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.