I consider myself to be a fan of video games. I freely admit that as a hobby, it is not in the least constructive, and correspondingly, as I’ve gotten more into writing, drawing, martial arts, music, fitness, reading, wanton debauchery, and in general turning myself into what every 12 year old boy fantasizes about becoming “when I grow up” (except for the whole “wealthy” thing), my time playing games has decreased. But I still feel that video games have the potential to be a great art form, and should be taken seriously (the fact that those currently trying to make video games art are failing miserably at it is a topic for another day). Today, I wish to talk about a game that, upon first playing, instantly ingratiated itself in my heart as a classic of the medium, and has solid implications for us in the ‘sphere-that game is, Team ICO’s Shadow of the Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus is a game that I have jokingly referred to in conversation as “Robert Howard’s ‘The Legend of Zelda'”, for reasons that might become evident if you are knowledgeable of Mr. Howard’s life and times. More to the point, it is a game about a young (and somewhat effeminate) man and the woman he loves. The man, Wander, comes to a forbidden land, a land of death and decay, carrying the beautiful corpse of Mono, a woman sacrificed for some unexplained reason, upon his horse, named Agro. Stopping in a temple and waving his stolen sword around, the disembodied voice of Dormin, a mysterious entity (or rather, entities), tells our hero that he/they (Dormin refers to himself with the royal “we”) can bring his woman back to life, but there is an enormous price to pay: go out into the wasteland, find the 16 Colossi and slay them, and Mono will be brought back to life. And so, leaving Mono upon an altar, and leaving the temple, the quest begins…
The game essentially consists of long periods of riding through beautiful voids upon your valiant steed to reach the location that your sword points you towards-a location that, without exception, will throw you into an absolutely harrowing fight against one of the Colossi-16 giants of ambiguous origin, odd beauty, and terrible power. The Colossi pull absolutely no punches against the little pest nipping against their ankles/hooves/wings/indescribable appendage-they will stomp, punch, shake, smash, run, fly, swim, and do anything else possible to kill you.
In contrast to a Legend of Zelda or some other similar action-fantasy game, there are no weapon upgrades, special skills and techniques, or really anything remotely stylish about the combat: Wander, armed with nothing beyond a sword and a bow, fights just as dirty as his opponents: arrows are almost always aimed at the neck, the eyes, the wings, or the inflating air sacs of the giants in order to bring them down to a manageable height. Wander will then proceed to mount his foe, climb up the beast’s back hair/wing bones/whatever appendage, find a soft spot, and jam his sword into it until it dies. There are no spin attacks, magic spells, or anything to take your mind off the brutality of your actions (in fact, Wander is somewhat un-athletic and clumsy when he tries to swing his sword on the ground, and on occasion when walking he’ll trip over his own feet for no reason), just the ability to adjust the strength of your stab, and geysers of black blood erupting from the stab wounds you inflict. This barbarism continues until either you or the colossi are dead.
Without spoiling the ending, this game has become substantially more meaningful to me since I wandered into this sordid little part of the internet. To understand why, let’s look at the game thematically.
Shadow of the Colossus is often cited as a companion piece to ICO, a game made by the same company. They both share similar artistic choices (such as minimalism and use of color and lighting for mood and affect), they are (MILD SPOILERS) unambiguously set in the same fictional universe, and both have plots that heavily revolve around young people in love.
ICO seems to involve younger characters than SOTC, and as such the romance between the boy and girl in that game is rather cute and innocent, showing the protectiveness a boy has for the girl he loves. But SOTC shows a romance between older teenagers/young adults, and makes it substantially darker, showing the fanaticism and madness that love can drive men to.
Wander, I feel, is typical of a lot of young men-he is a headstrong idealist (to the point of being rather naive), madly in love with a girl, and willing to do anything for love, to the point where he is willing to take the advice of a shifty character (Dormin) to gallivant off and kill for his woman, without even once thinking about the ulterior motive they might have. Adding to his “corrupted Everyman” sort of characterization, note the utter lack of skill and technique that Wander has in his swordsmanship, and the complete average-ness of his physique (some may object to my dubbing Wander an Everyman due to his highly skillful horsemanship and horseback archery. To that I say that these skills are shown to be taught to all men in whatever culture he comes from, ie: to look at a similar real world context, a Mongolian “everyman” would by definition be an extremely talented equestrian).
