Shadow of the Colossus and 15 years of storytelling mastery

Among giants.

Over the past 15 years, more and more big-budget titles have been put on pedestals for supposedly pushing the boundaries of video game storytelling. The likes of The Last of Us, 2018’s God of War, Red Dead Redemption, and others, have garnered a lot of praise from players and critics for their narrative delivery rivalling the likes of high-quality film and television. But very few games have been able to convey their stories with the same finesse that Shadow of the Colossus did all the way back in 2005. With director Fumito Ueda’s signature minimalistic style, Shadow of the Colossus delivers an emotionally provocative and thoughtful story by utilising the strengths of its medium, with the visuals and gameplay communicating the same emotional breadth as any other critically lauded narrative in the medium, and then some. There are spoilers ahead, for those who’ve still yet to play this PlayStation classic.

Shadow of the Colossus opens with a rather lengthy cutscene, but this comes from a desire to set a mood and pace for the game as opposed to being used as a vehicle for large swaths of exposition. In fact, a lot of the finer details are left vague. This introduction follows the main character Wander as he ventures on horseback through various environments whilst carrying a body, before he comes across an enormous bridge leading to an equally oversized shrine. He descends down a long spiral staircase leading to the base of the shrine, where he finds an altar to place the body, revealing it to be a deceased girl, one who appears to be of a similar age to Wander. We find out that the girl – Mono – was murdered during a sacrifice, with Wander taking it upon himself to travel to The Forbidden Lands with a stolen sword in hand to seek out an entity who can revive her. Upon setting Mono down, Wander is met with the disembodied voice of Dormin, a spirit who promises to revive Mono as long as Wander can slay the 16 colossi that inhabit the land. It’s a trade that Wander is willing to take, setting the events of the game in motion.

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The biggest detail that the introduction omits is the relationship between Wander and Mono. Were they friends? Siblings? Lovers? Not having the correct context behind this relationship would make Wander’s plight to save her feel emotionally hollow in most stories, but Shadow of the Colossus sets that framing aside to instead focus on Wander’s actions. It doesn’t matter what their exact relationship is; what matters is that Wander has taken it upon himself to travel a large distance to trespass into a dangerous territory, form a pact with a potentially malevolent spirit, and then slay 16 beasts of various sizes with nothing more than a bow, a sword, and his trustworthy horse Agro, all for the sake of restoring the life to a girl. Despite speaking no more than a handful of sentences throughout the course of the game, Wander’s motivations and unwavering emotions aren’t just understood, but they’re felt. No sane person would put themselves in the position Wander does unless it was for the sake of unconditional love, a love that doesn’t need to be specified as being either romantic or familial.

The ambiguity isn’t just found in certain plot details, but the morality of Wander’s actions. Many argue that Wander’s actions are selfish; after all, he ignored the warnings of The Forbidden Lands’ dangers and put his trust in an enigmatic deity for the sake of one person, decisions that feel naïve and short-sighted. The questionability of his actions is further punctuated in a less subtle way, with the death of each Colossi being met with a mournful tune, as life leaves their body and they collapse, only to end up decayed if you return to their location at a later point. Snuffing out some of The Forbidden Lands’ only remaining life certainly paints Wander in a negative light, but what about his reasoning?

Judging by how she was killed as part of a sacrifice, it’s likely that Mono died for reasons fuelled primarily by baseless superstitions, and if Wander was close to her this would have been a devastating event for the young man. Regardless of the exact circumstances surrounding Mono’s death, Wander’s actions don’t seem to be entirely driven by selfishness, but instead partially by altruism. Whether the ends justify the means is up for personal interpretation, but the amount of discussion surrounding the game that paints Wander as an antagonist feels unfair. It’s easy to fault Wander’s logic from an outside perspective – especially after seeing how the events unfold – but anybody who has dealt with the loss of a loved one can at least partially empathise with him, even if they don’t completely agree with his actions. This discussion of moral ambiguity wouldn’t even arise if it weren’t for the intentional omittance of specific details, yet Shadow of the Colossus shows the effectiveness of stripping away some of the unnecessary clutter, letting the imagination of the player fill in the blanks where necessary.

The other core relationship is the one that Wander shares with his horse Agro, and it’s also a relationship that players can become involved in. Agro is inarguably essential for completing the game: not only does she ferry Wander through the vast open spaces of The Forbidden Land to each colossi encounter, but she’s also needed during certain battles as well. As the player becomes more accustomed to Agro’s slightly unorthodox and partially automated controls, she stops feeling like a tool to get from A to B, and instead becomes an admirable companion that can also be a great relief from the game’s sometimes overbearing loneliness.

