“Shadow of the Colossus” reviewed by Gabe Soria (Arthur, 2005)

Originally published in Arthur No. 19 (Nov 2005)

“Twilight of the Gods” by Gabe Soria

Shadow of the Colossus
PlayStation 2

“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.

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