Originally published in Arthur No. 19 (Nov 2005)
“Twilight of the Gods” by Gabe Soria
Shadow of the Colossus
“Nor is it to be thought that man is either the oldest or the last of earth’s masters, or that the common bulk of life and substances walks alone. The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be… They walk serene and primal… They walk unseen and foul in lonely places where the Words have been spoken and the Rites howled through at their Seasons. The wind gibbers with Their voices, and the earth mutters with Their consciousness. They bend the forest and crush the city, yet may not forest or city behold the hand that smites…. Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now. After summer is winter, and after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They reign again.” — from “The Dunwich Horror” by H.P. Lovecraft
It begins in an ancient temple, or a temple that certainly looks antediluvian, deserted except for a young man who lays upon the floor, insensate. He wakes slowly. Dressed in raggedy homespun, he looks like an androgynous gutterpunk, circa 960 A.D. The temple is wide and long, bounded on both sides by columns hewn from rock. At one end of the temple, on a stone bier at the top of a short flight of steps, lays a young woman, sleeping a deathless fairy-tale sleep. Or dead, perhaps, awaiting burial. Indistinct voices speaking no known language can be heard, faintly when you (as the young man) approach her, and though nothing is clear, your purpose seems obvious and instinctual: wake the girl, somehow. Her resting place is at the end of the temple open to the vast countryside, and the light that comes from the outside is hazy and autumnal, golden.
You are, inevitably, armed. Your arsenal includes, and will only ever include, a plain sword and bow and arrow. The sword is, of course, magic: when you hold it aloft in the sunlight, it seems to collect the light, grabbing sunbeams from the air and focusing them into a bright beacon. You discover that if you experiment with turning in certain directions, the formerly disparate and scattered beams tend to form into a focused, single beam. The only other living thing in the temple is a horse, which allows you to mount it. Being no dummy in the ways of video games’ enchanted objects, you decide to aim your horse in the direction the beams collect. Your trip is untroubled. The verdant but quietly desolate and melancholy countryside seems to number only you and your horse as living inhabitants. The scent carried on the wind would be, if you could smell anything, narcotic and mournful, an opiate of burning, fallen leaves and other dying things.
The beams of light lead you to a cliff face that, if it could, would drop to its knees and beg you to climb it, so you do after a bit of trial and error experimentation, driven by a strange sense of purpose and obligation to the sleeping girl, feeling that at the top of this cliff, something awaits. This is important, you think. And then you are there at the top of the cliff, and it is there that you finally see it: standing at least one hundred feet tall, the minotaur-thing strides back forth across the length of a small valley. It doesn’t drip blood from its fangs, snatch cows from a fleeing herd and toss them into its mouth like popcorn, or even open its mouth to spray great gouts of fire at an unfortunately located village. It simply walks back and forth carrying a great club, looking as if it was born equally of stone, metal and flesh, possessing the ground it strides as befitting a godlike force of nature, and you know, with a heavy heart, that your task is to use your basic tools of war to achieve the impossible: the destruction of this beautiful behemoth before you. The first part of the destruction is an academic puzzle: how do you scale such a thing and find its weaknesses? And once you find its weaknesses, how do you humble it and then slay it? And once you do this impossible thing, you know that you cannot rest, and that the girl sleeping in the temple cannot wake, until you find the other towering creatures, Colossi, titans, Old Ones, whatever they are, and destroy their terrible beauty as well.
And that’s it. There’s no expository dialogue explaining the plot in the comically serious jargon as common as air in the videogame world. There’s no attempt to set your Quixote-esque pursuit of the ever-larger and ever more fancifully rendered Colossi in the rigid frame of good versus evil or right versus wrong, as the conventional wisdom of storytelling demands. You simply are, and your quest simply is. It is, quite simply, an extraordinarily exhilarating and confoundingly beautiful experience. And this is a videogame, for pete’s sake: a heavy, heavy videogame full of weird wonder, atavistic dread and thrillingly bizarre, avant-garde leanings.
In fact, at times Shadow of the Colossus feels more like an epic-length stoner rock record than a videogame.
While playing the game I begin to eagerly riff on the experience, translating it to other media. I imagine buying a quadruple album called Shadow of the Colossus (self-titled, of course); a concept album where each track tries to convey the awe and reverence inspired by titanic, pre-historic godlike creatures; an album where each side-long track is number-named, from “Colossus I” to “Colossus XVI” (these plain titles are necessary, as the Colossi’s real names cannot be pronounced by mere humans); an album that sounds like a trio of back-of-the-van genius longhairs trying to express their herb-induced visions of some sort of mythworld with beautifully droning guitar, quaking bass and slooooowwwww thudding Hammer-of-the-Gods drumming. And, in fact, you can drop needle on Earth’s Hex, or the Melvins’ Lysol, or Sleep’s Dopesmoker, or any number of heavier rock records while you’re playing Shadow of the Colossus and it works like the old Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz thing. That’s what this game feels like.
