Shadows of the Colossus – Artistry saves Terrible Controls and Kinesthetics

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Shadow of the Colossus is a game I have not touched until recently. Thanks to the PS plus membership, I have the luxury to play the PS4 remake of this gorgeous adventure for the price of $0. It is a game beloved by many, while not being universally respected due to severe mechanical flaws. 

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Many praise this game for its innovative approach to video games as an art form, using the medium’s interactivity to convey a daunting journey of a confused child battling against triumphant beasts. It is a technical marvel considering the limited hardware capability of the PS4, while maintaining perfect visual and frame rate consistency in its vast open and barren world. Bluepoint games did an incredible job rebooting the old clunky PS2 version into a whole new experience. What this game accomplishes in delivering pure emotional and thematic strength to its players is unmatchable.

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However, I could say the game has receive its fair share of criticisms. It is one of those games where it sacrifices the player’s sense of satisfaction for the sake of maintaining its aesthetics and artistic vision. It is no joke when the popular consensus of this game is how unbearable the controls are, even for me personally, and this is coming from someone who rarely been frustrated at a game before. The game’s inputs always feel unresponsive – Wander rarely moves the way you want him to, and it can be exhausting trying to get the colossus AI to do the right thing, the worst offender being getting the 9th colossus to land on top of a small geyser.

From a gameplay and experimental standpoint, entertainment is definitely not what Team Ico were going for in Shadow of the Colossus. Yet, this game still manages to be in my top 25 games of all time. Why would a game that frustrates me to the core, could possibly be one of my most memorable video game experiences eve ? That is because I believe Shadow of the Colossus’s stylistic and artistic choices mostly justify its awfully clunky mechanics. In this post, I will explain what I mean. 

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Entertainment is generally what we, the general public, value in games. The feeling of smoothly executing moves to defeat these terrifying bosses (Dark Souls for example), was what I expected from Shadow of the Colossus, but this is not what the game is trying to accomplish at all. What I got instead was a painful and stressful game that takes place in an isolated world. It is unpleasant, but that is what so distinctive about Shadow of the Colossus – it accurately imitates what it is like to partake in an arduous journey, and that is why I consider SOTC to be an arthouse. 

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An arthouse by definition is a genre where the work tries to correlate as close to the artist’s personal artistic vision. The substance is usually unfocused and works more as a metaphor to emphasize on the struggles of the characters, which is the canvas in where the author can put whatever traits he/she wants. In gaming, the aforementioned “substance” would be the gameplay itself, which is put aside while bringing the authorial vision to the forefront. The best and most recognized example of this is Journey, an hour long game with barely any gameplay aside from the ability to jump and float. Yet, the visual and emotional storytelling of the work is able to captivate so many in a interpretive fashion that people can’t help but fall in love with this game. None of the words above suggest that the work must be entertaining, it only must serve an artistic purpose. Well is Shadows of the Colossus necessarily the most enjoyable game of all time? Exactly. With that said, there are definitely more nuances on why Shadow of the Colossus loosely fits into this uncommon genre of games.

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On one note, the game has an ambiguous, linear, and straightforward story structure. Aside from the basic premise of a boy on a quest to save a corpse of his beloved, no further context is given to the overall setting and the origins of the colossi. The rest of the game consists of the player character traversing area through area slaying each of the colossi. Although the game is linear, and you’re forced to beat each colossus in the specified order, the game offers no hint of plot progression aside from a short cutscene middle through the game that’s indicative of your player character being targeted by a third party. 

I’m sure there are deeper lore implications behind the narrative itself, but at a surface level, it seems to not have a direct sense of cohesion and is opened to the player’s interpretation of what the whole journey meant thematically, bringing back the argument of the “substance” being put aside.

Now, my most convincing reason on what classifies this game as an artistic piece is definitely the notorious controls themselves. If there is one element that makes games unique from any other form of entertainment, it is the interactivity and kinesthetics it brings to the table. Only games can allow the player to give direct input to the characters at play and control the little decisions they make in the overarching story. 

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The common goal in designing controls is for it to be ergonomical, responsive, and allow the players to have the 1 on 1 direct control on the characters. For the lack of a better term, the controls must “FEELS” good to the player. Although the quoted “feel” is subjective among people due to how vague feelings can be, there is still a majority wins scenario. A new modern game in the current era will have a more multifaceted and nuanced control scheme than an NES title In the 80s. A game running in 60fps will always feel better than a game in 30 fps and e.t.c. You get what I mean. 

This is when we get into Shadows of the Colossus, a game completely breaking the convention of what video game controls should be. Yes, the game is clunky, which is by definition not something the developer should be aiming for.  But believe it or not, the purpose of the control scheme isn’t only to provide a comfortable experience to the player, but to also convey the emotions and subtle metaphorical references of the work at large. Just like experimental music and direction,  “controls” can also push the boundaries of what is traditionally accepted. To not sound like condescending prick, the above statement is not intended to ridicule anyone who shit on the controls because they don’t get the “artistry” behind it. At the end of the day, this is one interpretations of many and people play games for different reasons. It is completely okay and acceptable to not prefer an infuriating control scheme over a normally accepted one. 

