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  1. I love Shadow of the Colossus. It taps into something primordial in me that I find difficult to describe. From the time I was a kid until now, I have felt an affinity with monsters and the monstrous. The pantheon of Toho’s gargantuan beasts, the kaiju of Pacific Rim, the stop-motion creatures of Ray Harryhausen, they all carried the burdens of a young kid who often felt very much like a misunderstood or incomprehensible monster. These towering creatures were magical in their raw physicality, but made so much more important by the meaning they had attached to them by filmmakers and audiences alike. When I saw that a game about interacting with colossi like the ones I had grown attached to in my childhood, I leapt at the chance. From that point onward, I played Shadow of the Colossus on an almost yearly basis. The evolving experience of those recurring replays led me to one conclusion: Shadow of the Colossus is a narrative about the transgender experience – or at least it is to me. Part 1 – The Giant’s Text Before diving into the many interpretations of Shadow of the Colossus and what it has meant to the millions of people who have explored its beautifully desolate landscapes and done battle with its behemoths, we need to know what it is. Shadow of the Colossus is a third-person action-adventure game created by Fumito Ueda and the development studio Team Ico in 2005. Ueda and his team were hot off of creating Ico, one of the landmark games of the early 2000s that popularized the minimalist aesthetic that many developers have emulated in the years since. Only a handful of years after Ico, the team revealed Shadow of the Colossus as their follow-up project. Shadow of the Colossus took the minimalist aesthetic and puzzle-solving of Ico and translated it into a Legend of Zelda-esque adventure. It featured a sweeping open world to explore that bucked many of the conventions of the time. Instead of having enemies populating the landscape and NPCs to give additional context and direction – there was nothing. The world existed to be explored and experienced rather than fought against. Majestic and imposing ruins dotted the mysteriously abandoned countryside without explanation, the structures having long ago been left behind by whoever had once lived in the now forbidden lands. Fumito Ueda and his team cut all of the fat from the adventure genre and opted to focus on storytelling in an interactive context. That focus put a lot of emphasis on the handful of cutscenes that inform the narrative, the experience of journeying out into the world, and the encounters with the colossi themselves. Back in mid-2000s, the conventional wisdom surrounding cutscenes was that they existed as a necessary evil, taking control away from the player to move the story forward in a more controlled and linear fashion. Some critics took this as proof that games could not tell compelling stories in their own right; that the medium could not stand on its own. This was during the days when the “are video games art?” debate was still in full swing. Shadow of the Colossus attempted to subvert the problem of cutscenes by giving the player control of the camera witnessing the cutscenes themselves. Players were able to pan the shot around and zoom in to maintain the element of interactivity, while still receiving the linear context of the game. Continuity serves as one of the major elements in Shadow of the Colossus. How the game seamlessly connects the opening cutscene, the main menu, and the introductory sequence that plays when beginning a new game clearly demonstrates the commitment Team Ico had to making everything connect. Not only that, but all of these scenes play out entirely via in-game graphics, which was relatively uncommon on the PlayStation 2’s hardware. There was something magical about the presentation of these bits of story. No one else had made anything like it – they still haven’t really. It is through these scenes that Shadow of the Colossus conveys the bones of its story. The protagonist never receives a name within the western release of the game, but the Japanese release dubbed him Wander. Shadow of the Colossus begins with Wander journeying with his trusty steed Agro to the ends of the earth, to a forbidden land where the stories of his people whisper a being resides who can do anything, even bring back the souls of the dead. As he travels on horseback, Wander carries a woman swaddled in her death shroud. Like Wander, the she never receives a name in-game, but the Japanese version identifies her as Mono. Wander reaches the forbidden land, crossing its threshold, a massive bridge spanning an even larger desert. After an interlude in which the game’s main menu appears, Wander and Agro enter the crumbling ruins of a colossal shrine. In the heart of the gargantuan structure, Wander presents the body of Mono on a stone slab and encounters Dormin, an ancient entity that speaks to him in a chorus of disconcerting voices. At this point we learn that not only did Wander bring the body of Mono, but he also possesses a sacred blade that he stole from his people. The presence of the sword prompts Dormin to extend a deal: If Wander can kill the sixteen colossi that are the incarnations of the shrine’s statues, it will bring Mono back from the realm of the dead – though the cost to Wander, it warns, might be grave indeed. Thus begins Wander’s quest to destroy the colossi and resurrect Mono. Each colossus takes on a vastly different form and provides a unique encounter for the player. While Shadow of the Colossus is ostensibly an action-adventure game, it integrates the puzzle elements that made Ico so successful into the fights against the colossi. Each encounter becomes a puzzle to be solved using Wander’s small arsenal of tools and whatever happens to be present in the environment or on the colossus itself. However, once the player knows what they are doing, the strategy to defeat the colossus requires to execute. This leads us to one of the main sources of criticism leveled against Shadow of the Colossus: The difficulty of the controls. The camera can prove tricky to manipulate during hairy action segments due to the AI controls that were created to try and present the most cinematic angles during gameplay. The camera issues are compounded by the implementation of Agro’s horse AI. Most of the time, Agro controls fantastically after becoming accustomed to the beast’s limited amount of free-will. Players can allow the trusty companion to wend his own way through forests or rocky bridges. However, certain colossi necessitate using Agro in combat and this can lead to problems where Agro’s AI doesn’t quite control well enough to keep running away from colossi or overcompensates on turns, causing the player to veer wildly around the battlefield or come to a complete standstill in the path of an angry giant. Those valid criticisms aside, Shadow of the Colossus uses these colossi and the journey Wander undergoes with each of them to great effect. In 2005, there weren’t a ton of games that played with the framework of a Legend of Zelda game to present such an ambiguous tale open to interpretation. Each colossus possesses a different character, much like the kaiju mentioned earlier. Some exist as angry or territorial entities all too happy to rip Wander apart. Others simply mind their own business, leading Wander to provoke them or mercilessly hunt them down. Regardless of the experience, however, each colossi receives a slow-motion death sequence followed quickly by Wander being speared by dark energy that causes him to pass out and awaken in the central shrine About midway through the game, we learn in a cutscene that a force of warriors has been sent in pursuit of Wander. This group is led by Lord Emon, a character who briefly narrates some backstory about the forbidden land at the beginning of the game. It is around this point that players should also begin picking up that Wander does not look well. With each colossus slain, his body changes a little more. His skin takes on an ashen pallor, his eyes inch toward milky white, and horns begin sprouting from his head. This transformation is accompanied by increases to health and stamina, allowing Wander to take more damage and hang onto his giant adversaries for longer periods of time. Each colossi slain stands out as an invitation to engage in some self-reflection. Is killing the colossi the right thing to do? Are the changes to Wander’s body an indication of some sort of corruption? What does all of this mean? Because Shadow of the Colossus doesn’t feature any other enemies and simply tasks the player with navigating to the battlefield for each colossus encounter, plenty of time is made available to contemplate the questions that the game very intentionally raises. I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that composer Kow Otani’s work in Shadow of the Colossus produced one of the finest video game soundtracks of all-time. The mysterious tones from the very beginning of the game give way to a wind-filled silence when the player begins to traverse the world. This absence of music makes it that much more moving when the lilting tones of awe and danger begin with each colossus discovered. That initial music gives way to sweeping orchestral beats that elevate each battle into the stuff of legends. Right at the apex of each fight, as Wander lands the killing blow, the music suddenly halts for a moment of silence before a somber liturgy sounds. It hammers home that each of these deaths represents the loss of something unique; whether the creature was peaceful or terrible becomes irrelevant. There are small things to do in the world outside of killing colossi. Players can find all of the prayer shrines that were used as save points in the original. There’s also a way to increase Wander’s health bar and stamina meter by finding special fruits and consuming the white tails of special salamanders scattered throughout the land. Outside of that, experimenting with the mechanics yields a number of interesting activities from horse surfing to holding onto birds and flying. One of the more interesting secrets involves increasing stamina to the point that Wander can successfully scale the central shrine’s tower and enter the secret garden that appears during the game’s epilogue. However, these activities are so subtle and well-hidden that most players won’t find all of them on their first playthrough or even realize they exist unless they are using a guide. As Wander nears the end of his journey, he and Agro go to confront the final colossus, but the trusty steed sacrifices itself to save its master from a crumbling bridge. Alone and in shock, Wander goes on to confront