Writing about Shadow of the Colossus in 2016 feels… odd.
There was a shift in the mid-2000s, when games writing started to veer away from strict industry news and purchasing advice and conversations about how and why we game started to feel increasingly relevant. It was around the same time that the “games as art” question was finally given consideration, which seems silly in hindsight. Of course they are. We shouldn’t have required a game as well made as Shadow of the Colossus to finally ask that question, just as we didn’t need a pretentious think-piece to explain why it should be considered such.
That said, we’re still not 100% there, for a lot of reasons. Pages upon pages could probably be written about “gamers” getting in their own way when it comes to creating a culture that can be taken seriously. I also feel like our increasing insight into games as a business can make it difficult to see them purely as statement of expression. The more marketing gets involved, the harder it is to appreciate any sort of authorial intent.
That’s part of what makes Shadow so special – it breaks a lot of rules. It’s a game that could not have existed with focus testing. It’s part of the Japanese design philosophy that feels like it’s been lost in the transfer to Western dominance. It’s the result of a team doing everything they weren’t supposed to do, the things that shouldn’t work, to make something undeniably unique. Violating the familiar action/adventure tropes, making a game that’s nothing but scenery and boss fights, a part of you is constantly left wondering, maybe even a little paranoid about what lies ahead. There are no NPCs, no quest logs. Your only friend is a horse. It was minimalism in a medium known for nothing but the opposite.
Even long after beating the game, I still find that world worth going back to. Nothing in it feels accidental, as if enough exploring will one day uncover some greater understanding of the universe at large. This is why it’s been so fascinating to see people like Nomad, who are motivated to know every inch of the map, hunting every scrap of deleted material in hopes of learning just a little bit more. It was through his work that I learned Ueda’s original vision was for a much larger map that was going to somehow house 48 (!) different Colossi, a number that was eventually cut in half. The 8 that were then programmed but later after that cut are detailed here, showing hints left in the finished game as to their existence.
Though part of me wishes, for purely selfish reasons, that they had remained, the condensed final product feels complete, even with so many questions left about the vague narrative. To elaborate on that feels like it would be a betrayal of the spirit somehow. The reason we still think about it is because there is so much left to the imagination. In games we’re not often asked to fill in the blanks, typically because the blanks are just moments between the next thing we have to kill or acquire. In Shadow of the Colossus, it feels as if there could be a world full of untold stories left in those margins.