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The Lost Promises of Shadow of the Colossus

If Fumito Ueda's masterpiece hinted at the possibilities of gaming's future, why did we take an alternate path?

By Bob Mackey. Published 4 months ago

Whenever a minor existential crisis causes me to rethink my continued pursuit of gaming as a hobby, I collect myself, sit down, and try to relive one of the many experiences that cemented my love for the medium in the first place.

And while 2005's Shadow of the Colossus hit me in my early 20s, I still consider it essential to keeping me interested in what the future of game design would bring. The original release of Shadow pushed the PlayStation 2 to its absolute limits -- often making for an annoyingly choppy framerate -- but beneath its technical problems stood what, at the time, felt like gaming's next evolutionary path.

If you've been paying attention to the last eight years of gaming, though, you'd know Shadow of the Colossus didn't amount to anything more than an evolutionary dead-end.

As I recently played through Shadow of the Colossus for the second time in my life, and with nearly a decade of hindsight, I couldn't help but lament, "What happened?" True, asking why all games can't be as good as Fumito Udea's proves just as unfair as questioning why all novels can't have the quality of those from similarly tortured, unproductive geniuses like J.D. Salinger, but the implicit promises of Shadow of the Colossus went mostly ignored in the wake of its release. To be honest, the passing of a decade has made Shadow's world a little smaller, and its edges a little rougher, but it still exists as an experience that trusts the player more than any game of its budget would be allowed today.

What struck me the most about my time with Shadow was its complete and total willingness to leave me alone. This aspect speaks to Ueda's idiosyncratic (even for the time) "design by subtraction" philosophy, but from minute one SotC offers an astounding amount of freedom without worrying about the need for constant guidance. Just a fresh, open world, free from the claustrophobia of encroaching GUI elements, quest markers, and the overbearing insecurity that your attention could be lost to one of the many other shiny pieces of technology mere feet from your body.

Of course, one of the key factors interrupting the intimate connection between player-and-game has been the Pandora's Box of "SOCIAL," viewed as a magic money-making machine by developer and website alike ever since Facebook spread beyond the reach of college campuses. Modern games offer no shortage of ways to broadcast your activities -- and subtly advertise -- to the rest of the universe, even if all you want is a humanity-free escape from the rigors of whatever it is you do. And this focus on social has opened up gamers to a string of sales pitches long after they dropped full MSRP on their latest investment. I recently picked up The Sims 3 on a whim, and the game seemed to begrudge me for not wanting to tell the universe about every accomplishment of my Virtual Human, which involves signing up for Yet Another Video Game Account just to be nudged occasionally about the expanded content I should feel bad about never wanting to buy.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't understand why games moved in the direction they did. The increased rigors of production have pushed all but the biggest players out of the console market, leaving them sweaty, desperate, and flailing to recover the millions they've sunk into their latest projects. But this means people who've grown up with gaming have experienced a strange phenomenon: As they grow older and more experienced, games have started to trust them less and less. The same generation of children who conquered The Legend of Zelda on their own now find themselves reined in by the newest release until they can prove, without a doubt, they understand the left analog stick moves their character.

On a personal note, I've found it incredibly freeing to be in the position of not having to care about this coming generation of consoles -- though I don't judge anyone who does. As the console experience becomes more and more of a Michael Bay Simulator, indies have picked up the slack, and, not dependent on soul-crushing budgets and soulless marketing needs, have delivered immersive, player-friendly, social-free experiences lauded for their unshaken confidence, like the amazing Gone Home and The Stanley Parable -- two games with decidedly last-gen visuals. While they have nothing to do with climbing and felling massive monsters, the trust they give players feels unmistakably similar to best quality of Ueda's games.

I see a lot of people laboring under the fallacy that, as technology improves, games will naturally improve as well. But you only have to look at the history of other media to see how this isn't necessarily true -- like animation, for instance. What started as an experimental art form eventually overcame its technological growing pains and ushered in the production of lavish, high-budget, massively popular entertainment -- until the bottom fell out, bringing three decades of disposable, pandering garbage branded with the unholy hyphenated curse of Hanna-Barbera.

But when I tested this analogy out on Twitter, I had a follower remind me that as American animation floundered, Japanese animation saw some its best and most productive years, brought about by inspiration from works of the past. So while I've fallen away from playing the latest AAA release out of a weary sense of obligation, my excitement hasn't faded completely. Big-budget developers may no longer care to understand where we've come from, but the burgeoning indie scene has grabbed the reins in recent years, pulling us back toward the direction games like Shadow of the Colossus intended to take us.

The best community comments so far 11 comments

  • DiscordInc 4 months ago

    I've had the same feeling about Wind Waker. I remember playing it and getting completely drawn into the world and enjoying how it eschewed a lot of traditions. Plus to me the ending was basically saying that it was good to let go of the past and to look forward to the future.

    So I was very disappointed to see the "future" of the series get discarded/exiled to handhelds, and the next game go back to the Ocarina well pretty. I ultimately enjoyed Twilight Princess, but I think the series lost a bit of shine to me. It stopped being a series I must play to just another game series.

    To this day I still haven't played Skyward Sword since I still get that "been there, done that" vibe looking at it. Now a Link Between Worlds looks interesting and might be what gets me back into the series.

  • Thusian 4 months ago

    Nice write up Mr. Mackey, I think we feel similarly about the AAA space. Although I might go as far as to say design has taken a back seat to spectacle altogether. What I would add is that not only are the mechanics getting pedantic, but genre is too homogenous too.

    This comes from only pandering to a proven audience well CoD sold millions and its a shooter, so people must all want shooters. Then 7 of the 8 shooters released fail because they don't recognize that that big multi-million seller already got that market.

    Like party games, too bad, JRPGS the commenter crowd would tell you that space has no room left to explore so it should drop dead rather than experiment. So if you have had your fill of shooters you might end up out of luck.

  • abuele 4 months ago

    I stripped the marrow from the bones of this game. After reading your article Bob, and also the comments, I started to remember the game. You mentioned the loneliness in such an open space, forloop mentions the bitter sweetness of felling these colossi, what it still sticks with to this day, is the final act, when reaching the other side of the crevice, Agro falls, and at that point you don't know what happens to the horse, but you have to endure your last task upon ending your quest. At that point of no return you feel sad and you truly face loneliness.

    I've spoken with friends, foes and family about this next gen, I don't care about it, I've exiled myself to portable gaming because it suits my needs perfectly, rather than console gaming.

    The gaming market seems to be taking divergent directions. From downloadable options, to more speciliazed portable options, as you remark indie, is growing, it is not only providing needs to a niche market but also filling the blanks left by AAA companies in not catering certain markets in order to attain mainstream success for their latest product.

    Ours is still a young hobby, full of opportunity to find its ways and stir in the direction of our desires.

    What I´m excited about this intersection in gaming history are the paths taken by the first party companies in approaching their markets. How downloadable gaming will fare in this generation, if we´re going to see a melding of portable and console gaming or at least interfacing each other. Nintendo redifining their products.

    Social is growing, but for me it is still a fad concerning gaming. Multiplayer is another type of beast and more gamers will demand these features to be included in games or to exploit it in some way.

    When I feel left alone in an island with a bottle of rum and a gun, I take solace in games as Gaiares, Zelda, or SotC

    I'm part of a generation of gamers that expects that system seller game. At this point I´m not getting that message from the console market, and I've realized that I will not get it either in case the system seller is a FPS or a sport's game. Because of that I see my options in the console market shrinking, and portable gaming is filling the blanks for me.

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