the final colossus. After a grueling battle and once more finding his body pierced with lances of black energy, we see that Lord Emon and his warriors have arrived at the shrine. They confront Wander, now a shambling husk of his former self. In his desperation to reach Mono, he tries to push through the soldiers, only to be greeted with a barrage of crossbow bolts and a sword through the chest. At this point, Dormin, unshackled by the destruction of all the idols lining the temple, possesses Wander’s body turning him into a shadowy colossus. What follows is a somewhat clumsy gameplay segment where the player controls one of the unwieldy beasts as the human characters scramble to seal the temple before Dormin can fully escape. After a short time, the desperate humans complete the magic ritual, sucking Wander and the reborn god into a shimmering pool of water. As Lord Emon and his troops flee, the towering bridge connecting the forbidden land to the outside world collapses behind them. As the situation in the central shrine settles, Mono opens her eyes. She takes her first tentative steps and finds herself drawn toward the sealing pool. As she walks toward the pool, Agro limps into the shrine, nuzzling her in familiarity. Upon reaching the pool, we see the water has all dried up and inside there remains no sign of Dormin or Wander. Instead, a small child with horns gurgles up at the now living woman. The three of them make their way up the central shrine’s spiral stair and emerge into the secret garden on the top of the shrine. There, she comes face to face with a fawn, the first and only of these animals we see in the entire game. If that seems like a strange ending, it is. I know that it left me stumped for a long time trying to figure out what it meant. I understood the series of events on a basic level, but what did the story mean? What was the deal with this baby? And the fawn? I didn’t have all of the answers, but the lack of having answers might just be why Shadow of the Colossus has stuck in my head for over a decade. My mind mulls it over with every replay; and the answers I find in the work change along with me. That’s how I found myself in recent playthroughs reading Shadow of the Colossus as a narrative about the transgender experience. Before we talk about that, we need to talk about how other people have interpreted Shadow of the Colossus. For such a seemingly simple (if a little weird) story, people have understood it in a number of really interesting ways. Part 2 – Reading Shadows There are many ways of reading media. In fact, that’s one of the things that makes art so great – it can mean many things to many people. The way people respond to and think about stories can make profound differences in individual lives or shape entire nations. How people have understood Shadow of the Colossus has evolved over time and, while it hasn’t changed the fate of nations (yet), it has certainly had an effect on game development and a sizeable number of the people who played it. From romance to a representation of grief to something akin to a religious experience, how people have thought about Shadow of the Colossus over time stands out as a fascinating journey all its own. The romantic reading of Shadow of the Colossus began before the game even released. The studio’s previous game, Ico, had received next to no marketing making its rise to prominence as a cult hit on word of mouth alone a surprise to Sony. The company would not repeat its mistake. The campaign they launched for Shadow of the Colossus was massive, strange, and eye-catching. In other words, it was perfectly suited to the spectacle of the game itself. An incredibly impressive and successful viral marketing push (worthy of a deep dive all its own) created multiple fake stories about the remains of ancient beings found scattered across the planet. However, to appeal to the mainstream gaming demographic, Shadow of the Colossus’ marketing team came up with two taglines. The first can be found on the back of the North American PlayStation 2 copy of the game itself, “Some mountains are scaled. Others are slain.” The other left a lasting impression in a massive series of print advertisements that spanned multiple pages and culminated in a huge foldout of the game’s sword-wielding colossus. The first panel read, “how far will you go for love?” a sentiment reflected on the back of both the North American and European releases which talk about Wander being motivated by love. The impression those lines left in the minds of the game’s audience ran deep. Between those two taglines, players went into Shadow of the Colossus with the expectation that it would be the epic fable of a young man slaying giants and saving the woman he loved. On a certain level, it’s not difficult to understand how someone could read Shadow of the Colossus that way. It displays many of the elements present in the classic stories of knights, damsels, and monsters. A young man with a magic sword traveling to a dangerous land to slay giants and save his lady-love certainly seems to fit in with the long history of human storytelling from Gilgamesh to Journey to the West to Le Morte d’Arthur. This reading, while easy to see if one squints at Shadow of the Colossus and tries their hardest, is wrong – or at the very least didn’t resonate with terribly many people. While doing some digging for this piece, I came across people who loved the tagline, but also didn’t feel as if it was really representative of Shadow of the Colossus. The back of the PlayStation 2 game’s box tells players that it’s a game about “undying love,” but if that’s the case, this is a story in which the two characters supposedly in love never speak to one another. With that interpretation in mind, Shadow of the Colossus could just as easily be a story about obsession since we only ever see one side of this love. Given how little that particular take seems to resonate with players, I think it’s safe to say that a better, deeper reading of Shadow of the Colossus exists. One of the more popular takes on the action-adventure title interprets Shadow of the Colossus as being about grieving. Reviewers and players alike come to this conclusion. “What was – and is – most impactful about Shadow of the Colossus is its sense of scale: the immensity not only of its dramatic ruins and the sad, beautiful colossi, but of the task at hand, and its themes of death, faith, longing and the destructive selfishness of grief,” writes Keza MacDonald in The Guardian’s review of the 2018 remake. In this reading, Shadow of the Colossus is about wanting something that’s forever beyond our reach. Breaking taboos in the pursuit of that impossible goal is not heroic in this context. Instead, Wander becomes a pitiable creature on a doomed quest. With each colossi slain, Wander descends deeper into grief while in pursuit of catharsis, but destroys something irreplaceable for his own selfish ends with every action he takes. It costs him his health, his best friend, and ultimately his life. His journey culminates in the resurrection of Dormin, a being who Lord Emon implies could wreak havoc across the world. Wander’s toxic approach to grieving endangers everyone around him. Looking at the game in this light, it begins to make more sense. During Dormin’s first conversation with Wander, the entity explains that the desperate man will have to pay a price on top of completing his seemingly impossible quest. Wander’s response takes on a more fatalistic connotation when read in the context of grief. “It doesn’t matter.” If you’ve ever been in the depths of despair, that state of mind in which it truly doesn’t matter whether or not something unspeakably awful happens, those words ring true. Instead of the plucky determination of a heroic adventurer, it becomes a cry for help – and Dormin eagerly leaps at the opportunity to take advantage of it. Far from being a powerful mindset, it opens up those in the midst of grief to all kinds of unscrupulous abuse. The manipulation of “Would you kindly” in BioShock blew many minds in 2007, but perhaps we should be more impressed with the subtle machinations of Dormin to maneuver a grief-struck young man into becoming the means for its resurrection. We as players are naturally predisposed to view games from the perspective of the protagonist. Whether they are doing something good or bad, we tend to root for them and want to see them achieve their goals. With this reading, while the player might never have the realization that Wander, and by extension us, have been manipulated into doing something that runs counter to Wander’s goal (i.e. freeing a powerful god and potentially dooming the world), the story of each fight and the deaths of each colossus reinforce the feeling that something is wrong. For all of their destructive power or intimidating size, we find ourselves caring for these gigantic beasts. The player often ends each battle on a colossi’s head, having gotten there by inflicting pain upon the creature, staring into their strangely innocent and curious eyes as their blade plunges into the massive body over and over again. The refusal to deal with the consequences of death, the refusal to properly grieve and move on, it is a choice that ultimately deadens Wander’s heart to the suffering he inflicts. But Shadow of the Colossus makes no moral judgement on this – instead it leaves it up to the player to contemplate the actions being taken by Wander on the long rides that separate each colossus from the central shrine. In an interview with Simon Parkin for The New Yorker, Fumito Ueda said something about the evolution of his aesthetic sensibilities that struck me, “When I got to university, there was a layer of culture shock that hit me. I began to learn about modern and abstract art. Until that time my drawings were more realistic in style. Then I was opened up to abstract images. I was encountering things I’ve never paid attention to or recognized before. I liked that, behind those abstract images, there was always an idea. That set me thinking about art in terms of ideas, rather than depictions.” The entire interview with Parkin presents a fascinating look into the life of one of the game industry’s most talented directors and I highly recommend it. While Ueda here was referring specifically to the visual style that would later go on to inform the look of his games, there’s something in it that rings true to what compels people to return to Shadow of the Colossus again and again. The surface-level simplicity of Shadow of the Colossus gives way to deep and profound possibilities. It can be read as a story about love, a tale of grief, or perhaps turned into a different text altogether, something that approaches the realm of religion. “In Shadow