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How Shadow of the Colossus’ Ending Betrays its Own Storytelling

In a mysterious world of moral ambiguity, the arrival of Lord Emon gives me answers I wasn't seeking.

Analysis by Hirun Cryer, .

Saying that Shadow of the Colossus throws you in the deep end would be an understatement. 2018 was my first time playing the 2005 classic from Fumito Ueda and Team Ico, and during those twelve years the insurmountable reputation of Shadow of the Colossus had only grown.

By February 2018, having managed to avoid all spoilers, I’d come to expect something truly monumental. When it all kicks off, Shadow of the Colossus never once pauses during its sweeping introduction to give us a welcome to the Forbidden Lands. In that sense, we’re in the same boat as protagonist Wander—we’re venturing into uncharted territory together.

Shadow of the Colossus opens with Wander making his way on horseback across a perilous path that’s been cut into the cliff face. The only characters present during this opening are Wander, his horse, and the body of the deceased girl he’s carrying. There’s not a word uttered for the first three minutes of Shadow of the Colossus, and it’s this mystical silence which binds us to the journey of our protagonist—we don’t know where he’s come from, or where he’s going, but we’re drawn in by this enigmatic opening.

But in other senses, the divide between us and Wander couldn’t be greater—we simply don’t know a thing about him. One thing is made abundantly clear in the opening of Shadow of the Colossus: this isn’t our story. Video games so often put us in the driving seat. We always expect the story we’re embarking on to have a beginning, a middle, and an ending, neatly tying matters together to give us closure. Whether it’s grand blockbusters like The Witcher 3 or indie adventures like Celeste, we expect narrative-driven games to feature a complete story for us to enjoy.

Shadow of the Colossus is not this game. There’s only silence from our protagonist for the first few minutes of the game, as he ventures into the Forbidden Lands for unknown reasons. It’s only when he’s spoken to by the entity Dormin that he reveals the bare minimum: the girl he’s with was sacrificed; the sword he possesses boasts the ability to slay Colossi; and slaying all sixteen Colossi is the only way to revive the girl, which Wander agrees to without hesitation.

With this limited set up, we’re arriving halfway through the story of Wander. Shadow of the Colossus doesn’t let us know where Wander is from, why the girl was sacrificed, or how he came to possess this magical sword—because this isn’t our story, it’s his. We’re privy to merely a snapshot of Wander’s life and his journey, and it actually feels refreshing to be in the passenger seat of the story for a change. The mysterious set up of Shadow of the Colossus is more intriguing not in spite of being shrouded in mystery, but rather because of it. I’m obviously eager to know all about Wander and the curious deceased girl, but I’m not demanding answers to these questions because I’m enraptured by the ambiguity.

Unfortunately, all this changes at the eleventh hour. Upon slaying the twelfth Colossus, we’re introduced to a band of warriors making their way to the Shrine of Worship where Wander first encountered Dormin. It transpires that the band are led by Lord Emon, who accuses Wander of stealing the sacred sword as well as the body of the girl, and has committed a “great evil” by venturing into the Forbidden Lands and slaying all of the Colossi. After Dormin possesses the body of Wander, Emon traps the pair of them in the Shrine along with the body of the girl, dragging the reborn Dormin into a pool of water with a powerful spell. After Emon has left and Dormin has seemingly been vanquished, the girl reawakens, takes the baby that she finds in the pool where Dormin was banished, and walks up to the garden at the top of the Shrine where she awaits an unknown future.

All this takes place in the span of fifteen minutes. Up until this point Shadow of the Colossus held an aura of mystery, posing questions that I didn’t believe would be answered. The introduction of Lord Emon acts as Wander’s past literally catching up with him—he’s a plot device that’s used to provide conflict in an otherwise one-sided ending for Wander’s tale. Emon is placed at the ending of Shadow of the Colossus not just to combat the reawakened Dormin, but to clash with Wander’s character and provide a definitive ending to his tale.

It’s not just games that are bending over backwards to give us the answers to questions we’ve pondered in the backs of our minds. In 2012, the film Prometheus was filmmaker Ridley Scott’s attempt to provide an answer for a hanging plot thread in 1979's Alien. The origin of the cryptic ‘Engineer’ and his cargo of alien Facehugger pods was vehemently debated by fans and critics alike for literally decades—a debate which ran on for so long, that Scott decided to make a new series of Alien films surrounding it. We’re now two films into this new saga, and Alien: Covenant didn’t exactly provide us with any answers about the origins of the Engineer, so it looks like Scott is taking his sweet time giving us the answer to the question that established this new series of films.

Although it’s a question that Scott evidently wants to answer, it’s not an answer that I’m actually seeking. The mystery surrounding the placement of the warning beacon at the derelict ship was a massive driving point of Alien when I saw it back when I was far too young, and the mystery of the Engineer helped cement Alien as one my favorite movies ever. Contrast this the Shadow of the Colossus, and the two actually have more in common than you might think. No, there aren’t any mysteries surrounding our protagonist in Alien as there is with Wander in Shadow of the Colossus, but there’s still an overarching mystery surrounding how the respective stories are established—a mysterious crashed spaceship on a deserted planet, and an unknown boy journeying into ancient lands with the corpse of a girl.

Where Alien and Shadow of the Colossus differ is that one attempts to provide answers for the mysterious beginning of their respective story. While Alien never looks back on its mysterious foundations and forges forward in its tale of terror in space, Shadow of the Colossus gives answers to its beginnings by having Lord Emon ride to the rescue at the last moment. Emon acts as the plot device by which we know where Wander and the mysterious girl came from, and it’s through this that the vagueness surrounding Shadow of the Colossus begins to dissipate. Had the origins of Wander, his sword, and the girl remained a mystery, Shadow of the Colossus might have fascinated me for many years to come. Sometimes the strongest legacies are built from what is left unsaid.

