. Trico is more than that, he is a companion, a friend.

I shouldn’t need to tell you about how impressive the animation work is, or how Trico acts like a real pet, it’s there, you can see it for yourself. I can tell you how by the end of the game I felt so attached to Trico that I did not want my this character to die. Often I might be expecting a character to die in a game, or sometimes even criticising a game for avoiding killing off a character when it makes sense to do so. Towards the end I might have thought Trico’s death was coming, I might have known it would be very impactful, but I didn’t care, I did not want that to happen.

Unfortunately I think the pacing does mess up towards the end. There are several climactic moments in the last 2-3 hours that are just broken up with menial moments of linear exploration, many of which don’t really involve many puzzles. I think it would have been far more appropriate to cut out the slower moments between the climatic final moments, such as Trico flying and the fight with the other beast, in particular I felt like the moments after you revive Trico, which lead to the ending, felt dragged out and unnecessary.

It’s a shame, because I didn’t enjoy the ending battle too much either. I felt like bringing in many other beasts distracted from the rivalry that had been built up between the two earlier, which should have came to a climatic fight. Instead Trico just gets beaten up helplessly, which makes the situation feel desperate until you realize you can just sort of sit around and nothing really happens, which really kills the tension. It would have been more believable to have Trico fight back and dodge, even if he is still clearly being over powered and can not overcome the enemy himself, it would make the scene far easier to believe over the time it takes to save Trico.

Shadow of the Colossus has probably my favourite ending of any game. One thing you’ll notice happening in all of Ueda’s endings is the protagonist fainting at some point, it’s the perfect excuse to take control away from the character in a way that make sense. The Last Guardian follows through with this, again. I was hoping for something more like Shadow of the Colossus where you’re given control over very important parts of the ending, even if you’re destined to the same fate every time and nothing you can do will change that. Though, The Last Guardian does set up something very different from the themes of Shadow’s ending, and I still found the its ending cutscene very effective, very powerful and it made sense. Requiring the player to call Trico to leave is a great choice too, reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid 3’s ending.

I would say The Last Guardian is a huge leap over Ico, but there is one thing in comparison to Ico that quite disappointed me, the level design. Ico has a more interconnected level design, similar to what is often seen is the Souls games now. I understand this isn’t so important to some people, but it’s something I really appreciate as it makes the setting feel more real and allows me to enjoy exportation far more. There are a few example of you returning to older locations but these pretty much only happen through scripted moments when intended by the games.

Sorry if the last few parts have been to negative, I have complaints about the game, but it is certainly my favourite game of 2016 and I will not soon forget it. Especially one part in particular, one part that I think my be my favourite moment in any game, ever.

The part when you’re separated from Trico, after he dives. Following a similar story beat in Ico. You would expect this to be a sad moment where you struggle without your partner, but that’s only part of it. You wake up after being separated from Trico. The place you’re in seems a little alien, where what appears to be glowing technological things are around, you may be confused, you might feel out of place or isolated. You go up a creepy elevator shaped like a cage, like something you’d expect to see in Sen’s Fortress in Dark Souls, you know this place probably isn’t safe. The path in front of you has collapsed, Trico would be able to jump that gap, you cannot, you have no choice but to climb across a narrow metal fence, you’re missing Trico right now. You continue climbing your way up crumbled stairs and broken ledges. The silence combined with the few clips lonely of music is reinforces the sense of isolation. You see feathers, is Trico okay? You follow the feathers to find a tail hanging from above, the music becomes somewhat joyful, but by this point you may realise, that’s not your Trico, as you climb the tail the music becomes only a little bit sinister. You jump across to a tree branch it creeks, you get a quick glance at the beast, it’s not Trico. The branch snaps, and the beast notices you. The emotions this scene provokes has already been incredible, but now begins an, intense, stressful escape scene, you can’t beat this thing, you have to run away, right now. Just when you find an elevator, when it’s going up and you’re approaching safety, the beast jumps up and drags you down. You’re helpless, stuck in a cage as it claws at you, there’s nothing to do. Then, a sound, the beast stops, turns around and eventually runs away. You’re safe, but still stuck. After rolling around hopelessly, the game fades to black and then cuts back with the boy waking up, you hear a distant roar, is that Trico? What else do you do but call for him? There’s a small hole in the roof of the cave, where the light of the outside shines in. Trico breaks through, the music is incredibly joyful, Trico is finally back.

Think about the range of emotions this scene takes you through building on the relationships already established in the game, your friendship with Trico and your rivalry with the other beast. It’s sad, it’s scary, it’s lonely, manipulative, stressful, and then joyful finally. I can’t think of a better example of an interactive scene in any game. In any industry filled with power fantasies The Last Guardian is not afraid to disempower you.

Now for a few details of the game and what I thought of them. Needing to clear the symbols off the screen to restart after a failure state is a nice touch, that makes death feel a bit more engaging and is more immersive than a game over screen. Narration was a little unnecessary, I think its only real reason to be there is to give the player hints on what to do, similar to Dormin in Shadow of the Colossus. A hint system that is consistent with the story, it succeeds in doing that. But during many story sections the narrator will just say the obvious when nothing needed to be said at all. The game is already showing, there’s no need to tell. The animation is as stunning as I would expect from the creators of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. The graphics aren’t mind blowing but the game does look very nice, the way the light shimmers off Trico’s feathers, especially nearer the ending, is perfect.

The Last Guardian is a brilliant game, I’ll probably need some time to think about how much I truly appreciate it. I would say currently I prefer Shadow of the Colossus for its wider achievements, but I’d pick The Last Guardian over Ico, though all 3 games are incredible. It’s the only game I could think of where I was smilingĀ  almost all throughout. I’ll praise a game enough for making me smile at certain points, but to have me just smiling during normal gameplay, that takes something special.