‘But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him. At that age I was not squeamish about killing animals, but I had never shot an elephant and never wanted to. (Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal.)’
– George Orwell, ‘Shooting an Elephant’
I recently finished playing the HD remake of Shadow of the Colossus on the PS3. I bought it mainly off the back of countless recommendations which cited it as one of the finest games of the previous decade. Not only did it promise to deliver an immersive and action-packed adventure story, but many critics had praised it for its unexpected emotional depth. Steven Poole (one of my favourite writers on gaming) described his reactions as follows:
‘My enchantment at the kinetic challenge and haunting beauty of the game was quickly replaced by a sense of waste and guilt at my serial murdering of these dumb giants. I suspected that this was perhaps going to turn out to be the point, but I couldn’t bear to carry on. For me, the aesthetic pleasures weren’t enough to outweigh the powerful regret the game so astonishingly succeeded in engendering. If a game of violence is so effective in its message of anti-violence that you actually stop playing, does that mean it was a success or a failure?’
Having read this and other similar sentiments expressed elsewhere, I was all set up for a veritable blubfest. I should confess that I am vulnerable to this kind of thing in all kinds of storytelling media – I will shed a tear at the slightest emotional provocation, even when I don’t have any particular admiration for or interest in the story being told – and this made it all the more surprising that when I finally got around to playing the game, I found myself oddly unmoved.
At first I could see where they were coming from. Killing the first few creatures seemed almost too easy. For the most part, they didn’t seem inclined to fight back very much. As with its predecessor ICO, the attention to detail with which the creatures were animated gave each one an expression and a character all its own. Defeating them felt much like putting down an animal which – if not wholly defenseless – could only manage to put up some kind of confused resistance.
But the creatures soon became much more challenging, and it’s hard to feel much sympathy for a gaping serpentine maw tearing towards you through desert sands, or to feel something about great glowing eyes which start shooting lasers at you, or to feel empathy for giant infantile hands trying to crush you with a stone knife the size of a house. As the colossi become progressively more difficult to stab in the head with your sword, each battle becomes less a balletic dance between player and machine and more a frantic struggle to stay alive as well as (literally) on top of the situation.
(As an aside, seeing Shadow of the Colossus as a sequence of overwrought boss encounters is kind of true but it’s also besides the point. The boss encounters of most games require the player to discover one or two key actions required to defeat a seemingly unstoppable adversary; this is true of SotC, but there are so many different elements, challenges and key actions required to take down most of the colossi that each beast begins to resemble an entire level of most games in miniature. The intermediary scenes in which the player must ride across a deserted landscape to face the next colossus act as a sort of buffer in between levels; they’re largely void of conventional gameplay, but like the map screens in old platform games they provide a meditative neutral ground for the player to relax and collect their thoughts before the next encounter.)
The sympathy ploy is a classic bait and switch: initial feelings of wonder are soon replaced by fear, anxiety and anger which drive the player to kill out of frustration, until at last the strings begin to swell and they look down in disgust at their darkened blade and soiled hands. So it goes for each battle. But it’s not until very late in the game (the final colossus) that the basic dynamic of confrontation changes: after a long sequence of dodging powerful energy blasts and scaling the complex platforms and overhangs of the creature’s armour, the player is forced to attract its attention by hurting it in an exposed area. The creature then reaches to touch the wounded area, and the player must quickly grab on to its palm, climb around to the back of its hand (while the hand is moving and inverting through the air!) and up its arms towards its shoulders and head. All of which is pretty difficult in and of itself. But what really struck me about this sequence is how docile the creature becomes once you begin to scale its sides. When it reaches towards its wounds, it is not trying to crush the player, knock or scrape them away – it is simply placing a hand as we might touch a mosquito bite or a paper cut. It’s a shockingly tender moment.
Other games take a similar three-step approach to emotional engagement with their adversaries. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution (previously) the game starts out by (a) nudging you towards a stealthy, non-lethal approach, before; (b) the enemies get really nasty in the mid- to late-game and it becomes tempting to go all Robocop, until; (c) the endgame presents you with whole rooms full of people who you don’t really want to kill but who seriously want to kill you. Such are the moral dilemmas of modern gaming! But at least in Deus Ex you still have some semblance of choice; the only option presented to you in SotC is (as Poole suggests) to not play anymore.
And that’s fine. What I appreciate about Shadow of the Colossus is not that it presses my emotional buttons at any given point (even a Richard Curtis movie can do that from time to time) but that it provides some kind of moral ambiguity beyond everyday head-stabbing. After a certain point in the game, it became pretty clear that I was doing something bad and possibly evil in killing each colossus. But I didn’t want to stop. Why?
I felt I could separate my character’s motivations from my own. As with Orwell and his elephant, it became clear to me that my avatar had no choice but to go on to commit terrible acts. I only wanted to see how terrible they could become. Poole says that for him: ‘the aesthetic pleasures weren’t enough to outweigh the powerful regret the game so astonishingly succeeded in engendering’, but for me whatever ‘sense of regret’ there was in the game was rendered only as an inextricable part of its aesthetic pleasures. Regret may have touched him (my little man with a digital sword) but it didn’t touch me. I only wanted to see what would become of him if he kept on doing what he felt driven to do. This is the stuff of tragedy. And though it is relentlessly downbeat and borderline inexplicable, the ending of Shadow of the Colossus is one of the most rewarding and memorable I have ever seen in a video game.