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Back to the topic, I believe the original intention of the designer team was to purposely design the controls to be as unresponsive and rough as it is to maintain the ugly exigent and depressing nihilism of the game. Remember, this is not a pleasant journey, Wander shouldn’t be able to slay these colossi effortlessly without his inexperience drawing him back. It is also some of the more realistic mechanics I’ve seen in a video game, aside from the fact that the player character can fall off a 50ft titan and survive with only 10% of his health taken away (the picture above). Just a weird nitpick, take it with a grain of salt.

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Given the context that the game is about a young immature boy traversing against insurmountable walls, it would totally break internal inconsistency if he can move perfectly in response to the player’s input with no sense of fatigue. This is why his jumps are so awkward, normal people can’t fucking jump like video game characters. His weapon swings has a shit ton of end lag, representative of a person who lacks mastery and strength with weaponry.  The horse, a huge contributor to the game’s infuriating controls, doesn’t always turn in the designated direction, and will often come to a sudden stop when the player is in a dire situation. While horses in games always seem to response perfectly to the rider, Shadows of the Colossus is trying its best to break that illusion and replicate the experience of an amateur trying to ride a horse. Every janky and insensitive decisions made on designing the controls are there for a purpose. Are you frustrated? Yes, then the controls succeeded. The journey is not a pleasant one, it is not a fantastical tranquil adventure like you see in the world and freedom of Breath of the Wild. This is Shadow of the Colossus, deal with it. 

 

A fragile boy can’t do everything the player input perfectly, it’s just won’t align to the hyper-grounded nature of the game. Some of the design choices for the controls also bring an extra level of immersion into the game. Holding on R2 while the colossus is shaking like crazy and watching your character flinging in multiple directions perfectly replicate the sensation of holding on to something for your dear life. Let’s be honest, we were all holding that R2 like a madman. On top of that, watching your stamina slowly depletes while you’re stuck figuring out a spot you can regen it back adds an extra unprecedented danger and dramatic tension. It is painful, but yet it fits thematically into the tone of the battle.

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“But realistic doesn’t always mean good, it’s fiction after all”. In someway, I agree with this sentiment. There are stylistic choices in the controls that hindered the game rather than enhancing it. I think the worst offender for me was how long it took for the player to get up after getting knocked into the ground. Waiting 5 seconds every time you get hit, while is realistic for a body of a boy, is by no mean fun. Normally, this is fine for most colossi battles since most of them only perform an attack once in a while with long intervals in between. However, this is not the case for the 11th colossi where you have to fight a colossus the size of a lion. The beast is fast and aggressive. It will out chase you and attack over and over again. This create a perpetual loop where you get knocked down, wait 5 second, just to get knocked down again, and it’s arguably the most frustrating thing I’ve ever dealt with in a video game. Unfortunately, I don’t have a defence for this, this is just poor gaming design even if it’s “realistic”. Oh right, and don’t forget that camera too, it has no reason to be this bad, even artistically.

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Another problem I have is how long it takes to get the 9th colossus to stand on top of the geyser so it can shoot water to knock him down so I can get on top of him. I mentioned this earlier on in the introduction. This simply takes way too long and too much effort, on top of controlling the already janky horse. There are other minor issues such as how slow you swim in this game, which pose as a threat when dealing with 2 of the water-based colossus battles. These are all examples of superfluous realism being a burden to my productive use of time. Despite these complaints, the rest of the game is able to work perfectly with these controls, including the bombastic soundtrack and stunning visual direction to deliver a visceral, dark, and cathartic boss fighting adventure. Unfortunately, not every decision made by Team Ico was exactly a good addition to the artistic consistency of the game, it’s not perfect, but for what it is, it’s as perfect as I expected it to be.

Conclusion:

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If I was able to breeze through each colossus, without struggling due to the limits of my player character’s body, the final blow wouldn’t be as payoffish as it would have been. It is because you held on to that R2 for your dear life, frustrated every time you fell, and always puzzled on how to reach the next step, that it is truly able to impact you at an emotional level. It also really helped with how cinematic and climatic the game was nearly 100% of the time, it’s simply a beautiful operatic experience that everyone should try at least once. If you were to put these design choices in another game, no doubt I would probably hate it, but for Shadows of the Colossus, it just works provocatively. No other games do this, which is why Shadows of the Colossus remains as one of my favourites despite how frustrating it was to play. 

I enjoyed the suffering and being able to get into Wander’s shoe, as masochistic as it might sound. Not all fictional experiences are pleasant, and I’m fine with it because ecstasy is not the only emotion out there in the world of video games.

Afterthoughts:

I don’t think I have ever mentioned anything video games-related in this blog, but for those who don’t know, video games have been quite integral of my life, possibly even tantamount to the impacts anime has. Since video games and anime are more closely correlated than I thought they would be, especially considering the abundant of anime styled games coming out this generation, I think it is time to bring another awesome medium to shine. Stay tuned!

  1. https://wonderfulcinema.com/art-house-definition/
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_game
  3. “Shadow of the Colossus’ controls are an exercise in art” by Joesph Leray – https://www.destructoid.com/shadow-of-the-colossus-controls-are-an-exercise-in-art-72997.phtml

 

 


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