I have a confession to make: I never finished Shadow of the Colossus.
[Take a few moments to catch your breath, bring your blood pressure back down to normal, and snag some smelling salts to revive any of those nearby with delicate constitutions.]
In fact, I never made it past the fifth Colossus. It wasn't because the game was bad or horribly broken in some way. I had my issues with it, but if I'm honest with myself the reason I chucked it to the back of the game drawer was because I saw what was coming, and I didn't want to have any part in it. It was clear from the beginning that Wander was planning Bad Things, and that the voice instructing him was a Bad Person, and the thought of pushing through two more handfuls of giant hairy beasts only to accomplish something with which I didn't agree simply wasn't going to happen.
So why is it, then, that I so gleefully danced through Xseed's Pandora's Tower?
It is a (very) minor spoiler to mention this, but since 95% of you will likely never play Pandora's Tower, I don't feel too bad. As the game progresses, you feel a similar sense of foreboding that your actions in the game are leading to some very disturbing if not outright terrible outcomes. In many ways the game presents the same sense of stride-halting dread that Shadow of the Colossus does once you piece together a few facts. With both games you (as always) have the choice to continue playing or foist the disk off on some unsuspecting passer-by. Although there are some interesting mechanical tricks that Pandora's Tower employed to string me along, if I had to pinpoint one reason it had me so engrossed while Shadow of the Colossus had me so repulsed, it would be this: empathy.
For those not in the know — and I realize that is likely the aforementioned 95% of those reading this — Pandora's Tower is a small and quirky Japanese mashup that falls somewhere between Castlevania and Zelda in its gameplay. The really fascinating thing, though, is that there are only three people in the entire game. You (as Aeron) are the first; another (Mavda) acts as little more than a storefront — Well, a very old, creepy, grandmotherly storefront bowed over by the weight of a giant urn on her back which contains a bony demon who likes to mutter and wave his sinewy metatarsals in your direction.
One of those games.
Anyway, the third, Elena, is about the only person you have any interaction with at all. For the entirety of the 20+ hours of play time, you are interacting with one. single. character. And interact you must, as a Beast Timer will compel you to return to homebase many times throughout your adventure. See, a curse has overtaken Elena, gradually transforming her flesh into that of a hideous monster. The only thing that can temporarily reverse said curse is the raw flesh of certain beasts who inhabit the towers you just happened to wander into (thanks, Mavda!). As the resident Stack o' Muscle in our tale, it naturally falls upon you to retrieve the flesh. But you have to achieve your objective before the curse turns her more, or Bad Things happen.
So you see, Elena is a person with whom you will become very familiar. She is trapped in a little tower in the ass-end of nowhere, and she requires constant doses of still-beating beast hearts (and poor you with no Beast 'n' Out Burger nearby). Each time you return to feed her more, she naturally strikes up a conversation. You can't blame her, really; the only thing she has to talk to otherwise is a houseplant. At any rate, you converse often. And this is key.
In Shadow of the Colossus, the person you were potentially damning the world to save didn't really do much. I mean, she was kinda, y'know … dead. There's no backstory — no empathy to drag you along to see the potentially terrible conclusion. For me, personally, it created a very strong dissonance (which we talked about a bit earlier), because the mechanics of the game wanted me to move forward, but I as the player felt no reason to sacrifice myslf and everyone else to save this person. So I took the only choice of agency the game offered me, which was simply to turn it off.
Pandora's Tower, in contrast, very carefully and craftily builds a relationship with Elena. The game tries so very hard to make the player empathize with her on a human level. She's been cursed, and had to flee from her family and everyone she's ever known and loved; that much is easy. But it's in the small little interactions and animations that the concept really shines.
Every hour she'll be in a different location in the Observatory: cooking lunch, sweeping the upstairs, translating texts you may have brought her, staring balefully into a waterfall. She has a (considering the circumstances) normal daily routine. If you stop her and speak to her each hour, she'll make varied small talk depending on the activity, location, time of day, and story.
Additionally, you are encouraged to bring her gifts, such as flowers, tea, fabric with which to make new sheets, jewelry, etc. The game leads you down this path by giving you some of these items for free in dungeon exploration (there's nothing else you can do with them), and by loading you up with money, the only real use of which is to buy more presents. It's not kitschy, but every time you do so she'll have some specific way to express gratitude.
More importantly, the game carries these gifts forward in an impressive way. If you load her up, you can catch her leaning over and talking to her plants. She will periodically change the tablecloth, the sheets, her dress, and any other things you've given her fabric for. She'll periodically thank you for rings and tea and the like. And there are certain gifts, obtainable if you bring home a LOT of flesh in one trip, that give you a special scene with her as she and Aeron interact with them together — a mirror, a music box, a dress which holds special significance to her people, etc.
In other words, she's living her life, making the most of a pretty horrible situation as best she can. Seeing her go about her day in a believable manner, along with other well-animated affectations, gives the player a lot of empathy toward her.
Partway through the game, it dawns on you that if you continue, Bad Things may happen. In many ways, it brings up the same dilemma that Shadow of the Colossus did — except different in the very crucial aspect of empathy. Despite becoming a little repulsed and ever-so-slightly fearful of what would happen next, I pressed on. I pressed on because I felt pity for Elena. I pressed on because I couldn't justify leaving another human (so to speak) to suffer. I pressed on because, more than anything else, our bond gave me hope that somehow, some way, things would turn out all right.
In fact, the player's "bond" with Elena is exactly what could make things turn out all right. There are six endings in Pandora's Tower, ranging from cataclysmically bad to Super Mega Happy Ending good. Unlike most other games in which your ending is determined by your battle performance or how many tchotchkes you managed to snag, here only one thing matters: your bond with Elena. The stronger it is, the better your ending.
The bond is a simple thing to grow; I've already enumerated the ways in which to do it. Talk to her. Give her gifts. Talk to her about those gifts. Bring her flesh. Don't ever let her start to "turn", because that hurts the bond. Do this enough and you'll send the bond meter sky high, which determines the final boss you'll face (stronger bond, stronger boss, oddly enough) and the ending you see.
I love this. I think it's brilliant. See, even though there's plenty of enjoyable tower-delving gameplay, at the end of the day the only thing that matters is how well you got along with this one singular human being. The ending shuffle effectively says it's the only thing that matters, and that's reflected in all of your interactions.
So when tough decisions finally arrive — when the feeling of impending doom creeps in, and you'd rather just turn the game off than perpetuate destruction — you have a reason to push through and see how things turn out. All it takes is a little empathy.