October 26, 2012 by Devin
In the following paragraphs, I spoil the ending to Shadow of the Colossus, which can currently be bought as part of a bundle for the PS3. It was also originally released on the PS2. It is an excellent game and well worth your time and money.
The fairy tale paradigm is one that is, amusingly, as old as time. The archetypes of a knight, a princess, and a dragon are some of the oldest and most well worn archetypes of the storytelling world. A knight has to rescue a princess who is helplessly trapped by some opposition, oftentimes a witch or a dragon (for the sake of simplicity, I will refer to this archetype simply as “the dragon,” given that is the most iconic symbol of opposition, though this role could also be filled by a witch, a troll, or some other such being). The knight is always trustworthy and honorable, the princess always beautiful, the dragon always menacing and mean, and the love is always pure and true.
It is perhaps because these tropes are so well worn that they were so quickly adopted into early video games. Without the ability to tell complicated stories, early video games used these tropes to fall in line with the audience’s assumptions so that the audience could more quickly get into the game. Games like Super Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda, and The Prince of Persia used audience assumptions so that the audience would quickly identify with who was supposed to be good and who was supposed to be bad. These archetypes would help the audience get into games, which had to have simple plots based on the restrictions of the time, and allow them to fully understand what was going on.
Even in modern times, the fairy tale paradigm is still rampant in video games. Mario’s plot rarely expands beyond the simple tale, almost in self parody. In the Legend of Zelda games, the knight saving the princess still factors heavily in the plot. Even a game like Resident Evil 4, which was a zombie game, still could be broken down to a knight saves a princess from a dragon. Even though these are generic terms, it is still surprising to see how games closely follow this archetypal structure. It is not merely, “hero wants thing; thing is blocked; hero must remove obstacle.” It is the paradigm that the hero, the player, the knight, is a force of virtue going up against corruption to save something pure.
It is not hard to see why this paradigm is so rampant. In video games, the player always makes assumptions about the game, both through visual interpretation and through the nature of the medium. Just like any other medium, a gigantic spiny creature is going to be perceived as “evil,” but in video games, that perception is further enhanced by the achievement of killing said creature. In most video games, beating a level or killing a boss is considered a good thing, an achievement worth celebrating, and thus most players assume that when they get to the next level or kill the boss, they are making the virtual world a better place. This notion and the satisfaction of the game is reinforced when it follows the fairy tale paradigm closely because the players’ ideas of what is supposed to happen are reinforced by the games’ archetypes.
Yet it is possibly because of this historic acceptance of the fairy tale paradigm that some video games strive to go against it. Notably, Shadow of the Colossus plays against these stereotypes to create a world that is less black and white (despite the grim color palette) and play off the player’s assumptions of what is good and what is bad.
The game opens up with the main character taking the Princess, unconscious and presumably dead, to a temple in the middle of a dead and barren land. He lays her body on a pedestal and listens to an ethereal voice tell him to kill several colossi, which is supposed to save the Princess. He, of course, listens to the voice and proceeds throughout the game to actually kill the colossi.
The first apparent subversion of the paradigm is apparent in the character, referred to only as “The Wanderer” by the game’s creators. He has a sword, a bow, and a horse, but he does not use them like the knights of past fairy tales. He can barely swing the sword, losing his center of balance each time he swings on land. His horse and him have a special bond, but his horse acts less like a tool of the rider and more like an organic being. They journey through the game as partners and not as master and servant. He can shoot a bow, but beyond the various wildlife in the countryside, he never hurts anyone or anything seriously with it.
He can also do various tricks with his horse, such as standing on top of it while riding or other such actions. He can go hunting with his bow and kill lizards with it. He can do a dive into a lake from a far distance, actually assuming a diving pose. Yet none of these actions actually matter.
In no part of the game is the main character required to do these actions. Standing on top of the horse while riding does nothing except seem impressive for a little bit. There is no boss that requires a dive to beat. Hunting lizards will give the player a boost to their strength, but this boost is never hinted at in game, only becoming apparent if the player hunts lizards out of curiosity. In this way, the main character mimics the player in a lot of ways. If the player actually does these actions, then it is out of a desire for simple amusement and specifically not the achievement of some goal. The game actively allows the player to play a character that is just as curious, just as easily distracted, as they are.
These actions also show off just how different this character is from the archetype of a knight. He is specifically not a warrior, unable to do any serious damage with his weapons except for when he reaches several small weak spots. By all rights, he should not win. He is also not gruff and tough like a warrior normally is portrayed as. The amusing curiosities and distractions that the Wanderer partakes in are not the actions of someone focused on an end goal, but rather the actions of one who is easily distracted, who has a natural curiosity, who acts in many ways like a child. He is a child focused on one goal, saving the Princess, but he is a child nonetheless. This naivety will come back later in the game.
The colossi in this game are unlike most other game bosses. They are threatening, for sure, but they are often beautiful too. The lumber around like living monuments, buildings that are overgrown with moss and ivy that have somehow been given life. Except for a few of them, they are mostly slow and deliberate, seeming to calculate every move. They moan and groan as if they are actually old men who have not left their houses for a long time. They seem to carry around history on their back and in their limbs.
And, oh yeah, they are huge.
