If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.--Isaac Newton
Gamers and game developers alike appear obsessed with the notions of freedom and variety, to the point that no modern game appears complete without a handful of components ostensibly implemented to realize such qualities. As gamers, we want more weapons, more combos, more characters, more enemies, more vehicles, and more levels. And whether they deliver or not, an assortment of features such as "sandbox" level design, "moral" choices for the player to make, and emergent storylines with multiple endings seem like obligatory additions to almost every new title.
Shadow of the Colossus, then, at first glance appears to be woefully inadequate.
Boasting the barest suggestion of a storyline and a rigidly linear mission structure, it offers a single, repetitive goal for the player to accomplish: locate and kill sixteen giant creatures in order to restore the life of an unidentified young woman. It's common to hear the game described as a series of boss battles, and for most part, that's an accurate statement. The "boss" designation is somewhat misleading, however, as the Colossi themselves are the only enemies. To defeat them, the player must climb onto their bodies, find their vulnerable areas, then stab them with a sword until they die. Although each Colossus presents its own challenges, in every encounter, the general approach is the same.
As far as "features" are considered, Shadow of the Colossus's offerings are surprisingly sparse. The player begins and ends the game with a sword, a bow and arrows, and a horse. That's it. There are no items to obtain, no weapons to upgrade, and no keys to find. There's no need to master any combo attacks, because there are none. In fact, twenty minutes in, the player has been fully introduced to almost every item, ability, and gameplay concept that Shadow of the Colossus has to offer.
And forget about choices, moral or otherwise. Sure, you can explore the environment at will, but there's only one Colossus at a time to discover, and wandering aimlessly won't get you to the next. You'll kill the Colossi in the order and by the methods the game dictates, or not at all. Your nameless character's moral outlook is fixed, albeit ambiguous, and there's hardly even a hint of a backstory. With the exception of your horse, you won't interact with other characters. Your options are simple: find each Colossus without getting lost, and kill it or die in the attempt.
Despite all of this, Shadow of the Colossus has managed to garner some of the most intriguing praise of any game to date. While recognizing its minor technical issues, like slow framerates and the occasional camera control problem, critics have almost universally praised it as "entirely unique," "profound," or even "brilliant." Eurogamer, in a common refrain among critics and gamers alike, proclaimed it "one of the most consistently compelling and memorable games we've ever played."
And that's not just hype. Despite its lack of bells and whistles, Shadow of the Colossus is something genuinely special, in large part because it eschews the various accouterments endemic to modern gaming in favor of an intense, narrow focus.
Shadow of the Colossus's development team clearly recognized the potential of the underlying premise. Instead of complimenting that premise with a score of features, however, they took their game in the opposite direction, developing only its most basic, elemental aspects with a richness and detail rarely seen in other games.
Take the horseback riding, for example. Essential for traversing the vast distances to each Colossus, the main character's horse, Agro is as much a living, breathing animal as any created for a video game. He's beautifully rendered, masterfully animated, and imbued with a genuine personality that, if you've ever been around horses, is immediately familiar. Agro's simple, elegant, control scheme mimics the actions of riding a real horse, and as the player spurs him forward and tugs on his reigns, there's a powerful sense that he's a living creature with a will of his own. It's hard not to form a sort of bond with Agro, and increasingly appreciate him as the game progresses.
The landscape seems almost as alive, despite its lack of human presence. Crisscrossed by canyons and impenetrable mountain ranges, its massive features hide more inviting locations, like quiet, shadowed groves of trees or echoing caves into which waterfalls flow. Typically awash in sunlight or shrouded in fog, the entire world is rendered in subtle, muted tones. Seemingly insignificant details, like the bubbles churned up when the character swims across a lake, or the way Agro's hooves stir up leaves in a forest, are carefully depicted and lend an air of realism and intimacy to the surroundings.
The Colossi, however, are indisputably the game's most defining feature, and it's in their presentation that the game's visceral, immediate appeal reaches its most epic proportions. From a distance, their masterfully animated silhouettes can obscure the sky. Closer, their ancient, complex bodies of stone and muscle are landscapes in and of themselves. Some wander canyons, their footsteps shaking the earth, while others lurk underwater, or lie slumbering in caves or temples. While some are humanoid, others resemble animals, or even insects. In every case, they're possessed by spirit so lifelike and mysterious that just watching them in motion is a singular experience.
Much of the key to Shadow of the Colossus's appeal is in the potency of its presentation. Unimpaired by complex gameplay mechanics, it delivers a world in which the player can interact and explore undistracted. The initial challenge in approaching each Colossus is primarily cerebral, as in most cases their bodies aren't immediately climbable, and they must be lured into position or injured somehow. Once they're accessible, however, the act of locating and attacking their critical areas is an intimate exercise in planning and concentration. The controls are simple, and the means of attack are primitive, but the experience of navigating their complex, flailing anatomies is downright breathtaking.
Nearly every aspect of Shadow of the Colossus is given careful attention, both in terms of craftsmanship and artistic vision. There's a sense that no detail is unimportant, from the thundering sounds of a Colossus's footsteps to the delicate scrape of Agro's hooves against stone. The superb musical score ranges from ethereal choral arrangements to dramatic symphonies, and perfectly compliments the mood of the game. As a whole, it's a study in carefully balanced contrasts, where the subtle, evocative aspects of the experience carry the same significance as its most dramatic moments.
Though the aging PS2 groans under the weight of the code that Shadow of the Colossus brings to bear on its tired components, there's no mistaking the fact that the game is a triumph of gaming technology. While not graphically advanced from a technical perspective, it manages to achieve something undeniably wondrous, within the limitations of a medium too often dismissed as unsuitable for meaningful artistic expression. In the wake of the awe it inspires, the nature of its technological underpinnings is almost irrelevant.
There's a lesson here for those who might assume that the value of games lies in their ability to grant players ever-increasing options and freedom of choice. Shadow of the Colossus creates a rich, compelling experience by providing exactly the opposite: a tightly constrained, minimalist vision uncluttered by elements that would distract from its allure. And it's just one of an infinite number of personal visions that, under better circumstances, the medium of gaming could offer players. Shadow of the Colossus is a welcome reminder that a game can be felt as much as played, provided that its impact remains undiluted.