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Standing tall on the titanic body of my fallen foe, I should feel like a hero, but the victory seems hollow. There’s no majestic fanfare to accompany my achievement, just a slow, melodious dirge; it reminds me that a beautiful creature has just breathed its last.
“The price you pay may be heavy indeed,” a mysterious, disembodied voice had warned me, before I set out on my quest.
“It doesn’t matter,” I had answered.
Suddenly, those three words seem less noble than I had originally perceived, and are flavoured by cold, hard desperation.
Before I can truly process the barrage of conflicting emotions, I’m swarmed by black tendrils emanating from the colossus carcass. I fall to my knees, collapsing, unconscious, onto the giant’s body. In this moment, long before I ever slay my second, fifth, tenth, sixteenth colossus, I realize the truth: I’m slowly killing myself.
Much like a Shakespearean tragedy, Shadow of the Colossus is a game about the darkness of human nature—how hopelessness leads to desperation, and desperation to self-destruction. And it all begins the way most doomed quests do: with a lie.
Wander, the game’s protagonist, is bound by hopelessness—not a “there’s nothing I can do” sort of hopelessness, but something even worse: the “I have no choice” kind. Not content with allowing an innocent maiden to die, Wander chooses to go against nature and tries to restore her soul. Killing 16 colossi is the only way to achieve that goal, he’s told, so that’s what he does. In his vulnerability, he is desperate enough to play the fool and believe this colossal lie.
When I play Shadow of the Colossus, I feel Wander’s darkening nature reflected through every aspect of the game, especially the environment. The land of the colossi acts as a metaphor for Wander’s innermost soul—empty, isolated, and depressed—a forbidden place where things are locked away from the outside world and left to die. Aside from calling for his horse, Wander never speaks, making those long rides across the wasteland moments for the player’s self-reflection.
During these periods of silence, Wander seems especially caged within his mind—so set on a false reality that he can’t envision alternatives. I’ve yet to play a game that more accurately captures the sense of loneliness and depression that a human heart can feel when burdened by hopelessness.
As a player, I am forced to buy into Wander’s lie, not only because the game’s narrative compels me to do so in order to progress, but because it’s the only way I can psychologically justify my actions within the game.
“I have no choice,” I repeat to myself, as another colossus flails to the ground. It’s a part of the game’s mechanics. It’s necessary for the story. But try as I might, no excuse can erase the smallest twinge of guilt I feel each time a colossus cries out in pain and bites the dust.
Battling a colossus is an emotional and intimate experience. I can’t jump into the fray swinging my sword at the enemy and expect damage to be dealt. I have to climb all over the creature, feeling each muscle and tendon roll with life beneath me as I search for its vital spots. I have to observe its movements, memorize its habits and quirks, and decipher which sectors of its massive frame are penetrable. I become personally familiar with the colossus, and then convince myself to slay it.
As colossi begin to take on familiar shapes—humans, birds, lions, even horses (a haunting echo of the only companion I have within the game)—the experience becomes unnerving. Once I commit to taking down the magnificent monsters, though, the game ensures that I am merciless in my attacks, as even the slightest hesitation leads to being flung loose from my grip on the colossus’ head or back.
Each action has a permanent consequence, and the game mocks the player with reminders. At any time, I can return to the site of a battle and see the blackened forms of the fallen colossi. When they’re out of my direct sight, beams of light mark their fallen souls, visible from any distance on the horizon. The only un-skippable cutscenes in the game mark points of no return—when colossi are slain and when Wander’s faithful steed falls to its doom.
That’s the consequence of believing the lie: Wander must sacrifice everything in order to fulfill it—his stallion, his soul, his connection with his people, and his precious relationship with the maiden herself. He’s so focused on saving her that he loses sight of her in the process.
In my first playthrough, I didn’t realize how filthy Wander had become until near the end of the game, when his skin grew so pale and his clothes so ragged that I could no longer question the morality of his actions. But by this point, there was no turning back—for him or for me.
But perhaps that’s Shadow of the Colossus’ biggest lie—something I didn’t realize until my second or third playthrough: up until the final battle, it’s never too late to turn back. I have the power to walk away from any fight at any time. I can explore the realm of the Colossi as long as I like without ever having to draw my blade. I can choose to be merciful by not engaging these titans at all, but doing so means I will never complete the game or play it as the developers intended. Shadow of the Colossus is a fatalist game through-and-through, and one that uses narrative punishment as the reward for progressing.
Shadow of the Colossus tempts players with a power fantasy—dare to travel to a forbidden world, take on mythical giants, be the hero, save the damsel in distress—but snatches it away with each victory. Even during the most frustrating of colossi battles, the temporary relief of having won is quickly overshadowed by the numbing funeral dirge and the death throes of the colossus.
By the time I reached the game’s credits, I was not sure what to think. I knew I’d just played a groundbreaking work of art—an experience I was utterly grateful for—and yet Shadow of the Colossus left me feeling betrayed by my emotions, by the character’s actions, and by the game itself. In my opinion, more games should be like Shadow of the Colossus—asking hard questions about the consequences of violence, and the power that truth and lies hold over us—but even more games should offer alternatives to linear brutality, rewarding players for recognizing the lies but choosing to act on the truth in the midst of them.
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