A silent warrior rides with his faithful horse across a desolate, seemingly post-apocalyptic landscape, his quest to save a mysterious girl. You know little of his origins or his motivations, as the story doesn't spend much time on them at the start. You only know that he's willing to do whatever it takes to complete his task.
That's the premise of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the new adventure that was released last month to much acclaim from fans and critics alike. It's also the premise of Shadow of the Colossus, the Fumito Ueda classic that has been hailed as one of the best games ever made. Both follow a heroic figure on an adventure in a land that has fallen into ruin, their mystery and atmosphere as important to the story as the actual dialogue. They offer decidedly different experiences from traditional triple-A action games, which tend to put a premium on loud setpieces and overly-expository dialogue, trusting the player to follow along as their tales slowly develop over a period of hours.
Shadow of the Colossus has been much on my mind as I've slowly (oh so slowly) made my way through Breath of the Wild. More than most Zelda games, I've been struck by how effective Breath of the Wild has been in putting me in the role of the adventurer—the lone wanderer in a vast and forbidding world. It's not quite a classical hero's journey, but it does have that Star Wars-like quality of "taking your first step into a larger world."
It's also brought to mind—and you're going to hate me for this—Dark Souls. Yes, it's cliché to compare literally everything to Dark Souls, but please bear with me as I dig down a little bit here. All three games have marked similarities, and putting aside that they're just really great games, they also have a kind of universal appeal that helps them cut across traditional boundaries.
Stranger in a Strange Land
All three begin with very little context. In Shadow of the Colossus, a mysterious rider carries a girl into a temple and begs for help in reviving her. In Breath of the Wild, Link awakens in a strange sleep chamber, where a mysterious voice informs him that he's been asleep for a hundred years before guiding him to the outside world. In Dark Souls, we see that the main character is a cursed undead locked away in an asylum, but we get very little information as to who they are or why they're there.
The lack of background helps establish a compelling mystery: Who are you? What's going on? Why is the world seemingly in ruin?
Breath of the Wild resolves at least some of its questions right away. It quickly comes to light that you are the hero tasked with defeating Calamity Ganon, an all-consuming force of evil, but that you previously failed in your quest. Over time, Breath of the Wild slowly reveals its backstory through flashbacks, which are accessed by traveling to certain locations and unlocking the memory associated with them. You also learn more about your past through conversations with the guardians of the Divine Beasts, which helps to clue you in on exactly what went wrong with the plan to take down Calamity Ganon.
These cutscenes are compelling because they help fill in the gaps in Link's backstory, but also because they don't overwhelm the exploration. As with Dark Souls, Breath of the Wild lets you fill in many of the gaps with visual information: abandoned moss-covered towers surrounded by destroyed Guardians; the devastation of Hyrule Castle, the lonely, wind-swept plains. Such destruction makes the cutscenes all the more interesting because they offer a glimpse of Hyrule as it was before the fall while giving you some insight into Link's relationship with Zelda.
By comparison, Dark Souls and Shadow of the Colossus are more circumspect with their backstory. For much of Shadow of the Colossus, your only interaction is with the booming disembodied voice of Dormin. You know that the girl you're trying to save, Mono, sacrificed herself on your behalf, and that the land you're in is forbidden, but you have little to go on beyond that. Most of the time, you're riding across abandoned fields and through deep canyons in the pursuit of the Colossi, your only company being Agro—your faithful horse. There is a sense of foreboding, the feeling that what you're doing is deeply wrong in some way, but the best you can do is forge ahead and try to save Mono anyway you can.
Dark Souls, for its part, offers only snippets of dialogue, the odd cutscene, and item descriptions. Its content to let you figure things out on your own, fueling pages and pages of speculation on the significance of certain themes: death, rebirth, fire, the nature of humanity. Dark Souls leans much more heavily on its sense of mystery than Breath of the Wild, littered as it is with peculiar wanderers, some crazy and some not. But both are content to let you uncover their respective stories at more or less your own pace.
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The deliberate pace at which all three games yield their secrets has the paradoxical effect of binding you closer to the main character. Because you are learning information at roughly the same pace as your avatar, you can't help but put yourself in their shoes, which is helped by the fact that they rarely speak—Wander only occasionally, the Dark Souls PC and Link not at all. It also heightens the sense that you are alone in a strange and hostile world.
