Alex Higgins, contributor, firstname.lastname@example.org
Back in 1993, while he was working on Doom, John Carmack once remarked that “Story in a game is like story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” Although we have come a long way since the early 90s, and story is more prominent in games today than back then, Carmack’s metaphor is still accurately describes the purposes of the stories of many modern games. In most action games, the story simply serves as little more than a mechanism that explains why the hero is killing things in a different place than he was the last level. Even games that have a relatively strong story don’t consciously use the game itself to tell it, instead using non-interactive cutscenes and effectively resorting to a different medium for storytelling, film. Despite this, I still believe that games have a number of strengths that potentially make them great vehicles for storytelling, strengths that few games exemplify better than Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus. Needless to say it will be impossible to discuss the game’s story without spoiling it, so if you want to play it and somehow haven’t gotten around to it yet (you’ve had seven years to do so, for crying out loud), immediately stop what you are doing, turn off your computer, find a copy of it, play it, and then come back.
The story of Shadow of the Colossus is, while emotionally engaging and thematically strong, a simple one. The hero, Wander, rides into the Forbidden Land on his horse, Agro, carrying the body of a woman, Mono. He enters a shrine and meets the deity Dormin, who promises Wander that it will resurrect Mono if he slays the 16 mythical colossi who inhabit the land. So, Wander traverses the land on his loyal horse, enters the lairs of the colossi, and slays them, unwittingly releasing part of Dormin’s essence each time. With each beast he slays, Wander deteriorates – his skin pales, his body becomes scarred, and his hair grows dark.
It is as the hero rides his horse to the final colossus’ lair that the game begins to reveal its true genius. The hero is riding Agro across a bridge across a ravine when, suddenly, the ancient stone structure begins the crumble. In a desperate attempt to save her rider, the horse throws Wander to the other side before falling into the depths of the chasm. Years ago, when I had first watched Wander lean over the cliff edge and scream in despair, I honestly set my controller onto the floor and cried. Although my reaction to it is no longer as strong, the scene still touches me in some way whenever I replay it, even today.
I don’t think that Agro’s act of sacrifice would have been as meaningful if Shadow were retold in any other medium. Games offer the player a different perspective, as a participant, in the world in which a story is told compared to films or novels, which can only offer the perspective of an observer. By the end of the game, I, as the player, had developed a relationship with Agro similar to Wander’s. I had spent as much time riding her across the Forbidden Land as he had, and when she sacrificed herself, his cry of anguish was very much my own.
Wander, after suffering the loss of his horse, goes on to slay the final colossus. Upon doing so he returns to the temple, his body possessed by Dormin and sporting two small horns protruding from his head. Warriors from his homeland have arrived to the shrine to stop Wander from completing his quest, but they are obviously too late. Dormin transforms his host body into a shadowy giant and attacks the warriors as they flee. Before making his escape, their leader casts a spell that defeats the giant and reduces Wander to a horned infant. The warriors destroy the bridge into the Forbidden Land, making exit from it impossible.
Despite having used Wander for its own purposes, Dormin keeps his word and restores Mono back to life. At the same moment, Agro limps into the shrine with a broken leg, alive but unable to ever run again. The game ends with them finding the infant in the temple, an ending that had left me with an incredible feeling of remorse. After all, I did not merely observe the story’s events unfold, I was responsible for them. I was the one who killed the colossi, revived Dormin, crippled my horse, destroyed my body, reduced myself to a child, and left my love stranded in an uninhabited land for the rest of her life. Shadow of the Colossus demonstrates not only how making the player a participant in the story can increase their emotional engagement with it, but also make them feel emotions that are more difficult to evoke in other mediums – in this case, guilt.
So, if games are naturally more prone to increase emotional engagement with a story simply by making the player a participant in it, then why are so few successful at doing it? Part of the problem is that the themes of many games do not resonate with common human experience – games that are only about killing Nazis or saving the world, as fun as they may be, can never offer a deep emotional experience, no matter how they are packaged. Shadow of the Colossus, were it only about slaying giants, would similarly be a bland experience. But Shadow is about much more than that. It is a game about desperate love, self-sacrifice, tragic mistakes, and the friendship between a young man and his horse. For me, Shadow of the Colossus represents everything that games could be, and the sooner the rest of the industry catches up with it, the better.