of the Colossus all you can do is stare at a ruined shrine in the middle of a desert, and wonder what it’s for,” wrote Craig Owens for Eurogamer back in 2013. Owen’s piece stands as an impressive work (that you should definitely read in its entirety) telling the story of a group of players who eschewed the explicit narrative of Shadow of the Colossus and sought to discover more about the world, creating their own tale in the process. These players formed theories and beliefs about how they might be able to discover a secret seventeenth colossus. They gathered together and wrote hundreds of pages worth of notes talking about their various interpretations of the sparse world lore and the possible implications. They spent hours running against walls and utilizing glitches to catapult themselves into otherwise unreachable areas. They lovingly explored and catalogued the bits of nature Team Ico hid away from the most likely routes to the sixteen official colossi. And when the emulated version of Shadow of the Colossus revealed that many of the old theories and beliefs weren’t true, players began exploring to see what could be found using the newly discovered glitches in the emulation. Over time, people began giving up on finding secrets that they were meant to find and shifted their interest into uncovering what might have been. The cut content from Shadow of the Colossus is legendary, as the full roster of colossi was once a whopping forty-eight instead of sixteen. However, what has become important to these people isn’t so much whether or not something actually exists buried in the game’s code. A Shadow of the Colossus hacker named Nomad gave this quote to Owen in 2013, “It was the search that was the thing. I like to say it's like a Rorschach test, people imprint whatever hopes and beliefs they have onto the vast empty landscapes and see secrets that aren't there - they just hope they are." It feels profound and central to what Shadow of the Colossus means and why it matters to people. It can be as small as a children’s fairytale or as large and important as a quest for the meaning of life itself. Part 3 – Shadow of the Colossus Is a Trans Narrative There exists a strain of thought when it comes to art that holds authorial intent supreme. Stories mean what their creators intended and reading anything else into the work stands as an act of baseless narcissism. That conception of art’s meaning held sway for a long time until academics began questioning it. After all, what happens when the creators aren’t around anymore to discuss their intent? Who can claim to know the mind of Homer or the unknown storytellers behind the Epic of Gilgamesh? Those questions eventually evolved into Roland Barthes’ influential 1967 literary essay The Death of the Author. In it, Barthes argues that assigning works of literature a single meaning linked with authorial intent represents a misunderstanding of art. Instead, the meaning derived from art resides in the interaction between the work and its audience. “Every text is written in the here and now,” wrote Barthes. Furthermore, he argued that knowing true authorial intent presents an impossibility. We cannot truly know the mind of even those closest to us, let alone creators who have lived across in different times and spaces. To try and elaborate on authorial intent, in fact, becomes an act of interpretation itself. Thus, the only meaningful interpretation that can be made exists between an audience and the text. Of course, Barthes’ theory has been built upon and criticized over time, but it presents a framework that supports the multifaceted interpretations of Shadow of the Colossus. I know, however, that many people balk at the ideas put forward in The Death of the Author. That makes it worth looking into creative director and writer Fumito Ueda’s ideas about the artistic work he created with the rest of Team Ico. At the 2017 Nordic Game Conference David Polfeldt, the managing director of Tom Clancy’s The Division, and Fumito Ueda held a discussion about game design. When the conversation turned toward whether Ueda’s games were intentionally designed to be somewhat inscrutable, Ueda offered an explanation: Ueda: For me, it's not important to tell the details of the story. In Japan, there is a poet expression called a haiku [where] you don't explain some things in detail and let the receivers understand or use their imagination with what is presented. That lets the receivers make their own story from their imagination, and I think this is also a good style of expression for video games - at this moment. In the future, someone may discover there's another way to do narrative and tell stories through gaming, but at this moment I think this is a great way to tell stories. Polfeldt: It certainly works well for me. In your games there are a lot of question marks, so they live with me longer. It makes me think about them in a different way. Ueda: That's good to hear because I intentionally do that. In some movies the story is so complete, there isn't any ending you can guess because it's already done. That type of movie doesn't leave a long-lasting impression. Fumito Ueda has nothing for those coming to him in search of authorial intent. Instead, he encourages players who love his games to search for their own meaning, their own answers to the questions posed in the work. In other words, create the meaning in Shadow of the Colossus for yourself; write the text in the here and now. Here, finally, is why Shadow of the Colossus exists as a trans narrative. My understanding of Shadow of the Colossus has grown along with me over the years. It always seemed to resonate with me in the way that towering kaiju like Godzilla always had. I never really examined why monsters resonated with me so much until I started unpacking the things I had repressed for most of my life. I’m a transgender woman, but as a kid I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t have anyone around me to explain what being trans was – I learned about trans people from daytime television where trans men and women were put on display as sexualized “surprises” or punchlines on programs like Maury or The Jerry Springer Show. It hammered home that the things I wanted for myself were impossible, and even if they were magically put within my grasp, I would become someone who was somehow lesser than my peers. I was, to my extremely flawed understanding, a monster. Of course, I don’t think that about myself anymore, or at least not when I’m happy; dealing with the onset of the body-warping self-perception called dysphoria can occasionally make me relapse into old thought processes. But that affinity for monsters persists. So, when I began allowing myself to explore all of my repressed thoughts and feelings about myself and gender back in 2015, my understanding of Shadow of the Colossus began to undergo a major shift. My reading of Shadow of the Colossus up until that point painted the game as a tale about processing grief. But as I began the difficult process of transitioning in 2017, I began to see parallels between my experiences and Shadow of the Colossus. I don’t think Fumito Ueda ever thought it might be read through a transgender lens, but it resonates with me in that context all the same. Transitioning, on some level, consists of breaking your old self down to the foundations. If you transition outside of youth, often you have an entire identity that has consisted of coping mechanisms that allow you to function in society. The things you enjoy, your reactions to social challenges, the way you process emotions, all of these things come into question. In order to discover the person inside who can stand tall and be comfortable in their skin, the difficult journey of transition involves starting over from scratch. Often, disposing of those mental gymnastics routines proves to be an incredibly painful process, like saying goodbye to old friends. You don’t begrudge them, but they have no place in the person you aim to become unless they are genuine – and you can only know if they are genuine once they are gone. All of this, for me, was accompanied by physical changes. From April of 2018 onward, I began taking hormones. The changes have been amazing and I am happier than I have ever been, but the process is incredibly difficult. It can, at times, feel like you’re on this long journey full of moments where you have to struggle and give up bits of yourself both mentally and physically. However, every step on that journey is easier than living with the growing sense of helplessness, desperation, and despondency of being a closeted trans woman in denial. That internalized sense of being a monster prevented me from talking about the things I was experiencing and the thoughts I was having. Instead, I tried to rationalize away my feelings and ignore the mounting depression and anxiety. I was still able to function, though there were days where doing anything more than rolling out of bed seemed impossible. But there were signs I was breaking down, signs I desperately wanted to disregard. Closeting myself caused my stress and anxiety to leak out at unimportant things – I remember punching a wall so hard that I put a small hole in it. That scared me, but I didn’t know what else I could do – actually taking hormones and having a body that didn’t feel like a fleshy prison seemed impossible. Then in early 2018 I learned that my friend Manan had taken his own life. We had seen one another a few months earlier when he had driven across the country to visit me, though we never got to run around the parking lot having a nerf gun battle like we had planned. The toy I was going to use still sits under my bed, unopened. Without going into too much detail, I learned about a handful of events leading up to his death and noticed a parallel. He, too, had refused to talk about what he was going through. It trapped him in a place where there was no escape. Manan wasn’t trans, but his passing made me realize that I was trapping myself. If I did nothing, I would one day take my life, too. In that way, Manan saved my life. I give you all of this extremely personal context so that you can understand how I can read Shadow of the Colossus in the way I do. I want to be very clear: I can’t speak for all trans folk out there. This interpretation is my own and other trans people out there almost assuredly have their own analysis of the text. In Shadow of the Colossus, Wander comes to the forbidden land in order to bring a woman, Mono, to life. For all of the strides that trans people have made over the years in the United States, we rarely have the support of our families – I know I don’t. In that sense, much like Wander, we enter a forbidden land when we transition and subvert the