This post is part of a series examining the relationship between videogames and the tragic form–today’s topic is the classic atmospheric epic Shadow of the Colossus.
Unmarked SPOILERS for Shadow of the Colossus follow–as before, if you haven’t played it yet I recommend you do so before reading this post.
The protagonist of Shadow of the Colossus is a mysterious adventurer named Wander. In the game’s opening cutscene Wander is shown journeying many miles on the back of his loyal horse, Agro, to an isolated peninsula known only as the Forbidden Lands. At the heart of this desolate land lives an ancient deity, Dormin, whose powers are said to be capable of returning the dead to life. Wander makes a bargain with the deity–in exchange for slaying the sixteen colossi that live throughout the Forbidden Lands, Dormin will restore Wander’s lost love to life. However, Dormin warns that the price Wander pays “may be heavy indeed.” The stage is set for a perfect tragedy.
It is obvious from this very first scene, before the player even takes control, that things are not going to end well for Wander. Everything we know about tragic narratives from plays, movies and books screams at us that Dormin is not to be trusted and that the “heavy price” Wander pays will be his life or worse–and if that’s not enough there’s the black tendrils of shadow that embed themselves in Wander after the defeat of each colossus, or the dark lines that gradually creep across his face, or the fact that his complexion grows more and more pale. So why keep playing? If it’s obvious that Wander’s quest will end in tragedy, who would willingly hasten it?
The straightforward answer is that the player doesn’t have a choice: as Wander enters the temple in which Dormin resides, the bridge that comprises the only way in or out of the Forbidden Lands seals itself off, preventing the player from simply turning back. However, it isn’t strictly true that the player has no influence on what happens. For one, the player always has the choice to simply turn the game off and stop playing altogether. For another, the player can put off killing each colossus, in theory indefinitely–nothing will ever explicitly goad, force, or guide them to the next battle. While the first choice represents the player’s refusal to participate in the game’s story altogether, and is therefore undesirable from the designer’s point of view, the second choice represents the player actively participating in the story in an attempt to thwart Wander’s tragic fate. This is exactly the choice the designer wants the player to make: it creates an internal conflict that mirrors the protagonist’s classic struggle to fight their downfall while still bringing it on themselves in the end. The difficulty for the designer of a tragic game is to encourage the player to fight against the tragic arc, while at the same time ensuring that they eventually complete it.
For Shadow of the Colossus, these two competing goals of interactive tragedy are accomplished through the masterful use of setting. While the bulk of the gameplay is centered around the colossi, the landscape is the heart of the game’s story and themes. The vast landscape of the Forbidden Lands does two things that help the player participate fully in the game’s tragic narrative. First, the landscape gives the player an appealing alternative to fighting the colossi. In many cases, long stretches of the game are spent simply wandering around the landscape, searching for the next battle. Along the way the game’s world presents many opportunities for diversion: hidden shrines to discover, lizards to hunt, trees to climb, ruins to explore, and breathtaking vistas in every corner of the land. The player can easily spend hours simply wandering around, effectively stalling for time. No fairy guide will ever prompt them to get going, no blinking arrow will overlay the HUD to point the direction they should be traveling, and no cutscene will force them to travel somewhere they aren’t prepared to go. In that sense, at least, the player is the master of Wander’s destiny. However…
For all the diversions the game’s landscape provides, the player will eventually tire of its diversions and make their way to the next battle, sealing Wander’s fate just a little more each time. It isn’t, strictly speaking, that simply wandering the game’s environment gets boring after a while (though, depending on the player’s tolerance for inaction, it might). The real motivating force for the player to reach the next battle isn’t boredom…it’s loneliness. As beautiful and expansive as the Forbidden Lands are, they are ultimately empty. The peninsula’s entire animal population consists of Wander, Agro, a few scattered lizards, a single hawk, and the occasional tortoise. The only other living creatures in the game, and the only living things bigger than Wander’s horse, are the colossi. Finding the next colossus’ lair after twenty minutes of searching is not just exciting, it’s a relief–it’s assurance to the player that they are not, after all, alone in this world. The monsters the player fights become their companions almost as much as their enemies.
The player’s sense of relief in finding each new colossus is intensified by the game’s careful scoring and sound design. The Forbidden Lands are beautiful, but they are also nearly silent. There is very little sound anywhere in the game’s world, and no music at all until the player finds the next colossus. At that point a dramatic orchestral score kicks in, the colossus roars and moves, the earth trembles with their footsteps: the entire game comes alive. This is a feeling that the player cannot help but miss during their time spent wandering the land’s lonely fields, forests and deserts. It is this feeling of relief, as much as the visceral and intellectual excitement of overcoming the challenge presented by each colossus, that draws the player on to the next battle, and the battle after that, and the battle after that, knowing full well that they are spelling their own doom with each new victory. Thus, while the player may try to fight against Wander’s fate by putting off each fight as long as possible, they will eventually be drawn to the next encounter regardless, continuing the tragic mistake and ultimately sealing Wander’s fate.
In the games we’ve looked at so far in this series, the tragic mistake has always been fixed in nature. It may be unknown to the player until the end, or it may be that the player’s role in the tragic mistake isn’t determined until the end, or it may simply be that the player is drawn into the world so deeply that it doesn’t matter if they know it will end in tragedy. However, it is also possible to have the player’s actions change the mistake itself. This is arguably the most powerful form of tragedy in games, because the player feels more ownership of the tragic mistake–the tragedy is, in a sense, personalized. This is the most difficult form of interactive tragedy to pull off, but it can also be the most rewarding–the trick is to ensure all possible choices lead down paths that seem inexorable in hindsight, but were invisible before the game’s conclusion. Can it be done?