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Comments 11

  • Avatar for falz3333 #1 falz3333 3 months ago
    For me, Emon's appearance provided more questions than answers. Was Wander on familiar terms with him (like one of those four guards) or simply an inhabitant of the same small community? Were Emon and his troupe the ones who sacrificed Mono, if so, how much are we supposed to empathize with them and their judgment of Wander? Emon seemed remarkably prepared for this encounter, had he been preparing for a long time for just such an occurrence or had a similar event happened in the past?

    I dunno, we took different things away from the game I suppose. But for someone who played Ico at a very young age and was looking to SotC for some insight into that story (it was billed as a prequel after all), SotC's vague insinuations about their connection provided plenty of mysteries to ponder.
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  • Avatar for Nazo #2 Nazo 3 months ago
    Nice of you to put a spoiler right there in the subheading
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  • Avatar for dard410 #3 dard410 3 months ago
    @falz3333 agreed, this article vastly overstates the "answers" Lord Emon's arrival provides. Emon doesn't tell the player anything about the nature of Dormin, the Forbidden Lands, etc. It's still unclear if Dormin is evil or just a misunderstood powerful creature.

    I'm also a bit worried about the prevalence of JJ Abrams' mystery box in modern storytelling, which is nominally about getting audiences invested through mystery but all too often is just a lazy excuse to eschew world building and answers (see Westworld, Lost). I think SotC gets this balance just right. Most of SotC remains mysterious, but the ending helps provide context and make the stakes feel real. Shadows would have been nearly as satisfying if it just ended with nothing after the 16th Colossus.
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  • Avatar for GreatLordAbsu #4 GreatLordAbsu 3 months ago
    I agree with@falz3333's take. There is still plenty of mystery to chew on long after the ending's unexpected turn of events have transpired.
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  • Avatar for Dorchadas #5 Dorchadas 3 months ago
    I feel like Emon's appearance emphasized the moral dimension of the story. Part of the feel of the game is wondering whether Wander is doing the right thing. The colossi aren't hostile until disturbed, and it's not clear that resurrecting Mono is the best course of action or just Wander's obsession. Emon bursting in at the end really parallels the RPG trope of the heroes appearing just as the villain attempts to complete some terrible ritual performed at great cost--like, the deaths of a dozen unique and beautiful beings--and stopping him in the nick of time.
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  • Avatar for catymcc #6 catymcc 3 months ago
    @Nazo This game is over a decade old.
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  • Avatar for IPA #7 IPA 3 months ago
    @Nazo Don't be a dullard, Nazo.
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  • Avatar for odaiba-memorial #8 odaiba-memorial 3 months ago
    Yeah, I'm with the others saying that Lord Emon's involvement in the story doesn't actually reveal all that much about what's going on. We still know nothing of the world outside of the Forbidden Lands, for instance, and if anything, Emon's role in the story should cause the player to wonder if they've actually been playing as the villain the whole time.

    Lord Emon's role answers:
    - Why Wander is here.
    - How he got his sword.
    - Why Mono is dead.

    Lord Emon's role does NOT answer:
    - Whether what Wander is doing is the right thing, or what will ultimately happen if he succeeds (other than the obvious result of Dormin being freed).
    - Why Mono was "sacrificed" in the first place, and who did so, as well as Wander's connection to her and why he's so determined to revive her.
    - Who Dormin is and why he/she/it was seemingly sealed away.
    - What the Colossi's purpose are other than to apparently hold fragments of Dormin's essence, if any other purpose exists.
    - Whether the Colossi have always been around or were created specifically for this purpose.
    - If the Colossi were created, who/what created them.
    - What happened to Mono, Agro, and the horned baby after the end of the game.
    - Who/what exactly the horned baby is (reborn Wander or no?).
    - Where the game fits in the Fumito Ueda trilogy. It was billed as a prequel to Ico at some point, but Ueda has said it's open to interpretation.
    - Literally anything about the world outside of the Forbidden Lands.

    Like... I don't get what the author was expecting out of the story. It's still very much a minimalist and open-ended tale. It's true that the game suddenly offers a fair amount of exposition at the last minute, but viewed as whole, the game is simply bookending the story with plot sequences at the beginning and end while letting the rest of the game stand on its own.

    Shadow of the Colossus provides some answers, sure, but it still leaves you with more questions. I certainly don't agree that the ending somehow "betrays the game's storytelling." It tells exactly the story it wanted to tell and provides very little information outside of what's happening right in front of you.

    I honestly can't imagine how the game could give any fewer answers than it already does, unless the author was expecting the game to literally just fade to black and roll credits immediately after defeating the final colossus. I fail to see how the game provided "answers I wasn't seeking."Edited 10 times. Last edited March 2018 by odaiba-memorial
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  • Avatar for odaiba-memorial #9 odaiba-memorial 3 months ago
    @Nazo I'm not sure what the statute of limitations are on spoilers, but thirteen years is definitely long enough.Edited March 2018 by odaiba-memorial
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  • Avatar for Nazo #10 Nazo 3 months ago
    @catymcc
    It also just got a recent re-release likely to reinvigorate interest in it, which is presumably why this article is here now.
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  • Avatar for nickhunter #11 nickhunter 3 months ago
    @Nazo are you completely mental?? The title of the article makes it pretty clear that the ending is the topic
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