Shadow of the Colossus: The Price You Pay

2005’s Shadow of the Colossus for the PS2 is, if you’ll remember, one of the games being honored by the Smithsonian as a work of art, and with good reason.

Yes, its minimalist design may make for an odd elevator pitch; for one thing, the game consists of 16 boss fights. That’s it. No dungeons. No lesser enemies. No items to collect or equipment to… um, equip. Just you, a horse, and 16 colossi to slay.

"I'm gonna need a bigger horse."

On paper, that might seem like a flimsy excuse for a game, especially in a gaming world filled with content-rich titles like the recent Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. However, anyone who’s played Shadow of the Colossus knows that it’s an amazing experience and proof that quality trumps quantity.

The graphics are gorgeous (granted, it came out in 2005, but I think even today they still hold up) and the plot, like in Braid, provides another example of how in modern games, protagonists are becoming more nuanced and morally complex. It’s getting increasingly difficuly to tell who’s “good” and who’s “evil.”

Although sometimes it's still pretty clear.

Setting the Stage:

The player controls a boy named Wander, who steals a magical sword and travels to a mysterious shrine in a forbidden land to resurrect his beloved, Mono. There, the booming voice of some entity tells him that to bring Mono back to life, Wander must find and kill sixteen colossi, gigantic creatures that roam the surrounding wilderness.

Despite an ominous warning that “the price you pay may be heavy indeed,” he proceeds to do as instructed.

As he systematically hunts down and exterminates the colossi, the player may begin to question these actions. Sure, the colossi are big and scary, but as far as Wander knows, they never actually did anything to warrant execution. They only attack Wander when he ventures into their territory, and in some cases only after he attacks them first.

Dude, not cool.

Contributing to this doubt is the fact that, as each colossus falls, Wander appears increasingly pale, and a pair of horns begin sprouting out of his head. You would think that might be a red flag to re-evaluate your life choices, but Wander continues on with his colossi killing spree.

(Spoilers ahead!)

The Scene:

In the end, he does indeed pay a heavy price. The mysterious entity Wander had been serving is in fact an evil deity who was sealed away, his being severed into sixteen parts. Somebody smarter than me noticed that the entity’s name, “Dormin,” is “Nimrod” spelled backwards, and Nimrod is a Biblical king whose body was also cut into pieces and spread throughout the land.

So although Dormin does honor his word and bring Mono back to life, the fact is that Wander unknowingly resurrects what would perhaps be known as Satan in Western theology. As if that wasn’t enough to qualify as a “bad day,” Dormin possesses Wander, turning him into a giant creature akin to the ones he killed.

Throughout the game, the player is made aware that a group of knights (the ones he stole the sword from) are in pursuit of Wander. They know what he’s up to, and want to stop him from using the “forbidden spell.” They catch up with him just a bit too late. Wander had just killed the final colossus.

(This isn’t the full ending, but it’s the meat of it and if you want, you can see part 2 here. Oh, and no, you’re not going insane; characters in the game speak a fictional language.)

The story in Shadow of the Colossus is remarkable because of its complex morality. As you, the player, question the ethics of hunting down creatures at the behest of a mysterious voice, you realize that Wander may be having the same doubts. However, he continues nonetheless, and in the end he unleashes a demon who may have destroyed the world if not for timely intervention.

You can’t just call him “evil,” though, since his motivation is noble: love. He simply wants to bring the girl he loves back to life, and while this is an extreme case in a fantasy setting, the feeling that you would do anything to make that happen is a very relateable one.

Certainly not every game protagonist nowadays is so morally complex, but I think it’s a positive step that the medium has matured to where plots and character motivations are things that can be discussed and debated. Shadow of the Colossus is a shining example of this, as Wander is certainly closer to Doctor Faustus than, say, Sonic the Hedgehog.


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