To paraphrase HL Mencken, when it comes to romance, men are the romantics, and women are the pragmatists (…”Man is…too doltish, too naive, too romantic…too easily deluded”). And historically, there have been many analogues to Dormin, taking advantage of the masculine spirit and romantic tendencies of young men to recruit for the military or other miserable tasks (in fact, Dr. Lawrence Keeley’s seminal War Before Civilization, reviewed on this very website, cites examples of the women of tribal cultures shaming the cowardly and hesitant warriors and goading them into battle, so there have likely been pre-historical Dormins as well)
This exploitation of masculinity can be seen in the modern day as well, such as the constant calls to “man-up” [and do whatever inane bullshit they want] from “manginas” around the world
As the dead colossi begin to pile up, and Dormin continues to advise/exploit our hero (to be fair, Dormin generally proves themselves to be honorable in giving advice and upholding their end of the bargain despite having an ambiguous motive) Wander begins to undergo marked physical change-he gradually becomes more pallid and haggard, and his veins begin to run black. Gradually, it is revealed that those who originally sacrificed Mono have decided to stop Wander’s quest, and the conflict builds to a destructive climax.
Without revealing too much, I will say that Wander’s physical change is a symptom of a far greater spiritual and moral change; symbolic, perhaps of the corruption that the killing of the Colossi has done to his soul. At the end, it’s difficult to decide whether the quest can be considered righteous at all. Of what little we see of Mono, she certainly seems like a nice girl, and the doves surrounding her in the temple are a rather explicit expression of innocence and chastity, but the time comes where any young man who has a sweetheart, and has had to sacrifice for her, has to ask himself: “Is she really worth all of this?” The somber music that plays as each colossus hurtles to the ground in its death throes seems to ask “Is any of this worth it?” I will leave you to answer that question.
Wander fights like a man possessed (*cough*) as he clings to the scrotal hair of his giant foes, enduring blunt force, frigid waters, scorching sand and searing wind, all in the name of love. His determination and bravery is certainly something to be respected (in fact, he effortlessly and brilliantly shows three of the four of the masculine virtues defined in The Way of Men, a book that is otherwise entirely unrelated to this article, but is one that I highly recommend (and will be reviewing next week)), but these traits render him, at best, a tragic hero due to the fact that his heroism and bravery is, essentially, pointed in the wrong direction (and frankly, I’m not sure if there is a “right” direction for him), because he lacks the worldly wisdom of an older man, and is motivated into the committing of atrocities by the idea of a woman presented to him by a manipulative entity, rather than any orders directly from the woman in question. Thus, much like the famous Nietzsche quote, he fights monsters only to become one himself.
This, again, has many parallels throughout history, as plenty of wars (some would say the vast majority of wars) have been fought by poor, idealistic young men ordered to kill by war profiteers and ideologues that wouldn’t be caught dead doing any of the fighting for themselves. How, might I ask, is Wander any different from some young kid from the American Heartland, duped into going to Iraq to find “weapons of mass destruction” and “defend democracy”, only to come back and find a country that spits upon everything he thought he was defending?
I will not claim to know what the writer of the game’s story had in mind when he crafted this tale, all I will do is give my interpretation of it, which is that Shadow of the Colossus is a tragic tale of a young man’s love, strength, courage, and idealism, being cynically exploited, and suffering because of it.
As masculine men, “neo masculine” men at that, we know that men and women are not the same, and we know that a man is far more likely to do insane things for love, and is far more likely to fanatically dedicate himself to something, such as (but certainly not limited to) a woman. And with our perspective, we should understand why the events depicted in this game took place, how to avoid similar manipulation in our own lives (regardless of the source), and how even a video game such as this can provide meaningful life lessons.