Culture

The wonderfully empty world of Shadow of the Colossus

Before gigantic video games with too many things to do were the industry norm, the newly remastered PS2 classic offered a stark, haunting landscape.
Culture

The wonderfully empty world of Shadow of the Colossus

Before gigantic video games with too many things to do were the industry norm, the newly remastered PS2 classic offered a stark, haunting landscape.

The Forbidden Land of Fumito Ueda’s 2005 video game Shadow of the Colossus is vast, enigmatic, foreboding. And now, thanks to a top-shelf remastering from industry veterans Bluepoint released last week, it’s never been more beautiful, with the sometimes-muddy textures of the PlayStation 2 original now entirely repainted for a sharper generation of hardware. Though some might argue that this ornate reimagining strips one of gaming’s most beloved cult classics of some measure of its austere charm, the adventure itself still resonates: as an nondescript guy named Wander armed with nothing but a sword and a bow, you must scour the Forbidden Land and slay 16 “colossi” in order to bring your beloved back to life. But though the realm that you explore is indeed large and open, few would call Shadow of the Colossus an “open-world” game. Instead, it offers an unlikely critique of that design strata, which is more relevant now that ever.

The bombastic Grand Theft Auto 3 first implanted the “open-world” pathogen in the heart of gaming back in 2001. Though it was hardly the first game to rip out the seams in structure that defined the medium as far back as the likes of Super Mario Bros. — linear levels stitched together in an order determined by the all-powerful game developer — the cutting-edge tech that powered GTA3 allowed players to lose themselves in a reasonably facsimile of a crime-ridden modern city, an innovation soon termed an open-world. Soon, game-makers fathomed that the unchecked freedom that virtual realms like Liberty City offered cut against their much-cherished authorial control, and they devised a way to entice players out of the compulsive onanism of sniping innocents and blowing up cop cars: the wonderful carrot known as the waypoint.

At their best, the shimmering landmarks on your minimap serve a necessary function within a open playfield: telling you exactly where you need to go in order to Do the Thing. But as gameworlds have ballooned beyond the tiny islands of Liberty City into the sprawling corner of California that 2013’s GTA5 boasts, the amount of Things to Do has begun to spiral out of control. Typical escapist fare like ramping red Lambos off towering skyscrapers or barrelling a tank through a crowded interstate has given way to upper-middle-class mundanities like playing a round of tennis at the country club, or obsessively checking the stock-market ticker on your fake phone.

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Led by the open-schema RPGs that were first inaugurated by The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion in 2007, the scourge of waypoints began to infect every crevice of these Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds, choking their maps with pointless collectibles, dull dungeons, and forgettable sidequests. Though the likes of Skyrim and Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed can prove absorbing enough in the right light, the sense of exploring an unknown world becomes a bit muted when you can see almost everything by wandering blindly from marker to marker. And though last year’s much-acclaimed The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild took a bold stance against this sort of dictatorial hand-holding by forcing the players to mark their own map, it still remains the norm.

The generation of players raised on the steady diet of limitless drip-feed content offered by the current crop of open-world thrillers will find many quibbles when it comes to Shadow. Besides the epic clashes between man and colossi that make up the core of the experience, they will find themselves chasing waypoints once more across vast stretches of the forsaken land, just like in their favorite games. Though an immaculately-etched map lurks on the pause menu, it begins stark-blank, only filling in as the player discovers landmarks for themselves, like shrines where they can save their game.

When it comes to the colossi themselves, they must use Wander’s ancient sword to reflect sunbeams that coalesce in the general direction of their quarry — a less-than-perfect indicator, especially when it points directly at a sheer cliff-face. But most damning of all, besides tracking down the next colossi, there’s almost no incentive for the player to roam around beyond the main trails, no treasure lurking on the edge of the map, no wayward non-player characters to pledge your allegiance to. In a gaming universe now conquered by the thrall of the open-world, Shadow has the gall to offer something distinct: an empty-world game.

That’s not to say that the Forbidden Land is entirely devoid of the traditional video game trappings: you can hunt lizards and scoff down their tails to give your all-important grip strength a tiny boost, or eat fruit from trees to augment your vitality. But these rewards remain divorced from the tyranny of the waypoint, requiring you to delve into distant corners in order to track them all down. (With some effort, you can eventually unlock a map that reveals their locations, but only after finishing the game.)

While these trifles offer a nominal reward for the effort spent — Shadow is far from a challenging game without them, even on “hard” - the act of exploration serves as its own reward. Though the hunt for the sixteen colossi takes you far afield, entire regions of the Forbidden Land remain unexplored on the critical path, including lush forests, glimmering lakes, and even a remote beach that bears a certain resemblance to an important locale in Ico, Ueda’s first game. In the PS2 original, there were no reward for viewing it, no achievement to pop — just a hidden connection lingering in the wings, waiting for curious players to stumble upon it.

More than almost any game in the medium, Shadow of the Colossus cultivates this sense of intrigue, which most open-world games desperately lack. Maybe that’s why a handful of dedicated adventurers have kept exploring the Forbidden Land even now, more than a decade past the game’s original release, in search of a last big secret that they’ll never quite find. Led by YouTubers like Nomad Colossus, these die-hards have delved into the game’s code and uncovered unused colossi, relics of the game’s origins as a doomed online RPG. With this new version, Bluepoint decided to deliver a gift to these digital archaeologists, giving Nomad a shoutout in the credits and hiding 79 shining coins across the land. After a few days of digging, the community finally solved the puzzle: collecting all of them reveals a hidden Sword of Dormin, the god that Wander swears to serve at the game’s opening.

While it’s nice to finally give fans the closure they’ve been waiting so long for, I can’t help but wonder what Ueda himself would think about it. (His role in these changes is unclear — he left Sony to start his own studio in 2016, but he reportedly offered an undisclosed list of tweaks for the PS4 version.) In 2005, these players needed no incentive to dive into every corner of the game, leaping off colossi, or wind-surfing with the help of birds. In 2018 — well into the age of the Achievement — it seems that you need a shiny collectible to ensure you do the same, no matter how well-intentioned. Even the easter eggs are more pointed: the Ico beach now features a watermelon that confirms its role in the ending of Shadow’s predecessor, and a far-off cave now hides one of the barrels from Ueda’s recent The Last Guardian.

Whether these changes come from Ueda or not is irrelevant, really — in their zeal to please the loyal fans, the developers have eroded some of the air of mystery that first drew them to the game in the first place. Such is the danger of fiddling with imagination, even one’s own. Once you set it all in stone, the search ceases, and it becomes an answered question, a fact to remember, another waypoint to blindly chase down.

Steven T. Wright is a freelance critic and reporter based in Michigan.