old understanding of the gender binary. Whether or not someone tells us explicitly, our society does an effective job policing what is and is not appropriate behavior for men and women and doesn’t even know where to start with fluid or non-binary folk. We become, in a sense, trespassers. Wander agrees to go on a mission that he understands will consume him, but he considers it worthwhile because the woman he has brought with him, the person seemingly beyond his reach, might be given life. So, Wander sets about the impossible task of destroying the colossi. Each huge beast possesses a different personality and set of limited behaviors. From the nicest to the most ferocious, they each possess a part of Dormin’s power, and Wander must slay them. To me, this reads as the incremental self-destruction that accompanies transition. The examination of the self and the death of those pieces which have no place in the life of a person living authentically, who doesn’t need to hide that they’re trespassing in the forbidden land by being trans. Each fight feels exhilarating, like the liberation of being one step closer to the person you were always meant to be, but each death is nonetheless punctuated by that bittersweet sense of loss as the colossus falls and the vulnerability of Dormin’s power piercing Wander’s exhausted body. With each slain colossi, Wander’s body changes. It becomes more powerful, but less comprehensible. This can be read as the alienation that many trans people can feel prior to or while in the middle of transitioning. For me, there are moments where being able to present more femininely can translate into extreme dysphoria when people don’t read me correctly as a woman. It’s the awareness of who I am and the effort I have put in and continue to put in to try to push my body into a place where I am happy with it and am recognized as a woman. Failing to hit that standard when all of that effort has gone into the attempt hurts. Buckle in, buckos, we have reached the matter of that curious ending. Wander returns to the central shrine one last time, only to encounter Lord Emon and his soldiers who strongly oppose the completion of Wander’s quest. I read this as the outside influences and individuals that try to keep trans people closeted. At this point, I see Wander as the trans person who has realized that they are, in fact, trans, but fears the final steps of transition. That could be coming out to others, a huge hurdle for many trans folk, or a more existential fear about how taking hormones will forever alter the course of their life. The situation escalates and Lord Emon’s soldiers attempt to kill Wander, plunging a sword through his crossbow bolt-riddled body. This oppression, however, does not stop Wander. Instead, Dormin merges with the young warrior and we come to the final crisis point. I can’t help but see the moment where Wander becomes lost in darkness as the point I came to when I realized that I could either die alone or take the final steps to transition. There wasn’t wiggle room for me to exist in a comfortable middle ground. I was going to lose things and people that were important to me, and that was scary but not as chilling as death. Lord Emon and his retinue flee, leaving a sealing spell behind them as they exit the central shrine. The spell sucks Dormin and Wander into a pool of shimmering water and everything seems to calm down as the bridge outside collapses. This reads as a crossing of the Rubicon for trans people. Wander is, for all intents and purposes, dead. Transition has broken the old coping mechanisms down to the foundations. There is no going back. And then Mono opens her eyes. Wander’s entire journey reads as a metaphor for transition. Trans people often find themselves making so many sacrifices to survive, for the simple privilege of being comfortable in our skins. And with his death, Wander gives life to the woman who has been with him the entire time, but always unreachable. Agro, Wander’s former companion steed who fell by the wayside, returns to Mono and together they discover the horned baby. The baby always seemed odd and out of place in my previous readings of Shadow of the Colossus, but now I see it as a sign or rebirth and continuity. Wander is gone, but he continues on through Mono. After this, Mono, Agro, and the baby make their way to the top of the shrine and find themselves face to face with a fawn. We are meant to understand that fawn as a sign that things are going to be okay. If something as pure and good as that fawn can exist in the forbidden land, Mono will be able to thrive in a similar state. Everything will be okay, there is a light at the end of this long, dark, and lonely tunnel where that unreachable woman, man, or enby will open their eyes and live. --- James Mielke was talking with Sony product manager Mark Valledor back in a 2005 piece for the now defunct 1UP website in the lead-up to Shadow of the Colossus’ release. The two were discussing the remarkable ad campaign for the game, the one that stuck in the heads of those who were around to witness it over a decade ago. “It's a kind of return to innocence isn't it?” Mielke observed. “You've got all these games out there that are about super-realism, how much ammo you can spend getting through a level, or just really nihilistic stuff. Shadow brings it back to somewhere completely different. To be able to experience something like this is really special.” People keep coming back to Shadow of the Colossus. Year after year, remaster and remake, people can’t get enough of the world Team Ico crafted and the tale they forged. The flexibility of that story, the numerous meanings Shadow of the Colossus takes on, is the secret. It is what allows the film Reign Over Me to use the game as a parallel for a character’s grief and Sony’s marketing department to bill it as one of the greatest romance games of all-time. There aren’t many games that tell explicitly trans stories. The indie scene has seen a rise in them over the last few years with titles like A Normal Lost Phone and We Know the Devil, but outside of that space trans people remain largely absent from mainstream gaming. It’s no surprise, then, that when I transitioned I began looking more closely at games to find something in which I could see a fragment of myself. The mythic nature of Shadow of the Colossus invited a close reading. The story was like the abstract art that fascinated Ueda in his university days. It unfolded itself to accommodate me in a way no other game really could. Its implications of depth and meaning always felt like the massive creatures, the ongoing struggles, and even Mono herself had more to account for than mainstream interpretations provided. Shadow of the Colossus is about the struggle of trans people. For me, this works. If you haven’t yet, we encourage you to sign up to participate in Extra Life this year. If you are looking for a team to join or just want to make a contribution, be sure to check out Team Allison. Allison’s team will be dedicating June 22-23 (HEY THAT'S RIGHT NOW!) to play games and bring in donations from supporters and friends. Maybe even a friend like you? View full article
  2. I love Shadow of the Colossus. It taps into something primordial in me that I find difficult to describe. From the time I was a kid until now, I have felt an affinity with monsters and the monstrous. The pantheon of Toho’s gargantuan beasts, the kaiju of Pacific Rim, the stop-motion creatures of Ray Harryhausen, they all carried the burdens of a young kid who often felt very much like a misunderstood or incomprehensible monster. These towering creatures were magical in their raw physicality, but made so much more important by the meaning they had attached to them by filmmakers and audiences alike. When I saw that a game about interacting with colossi like the ones I had grown attached to in my childhood, I leapt at the chance. From that point onward, I played Shadow of the Colossus on an almost yearly basis. The evolving experience of those recurring replays led me to one conclusion: Shadow of the Colossus is a narrative about the transgender experience – or at least it is to me. Part 1 – The Giant’s Text Before diving into the many interpretations of Shadow of the Colossus and what it has meant to the millions of people who have explored its beautifully desolate landscapes and done battle with its behemoths, we need to know what it is. Shadow of the Colossus is a third-person action-adventure game created by Fumito Ueda and the development studio Team Ico in 2005. Ueda and his team were hot off of creating Ico, one of the landmark games of the early 2000s that popularized the minimalist aesthetic that many developers have emulated in the years since. Only a handful of years after Ico, the team revealed Shadow of the Colossus as their follow-up project. Shadow of the Colossus took the minimalist aesthetic and puzzle-solving of Ico and translated it into a Legend of Zelda-esque adventure. It featured a sweeping open world to explore that bucked many of the conventions of the time. Instead of having enemies populating the landscape and NPCs to give additional context and direction – there was nothing. The world existed to be explored and experienced rather than fought against. Majestic and imposing ruins dotted the mysteriously abandoned countryside without explanation, the structures having long ago been left behind by whoever had once lived in the now forbidden lands. Fumito Ueda and his team cut all of the fat from the adventure genre and opted to focus on storytelling in an interactive context. That focus put a lot of emphasis on the handful of cutscenes that inform the narrative, the experience of journeying out into the world, and the encounters with the colossi themselves. Back in mid-2000s, the conventional wisdom surrounding cutscenes was that they existed as a necessary evil, taking control away from the player to move the story forward in a more controlled and linear fashion. Some critics took this as proof that games could not tell compelling stories in their own right; that the medium could not stand on its own. This was during the days when the “are video games art?” debate was still in full swing. Shadow of the Colossus attempted to subvert the problem of cutscenes by giving the player control of the camera witnessing the cutscenes themselves. Players were able to pan the shot around and zoom in to maintain the element of interactivity, while still receiving the linear context of the game. Continuity serves as one of the major elements in Shadow of the Colossus. How the game seamlessly connects the opening cutscene, the main menu, and the introductory sequence that plays when beginning a new game clearly demonstrates the commitment