There are some exceptions, some relatively tiny and small, like a large lion rather than a building, but for the most part, they are dramatically majestic towers of ruins. The only way the player can actually kill them is by scurrying up their sides clumsily and stabbing them, also rather clumsily, in glowing weak spots. Whereas the main character is displayed as someone young and naive, new to the world and occupying only a small part of it, these giants embody the desolate world around them. They have been here for quite a while and do not simply live in the land; they are part of the land.
These colossi fulfill the role of the Dragon accurately enough. They are the obstacle that keeps the Princess from her Knight, and many of them are quite frightening. Some even look like dragons.
But there is another layer beyond the obvious visual layer. Killing a colossus usually results in its deep cries of anguish and pain, followed by a collapse and a long moan. After each kill, a statue in the temple representing the colossus is destroyed. The colossi, which are each incredibly ancient, are destroyed from the world, leaving only a few remains in their place.
The colossi are clearly aggressive. Many, upon the sight of the player, will raise up their weapons, bare their claws, or fire upon them in violent ways. But the key is that they are not the invader. They do not play the Dragon that comes and kidnaps the Princess while destroying the kingdom. If anything, that is the player’s job, who comes into a land and kills the colossi, also killing a living, moving, part of the land.
Eventually, the main character stops seeming like the Noble Knight. The colossi are portrayed as too beautiful, too historic, for that to be the case. Instead, the player is almost raping the land, going through colossus after colossus, to get what he wants. The temple with the Princess begins to fill up with rubble where there used to be statues.
Furthermore, after killing a colossus, the player is infected with a black essence that is freed from the colossus. This essence is never explained, and the player has no idea what it is doing to the main character throughout the game. However, the black essence does not seem to be helping the main character at all. The Wanderer coughs and then passes out after each infection. The infection raises poses several questions to the audience, “How does killing a colossus help his cause?” “Is killing a colossus good?” “What is happening to the Wanderer?” The game purposefully does not answer these questions, instead silently encouraging the player to stop the killing. However, both the player and the main character know that they will not stop the killing because they want to get what they want. In this way, the game is making a comment on both the character’s treatment of the colossi and the player’s willingness to kill beauty in order to “win” the game.
The final element of the paradigm is the Princess. In the game, the Princess is completely unconscious for the vast majority of the game. She is literally put on a pedestal in a temple that the main character comes back to after he kills a colossus. She does not speak, does not move, and does not do anything except look pretty.
The Princess in this case is a commentary in two ways. She is a subtle parody of the fairy tale paradigm, emphasizing that for all their trappings, princesses are essentially blank motivators for the Knight. This princess can fulfill the role of princess in her sleep.
More importantly, though, she is a commentary on the main character. As stated before, the killing the Wanderer does is not honorable or noble. It is selfish. The character is trading these majestic beings for the life of his loved one. However, it is also selfless, as he is willing to take the corruption from killing the colossi to save his Princess.
But the Princess is not a real person; she is an ideal. She is the embodiment of beauty, of love, but she is not a developed character. She is what the main character thinks of as love, but the player has no reason to love her or to think that their relationship is real. In fact, because the main character acts like a naive child, the player has a reason to believe that the main character’s desire for her is not based on anything real. After all, the Wanderer is not old, wise, or down to earth. He looks like a little child climbing up the colossi: a small boy in a world much larger and much more intricate than him.
This idealization of the Princess is carried out in the final scene of the game when the main character, completely corrupted and covered with darkness, struggles to reach the Princess while being dragged into a well by a spell. The game intelligently lets the player control the Wanderer at this point and not just make it a cutscene, thus allowing the player to attempt to reach the Princess, reach the ideal, but ultimately fail. The final scene is a commentary on the failings of idealization and the unfortunate blindness that comes from romantic love. Like Romeo, his love for the Princess led him to make the ultimate sacrifice without even realizing what he was doing.
However, Shadow of the Colossus has one more subtle twist. After all the colossi are killed, after the Wanderer becomes completely corrupted, after he gets sucked into a spell, the Princess actually wakes up. She gets up and there is no one around except for the Wanderer’s horse. Who leads her to a baby.
Here is where Shadow of the Colossus manages to both critique and celebrate the ideals of the Wanderer. For even though the Wanderer’s quest for love led him to corruption, even though it led to the destruction of the colossi, even though it led him to his own apparent death, something was born out of it. It is not clear what was born exactly, but there is something. That something is new life, which could lead to just about anything. It is not perfect. There are horns reflecting the nature of its birth. But it is something.
In all its subversion and critique, Shadow of the Colossus does not throw out the ideals it critiques. It subverts idealistic love, but it does not claim that it is worthless. In the same way that Romeo and Juliet’s passionate love affair was incredibly naive and ultimately deadly, the Wanderer’s love led to the destruction of the landscape and of himself. In each case, however, the works end with a note of hope. Romeo and Juliet’s deaths led to the ending of a historic family feud. The Wanderer’s love was unrealistic and idealistic, but something came out of it. The Wanderer was blinded by his ambitions, but something came out of it. The Wanderer did many things that he should not have, but something came out of it. Whether or not that something was worth the trials and sacrifices is really left up to the audience.