With that bond formed, it becomes all the more crushing when viewing Agro’s supposed death before the final colossi, as she bucks Wander to safety from a collapsing bridge before falling into a ravine. It not only hurts Wander to see another loved one’s life vanish before his eyes, but it acts as a surprisingly mortifying scene for the player as well. The reveal that she actually survives this fall diminishes a lot of the impact of the scene on subsequent playthroughs, but watching her helplessly fall after being a reliable partner throughout the game still imbues a sense of discomfort, even after knowing the outcome. Endangering animals in media can often be viewed as a cheap ploy to evoke an emotional response from the audience, but after spending an entire game with Agro, it sets the perfect tone leading into the finale.

While Agro survives until the end of the adventure, karmic justice is delivered unto Wander in the closing scenes of the game, as it’s revealed that each of the Colossi actually held a piece of Dormin’s soul, and in slaying them Dormin has regained their strength and is able to possess Wander. This twist not only feels dire conceptually, with any of Wander’s good intentions being dashed as he’s betrayed by his only hope, but it’s in the cruel delivery where the true emotional infliction lies.

As Wander slowly becomes more corrupted, the soldiers and leading monk from his village finally catch up to him, deciding to slay him in an attempt to stop the full possession and escape of the demonic spirit. Wander is quickly dealt a fatal blow, but in his final moments he’s still seen staring at the body of Mono, thinking only of her even as he faces his fatal end. Even those who fundamentally disagree with Wander’s actions throughout the course of the game probably won’t deny feeling mournful at the site of his body being defiled in such a callous way.

The emotional onslaught doesn’t stop there, as players become tasked with controlling Dormin, as he finally regains his original physical form. This short Dormin section imbues a truly fitting sense of frustrating desperation: he’s slow, clunky, and no matter what the player does, it ends in inevitable failure as the monk activates a seal for Dormin’s powers. This transitions into one more short playable section, where the player is put in the shoes of Wander one final time as he makes a hopeless escape attempt from being trapped within the seal. The desperate attempts to avoid the worst outcome is the final knife twist in this excruciating turn of events, and it’s made even more sorrowful when considering the imagery at play. As Wander tries to escape the seal, it can also be viewed as him hysterically striving to run towards Mono, with each advancement being halted by a tumble that sets him back further. The sheer panic and desperation invoked in this final plea is something that can only truly be captured through the power of interactivity, with giving the player the option to try everything they can think of, solidifying the notion that the end is inevitable.

If Shadow of the Colossus ended at Wander being sealed away with his entire journey being for nothing, it would be tempting to call it one of the most insidious and harsh endings ever featured in a game, but the blow is somewhat softened by the return of Agro (albeit, now with a slight limp), and the awakening of Mono. Dormin held up his side of the bargain in the end, he just failed to mention the one large caveat of possession. Upon returning to life, Mono walks towards the seal that trapped Wander. It’s now mostly empty, but contains a new-born horned baby. Wander has been reborn, and this is likely the atonement that the Gods decided to punish him with, but it can also be viewed as a fresh start. Mono and Wander are now left abandoned in The Forbidden Land, but they’ve been reunited safe from danger.

The plot of Shadow of the Colossus is a simple one – it’s a fantasy story of a hero saving a girl, but deconstructed and subverted. Yet, simply summarising it as such feels disingenuous. From the nuance of Wander’s motivations, to Dormin’s actions, to the unexplained history of The Forbidden Land, it’s a game that leaves the player with plenty to ponder without feeling like it’s missing a satisfactory core narrative. In its sparing use of cutscenes and dialogue, and reliance on other means of expression, Shadow of the Colossus has managed to capture the imagination of players in ways that very few other games can even dream of. It isn’t a game that people simply think back on in passing, it’s one that people have been ardently discussing over the past 15 years, and it’s one that never seems to leave the public conscience, even when countless other highly received games with focusses on story have been released since. This power to command discussion is a true testament to the importance of capitalising on the medium’s strengths to deliver an experience, and while it hasn’t set any widespread industry trends, it’s enough to make Shadow of the Colossus an irreplaceable example of distinguished game storytelling.


Artwork featured throughout this piece was created to by fans to celebrate the release Shadow of the Colossus last year. You can read more about them and their creators here.

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2 Comments

  1. Great article. Many thanks. I played this when it first came out (my username is a clue to my fave game of all time) and while Ueda can do no wrong in my view, I personally feel SoTC is the third best of his games (but still wonderful). Think I really must shell out a modest sum for the remaster of this as it’s due a replay and think I’d really enjoy it again. Interesting that the article didn’t cover the potentially connected worlds of SoTC and Ico but that’s a discussion for another whole article I guess. Thanks again.

    • I initially considered discussing the connection between the two games but it didn’t feel relevant to the topic of the article, so I decided to leave it out. It ended up being a pretty bulky piece so I don’t want to run the risk of needlessly bloating it. Anyway, thanks for the kind words!

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