Team Ico had to making everything connect. Not only that, but all of these scenes play out entirely via in-game graphics, which was relatively uncommon on the PlayStation 2’s hardware. There was something magical about the presentation of these bits of story. No one else had made anything like it – they still haven’t really. It is through these scenes that Shadow of the Colossus conveys the bones of its story. The protagonist never receives a name within the western release of the game, but the Japanese release dubbed him Wander. Shadow of the Colossus begins with Wander journeying with his trusty steed Agro to the ends of the earth, to a forbidden land where the stories of his people whisper a being resides who can do anything, even bring back the souls of the dead. As he travels on horseback, Wander carries a woman swaddled in her death shroud. Like Wander, the she never receives a name in-game, but the Japanese version identifies her as Mono. Wander reaches the forbidden land, crossing its threshold, a massive bridge spanning an even larger desert. After an interlude in which the game’s main menu appears, Wander and Agro enter the crumbling ruins of a colossal shrine. In the heart of the gargantuan structure, Wander presents the body of Mono on a stone slab and encounters Dormin, an ancient entity that speaks to him in a chorus of disconcerting voices. At this point we learn that not only did Wander bring the body of Mono, but he also possesses a sacred blade that he stole from his people. The presence of the sword prompts Dormin to extend a deal: If Wander can kill the sixteen colossi that are the incarnations of the shrine’s statues, it will bring Mono back from the realm of the dead – though the cost to Wander, it warns, might be grave indeed. Thus begins Wander’s quest to destroy the colossi and resurrect Mono. Each colossus takes on a vastly different form and provides a unique encounter for the player. While Shadow of the Colossus is ostensibly an action-adventure game, it integrates the puzzle elements that made Ico so successful into the fights against the colossi. Each encounter becomes a puzzle to be solved using Wander’s small arsenal of tools and whatever happens to be present in the environment or on the colossus itself. However, once the player knows what they are doing, the strategy to defeat the colossus requires to execute. This leads us to one of the main sources of criticism leveled against Shadow of the Colossus: The difficulty of the controls. The camera can prove tricky to manipulate during hairy action segments due to the AI controls that were created to try and present the most cinematic angles during gameplay. The camera issues are compounded by the implementation of Agro’s horse AI. Most of the time, Agro controls fantastically after becoming accustomed to the beast’s limited amount of free-will. Players can allow the trusty companion to wend his own way through forests or rocky bridges. However, certain colossi necessitate using Agro in combat and this can lead to problems where Agro’s AI doesn’t quite control well enough to keep running away from colossi or overcompensates on turns, causing the player to veer wildly around the battlefield or come to a complete standstill in the path of an angry giant. Those valid criticisms aside, Shadow of the Colossus uses these colossi and the journey Wander undergoes with each of them to great effect. In 2005, there weren’t a ton of games that played with the framework of a Legend of Zelda game to present such an ambiguous tale open to interpretation. Each colossus possesses a different character, much like the kaiju mentioned earlier. Some exist as angry or territorial entities all too happy to rip Wander apart. Others simply mind their own business, leading Wander to provoke them or mercilessly hunt them down. Regardless of the experience, however, each colossi receives a slow-motion death sequence followed quickly by Wander being speared by dark energy that causes him to pass out and awaken in the central shrine About midway through the game, we learn in a cutscene that a force of warriors has been sent in pursuit of Wander. This group is led by Lord Emon, a character who briefly narrates some backstory about the forbidden land at the beginning of the game. It is around this point that players should also begin picking up that Wander does not look well. With each colossus slain, his body changes a little more. His skin takes on an ashen pallor, his eyes inch toward milky white, and horns begin sprouting from his head. This transformation is accompanied by increases to health and stamina, allowing Wander to take more damage and hang onto his giant adversaries for longer periods of time. Each colossi slain stands out as an invitation to engage in some self-reflection. Is killing the colossi the right thing to do? Are the changes to Wander’s body an indication of some sort of corruption? What does all of this mean? Because Shadow of the Colossus doesn’t feature any other enemies and simply tasks the player with navigating to the battlefield for each colossus encounter, plenty of time is made available to contemplate the questions that the game very intentionally raises. I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that composer Kow Otani’s work in Shadow of the Colossus produced one of the finest video game soundtracks of all-time. The mysterious tones from the very beginning of the game give way to a wind-filled silence when the player begins to traverse the world. This absence of music makes it that much more moving when the lilting tones of awe and danger begin with each colossus discovered. That initial music gives way to sweeping orchestral beats that elevate each battle into the stuff of legends. Right at the apex of each fight, as Wander lands the killing blow, the music suddenly halts for a moment of silence before a somber liturgy sounds. It hammers home that each of these deaths represents the loss of something unique; whether the creature was peaceful or terrible becomes irrelevant. There are small things to do in the world outside of killing colossi. Players can find all of the prayer shrines that were used as save points in the original. There’s also a way to increase Wander’s health bar and stamina meter by finding special fruits and consuming the white tails of special salamanders scattered throughout the land. Outside of that, experimenting with the mechanics yields a number of interesting activities from horse surfing to holding onto birds and flying. One of the more interesting secrets involves increasing stamina to the point that Wander can successfully scale the central shrine’s tower and enter the secret garden that appears during the game’s epilogue. However, these activities are so subtle and well-hidden that most players won’t find all of them on their first playthrough or even realize they exist unless they are using a guide. As Wander nears the end of his journey, he and Agro go to confront the final colossus, but the trusty steed sacrifices itself to save its master from a crumbling bridge. Alone and in shock, Wander goes on to confront the final colossus. After a grueling battle and once more finding his body pierced with lances of black energy, we see that Lord Emon and his warriors have arrived at the shrine. They confront Wander, now a shambling husk of his former self. In his desperation to reach Mono, he tries to push through the soldiers, only to be greeted with a barrage of crossbow bolts and a sword through the chest. At this point, Dormin, unshackled by the destruction of all the idols lining the temple, possesses Wander’s body turning him into a shadowy colossus. What follows is a somewhat clumsy gameplay segment where the player controls one of the unwieldy beasts as the human characters scramble to seal the temple before Dormin can fully escape. After a short time, the desperate humans complete the magic ritual, sucking Wander and the reborn god into a shimmering pool of water. As Lord Emon and his troops flee, the towering bridge connecting the forbidden land to the outside world collapses behind them. As the situation in the central shrine settles, Mono opens her eyes. She takes her first tentative steps and finds herself drawn toward the sealing pool. As she walks toward the pool, Agro limps into the shrine, nuzzling her in familiarity. Upon reaching the pool, we see the water has all dried up and inside there remains no sign of Dormin or Wander. Instead, a small child with horns gurgles up at the now living woman. The three of them make their way up the central shrine’s spiral stair and emerge into the secret garden on the top of the shrine. There, she comes face to face with a fawn, the first and only of these animals we see in the entire game. If that seems like a strange ending, it is. I know that it left me stumped for a long time trying to figure out what it meant. I understood the series of events on a basic level, but what did the story mean? What was the deal with this baby? And the fawn? I didn’t have all of the answers, but the lack of having answers might just be why Shadow of the Colossus has stuck in my head for over a decade. My mind mulls it over with every replay; and the answers I find in the work change along with me. That’s how I found myself in recent playthroughs reading Shadow of the Colossus as a narrative about the transgender experience. Before we talk about that, we need to talk about how other people have interpreted Shadow of the Colossus. For such a seemingly simple (if a little weird) story, people have understood it in a number of really interesting ways. Part 2 – Reading Shadows There are many ways of reading media. In fact, that’s one of the things that makes art so great – it can mean many things to many people. The way people respond to and think about stories can make profound differences in individual lives or shape entire nations. How people have understood Shadow of the Colossus has evolved over time and, while it hasn’t changed the fate of nations (yet), it has certainly had an effect on game development and a sizeable number of the people who played it. From romance to a representation of grief to something akin to a religious experience, how people have thought about Shadow of the Colossus over time stands out as a fascinating journey all its own. The romantic reading of Shadow of the Colossus began before the game even released. The studio’s previous game, Ico, had received next to no marketing making its rise to prominence as a cult hit on word of mouth alone a surprise to Sony. The company would not repeat its mistake. The campaign they launched for Shadow of the Colossus was massive, strange, and eye-catching. In other words, it was perfectly suited to the spectacle of