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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?

Article by Bob Mackey, .

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.

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Comments 17

  • Avatar for DiscordInc #1 DiscordInc 4 years 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.
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  • Avatar for Captain-Gonru #2 Captain-Gonru 4 years ago
    I think the closest I've come to Shadow's feel was Journey. Big, kinda empty world. No real direction, other than a distant point. I think I could die happy if Monster Hunter could find it's way to being a game like this. Really, it almost seems too obvious.
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  • Avatar for forloop #3 forloop 4 years ago
    What's kept me thinking about this game over the years is the sense of bittersweet. I’m specifically thinking about the final moments of a colossus battle. The camera work and the music drive home both that I've achieved something incredible and that I've done something wrong. I feel triumph for a hard fought victory. I feel guilt as I remember that I'm killing a noble beast to fulfill a pact with a demon-god.
    I don’t think I've had that kind of experience with another game - before or since.
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  • Avatar for christopherhughes97 #4 christopherhughes97 4 years ago
    I'm not really a fan of Shadow of the Colossus, unlike how apparently all "serious" gamers are supposed to be now, but I certainly don't disagree with Bob's thesis here. In addition to stuff like Gone Home, the recent resurgence of rogue-like games, like FTL and Rogue Legacy, could probably also be said to be catering to that same desire for freedom and discovery. And of course the Souls games.
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  • Avatar for Fresh_Paprika #5 Fresh_Paprika 4 years ago
    Let's not forget, Shadow of the Colossus does have some hand-holding: Spend more than a few minutes uncovering a Collosi's vitals and a hint will pop-up whether you want it or not. Don't know where to go? Raise the sword high and the light will be your guide. Want to fight the Colosis in your own order and pace? Tough luck, the order is predetermined every time, even though (aside from the last boss) it doesn't really matter. It wasn't free from feeding player information he or she might not want, it just handled it so well that it makes the games of today look condescending. Not that I care about any of that. It's an amazing masterpiece through-and-through.

    More important than the lack of hand-holding; Team Ico didn't preach to the player about emotions during the hype. You felt what you felt and no one told you to feel it. No pretentious evangelist hyping away. Good work did the talking.

    For me, Ico (which does borrow freely from the likes of Out of This World, Zelda's puzzle mechanics, and I think even DK94) and SotC wasn't so much the promise of games of the future, it was more the promise of Sony: That they found their own way of creating interesting, unique, amazing games that don't bank on film-like production values. Ideas and design first, production second. An experience that only a game can deliver. After playing it again-and-again (my Wander has grip up the ying-yang in both difficulties) I was high on SCEJ, I thought they have something special going, that they finally had special talent working for them. That didn't last long.

    The main reason I bought a PS3 was for the promise of a Team Ico game, before that I mostly wanted Playstation systems for the exclusive third-party games while caring very little towards Sony. I love Echochrome but that was over 5 years ago, they funded Demon's Souls but then dumped it (Dark Souls showed me that their input hardly mattered to Demon's quality), but other than that, I now feel towards them what I felt when I was 12; very little. The Last Guardian continues to be stuck in development hell, while SCEJ plays a distant third in the company's importance. (The fact that I got the YLoD with my first PS3 only to buy another and still pray for TLG is the icing on the cake. Joke's on me, eh Sony?) I'm not interested in the many games that want to be Ico, I'm interested in the real thing. I'm sick and tired of games wanting to be film.

    I get depressed of how things turned out when I think of years like 2000 and 2001. Today, Nintendo dominates what I want to play because they refuse to conform to any standards but their own, they're still the company I love dearly (they also release more games today than ever). But back then they were my favorite company, but not what kept me interested in games. SEGA (Sega? SeGa?) was unbelievable, if they weren't making something ambitious and unique like Shenmue (Shenmue I; the greatest mixed-bag in history for a variety of reasons) or something fantastic like Skies of Arcadia or Jet Set Radio they were making ridiculously fun games like Samba De Amigo or Space Channel 5, or something lovely like Napple Tale, only to follow them in the following year with Shenmue II (a game I love deeply, Shenmue I is just the start, II is the actual game AM2 wanted to make), Rez, PSO and Segagaga and lots more, and that's when they were broke. SEGA - like Nintendo - had their own style of games that no one else could create, that's almost gone with nothing to replace it.

    Square had Vagrant Story, FFIX and Chrono Cross out within months of each other, I have trouble even imagining that today. There was the bat-shit-crazy-awesome Bangai-O, the fascinating (but rough) Lack of Love, Lucasarts were still around and making adventure games, you know, with meaningful exploration and puzzles, PUZZLES! More great fighting games and arcade racers than I could count. Nintendo could only release a game or two a year and I didn't have a complaint in the world. Japan was classy, not pervy, the West wasn't obssessed with Hollywood, there wasn't some French guy going on-and-on about emotion and movies making headlines (back then at least he had David Bowie), no social features I want to run away from. Games were happy with being games and were different from each other, new ideas came from big companies, technology was actually exciting. Things were sweet.

