Shadow of the Colossus achieved the status of an epic through the method of minimalism. Many video games are about lengthy, stratified grinds through disposable enemy henchmen, puzzles that exist only to stagger your progress, and bigger “boss” enemies to cap off each new area. Not Shadow of the Colossus. This is a game about a boy, his horse, his departed beloved, and 16 of the most astonishing creatures you’ll ever do battle with.
The game’s story is simple in details, but carries the weight and pathos of grand mythology. As it begins, we see a young warrior named Wander traveling on horseback with his deceased love to an ancient, forbidden temple. In this temple dwells a god (present only through a disembodied voice), and Wander and the god strike a deal: The god will return the woman’s soul if he slays 16 colossi that roam the surrounding land.
Shadow of the Colossus is an “open world” game — a great expanse of land lies in every direction from the central temple, and hidden throughout various pockets are the colossi. They are truly awesome creatures, ranging greatly in size and shape, some bipedal, some winged, some serpents that soar above the land or borough through the sand. Each clash is a uniquely epic encounter, requiring the relatively puny Wander to literally climb, cling, and crawl across the colossi to find and attack their weak points. Locating a colossus is as simple as raising Wander’s sword into the sky, which reflects a beam of light into the general direction of the next beast to slay. There are no other foes in this barren land to battle.
If it sounds like the game has a simple structure, that’s deliberate. Lead designer Fumito Ueda (who made the similarly low-key Ico) created Shadow of the Colossus with the intention of reducing it to the bare elements of a video game. Expository dialogue is kept to a minimum, only occurring briefly when Wander returns to the temple after slaying a colossus. All pretenses of dungeons and towns and inventory systems usually found in adventure games are eschewed; you simply find a colossus, kill it, then find the next. This is not a negative. By reducing the game to its essentials — boy, girl, horse, colossi — the emotions of the story are curiously heightened.
Part of the game’s intrigue is the nature of Wander’s quest. This is not a hero out to save the world, but an obsessed warrior out to conquer death — but at what cost? What exactly is the nature of these colossi he’s slaying? Yes, they’re ferocious and feral… but also undeniably majestic, and — crucially — docile until provoked. It is Wander, after all, who hunts them down to bring his love back to life. Is he justified? Is he meddling with forces that are rightly beyond mortal control? That Shadow of the Colossus compelled me to ask these questions as I played shows how unusually thoughtful it is.
But don’t misunderstand — Shadow of the Colossus is not purely an intellectual experience. It’s also a game full of thrilling action and, most impressively, astonishing imagination — a quality I wish more games strove for.
(Note: Originally published on IGN’s Green Pixels, which has since been taken offline.)