the game itself. An incredibly impressive and successful viral marketing push (worthy of a deep dive all its own) created multiple fake stories about the remains of ancient beings found scattered across the planet. However, to appeal to the mainstream gaming demographic, Shadow of the Colossus’ marketing team came up with two taglines. The first can be found on the back of the North American PlayStation 2 copy of the game itself, “Some mountains are scaled. Others are slain.” The other left a lasting impression in a massive series of print advertisements that spanned multiple pages and culminated in a huge foldout of the game’s sword-wielding colossus. The first panel read, “how far will you go for love?” a sentiment reflected on the back of both the North American and European releases which talk about Wander being motivated by love. The impression those lines left in the minds of the game’s audience ran deep. Between those two taglines, players went into Shadow of the Colossus with the expectation that it would be the epic fable of a young man slaying giants and saving the woman he loved. On a certain level, it’s not difficult to understand how someone could read Shadow of the Colossus that way. It displays many of the elements present in the classic stories of knights, damsels, and monsters. A young man with a magic sword traveling to a dangerous land to slay giants and save his lady-love certainly seems to fit in with the long history of human storytelling from Gilgamesh to Journey to the West to Le Morte d’Arthur. This reading, while easy to see if one squints at Shadow of the Colossus and tries their hardest, is wrong – or at the very least didn’t resonate with terribly many people. While doing some digging for this piece, I came across people who loved the tagline, but also didn’t feel as if it was really representative of Shadow of the Colossus. The back of the PlayStation 2 game’s box tells players that it’s a game about “undying love,” but if that’s the case, this is a story in which the two characters supposedly in love never speak to one another. With that interpretation in mind, Shadow of the Colossus could just as easily be a story about obsession since we only ever see one side of this love. Given how little that particular take seems to resonate with players, I think it’s safe to say that a better, deeper reading of Shadow of the Colossus exists. One of the more popular takes on the action-adventure title interprets Shadow of the Colossus as being about grieving. Reviewers and players alike come to this conclusion. “What was – and is – most impactful about Shadow of the Colossus is its sense of scale: the immensity not only of its dramatic ruins and the sad, beautiful colossi, but of the task at hand, and its themes of death, faith, longing and the destructive selfishness of grief,” writes Keza MacDonald in The Guardian’s review of the 2018 remake. In this reading, Shadow of the Colossus is about wanting something that’s forever beyond our reach. Breaking taboos in the pursuit of that impossible goal is not heroic in this context. Instead, Wander becomes a pitiable creature on a doomed quest. With each colossi slain, Wander descends deeper into grief while in pursuit of catharsis, but destroys something irreplaceable for his own selfish ends with every action he takes. It costs him his health, his best friend, and ultimately his life. His journey culminates in the resurrection of Dormin, a being who Lord Emon implies could wreak havoc across the world. Wander’s toxic approach to grieving endangers everyone around him. Looking at the game in this light, it begins to make more sense. During Dormin’s first conversation with Wander, the entity explains that the desperate man will have to pay a price on top of completing his seemingly impossible quest. Wander’s response takes on a more fatalistic connotation when read in the context of grief. “It doesn’t matter.” If you’ve ever been in the depths of despair, that state of mind in which it truly doesn’t matter whether or not something unspeakably awful happens, those words ring true. Instead of the plucky determination of a heroic adventurer, it becomes a cry for help – and Dormin eagerly leaps at the opportunity to take advantage of it. Far from being a powerful mindset, it opens up those in the midst of grief to all kinds of unscrupulous abuse. The manipulation of “Would you kindly” in BioShock blew many minds in 2007, but perhaps we should be more impressed with the subtle machinations of Dormin to maneuver a grief-struck young man into becoming the means for its resurrection. We as players are naturally predisposed to view games from the perspective of the protagonist. Whether they are doing something good or bad, we tend to root for them and want to see them achieve their goals. With this reading, while the player might never have the realization that Wander, and by extension us, have been manipulated into doing something that runs counter to Wander’s goal (i.e. freeing a powerful god and potentially dooming the world), the story of each fight and the deaths of each colossus reinforce the feeling that something is wrong. For all of their destructive power or intimidating size, we find ourselves caring for these gigantic beasts. The player often ends each battle on a colossi’s head, having gotten there by inflicting pain upon the creature, staring into their strangely innocent and curious eyes as their blade plunges into the massive body over and over again. The refusal to deal with the consequences of death, the refusal to properly grieve and move on, it is a choice that ultimately deadens Wander’s heart to the suffering he inflicts. But Shadow of the Colossus makes no moral judgement on this – instead it leaves it up to the player to contemplate the actions being taken by Wander on the long rides that separate each colossus from the central shrine. In an interview with Simon Parkin for The New Yorker, Fumito Ueda said something about the evolution of his aesthetic sensibilities that struck me, “When I got to university, there was a layer of culture shock that hit me. I began to learn about modern and abstract art. Until that time my drawings were more realistic in style. Then I was opened up to abstract images. I was encountering things I’ve never paid attention to or recognized before. I liked that, behind those abstract images, there was always an idea. That set me thinking about art in terms of ideas, rather than depictions.” The entire interview with Parkin presents a fascinating look into the life of one of the game industry’s most talented directors and I highly recommend it. While Ueda here was referring specifically to the visual style that would later go on to inform the look of his games, there’s something in it that rings true to what compels people to return to Shadow of the Colossus again and again. The surface-level simplicity of Shadow of the Colossus gives way to deep and profound possibilities. It can be read as a story about love, a tale of grief, or perhaps turned into a different text altogether, something that approaches the realm of religion. “In Shadow of the Colossus all you can do is stare at a ruined shrine in the middle of a desert, and wonder what it’s for,” wrote Craig Owens for Eurogamer back in 2013. Owen’s piece stands as an impressive work (that you should definitely read in its entirety) telling the story of a group of players who eschewed the explicit narrative of Shadow of the Colossus and sought to discover more about the world, creating their own tale in the process. These players formed theories and beliefs about how they might be able to discover a secret seventeenth colossus. They gathered together and wrote hundreds of pages worth of notes talking about their various interpretations of the sparse world lore and the possible implications. They spent hours running against walls and utilizing glitches to catapult themselves into otherwise unreachable areas. They lovingly explored and catalogued the bits of nature Team Ico hid away from the most likely routes to the sixteen official colossi. And when the emulated version of Shadow of the Colossus revealed that many of the old theories and beliefs weren’t true, players began exploring to see what could be found using the newly discovered glitches in the emulation. Over time, people began giving up on finding secrets that they were meant to find and shifted their interest into uncovering what might have been. The cut content from Shadow of the Colossus is legendary, as the full roster of colossi was once a whopping forty-eight instead of sixteen. However, what has become important to these people isn’t so much whether or not something actually exists buried in the game’s code. A Shadow of the Colossus hacker named Nomad gave this quote to Owen in 2013, “It was the search that was the thing. I like to say it's like a Rorschach test, people imprint whatever hopes and beliefs they have onto the vast empty landscapes and see secrets that aren't there - they just hope they are." It feels profound and central to what Shadow of the Colossus means and why it matters to people. It can be as small as a children’s fairytale or as large and important as a quest for the meaning of life itself. Part 3 – Shadow of the Colossus Is a Trans Narrative There exists a strain of thought when it comes to art that holds authorial intent supreme. Stories mean what their creators intended and reading anything else into the work stands as an act of baseless narcissism. That conception of art’s meaning held sway for a long time until academics began questioning it. After all, what happens when the creators aren’t around anymore to discuss their intent? Who can claim to know the mind of Homer or the unknown storytellers behind the Epic of Gilgamesh? Those questions eventually evolved into Roland Barthes’ influential 1967 literary essay The Death of the Author. In it, Barthes argues that assigning works of literature a single meaning linked with authorial intent represents a misunderstanding of art. Instead, the meaning derived from art resides in the interaction between the work and its audience. “Every text is written in the here and now,” wrote Barthes. Furthermore, he argued that knowing true authorial intent presents an impossibility. We cannot truly know the mind of even those closest to us, let alone creators who have lived across in different times and spaces. To try and elaborate on authorial intent, in fact, becomes an act of interpretation itself. Thus, the only meaningful interpretation that can be made exists between an audience and the text. Of course, Barthes’ theory has been built upon and criticized over time, but it presents a framework that supports the multifaceted interpretations of Shadow of