    It breaks my heart that guys like Yu Suzuki and Kenichi Nishi are hardly active (Nishi at least by choice, Suzuki by force) and that Team Ico can't seem to finish an amazing looking game. That there's no place for sweet, wonderful characters like Klonoa in mainstram games anymore. That SEGA, Square Capcom, and Namco are shadows of what they used to be. Bless indies, but they don't come close of filling the gap for me, I don't think anything will. I honestly don't know if there's a place for third-party games like Valkyria Chronicles on consoles in the future; too big to be download-only, too niche for retail. I'm tired of seeing so many projects having to be Kickstarted; I'm buying a pitch, not a game. And man, do I miss rail-shooters... Croosing my fingers that Crimson Dragon will be good, even though I'll probably never get to play it.

    God... What happened?

    So now I mostly get excited about Nintendo games with very little else in-between. The hand-holding doesn't bother me, some people might need the help and I know it's not directed at me only. Say what you want about Zelda: Hand-holding be damned, the games are still wonderful and aren't afraid to be weird while still delivering the best mix of exploration, charm, wonder, action and puzzle around. I cherish that, it's the day it might conform like Metroid: Other M that I dread.
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  • Avatar for Dogislander #6 Dogislander 4 years ago
    What I love about Shadow of the Colossus, and what many of these indies fail to realize, is the sense of immersion without the self-aware, overtly twee aspect that makes some games a critical hit. Even Gone Home is so goddamn precious about it's aesthetic, while Ueda's work just feels achingly sincere.

    That said, the best games have never been graphical showpieces. Graphics will always be part of the whole but the mechanics are what will make a real game instead of some mass-marketed FPS whatever. God bless Platinum for sticking to their guns and still producing their bizarre, mechanically brilliant games...
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  • Avatar for novo1858 #7 novo1858 4 years ago
    @Fresh_Paprika Really strange, and oddly comforting that I agree and mirror your thoughts/tastes almost exactly... Yu Suzuki, we desperately need you.
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  • Avatar for novo1858 #8 novo1858 4 years ago
    Great piece Bob, I would love to see your writing more often around here.
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  • Avatar for abuele #9 abuele 4 years 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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  • Avatar for Thusian #10 Thusian 4 years 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.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #11 Kuni-Nino 4 years ago
    While I can understand the sentiment of overbearing tutorials, and the wish to be left to your own devices, I often find myself asking: to what end?

    Take a look at SotC; really take a look at it. The only area the game absolutely excels in is in its atmosphere. Since you're left alone, with almost nothing to do, you're able to take in the environment around you and ponder its history, your actions, the nature of the enemy, all designed to, hopefully, make you come to realization. Honestly, all that does is hide the fact that SotC is really bare as a game. It trades in gameplay variety and content to help serve a story that is neither deep, or particularly insightful depending on your tastes. The experience is unique, but I don't know how much value I got out of it. I've only played through the game once, and I couldn't handle a second playthrough largely due to the fact that I felt the heavy weight of repetition.

    What's the point of exploring if there's nothing to find? What's the point of being left alone, if there's little to interact with? SotC is a simple game, made through the vision of Ueda who wanted gamers to have a specific experience. There's no real freedom to its design. You can't approach bosses in different ways, and there's hardly any incentive to.

    Now, I'm not saying SotC is wrong for being the way it is. I do like the game, but I do feel like it's a game made for a me of a different time. It's hard to admit (I almost feel ashamed), but I don't want games like SotC that trade in gameplay for something like story, or the 'experience'. Over the past couple of years, I've come to treasure games like Mario, and Zelda specifically because they've honed in their mechanics to almost a scimitar's sharpness. They've found new ways to have players interact with their worlds. I treasure games like Virtua Fighter which give you a character with a hundred commands and expects you to carve out a specific style in which you'll play them. These games have provided me with hundreds of hours of fulfilling entertainment and not because of story, or atmosphere, but purely through mechanics. CoD does the same thing.

    People often ignore CoD's multiplayer, which is understandable given that reviewers simply lack time, but it's unfortunate that it's solid, precise mechanics and level design get completely passed. The single player is Michael-Bay, but the multiplayer is a test of skill, coordination, twitch and planning. The first few Modern Warfares excelled at this and it's what brought in so many people and why the series has maintained popularity -- not for the single-player.

