Shadow of the Colossus (SotC) was a gorgeous PS2 game. This landmark release, together with its predecessor set in the same world, Ico, bookended the life of the PS2. Its base experience offered players exploration of a vast land, the only inhabitants of which were large, beautiful colossi that made for epic, tactical battles. The graphics were splendid at the time, and I maintain that a screenshot of a random point of the game is still eye candy up to this day. When the debate about “video games as art” comes up, mentioning SotC will put an end to that argument. Now let me ask you… why?
7 out of 8 people who responded to the question I tweeted cited its atmosphere, landscape, graphics, the colossi, the “gorgeous, soft color palette that overwhelmed the player through its sheer simplicity”… whoa. Anyway, all the responses just provides for a good starting point in analyzing this game.
Shadow of the Colossus is a perfect example of a unique base experience that had all the dynamics, mechanics, and aesthetics working together to make for a work of art. The game has many lessons for aspiring developers. For the rest of you fans, I’d like to discuss three lessons based on what I’ve learned by playing this game: A simple focus on mechanics, time management’s effect on a project, and the dedication to art.
These days, games want to give players more equipment, more skills, more items, more features, more controls to master, more! More! MOAR! This isn’t a bad thing. Drowning the player with new mechanics as he/she progresses towards a long-term goal is indeed entertaining but in my opinion, it gives the illusion of accomplishment.
What SotC got right is that the weapons and skills that players have access to at the beginning of the game is the same skill set that they have by the end. No more, no less. This move encourages the player to thoroughly master the controls and all the actions available to them to the point that everything will feel fluid and responsive. In doing so, swinging your sword, jumping, using your bow, riding your horse, and tumbling out of harm’s way will feel so familiar by the game’s end that a player can have all the confidence he/she needs when facing the final colossus. Furthermore, by giving such a limited set of tools on the table to get the job done, each battle felt cerebral. I didn’t have to switch between powers or navigate menus to experiment on a solution. I knew that everything I needed was already mapped out on my controller. I knew what each action was capable of and I knew the extent of the interactivity of the environment. In computer programming and game dev, this is called “grokking”. To grok something is to assert complete mastery over knowledge or a technique.
And on a related note, the game added longevity in the form of a time attack mode for each Colossus with difficulty settings. By grokking all the mechanics of the game, players will have felt well equipped to take on the time trial modes when they were done with the main story. It was a great emotion to feel at the time and it certainly made me feel like I genuinely mastered a game. A feeling no platinum trophy has ever given me.
Projects can’t go on forever. Heck, Diablo 3 had to be released eventually. When a team is given a project this large, resources have to be spent wisely in creating a product that consumers will be happy with.
So with a base experience in mind, epic battles with massive behemoths that the player must win in order to advance to the end goal, the team chose to forego a lot of staples that one may expect in open-world type games. The land did not have any other inhabitants, there wasn’t an intricate dialogue tree, no quick-time events needed in slaying a colossus, the protagonist’s past was not explained at all, and again, the land was totally empty! Its only inhabitants were you and the colossi and Agro, your trusty steed. In choosing to keep to the base experience, the development time was spent on making the colossi absolutely beautiful. Not just on the eyes but in every aspect. Grabbing their fur and making your way up their backs felt like you were scaling a shaking mountain. Each pixel of their design was educational for the player and enthralling to behold.
Sure, the team could have added some enemies on the map, but this would have been valuable dev time misspent on a dynamic that would have ruined the aesthetic. A move like that would also compromise the base experience.
So why not just make an instant travel hub and have Dormin teleport the wanderer to the locations of the Colossi? Why necessitate the player to travel for 30 minutes around the Forbidden Land in search of the next Colossus?
The first reason was to make the player appreciate the art and quality of the game. Too often, the dynamic of a reward system provides for new skills, experience points, or some tool that aids in the gameplay. The risk that the game took was to make the aesthetic the reward for the player, a high risk move that certainly paid off in the end.
Secondly, by shifting the focus of the gameplay to something other than combat aided in telling the story. Bookending the colossal battles by serene horse rides simultaneously told the story of the forbidden land and let the players surmise on its history and reflect on what has happened. As a result, you're immersed in the experience even more.
In conclusion, to those of you that responded to my tweet and Facebook status, the aesthetic was indeed a huge factor in considering Shadow of the Colossus as a work of art. It was not the lone reason for putting the game on that pedestal though. If you haven’t played the game, you should definitely pick up the HD collection and play Ico as well. With the Last Guardian scheduled for next year. Team Ico will surely deliver another game worthy of framing and displaying in a museum for the next generation of gamers.