Monday, February 06, 2012

Silence in the Shadow of the Colossus

Reviewing Shadow of the Colossus now, a full six years after its original release, is a bit tricky. What can I say about the title that hasn’t been said? The original reviews were overwhelmingly positive, and since then the game has been frequently referenced among the best this medium has to offer. Reviewing ‘Colossus now is like reviewing the rerelease of Star Wars (the 2001 re-release, of course, not the CG-enhanced 2004 edition)—what information can I give you, reader, other than, “IT’S STAR WARS.”

Like George Lucas’ once loved accidental masterpiece, the PS3 SotC remake is the same essential game that a generation came to adore and obsess over, just with an updated visual polish (Trophy support is also there, of course, but I couldn’t think of an appropriate way to fold that into the Star Wars metaphor). That being the case, I could review the quality of the game’s transition onto a modern, HD-capable platform—but that would consist of nothing more than, “It’s beautiful. It’s everything fans were hoping it would be, and the quality of the visual style makes up for any signs of age.” While I’m certainly happy to tell you that information, it makes for a rather short review. And besides, I think there’s a more interesting discussion to be had.

I suspect that the PS3 release will have many Shadow of the Colossus fans, like me, revisiting the game for the first time since they originally played and loved it. Like going back to a book you read in your youth, this new playthrough is an opportunity to see how years of experience have altered your perspective—the game hasn’t changed, after all, but we have. So what does my current self draw from Shadow of the Colossus that my younger self didn’t? Silence.

When I think back to what I loved about ‘Colossus on the PS2 I immediately go to the big, breathless moments fighting its (still impressive) enemies—dodging between enormous feet, hanging on for dear life as I got shaken around, standing up on the back of my horse and timing a jump onto a beast’s wing. But while those high-adrenaline segments are still incredible now, I find myself more impressed by the quiet beats, the long sections where your character is simply riding across the landscape.

Silence is a master’s tool in many art forms. Inexperienced creators often feel they need to generate a constant stream of stimulus, or else risk losing their audience. But a good actor knows when a line needs a moment to sink in, and a good writer takes a step back from the action to simply paint the scene. Using silence takes courage, though, and not every work is as bold with it as Shadow of the Colossus. Rather than manufacture a typical succession of change-ups (town, map, dungeon, boss, new sword!, side quest, another town) SotC gives us long sections of thudding horse hooves and exploration, then punctuates it with those awe-inspiring fights. All that silence serves multiple purposes, like making the combat seem more incredible by comparison, but one particular use stands out above the rest.

Perhaps the most subtle effect (and thus, one that’s rarely commented on) in SotC’s already nuanced experience is how the camera moves during travel. In most third person games, the avatar is always front and center, the camera locked directly behind him or her. But the moment you start galloping across the world of ‘Colossus, that rule gets thrown out. The camera shifts to one side, giving the player a full view of the landscape as horse and rider, now artistically offset, charge across it. I didn’t pick up on that change when I played SotC six years ago, but I did this time, and in a rush I understood something bigger that I’d missed.

Shadow of the Colossus is about loneliness. It turns those quiet moments into paintings so that the player drinks them in, and feels the solitude of a character who’s lost someone close to him. The loneliness doesn’t stop with the protagonist, either: the forgotten mammoth creatures roaming that sealed-away world, even the (spoiler warning) dark entity trapped within them—all of it goes back to the theme of separation.

Six years ago, I completed SotC and found it interesting that the main character wasn’t a noble hero, but a reckless, selfish person. Today I still think that’s the case, but mostly I just feel sorry for him.

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