the Colossus. I know, however, that many people balk at the ideas put forward in The Death of the Author. That makes it worth looking into creative director and writer Fumito Ueda’s ideas about the artistic work he created with the rest of Team Ico. At the 2017 Nordic Game Conference David Polfeldt, the managing director of Tom Clancy’s The Division, and Fumito Ueda held a discussion about game design. When the conversation turned toward whether Ueda’s games were intentionally designed to be somewhat inscrutable, Ueda offered an explanation: Ueda: For me, it's not important to tell the details of the story. In Japan, there is a poet expression called a haiku [where] you don't explain some things in detail and let the receivers understand or use their imagination with what is presented. That lets the receivers make their own story from their imagination, and I think this is also a good style of expression for video games - at this moment. In the future, someone may discover there's another way to do narrative and tell stories through gaming, but at this moment I think this is a great way to tell stories. Polfeldt: It certainly works well for me. In your games there are a lot of question marks, so they live with me longer. It makes me think about them in a different way. Ueda: That's good to hear because I intentionally do that. In some movies the story is so complete, there isn't any ending you can guess because it's already done. That type of movie doesn't leave a long-lasting impression. Fumito Ueda has nothing for those coming to him in search of authorial intent. Instead, he encourages players who love his games to search for their own meaning, their own answers to the questions posed in the work. In other words, create the meaning in Shadow of the Colossus for yourself; write the text in the here and now. Here, finally, is why Shadow of the Colossus exists as a trans narrative. My understanding of Shadow of the Colossus has grown along with me over the years. It always seemed to resonate with me in the way that towering kaiju like Godzilla always had. I never really examined why monsters resonated with me so much until I started unpacking the things I had repressed for most of my life. I’m a transgender woman, but as a kid I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t have anyone around me to explain what being trans was – I learned about trans people from daytime television where trans men and women were put on display as sexualized “surprises” or punchlines on programs like Maury or The Jerry Springer Show. It hammered home that the things I wanted for myself were impossible, and even if they were magically put within my grasp, I would become someone who was somehow lesser than my peers. I was, to my extremely flawed understanding, a monster. Of course, I don’t think that about myself anymore, or at least not when I’m happy; dealing with the onset of the body-warping self-perception called dysphoria can occasionally make me relapse into old thought processes. But that affinity for monsters persists. So, when I began allowing myself to explore all of my repressed thoughts and feelings about myself and gender back in 2015, my understanding of Shadow of the Colossus began to undergo a major shift. My reading of Shadow of the Colossus up until that point painted the game as a tale about processing grief. But as I began the difficult process of transitioning in 2017, I began to see parallels between my experiences and Shadow of the Colossus. I don’t think Fumito Ueda ever thought it might be read through a transgender lens, but it resonates with me in that context all the same. Transitioning, on some level, consists of breaking your old self down to the foundations. If you transition outside of youth, often you have an entire identity that has consisted of coping mechanisms that allow you to function in society. The things you enjoy, your reactions to social challenges, the way you process emotions, all of these things come into question. In order to discover the person inside who can stand tall and be comfortable in their skin, the difficult journey of transition involves starting over from scratch. Often, disposing of those mental gymnastics routines proves to be an incredibly painful process, like saying goodbye to old friends. You don’t begrudge them, but they have no place in the person you aim to become unless they are genuine – and you can only know if they are genuine once they are gone. All of this, for me, was accompanied by physical changes. From April of 2018 onward, I began taking hormones. The changes have been amazing and I am happier than I have ever been, but the process is incredibly difficult. It can, at times, feel like you’re on this long journey full of moments where you have to struggle and give up bits of yourself both mentally and physically. However, every step on that journey is easier than living with the growing sense of helplessness, desperation, and despondency of being a closeted trans woman in denial. That internalized sense of being a monster prevented me from talking about the things I was experiencing and the thoughts I was having. Instead, I tried to rationalize away my feelings and ignore the mounting depression and anxiety. I was still able to function, though there were days where doing anything more than rolling out of bed seemed impossible. But there were signs I was breaking down, signs I desperately wanted to disregard. Closeting myself caused my stress and anxiety to leak out at unimportant things – I remember punching a wall so hard that I put a small hole in it. That scared me, but I didn’t know what else I could do – actually taking hormones and having a body that didn’t feel like a fleshy prison seemed impossible. Then in early 2018 I learned that my friend Manan had taken his own life. We had seen one another a few months earlier when he had driven across the country to visit me, though we never got to run around the parking lot having a nerf gun battle like we had planned. The toy I was going to use still sits under my bed, unopened. Without going into too much detail, I learned about a handful of events leading up to his death and noticed a parallel. He, too, had refused to talk about what he was going through. It trapped him in a place where there was no escape. Manan wasn’t trans, but his passing made me realize that I was trapping myself. If I did nothing, I would one day take my life, too. In that way, Manan saved my life. I give you all of this extremely personal context so that you can understand how I can read Shadow of the Colossus in the way I do. I want to be very clear: I can’t speak for all trans folk out there. This interpretation is my own and other trans people out there almost assuredly have their own analysis of the text. In Shadow of the Colossus, Wander comes to the forbidden land in order to bring a woman, Mono, to life. For all of the strides that trans people have made over the years in the United States, we rarely have the support of our families – I know I don’t. In that sense, much like Wander, we enter a forbidden land when we transition and subvert the old understanding of the gender binary. Whether or not someone tells us explicitly, our society does an effective job policing what is and is not appropriate behavior for men and women and doesn’t even know where to start with fluid or non-binary folk. We become, in a sense, trespassers. Wander agrees to go on a mission that he understands will consume him, but he considers it worthwhile because the woman he has brought with him, the person seemingly beyond his reach, might be given life. So, Wander sets about the impossible task of destroying the colossi. Each huge beast possesses a different personality and set of limited behaviors. From the nicest to the most ferocious, they each possess a part of Dormin’s power, and Wander must slay them. To me, this reads as the incremental self-destruction that accompanies transition. The examination of the self and the death of those pieces which have no place in the life of a person living authentically, who doesn’t need to hide that they’re trespassing in the forbidden land by being trans. Each fight feels exhilarating, like the liberation of being one step closer to the person you were always meant to be, but each death is nonetheless punctuated by that bittersweet sense of loss as the colossus falls and the vulnerability of Dormin’s power piercing Wander’s exhausted body. With each slain colossi, Wander’s body changes. It becomes more powerful, but less comprehensible. This can be read as the alienation that many trans people can feel prior to or while in the middle of transitioning. For me, there are moments where being able to present more femininely can translate into extreme dysphoria when people don’t read me correctly as a woman. It’s the awareness of who I am and the effort I have put in and continue to put in to try to push my body into a place where I am happy with it and am recognized as a woman. Failing to hit that standard when all of that effort has gone into the attempt hurts. Buckle in, buckos, we have reached the matter of that curious ending. Wander returns to the central shrine one last time, only to encounter Lord Emon and his soldiers who strongly oppose the completion of Wander’s quest. I read this as the outside influences and individuals that try to keep trans people closeted. At this point, I see Wander as the trans person who has realized that they are, in fact, trans, but fears the final steps of transition. That could be coming out to others, a huge hurdle for many trans folk, or a more existential fear about how taking hormones will forever alter the course of their life. The situation escalates and Lord Emon’s soldiers attempt to kill Wander, plunging a sword through his crossbow bolt-riddled body. This oppression, however, does not stop Wander. Instead, Dormin merges with the young warrior and we come to the final crisis point. I can’t help but see the moment where Wander becomes lost in darkness as the point I came to when I realized that I could either die alone or take the final steps to transition. There wasn’t wiggle room for me to exist in a comfortable middle ground. I was going to lose things and people that were important to me, and that was scary but not as chilling as death. Lord Emon and his retinue flee, leaving a sealing spell behind them as they exit the central shrine. The spell sucks Dormin and Wander into a pool of shimmering water and everything seems to calm down as the bridge outside collapses. This reads as a crossing of the Rubicon for trans people. Wander is, for all intents and purposes, dead. Transition has broken the old coping mechanisms down to the foundations. There is no going back. And then Mono