Name of Game: Shadow of the Colossus
Developer: SCEJ (Team Ico)
Year of Release: 2005
I've spent a lot of time thinking about Shadow of the Colossus's minimalist "design by subtraction" approach; how it provides us with simple ambiguities to arouse our imaginations and resonate on such a profound level. In this videogame you only know you're slaying these presumably innocent, magnificent giants so that you can, hopefully, restore a girl's life — a girl we must presume you love, because you'd do anything to bring her back. You've carried her on horseback to this temple in a forbidden land, aware of its promise, willing to shoulder any burden to bring this promise to fruition. You feel a mixture of triumph, sadness, and doubt as each colossus falls and you wonder whether everything will turn out as we hope; will the wanderer and the maiden be together again? We see her awaken in a dream or dream-like vision at one point, and while this should be comforting, it seems distant and unsettling...
One must keep in mind what Fumito Ueda and his team of developers were trying to accomplish. He talks about how he didn't want to rely on tired videogame clichés like villagers telling you where to go or expanding on the story, because they always end up repeating themselves when you talk to them again and it takes you out of the experience. They've just trimmed the conventional clutter and given us everything needed for a pure and compelling experience: a mysterious story set up, the subsequent exploration and gameplay (in this case, hunting and killing the colossi), very subtle moments of foreshadowing, and an amazing finale to wrap things up. It's everything you'd have seen in an early NES game — The Legend of Zelda, for example, being a similarly desolate solo adventure — but elevated to a level beyond anything else out there now.
So, how exactly is this videogame so elevated? To put it simply, we are given the space to pour a more significant portion of our selves into the characters and their world. An essay by Tim Rogers on the Super Famicom game Mother 2 (aka Earthbound on the SNES) called "The Literature of the Moment" (thanks, Ryan) says it perfectly: "Games require an investment of self to even begin playing them." I've taken that sentence slightly out of context — this is where the author describes Beat Takeshi's Famicom game Takeshi no Chousenjou, a game that featured a final boss that required 20,000 hits to kill and "caused thousands upon thousands of little kids to call Nintendo's hint lines weeping." This was a game created by a man who hates videogames, as the game itself so kindly announces from the get-go. Takeshi was pulling a practical joke on the kids who played it, deliberately toying with their emotions. Of course, this sort of frustration is different from the sadness you might feel when you see a character die, or the gamut of emotions that Shadow of the Colossus puts you through, but it all starts in the same place: that investment of self. A movie can affect us, too, but we're a step further removed from the experience, an observant, and even if we leave the theater it continues on, relying on no input from its viewers. A videogame brings us deeper into its world, and its avatars become extensions of ourselves.
Read Rogers's essay for more, it's really quite fascinating, possibly even to non-gamers. Especially the stuff about Mother 2 creator Shigesato Itoi's role as the father in My Neighbor Totoro (chosen by Miyazaki because he was a self-proclaimed journalist), his friendship with author Haruki Murakami and his influence on Hideo Kojima and the Metal Gear Solid series. It's no secret to those who have played the fourth-wall-busting MGS2 that Kojima wanted to fuck with us. Reading about his feelings on the title of the game itself reveals this:
"Most people who wanted Solid Snake were just fans of Metal Gear Solid [the Playstation game in which Solid Snake was the established protagonist]. They didn't know the old Metal Gear games [for the MSX]. So I thought it was a worthwhile joke to make the game about the previous game in a way that kind of neglected the earliest games. Metal Gear Solid was actually just Metal Gear 3. I wanted to add a different suffix for the next sequel, though apparently 'Solid' had become irremovable from the title for American audiences. So I made the game Metal Gear Solid 2 in as many more ways than one as I possibly could."
As for Shadow of the Colossus, it's one of the most user-involving videogames I've ever played, one whose nameless protagonist took on a much greater investment of my 'self' than, say, Link or Solid Snake, and it's one I'll be thinking about for a long time. While games like Earthbound and Metal Gear Solid 2 are aware of their status as videogames and the reactions of the people playing them (à la postmodernism or 'magic realism'), Shadow is much more subtle and sublime in its manipulation of our thoughts, feelings, and impetuses (to make progress in the game, to defeat the colossi, to save the girl, and so on); never denying its purpose as a videogame, but being so comfortable in its gameness never outright reminding us of that, either. What we're left with is both brutal and gentle, bleak and undeniably beautiful, and most importantly, it directly involves us.