Treading on Sacred Ground | Shadow of the Colossus (2018)

Shadow of the Colossus was released in 2005 on the PlayStation 2 as a follow up and loose prequel to 2001’s Ico, a game that has probably inspired at least one of your favorite game designers. Both games were developed by Team Ico, a now-defunct team inside of Sony Japan that was headed up by lead designer Fumito Ueda. Shadow of the Colossus is a game about a boy named Wander who travels with a horse named Agro and the dead body of a girl named Mono to a region known only as the Forbidden Lands where he makes a deal with a godlike entity named Dormin. The deal is that Dormin will revive Mono if Wander traverses the lands and kills sixteen creatures known as Colossi.

An HD version of the game was released on the PlayStation 3 alongside Ico in 2011, which is how I first played it. Depending on the day you asked me, I might tell you that Shadow of the Colossus is my favorite game of all time. It had been out for seven years by the time I played it, but it still impressed me in ways that few games have. The boss fights allow you to do amazing things in a very natural way that in lesser games would be a lot more scripted and automatic. The story it tells has an incredible level of emotional and moral depth that the game doesn’t throw in the player’s face and instead entrusts us to interpret how we wish. The art design is beautiful, as is the soundtrack. I’m even one of those weirdos who likes the way Agro controls. I remember at the time describing it to a friend as “the artistic peak of the medium”. That’s being a bit hyperbolic, but Shadow of the Colossus is still a fantastic game that does things mechanically and narratively that few other games of its size even attempt to do.

And now it’s back. Bluepoint Games has taken Team Ico’s masterpiece and made their own version for the PlayStation 4. It’s easy to write off the remake as nothing more than a fresh coat of paint, a linear upgrade of a thirteen-year-old game that should immediately take the PS3 version’s place as the definitive Shadow. But after spending a bunch of time with it I don’t think that’s the case. Bluepoint’s Shadow helped me realize something that I never truly took note of with the original: the peacefulness of the Forbidden Lands.

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This all started after I plunged my sword into Gaius’s innocent and adorable face. I didn’t want to fight Phaedra right away, so I decided to take a detour and check out the beach from the end of Ico. I love that small slice of the world that connects the two games, and I wanted to see how it looked on the PS4. And while I enjoyed checking out the beach, I equally enjoyed the fifteen minutes it took me to get to it: grassy fields, crashing waves, rocky cliffsides. The landscape is beautiful, and it was relaxing to just exist in this world for a little while.

It’s an experience that few other games can provide. There are no shortage of open-world games out there, but developers fill those worlds with people to talk to, enemies to fight, and quests to complete. Even games that really nail the sense of exploration and wonder still throw enemies or systems at you. There are independent games out there that allow the player to breath and explore the world at their own place, and I love games like Proteus and Everything that are all about existing in their worlds. But those games are generally smaller and definitely weirder than Shadow of the Colossus.

Shadow also separates itself from those games because most people wouldn’t describe it as a “walking simulator” or an “art game”. It’s a big-budget game released by a major studio in which you climb things and stab them. And every time that I’ve played Shadow in the past, I’ve always spent most of my time climbing and stabbing. But you don’t have to. The way the game’s structured means that there’s only one stabbable creature available to you at any time. So as long as you don’t go to that area and trigger the current colossus fight, you can go wherever you want.

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And so I did. I roamed the fields and the cliffsides, taking in my surroundings. I was most interested in looking at some of the colossi battlegrounds that I knew I’d be going to later. I checked out Cenobia’s stomping grounds without worrying about him catching me in a corner. I rode around the desert without spending the whole time trying to properly lead my arrows aimed at Phalanx. And I was able to appreciate the towering structures of Argus’s city without having to make his AI cooperate. And the more I did this, the more I started to think about the people who once lived here: their temples, their gravesites, their sporting arenas. All of this decayed and overtaken by nature, with the left over architecture being the only thing to suggest that maybe the Forbidden Lands weren’t always so forbidden. I also went and checked out my handiwork in the places I had previously been, wallowing in my misdeeds.

This multi-hour digression added to what’s already a very somber experience. Because I know that if Wander wants to save Mono, he has to give up this peace and go kill 13 more Colossi. And as a player who has played this game multiple times before, I know where that story ends: with the release and subsequent capture of Dormin, the further closing off of the Forbidden Lands, and the birth of a child whose existence will inevitably lead to the events of Ico where ritual sacrifice has become an even more integral part of this world. Wander is spurred to action by an unjust death, and in his attempt to reverse it he kills sixteen majestic beings and reinforces a needlessly violent culture. That’s the true tragedy of Shadow of the Colossus. Wander is from a world ravaged with chaos, and he only manages to leave it more chaotic than he found it. The game ends with temporary peace for Mono, Agro, and the child, and for a few hours I was able to push aside the chaos and Wander, Agro, and myself were able to find our own temporary peace.