    This has gone on too long, so I'll just end it. The article is interesting though and I'm glad it was written if only to make me realize how much my tastes have changed. I used to be the person that wanted games to move in a direction similar to Ico and SotC. I don't really believe in that anymore.Edited November 2013 by Kuni-Nino
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #12 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago
    I've often thought of the era SotC came from (2004-2006) as the final iterative flowering of an era of console gaming stretching back to 1985 before an darkened fog swept the land, turning directions, destinations, and departures topsy-turvy for reasons unfathomable before. Variety was shunned. Skill was arrogance. Avarice was emboldened. Spend tons of money now instead of cautiously attempt breakouts. Games were to force their will upon you rather than the reverse. Money solved problems, not cleverness. Interesting difficulty kept one from one's rewards. Single-player is now multi-player. Multi-player is now single-player. We had entered a madhouse, and the few games coming out after that choking mist that eschewed those warped criteria either in their studios' last gasps before falling or scurrying to handhelds, independants, or rising market PC fare.

    A cursory glance at the most lauded games of 2014 sees a common theme: either the players are on handhelds, independant refugees from debauched former developers, or players from regions of the world not touched directly by Generation 7. It's almost as if there's a sort of reboot happening; someone mentioned Journey, and that...that right there is an iteration on SotC, from a team from another continent and on another system entirely, but there they are: the threads from before.

    Despite the LCD-focused mire Mobile finds itself enveloped by, how many brilliant careers ended due to Gen 7,[url=http://uk.pc.gamespy.com/articles/122/1225088p1.html]and how many genres are probably never going to be the same again[/url] , there is a lot of hope. I mean, there has to be, most of the big players died or absolutely exhausted themselves fighting fire with fire until everything burned.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #13 Kuni-Nino 3 years ago
    You want to know why Shadow could get away with not teaching people jack shit? It's because the game is absurdly simple with little to do except kill 17 bosses the same damn way.

    Every. Single. Time.

    There's nothing else to do. There's absolutely no benefit to exploring since the world is empty. Wander can't move 2 feet without stumbling on his heels so it's no fun controlling him. The entire game is basically a boss rush mode that isn't even that complex.

    And you know what Bob? The one thing Shadow absolutely nailed -- being a true cinematic game -- was aped and perfected the last generation. Check out Naughty Dog's work, or the new Tomb Raider, or even the Batman games: games that pushed technology, storytelling, and gameplay to meld them into a cohesive cinematic experience. Shadow was the first game to master that feeling. It created a world, set the rules, and followed them almost to a slavish fault. It was a simple game but also impossible to break and it created true immersion. In my opinion, games have mastered that cinematic form. Half Life 2 was also a champion of this form and you can see its influence in games like Metro 2033. These are true cinematic games.

    You're focusing on the wrong things. Shadow isn't special because it left the player alone. It isn't special because it was open world. It's special because the game arrested you with beautiful design and simple yet elegant gameplay that conveyed the idea of a boy taking down massive titans. Nobody remembers finding a lizard behind some rock in Shadow. They remember running up the Colossus' sword or the flying Colossus in the desert that you rode at full speed just to climb on its wings. Shadow had a dozen of those moments and last generation had a ton of those moments.

    Bioshock's Would You Kindly.

    Uncharted 2's intro with the crashed train.

    Last of Us when Ellie has to help Joel get out of the hospital.

    Deus Ex: HR when you have to save Malik

    Skyward Sword when you're hunting down the Sandship.

    Call of Duty Modern Warfare, the nuke scene.

    Mass Effect 1, the assault on the Citadel.

    And tons, tons more. The cinematic game has reached perfection. The industry knows how to bang them out. I could say more but this post is already too scattershot than I would like.

    TL;DR Your analysis of Shadow is innacurate and your conclusion is strangely myopic. I mean, did you even Metro 2033?

    Edit: I didn't know this article was old. I forgot I even commented on this before lol. My bad if I repeated myself.Edited July 2014 by Kuni-Nino
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  • Avatar for d-e-brown #14 d-e-brown 3 years ago
    Deleted May 2017 by d-e-brown
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  • Avatar for Exhuminator #15 Exhuminator 3 years ago
    Well written article that makes its point without being obnoxious about it.
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  • Avatar for Feanor #16 Feanor 3 years ago
    SotC just wasn't that good.
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  • Avatar for kantaroo3 #17 kantaroo3 3 years ago
    Shadow of the Colossus was an amazing game. I only got a chance to appreciate it last year and it made my month of July. Every day after work I would hunt down a Colossus with a cold beer on the table. A really good experience, nearly as good as playing ICO the year before (both PS3 remasters).

    Good article with some fair points.

    But I would echo the previous post that it would be better to make it clear that this is a re-run article. A simple "from the vaults" title (like Eurogamer does) plus the original article date is all.
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