The Moment: Shadow of the Colossus, Within You – And Without You

By Harold Goldberg

You are alone. The wind blows hauntingly, endlessly past you, at you and along the great plains. The landscape is like Big Sky country, far, wide and vast. Black, swirling clouds evoke a foreboding feeling of menace. You are Wander and you exist as part of an infinite nature that is more powerful, more long-lasting than any human being. You ride a loyal horse called Agro. But ultimately, you are alone in Shadow of the Colossus. Voices offer mysterious pronouncements emanating from a circle of light high above. These voices come from Dormin, an unseen thing speaking via male and female voices that babble together in that cliche of ancient fiction and myth made modern – thee and thou. But beyond these voices, there is no one else there, but you.

How is it then, that you are prevented from falling into an oblivion of deep, black Book of Job-like sadness? The sadness is so weighty, after all, because you have approached the gods with the purity of hope and trust. You have wrapped a lifeless young woman in a blanket. As you carry her to and then place her on an altar, all you have is the trust of youth. You demand that the gods bring your friend Mano back to life. There is hope beyond a shard: You strike a deal with the babbling gods. If you can bring down more than a dozen stony, Golem-like colossi to defeat, Mano will live again. It is, in its way, a deal with the devil. As you fight and win, you appear to become weaker each time.

When I first played Shadow of the Colossus in 2005, I thought it was a riff on David and Goliath – about a small, adamant person taking on what seem to be all-powerful giants. That’s still true. But as I indulged, bolstered by the enhanced art that 2018’s technology provides, I began to think about the very idea of the bigness of the natural and the unnatural, a signature of Fumito Ueda’s directing which is kind of a combination of Guillermo Del Toro’s darker monsters and the magic hour sunset and shadow majesty that makes Terrence Mallick’s “Days of Heaven” so stunningly epic.

The unimaginable height of the colossi – along with the bridges with lengths like highways and unscalable mountains that blot the sky – tells Wander not only that his job is massive. Like looking at the sun and stars, it reminds us that we are specks in an unknowably infinite universe. Here, in what’s said by Game Informer to be a prequel to Ueda’s Ico (though Ico was released in 2001), is the idea that as the more we know, the more we fight for knowledge, the less we understand about things that are monstrous – or even things and ideas in general. The more we know, the greater the burden of that knowledge.

It’s awesomely comforting to realize, then, that the bigness of the universe will remain no matter what Wander does. At the end, the question you might ask is, is it good to be reborn? It is right for life to continue, despite evils made to appear good by deeds of heroism? Wander had a reason to keep going – to restore the life of his close friend. But in restoring that life, he gave life to another evil. So should life, good or evil, have been restored at all through the deal he made? Part of the answer lies perhaps in a line the great songwriter plaintively sang about the space between us all, a reference to the Hindu philosophy of Vendanta: “Life goes on within you – and without you.”

Journalist/author Harold Goldberg is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle.

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