Monday, July 16, 2012

Shadow Of The Colossus, Doing What Only VIDEO GAMES Can Do

Fumito Ueda is my hero. I loved Ico, but Shadow of the Colossus completely blew me away. I think it's one of the best games ever made. It's a game that is just so good that it's hard to play anything else for a while after you finish it. It makes me wonder, "why aren't there more games like this?" More truly innovative, immersive games that dare to do things that only games can do.

1) Dynamic music that changes based on the player's current situation and captures the emotion of that moment.

・Wander's (or the wanderer's) long journey to the forbidden land (Track 1 - To The Ancient Land).
・Silence as you roam the vast landscape.
・Mysterious music begins as you enter a colossus's lair. (Track 11 - Green Hill, Track 14 - Lakeside)
・Suspenseful music puts you on edge when you catch a glimpse of the giant beast in the distance. (Track 15 - Silence, Track 6 - Sign Of Colossus).
・Desperate music as your struggle against the creature begins (Track 7 - Monstrous People, Track 8 - Opened Path, Track 16 - Fear of Power, Track 12 - Violent Encounter, etc).
・Triumphant music as you close in on the colossus's weak point (Track 13 - Resurrected Power).
・A quiet reverie as the colossus slowly collapses, leaving you to wonder if awakening and slaying the creature was actually the right thing to do. (Track 9 - End Of The Battle)
・Organ music when you return to the temple to receive your next order from the mysterious deity (Track 10 - Idol Collapse).

2) Letting the player learn how to play the game through experimentation.

Egoraptor, a popular internet celebrity, pointed out this great game design feature in Megaman X in this video. It seems like an obvious thing that any good video game designer should know, but teaching the player how to play the game by letting them experiment is something you don't see as often in games these days. Many games bore the player with a tutorial before the game even starts.

SotC gives lots of little hints with every colossus fight. My first playthrough of SotC took over 10 hours. My second playthrough took about one third of the time. It was still fun the second time, but there was really something magical about that first playthrough. Even though it took 3 times longer than necessary, every moment was fun because every failed attempt gave me a hint and lead me to try something else.

3) Controls that enhance the story.

Colossus climbing. The colossi are covered, in parts, with grass-like hair that Wander can hold onto an climb. The colossi will try to shake you off, leaving the player with no choice but holding the R2 button until it stops. Most of the time, you are able to simply hold R2 and confidently stay latched on to the colossus as you climb toward it's weak point. But sometimes there are parts with no grass/hair to hang onto. So you have to let go of R2 for a moment and dash across, knowing you could be shaken off at any moment. Other times you will desperately climb all over the colossus but be unable to find the weak point. Eventually your grip with weaken and you'll fall off and have to start climbing all over.

Colossus stabbing. The way you stab the colossi adds even more intensity to the epic battles. As you hold down the □ button, Wander grasps his sword with both hands and gradually raises it high over his head. When you release the button he stabs and does damage based on how long you held your sword up. Most of the colossi have a fairly brief window of opportunity to get in a maximum damage hit before they start trying to shake you off again, so you can't hesitate.

4) Letting the player essentially BECOME the protagonist and share in their struggle.

This is something I didn't notice until Egoraptor pointed it out. Game design itself can tell a story in a unique way that only games can. In Megaman X, the first battle with Vile is impossible to win, but the player doesn't know this. This frustrates the player, but at the same time makes the moment when Zero rescues you even more memorable and gives the player motivation to become stronger to eventually beat Vile. You admire Zero and want to become like him.

Impossible battles have become pretty common in video games since then, esspecially in Japanese console RPGs. The problem is that they are so predictable now, and often don't serve much of a purpose. (SPOILERS) SotC on the other hand has an unconventional impossible battle at the end of the game that enhances the story. First you become a giant horned shadow creature. Instead of the small, nimble hero, you've become a hulking monster, similar to the colossi you fought, and you start lashing out at your friends. Although you don't necessarily win or lose, just seeing the change in your character and feeling difference of the controls is disturbing for the player. It shocks the player and makes them think, "What's happened to me?" "What have I done?" "What am I doing"


(MORE SPOILERS) Besides these 4 things, there's also the way Wander's appearance changes as you progress. At first it seems like it's just dirt, or battle scars, but eventually it becomes clear that something is terribly wrong. There is also the emotional attachment you feel to your horse as he is essential for travel and for defeating some of the colossi. The girl you are trying to save resting on a pedestal in a temple is reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty or Zelda 2. But instead of being the pure hearted hero, trying to save the girl actually makes you the bad guy, and you are punished in the end for trying to defy death.

And finally, some speculations. I don't know if Fumito Ueda has revealed any of this or not, but I've read online that the Wander becomes reborn as a boy with horns in the end as a chance to seek redemption. They say he is Ico's ancestor, but I wonder if he's meant to be Ico himself. I also wonder if the boy in the upcoming game Last Guardian is related somehow. I think he might be Wander as a boy. Perhaps that game will end with the boy saying farewell to Trico and riding off on a black horse. It would be nice to see a connection between all 3 games.