Everything I did during this playthrough was something I could have done on the PlayStation 2 in 2005. So why am I positioning this as something revealed by the remake? Is it just the higher fidelity? That’s part of what got me exploring in the first place: curiosity in seeing how things translate. And it’s effective in the sense that the grass looks more like grass and the rocks look more like rocks. There aren’t as many flat textures as there were in the original game, and the architecture looks downright incredible in the remake. Or am I just looking at the game differently after playing it so many times? Have I played it so much that I just needed something new from it? Those are both possibilities. But I think my exploration was at least partially inspired by artistic changes that aren’t linear graphical upgrades. Put simply, they lost the bloom.

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Bloom is a graphical effect in games that creates intense light. It’s often maligned in modern games as making everything look washed out and making it hard to see what the hell is going on. It’s commonly refereed to as “smearing Vaseline on the screen” It’s also used as a way to easily hide poor depth of field (which is definitely part of why it was used in Shadow). Bloom has lost favor on the current generation of consoles as we’ve gotten more realistic lighting models, but it’s a defining aspect of Fumito Ueda’s games. Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and The Last Guardian all use bloom-lighting to great effect, with Ico being one of the games that helped popularize the feature.

The bloom in Shadow of the Colossus is oppressive. It makes the world much more intimidating and gives the perception that Dormin is ever-present, breathing down Wander’s neck as he gets closer and closer to freeing them. The Forbidden Lands are inhabited by the divine, and intense light that dominates the sky emphasizes this fact.

I love the use of bloom in Shadow of the Colossus. It’s both beautiful and evocative, and I’m glad the game uses it as much as it does. But it’s also what kept me from exploring the world the way I have with this remake. The bloom is intimidating. It’s otherworldly in a way that feels dangerous. It’s not conducive to sight-seeing.

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By removing the bloom and opting for more naturalistic lighting, Bluepoint have positioned the Forbidden Lands as a world more like the one we live in. It’s inviting. It invites us to look at all the beautiful landscapes and towering architecture, but it also invites us to contemplate this world and our place in it. The game has room to be more somber when you stop worrying about the next fight and slow things down. The remake allows us to both physically and mentally…Wander.

I’m not the first person to bring up the lack of bloom in this remake. Since the game’s release there has been some great writing about what has been lost in translation. And since the game’s announcement there have been fans complaining about how the remake “loses its atmosphere”. I know this because it’s something I was saying when the first trailer was shown last year. And it’s true. Shadow of the Colossus does lose something by being remade with a more realistic art style. But as we talk about what’s lost, it’s also important to look at what’s gained.

The remake makes it easier to appreciate the natural beauty of the Forbidden Lands, which is fitting since Wander’s inability to appreciate nature is a major theme of the game. The Colossi are, in their own way, beautiful, and Wander is unable to recognize that. He views them either as obstacles that are in his way or as terrifying beasts that deserve their death. But the fact that they aren’t is emphasized in the remake. A great example would be the brief cutscene in which Valus is introduced. In the original Valus kicks up a lot of dust that distorts the player’s view of the Colossi, something that is heavily reduced in the remake. This, along with a less muted color palette, means that you see Valus more clearly in the remake. A monster is always scarier the less you can see it, which is in some ways an argument in favor of the original. It’s a more affecting scene. However, isn’t it also a little more fitting to the themes of the narrative if Valus isn’t scary. When there is no mystery, all that’s left is a big teddy bear. You can even see this change in the boxart. The original PlayStation 2 boxart in Japan presents Valus as a shadowed figure, whereas the worldwide boxart of the remake shows Gaius in full glory, facing away from Wander who has his sword drawn, ready to fight. That’s not even true to that battle; Gaius is one of the most aggressive Colossi in the game. But it shows how Wander only cares about completing his quest and takes no time to consider the beauty of the creatures he slays.

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This lack of appreciation for nature can also be applied to Lord Emon, the shaman who acts as Wander’s antagonist. Dormin is presumably some sort of natural being, and Emon’s mission is to keep them locked up. He’s scared of Dormed having what he deems to be unnatural control over life and death, yet he sacrifices Mono, an act that asserts his own unnatural control over life and death. And when he collapses the bridge and proclaims that “no man shall ever trespass upon this place again”, what he’s doing is ensuring that that nobody can ever appreciate the natural beauty of the Forbidden Lands.

Well, except for Mono, who is revived and goes on to life her live in the Edenesque garden with Agro, the baby, and the animals that were already there. She embraces nature in a way that Wander and Emon are incapable of doing. And while this all existed in the original game, I truly believe that by going with a visual style that emphasizes the natural elements of the environment over the divine ones, Bluepoint has successfully made this theme more resonant.

It would be a shame if going forward this remake became the definitive Shadow of the Colossus. The impressionistic style of the original game is mysterious and magical in ways that the more realistic remake can’t and isn’t trying to be. But it would also be a shame if purists defamed the remake to the point where it was considered a bastardization of an artistic masterpiece. Both games are great for different reasons, and they deserve to be played and enjoyed for what they are, not ignored and maligned for what they aren’t. If I had to choose…wait no, scratch that. I don’t have to choose. The medium has more than enough room for two versions of its so-called artistic peak.

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