The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A stunning new take on ‘Shadow of the Colossus’

(Courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment)
Placeholder while article actions load

Shadow of the Colossus
Developed by: Bluepoint Games and JAPAN Studio
Published by: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Available on: PlayStation 4

A decade or so ago when the “Can video games be art?” debate was in full flare, no other popular game seemed to be cited as often as “Shadow of the Colossus” as an example of the form’s aesthetic accomplishments. To my regret, I never owned a PlayStation 2 so I missed out when it debuted in 2005. I was intent on playing the remastered edition that was released for PlayStation 3 in 2011 but by the time I got around to it a few years later my controller croaked and I didn’t have much time to play games just for fun. All of which is to say that “Shadow of the Colossus” has been on my mind for years. I’ve read so many appreciations of it that it was a bit strange to finally play the new remake. You might say I was primed for deja vu. But what I found was something so self-consciously mythic — simple in its overall plot but grand its execution — that nothing that I’d heard about the game prevented me from appreciating its evergreen vitality.

“Shadow of the Colossus” is the brainchild of Fumito Ueda, the game’s writer, director, and lead designer. Ueda established a name for himself off the critical and commercial success of “Ico” (2001) which tells the story of a boy who leads a sheltered girl through a castle. In these games, as well as in Ueda’s latest work “The Last Guardian” (2016), there is a use of space that favors dilapidated structures and large open areas create an atmosphere of stark beauty.

Duos also figure prominently throughout all three games. In “The Last Guardian,” a boy and a mythological beast try to escape from a crumbling castle while in “Shadow of the Colossus” a young man named Wander goes on a quest with his trusty steed Agro to bring a deceased maiden back to life. A curious aspect of Ueda’s design choices is that both Agro and Trico, the beast in “The Last Guardian,” defy conventional gaming norms by not responding with alacrity to each of the player’s inputs. Argo won’t always turn on a dime whenever you want just as Trico won’t obsequiously go where you would like him to every time. Their obstinance fosters the impression that the creatures have some will of their own which heightens the illusion that your companions are more than digital puppets.

In “Colossus”, Wander’s quest to resurrect the girl leads him to a cursed land where he finds a temple in which there are sixteen stone statues and an altar. Placing the body on the altar, he hears a disembodied voice address him. The voice confirms that it is possible for the girl to be restored to life if Wander agrees to perform a ritual that will cost him dearly. Heedlessly, Wander accepts the bargain and the voice tells him where he can find his first foe. To compensate for the vague directions that he receives, Wander, by holding his sword up to sunlight, can cast a beam that points in the general direction of his adversary. A short horseback ride from the temple takes him to an area where he encounters a gigantic, mace-wielding creature. After killing it, by climbing up the fur on its back and repeatedly stabbing at a vulnerable area on its head, Wander is overcome by a smoky vapor that convulses his body and forces him to the ground. When he comes to, he finds himself on the floor of the temple where one of the sixteen surrounding statues now lies in ruins.  After the ethereal voice charges him with another foe to pursue, it becomes obvious that Wander has assumed the role of an assassin.

Much of the brilliance of “Shadow of the Colossus” stems from the sheer majesty of your opponents.  Some are the size of tall buildings while others are more compact powerhouses. The player must adopt different strategies to defeat each of the colossi which makes every confrontation feel significant. An obvious amount of care went into the design and animation of the colossi because it’s clear within the overall plot of the game that you’re meant to feel the weight of taking a life. When these creatures ultimately relent from your blows, it’s difficult not to glimpse an intimation of your own transience in their final shuddering collapse. I suspect one of the reasons many have hailed “Shadow of the Colossus” as a work of art is because it left them feeling pensive.

It’s hard not to draw a comparison between Wander, who immediately accepts his murderous mission, and a player who needs but the slightest pretext to slaughter any digital thing that gets in her way. “Shadow of the Colossus” is one of the first popular games I know of to cast a dubious eye on the exploits of its protagonist. Though that might not seem monumental now that morally conflicted characters are easier to be found, I am envious of those who had their perception of games reshaped when Ueda’s work originally came out.

The new remake was developed by the Austin-based Bluepoint Games which was also responsible for the PlayStation 3 remaster. The newest iteration of “Shadow of the Colossus” uses the original PS2 review code as reference material though the game itself has been rebuilt. The sun-blasted grass of the fields, the ivy laced stones of the buildings, the fur on the colossi — all of the graphical textures — have been revamped. Still, such reworkings beg the question of what constitutes the definitive version of a game. I think for now that’s still an open-ended question.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

Recent game reviews:

‘Finding Paradise’: A touching, brilliantly-designed indie game

‘Accounting +’ is pure VR fun

‘Life is Strange: Before the Storm’ is a rare occurrence — a game built around a relatable young woman

‘Gorogoa:’ A rare combination of accessible but strange and intuitive but mind-bending