Individual reasons vary, but generally speaking, we consume speculative fiction in its various forms because it allows us experiences impossible in reality, gives us glimpses into worlds that never were. Shadow of the Colossus, child of the award-winning ICO (SCEA, 2002) and recent recipient of the Game Developers Choice Awards for Best Game, Character Design, Game Design, Innovation, and Visual Arts, provides not just a glimpse, but an experience that borders on vivid virtual reality. It is one of those rare games whose immersiveness, cinematography, and action levels are so high that a player's responses to it are not just mental or even emotional, but physical. If you haven't already purchased a PS2 for ICO, Suikoden V, or Katamari Damacy, it would be worth purchasing one just for this game.
Shadow opens with stunning graphics; it is amazing to note that, as groundbreaking as ICO was for its genuine artistry, the makers of its descendant have pushed the same hardware to staggeringly greater heights. Watching sunlight filter through leaves overhead is almost too realistic, easily fooling the eyes into thinking they are seeing recorded footage.
Without giving away some of the more poignant moments of the opening cinematic, suffice it to say that we follow the journey of the main character across a treacherous landscape and into an immense stone temple. As was something of a hallmark of ICO, everything moves very slowly—too slowly, in some cases, disrupting the rhythm set up by the game's visuals. When dialogue finally starts, the language spoken is quite interesting, its syllables suggesting Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea or the language of the Abh in Crest of the Stars, but information is delivered too slowly, and this is yet another example of the many Japanese titles that come to the U.S. as the victims of poor translation. Despite this, nothing can take away the moment when control is given to the player, and one realizes fully that no trickery has been used to simulate these amazing images—they're rendered as in-game graphics, and you as a player have control. I've played a lot of games, and I'm as much a sucker for the pretty as anyone else, but the first time I moved the main character in Shadow of the Colossus, a chill actually went up my spine. Criticism has been levied at the game for focusing too much on its graphics, but that focus has yielded amazing results and set the bar impressively high for achievement in interactive visual effects.
The PS2 is by no means a new piece of hardware, but no other game in the six-year history of the console looks anything like this. It is an achievement that flies in the face of market pressures continually demanding more and bigger processors, faster memory, more polygons. Great games don't need extreme hardware; they need art, and Sony Computer Entertainment's Studio 1 continues to deliver.
Despite the intense vividness of the Shadow of the Colossus world, story-wise, it's actually quite empty, and intentionally so. The vast landscapes, though populated with small animals—birds that fly overhead, others that visit the empty temple—have a ghost-town feel to them, occupied only by the main character ("Wander"), the spirit with which he speaks, and the Colossi that he must destroy. We don't know much else; he's got a cool horse and an ancient sword, and these will allow him to defeat his enemies. Although Shadow of the Colossus is not an ICO sequel, major elements remain the same: echoing atmospherics, amazing use of lighting, and a continuing theme of light versus dark in a very literal sense.
Wander's horse, Agro, has been the subject of much debate in discussions about the game. I found him highly kinesthetic, with excellent animations and intuitive controls. Some complain that he is "too realistic"—too much like a real horse—and this might be true, but the overall effect is so convincing that I would have been happy to fork over the $40 sticker price purely for the experience of riding the horse through the game world's gorgeous landscape. I could have done this for hours, but alas, I had a hero with an ancient sword and there were giants to kill.
The ancient sword serves a dual purpose: it kills the Colossi, and it also reveals their positions and weaknesses. While the game's story has a linear progression of these massive boss battles, the player must use the horse to hunt down each one. The sword, when raised in a sunlit area, creates, through a spectacular splash of lighting effects, a brilliant single beam of white light when the player turns in the right direction.
Defeating the various Colossi generally consists of climbing them (they are covered in a kind of grassy fur in particular spots, bracketed with black metal in others) and stabbing them in strategic places. In the immersive game world, this can result in a real sense of vertigo as one finds oneself suspended hundreds of feet above the ground. Despite the game's violent premise, defeating each Colossus is more of a puzzle and less of a hack-and-slash objective: one must determine how to climb the monster—sometimes utilizing nearby terrain, or shooting it in a particular weak spot—and where each one's weak spot is. Sounds simple, but isn't; the physics of the game are so convincing that the jeopardy feels real—and when that first colossus appears on the horizon (bringing with it a swell of symphonic "danger" music) and starts marching toward you, finally stopping to stare a good ten stories down from pupilless white eyes, it's a stirring sight.
With tactile similarities to Prince of Persia and Ecco the Dolphin (and if you liked those games, you'll greatly enjoy the sensation of controlling Wander), the majority of the game's experience is tied up in navigating designer Fumito Ueda's dreamlike world of cliffs, hills, lakes, and giants with a complex but reasonably intuitive controller interface. Once the player integrates with the controls, an illusion of great physicality emerges: the character jumps, he hangs (an effect particularly dramatic when the Colossus he is perched on gives a gigantic broncolike shake), he falls, he climbs—all with superb physical weighting. The result is a world that feels heavy, windy, and real, lending great power to the extreme experience of climbing sixteen giants and felling them with an ancient sword. Though the beginning sequences and early Colossi are very forgiving—it's actually somewhat difficult to "die"—because of the coordination needed to maneuver the character, this is by no means a casual game, though neither is it accessible to a hardcore audience alone.
Little touches that were praised in ICO make their reappearance here in greater detail: a dove flies between the camera and the sun, its wing feathers flashing translucent as it passes; a cloud of crows that shadow the first Colossus give it a sense of massive scale; Agro, the protagonist's black horse, shakes his mane and braces his legs as he skids to a sudden stop. All of these combine with engaging gameplay and a haunting story (intriguing in its elusiveness) to create a dense, comprehensive experience well deserving of its recent accolades.
Erin Hoffman is a writer and game designer currently living in upstate New York with her husband and a small menagerie. She works for 1st Playable Productions and can be found online at http://www.gryphonflight.com. You can read more of her work in Fantasy Readers Wanted—Apply Within, Enchanted Realms II, and The Best Software Writing I: Selected and Introduced by Joel Spolsky. Her short story "The Bearer" appears in the current issue of Deep Magic.