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Best of the Decade: Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus

Platform: Playstation 2

Release Date: October 18, 2005

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

Developer: Team Ico

Whenever the overplayed argument over whether or not games are art gets dragged out for another flogging, there’s one title in particular that never fails to come up in the discussion. It’s certainly not the only title that gets put forth as an example of a game that does something more than mindlessly entertain, but it does seem to be the most consistently mentioned.

Though I will celebrate another title or two before this list is complete that I feel stand alongside it as the industry’s most museum-worthy productions to date, Shadow of the Colossus undoubtedly deserves to be recognized as a standout effort that truly represents the best of what this medium has to offer in terms of interactive emotion.

Most games that attempt to be “art” take extreme approaches, usually aping another medium in the process. Some strip out almost all the game elements and produce what is basically a glorified interactive screensaver in an effort to be the gaming version of a painting. Others choose to mimick film too heavily and downplay their interactivity. 

What impresses me the most about Shadow of the Colossus is what it manages to achieve through a mastery of simplicity and subtlety without ever abandoning its interactivity or its game-ness. In fact, some of the strongest emotion the game manages to produce comes precisely from the fact that you are controlling it, being an active participant and not simply watching events play out in a cutscene or in pre-written dialog. This is how things should be conveyed in an interactive setting and surprisingly few games manage it.

You play as a young boy trying to save a girl dear to him. It is never explained who she is, nor is it really important. Shadow of the Colossus paints its emotion in broad strokes, not minute details. To save her, you must gather power from 16 colossi and the only way to do that is to kill them. You aren’t told whether the power is good or evil. You aren’t told whether the colossi are adversarial or innocent. You are simply given subtle hints and vague clues and then left to carry out your quest and make up your own mind. The game embraces the power of the imagination like none other I’ve seen, explaining only enough to form a basis for letting the mind make up the rest.

Most of the colossi show you no resistance until you attack them. You are the invader. You become the dark force. Bringing a colossus down is not a triumph, but a lamentable and possibly unnecessary loss. Again and again you must bring down these brilliant creatures at the behest of an unknown force, and with an unknown motivation, until you reach one of my favorite endings in gaming history. Using the same minimalism and powerful interactivity that have defined the rest of the game, Shadow of the Colossus provides a conclusion that says little directly, yet remains surprising, touching, and memorable. 

Most of Shadow of the Colossus’s power would be sapped if certain moments were reduced to non-interactive cutscenes. Its strong emotions would be dulled if the loneliness of its world was disrupted by needless fights against smaller enemies providing nothing but mindless filler. By keeping things simple and vague, Shadow of the Colossus provides a surprisingly powerful gaming experience. 

Whether it’s “gaming’s Citizen Kane” is irrelevant. It doesn’t need to be. Gaming is a different medium than film and will produce different experiences. We should embrace that and celebrate the unique, wonderful experiences we already have and look forward to the amazing potential the future holds. 

For proving that games can be greater than mindless distractions, that they can have more to say than explosions and gunfire, and that they can do it all on their own terms, not that of movies, Shadow of the Colossus is one of my Best of the Decade.

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