For some reason, Shadow of the Colossus summons—for me, at least—false memories of fantasy head films that never came to be, works along the order of the infamous abortive Dali/Disney “Destino” project, or Jodorowsky’s never-was adaptation of Dune. Dig this pitch: revered stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen (all apologies to the great man for using his name in sorta vain) makes a pilgrimage to Italy in 1969 after catching a quadruple-bill of Sergio Leone’s westerns. The screening has inspired a vision: this director is the guy to helm a near-plotless monster movie Ray’s conceived over some recent sleepless nights, nights he’s spent sketching pictures and carving clay maquettes of creatures that look like they come straight out of the nightmares of a zookeeper of Greek myths. The resulting non-existent film—shot in the desolate Almerian landscape and starring a baby-faced Kurt Russell as the nameless boy giantkiller and renamed Shadow of the Colossus after its original title, Clash of the Titans, is ditched—is four hours long, will be dismissed as fraudulent, pseudo-deep sub-Tolkien claptrap by critics and kept in perpetual circulation on the midnight cult revival circuit for decades to come. Collaborators Ennio Morricone and Jimi Hendrix are surprise nominees for a 1971 Academy Award for Best Score but, unsurprisingly, lose. Copies of the ultra-rare soundtrack are highly sought after by crate diggers and heads worldwide.
Of course Shadow of the Colossus is not a wished-for eight-sided album, or a phony cult monster movie. It is what it is, and that is a videogame. But it’s not without precedent. Shadow of the Colossus shares its strange DNA with Ico, a game released four years ago for the PlayStation 2 and which was produced by the same Sony Japan design team led by chief designer Fumito Ueda. Ico begins almost as a rote exercise in videogame princess saving before taking a turn for the weird, ethereal and lush. Taking place entirely within the walls of an enormous, labyrinthine castle, the titular hero of Ico was a boy exiled to the structure, possibly cast out from his society due to his unusual deformity: a pair of horns growing from his head. Also trapped in the bleak and quiet castle is a girl who is beset by malefactors that are more shadow than substance who hunger to take her away. Instead of the inevitable quest to find something, your mission is to protect, avoid and puzzle out the mysteries of the Rube Goldberg-goes-cyclopean castle. As with Shadow of the Colossus, the prevaling mood is not one of gung-ho snicker-snack dragon slaying, but one of melancholic, lonely duty. Inevitably, Ico did not sell well enough to be classified as a commercial success by the bean counters. No matter, though. It’s justly considered a masterpiece of the form, and its aesthetic successor carries its banner forward.
Take, for instance, the enemies in Shadow of the Colossus, the Colossi themselves. They are great, shuddersome, shambling things that seem to have walked straight out of the twilight of the collective unconscious, the eternal realms of dream and folklore. Their physical appearance suggests they’ve sprung from the pages of a medieval grimoire, a sketchbook menagerie of ancient beasts kept by a mad court magician and deemed heretical. And I call the Colossi “enemies” loosely, as a means to an end, using basic videogame nomenclature; never once playing the game do you actually sense that the creatures you are trying to slay are, actually, things that truly bear any malevolent intent towards you. To call them enemies would be like a seaman calling a typhoon-born wave an enemy, or a hunter lost in the woods cursing a snowstorm as a foe. Forces of nature are, quite literally, bigger than that. Bigger than name-calling. Bigger than real anger. They can be deadly, no doubt, but to waste breath and energy making an enemy of something so alien is worse than pointless. It’s as if the Colossi themselves are calling to you, beckoning you, willingly attracting the agent of their downfall to their doorsteps. And though they resist you and your sword and your arrow as surely as you would resist the persistent attentions of a wasp, there’s a sense of the inexorability of fate and history in all of this. If you do not succeed, there will be another hero on another quest, and they are surely doomed to pass from physical presence into the stuff of memory and legend. It’s not a question of “if”, it’s a question of when.
Case in point: a common design conceit in game controls is to assign a button on the game controller to target whatever thing you’re fighting against; press the button and your attention is directed unwaveringly upon the thing you wish to kill, or bounce a coconut off the head of, or whatever. Shadow of the Colossus has such a button, but the function it serves is telling in language used to describe it. Upon your first sighting of a Colossus, a helpful hint pops up on the screen that instructs you to press a button to “Gaze at the Colossus.” Ha! Not “Target the Colossus” but “Gaze at the Colossus”. You are, of course, aware that your ultimate goal is the humbling of this towering creature, but the game’s designers can’t help but remind you, however subtly, that the things you are pitted against are not only worthy of reverence, but demand worship as well. The fact that such a gesture has been included in the game, that you can’t kill a god without fixedly looking at it and considering all that it is, is nothing short of mad, poetic genius.
There are no other adversaries. Unlike most videogames, time is not wasted pitting you against repetitive onslaughts of minor imps and demons. The only other real adversary is the entropic loneliness that accompanies you as you embark on increasingly longer journeys on your horse and confront more elaborate environmental obstacles on your way to your next encounter with a Colossus—the lack of other breathing creatures on these rides is effectively oppressive and gloomy, as if the land itself were conspiring to break your spirit and turn you from your quest. Go home, the windy sound effects seem to whisper. Go home, sit by the fire, grow old and die warm and safe. Forget this fool’s errand. You don’t heed the wind, of course, but…
As of this writing, I’m still trying to finish Shadow of the Colossus, to reach the final Colossus and try to take in its vastness, but part of me never, ever wants to get within spitting distance of the oncoming end. Part of me wants to stop short of dispatching my final rival, cease waging this one-man Ragnarok and end the game on an ambivalent note. I’d like to find a rock outcropping somewhere, fix the bulk of the last Colossus in the sight of my adventuring proxy, and just gaze, gaze, gaze, but I know that I won’t. I will gaze at the last Colossus for a good long while and then, because I have no choice, seek out a way to bring it low. And when that happens, even though I will be flush with the thrill of accomplishment, I don’t think I’ll be able to feel entirely happy.
Originally published in Arthur No. 19 (Nov 02005)
Pingback: PIXEL DEEP: Gabe Soria talks with “You” novelist/video game developer Austin Grossman (Arthur, 2013) | Arthur Magazine