Heightening that feeling still further is the sheer sense of scale and wonder found in the settings of all three games. You get that feeling almost immediately in Breath of the Wild as you step out of your "Resurrection Chamber" and the world spreads out in front of you. It almost feels too big in a way, as the map starts to feel overwhelming as you realize how little of it you've uncovered. All around you are tall mountains and massive edifices. Early on, you climb to the top of your first tower and feel like the king of the world, only to realize how much you've yet to uncover. Seemingly everything in Breath of the Wild is geared toward making you feel tiny, from the landscape to the massive Divine Beasts, which you have to tame in order to gain access to Hyrule Castle (or not!)
Dark Souls and Shadow of the Colossus have a similar sense of wonder about them. Everyone remembers, for instance, the first time they saw Anor Londo in all of its golden glory. Shadow of the Colossus and Dark Souls also go out of their way to make you feel like a tiny speck next to some of their bosses—an insignificant fly that nevertheless manages to tangle with and defeat forces far beyond your ken. Shadow of the Colossus in particular is built around scaling two-story tall creatures so that you can strike a mortal blow, clinging for dear life as they try and shake you loose.
Against these Goliaths, you take on the role of David—the lone hero who uses their wits (and some handy tools) to take down giants. Breath of the Wild hammers that feeling home by visualizing all of his tools, from his bow and arrows to the armor he's wearing. Dark Souls isn't as comprehensive, but it also visualizes the hero's armor and weapons. Shadow of the Colossus opts for a look reminiscent of Greek lore, its hero clad in a simple tunic and wielding a basic sword and bow. All of them cut the classic figure of the hero charging into unthinkable odds with only their sword and armor to protect them. Sometimes they don't even have their armor.
It's no coincidence that all three characters also have a stamina bar, which is meant to reflect their mortal limitations. Link and Wander will eventually reach the limits of their endurance if they spend too much time climbing, and the main character in Dark Souls can only take so many blows to their shield. If they get hit, they will frequently be sent flying, with a slow recovery emphasizing just how much it hurt to get struck by their foe. In the case of Dark Souls, just a heavy stomp from a boss like Smough will cause the hero to stagger around for a moment, opening them up for a possibly fatal hit.
The point, ultimately, is to emphasize their fragility, making them feel that much more heroic in turn. Or at the very least, human.
The Lone Hero
I, of course, am not the first person to draw a comparison between Breath of the Wild and Shadow of the Colossus. In fact, the French publication Le Monde even asked Eiji Aonuma about it back in January. Auonuma responded:
It's funny that you're mentioning this game, because we are friends with Mr. Ueda and he's always said that he wanted to make a game like Zelda – hence the similarities in Shadow of the Colossus. Mr. Ueda was kind enough to send me a copy of The Last Guardian late last year and as I was playing it, I could notice the moments when you climb on Trico's head to find a path, and jump to reach places that were inaccessible from the height you were at. Without seeing each other or talking about it, I realize we had the same idea.
Shadow of the Colossus is inspired by Zelda, which in turn ends up resembling Shadow of the Colossus. Both want to depict lonely figures against a broad landscape, but for different reasons. With Breath of the Wild, it's to capture the essence of exploration and make good on Shigeru Miyamoto's vision of a game in which you climb the tallest mountains and explore the deepest dungeons. With Shadow of the Colossus, it's to emphasize the hero's isolation as he makes a deal with the devil to save the girl who saved him. Coincidentally or not, both arrive at somewhat similar means for depicting their visions.
Dark Souls, for its part, casts the motives of its hero in a more uncertain light, allowing you to choose the ultimate conclusion of your quest. Like Breath of the Wild, it's content to let you move at your own pace. Like Shadow of the Colossus, it keeps its lore shrouded in mystery, leaving you to feel as if you're battling forces beyond your comprehension without really knowing why.
Each game ultimately takes its journey down a different path, but they all begin with a lone wanderer emerging into a desolate world, uncertain of what they're fighting for or even who they are. And with expert combat design and world-building, as well as an overwhelming sense of scale, they make you and the hero feel as if you are one as you face down impossible odds of survival.
But perhaps most importantly, Dark Souls, Breath of the Wild, and Shadow of the Colossus all trust their players to embrace their worlds on their own terms, and to be able to appreciate their nuances without being force fed with them. Not concidentally, all three are destined to be remembered as some of the best games ever made.
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