opens her eyes. Wander’s entire journey reads as a metaphor for transition. Trans people often find themselves making so many sacrifices to survive, for the simple privilege of being comfortable in our skins. And with his death, Wander gives life to the woman who has been with him the entire time, but always unreachable. Agro, Wander’s former companion steed who fell by the wayside, returns to Mono and together they discover the horned baby. The baby always seemed odd and out of place in my previous readings of Shadow of the Colossus, but now I see it as a sign or rebirth and continuity. Wander is gone, but he continues on through Mono. After this, Mono, Agro, and the baby make their way to the top of the shrine and find themselves face to face with a fawn. We are meant to understand that fawn as a sign that things are going to be okay. If something as pure and good as that fawn can exist in the forbidden land, Mono will be able to thrive in a similar state. Everything will be okay, there is a light at the end of this long, dark, and lonely tunnel where that unreachable woman, man, or enby will open their eyes and live. --- James Mielke was talking with Sony product manager Mark Valledor back in a 2005 piece for the now defunct 1UP website in the lead-up to Shadow of the Colossus’ release. The two were discussing the remarkable ad campaign for the game, the one that stuck in the heads of those who were around to witness it over a decade ago. “It's a kind of return to innocence isn't it?” Mielke observed. “You've got all these games out there that are about super-realism, how much ammo you can spend getting through a level, or just really nihilistic stuff. Shadow brings it back to somewhere completely different. To be able to experience something like this is really special.” People keep coming back to Shadow of the Colossus. Year after year, remaster and remake, people can’t get enough of the world Team Ico crafted and the tale they forged. The flexibility of that story, the numerous meanings Shadow of the Colossus takes on, is the secret. It is what allows the film Reign Over Me to use the game as a parallel for a character’s grief and Sony’s marketing department to bill it as one of the greatest romance games of all-time. There aren’t many games that tell explicitly trans stories. The indie scene has seen a rise in them over the last few years with titles like A Normal Lost Phone and We Know the Devil, but outside of that space trans people remain largely absent from mainstream gaming. It’s no surprise, then, that when I transitioned I began looking more closely at games to find something in which I could see a fragment of myself. The mythic nature of Shadow of the Colossus invited a close reading. The story was like the abstract art that fascinated Ueda in his university days. It unfolded itself to accommodate me in a way no other game really could. Its implications of depth and meaning always felt like the massive creatures, the ongoing struggles, and even Mono herself had more to account for than mainstream interpretations provided. Shadow of the Colossus is about the struggle of trans people. For me, this works. If you haven’t yet, we encourage you to sign up to participate in Extra Life this year. If you are looking for a team to join or just want to make a contribution, be sure to check out Team Allison. Allison’s team will be dedicating June 22-23 (HEY THAT'S RIGHT NOW!) to play games and bring in donations from supporters and friends. Maybe even a friend like you?
  3. The solo indie developer that goes by bcubedlabs has returned. After an impressive showing with The Onus Helm's Kickstarter demo early last year failed to gain crowdfunding traction, bcubedlabs hit the drawing board. They have finally returned with their next project, an action-oriented boss rush game titled Far Blade. Unlike The Onus Helm, Far Blade has launched on itch.io for $5.99, allowing players to support the developer while the project finishes and reaches full retail readiness. Admittedly, bcubedlabs makes it clear that a considerable amount of work still needs to be done, like completing the design of all seven hand-crafted boss encounters. The current build possesses finalized mechanics and camera control, so while much of it remains to be completed, the basics are all in place. It seems like the intent with Far Blade is to see it through to the end without relying on crowdfunding; meaning that the finished project will actually see the light of day. Far Blade tells the story of a lone adventurer who must fight seven huge creatures while exploring an unknown corner of the world. The story has been left deliberately vague to serve as the central mystery of the title. As players explore and conquer their foes, bits of the story will come together to form a larger whole. It seems like this might take a bit of conjecture, but many people have excelled at parsing that sort of storytelling in recent years. It should be easy to recognize several different influences at work in the basic mechanics and ideas behind Far Blade like The Legend of Zelda, Shadow of the Colossus, Dark Souls, and more modern pixel action-adventure games like Hyper Light Drifter. While the boss design and environments undergo polishing, the striking aesthetic has been drawing many eyes to Far Blade. Bcubedlabs has been working on the project alone and developed a new technique that creates 3D models in a pixelated style, making camera movement possible without remaking the art for all the different angles shown. It manages to somehow look a bit like a beautiful version of an N64 game, straddling the line between two very different retro aesthetics in a way that few titles can. At the moment, Far Blade makes use of royalty free music, but depending on how well the game does in these early development days, bcubedlabs intends to hire a composer for a personalized soundtrack. So far only PC platforms (Windows, Mac, and Linux) have been confirmed for the final version of the game. However, Far Blade includes built-in support for Xbox controllers, meaning that a console port could very well be a possibility in the future. Don't forget to sign up for Extra Life to help sick and injured kids in hospitals around the US and Canada by playing games!
  4. The solo indie developer that goes by bcubedlabs has returned. After an impressive showing with The Onus Helm's Kickstarter demo early last year failed to gain crowdfunding traction, bcubedlabs hit the drawing board. They have finally returned with their next project, an action-oriented boss rush game titled Far Blade. Unlike The Onus Helm, Far Blade has launched on itch.io for $5.99, allowing players to support the developer while the project finishes and reaches full retail readiness. Admittedly, bcubedlabs makes it clear that a considerable amount of work still needs to be done, like completing the design of all seven hand-crafted boss encounters. The current build possesses finalized mechanics and camera control, so while much of it remains to be completed, the basics are all in place. It seems like the intent with Far Blade is to see it through to the end without relying on crowdfunding; meaning that the finished project will actually see the light of day. Far Blade tells the story of a lone adventurer who must fight seven huge creatures while exploring an unknown corner of the world. The story has been left deliberately vague to serve as the central mystery of the title. As players explore and conquer their foes, bits of the story will come together to form a larger whole. It seems like this might take a bit of conjecture, but many people have excelled at parsing that sort of storytelling in recent years. It should be easy to recognize several different influences at work in the basic mechanics and ideas behind Far Blade like The Legend of Zelda, Shadow of the Colossus, Dark Souls, and more modern pixel action-adventure games like Hyper Light Drifter. While the boss design and environments undergo polishing, the striking aesthetic has been drawing many eyes to Far Blade. Bcubedlabs has been working on the project alone and developed a new technique that creates 3D models in a pixelated style, making camera movement possible without remaking the art for all the different angles shown. It manages to somehow look a bit like a beautiful version of an N64 game, straddling the line between two very different retro aesthetics in a way that few titles can. At the moment, Far Blade makes use of royalty free music, but depending on how well the game does in these early development days, bcubedlabs intends to hire a composer for a personalized soundtrack. So far only PC platforms (Windows, Mac, and Linux) have been confirmed for the final version of the game. However, Far Blade includes built-in support for Xbox controllers, meaning that a console port could very well be a possibility in the future. Don't forget to sign up for Extra Life to help sick and injured kids in hospitals around the US and Canada by playing games! View full article
  5. The first show recorded in 2019, which means it's time to look back on the past year and talk about the best games of 2018. What moved us this year? What pushed us to think? What helped made us better people? Talking about what we experienced and what mattered to us will always be a worthwhile conversation to have, and 2018 was full of phenomenal games. What about you? Share your favorite game of the year in the comments! Each week we will be tackling a video game, old or new, that at least one of us believes deserves to stand as one of the greatest games of all time. We'll dive into its history, development, and gameplay, while trying to argue for or against the game of the week. Sometimes we will be in harmonious agreement, other times we might be fighting a bitter battle to the very end. However each episode shakes out, we hope that everyone who listens will find the show entertaining and informative. Outro music: Skies of Arcadia 'Valhorteka' by Garpocalypse feat. Darkflamewolf (https://ocremix.org/remix/OCR03836) You can download or listen to the podcast over on Soundcloud, our hosting site, and iTunes. A YouTube version is available, as well! If you want to have your opinion heard on air, share your opinion in the comments, follow the show on Twitter, and participate in the weekly polls: @BestGamesPeriod New episodes of The Best Games Period will be released every Monday Don't forget to sign up for Extra Life to help sick and injured kids in hospitals around the US and Canada by playing games!
  6. The first show recorded in 2019, which means it's time to look back on the past year and talk about the best games of 2018. What moved us this year? What pushed us to think? What helped made us better people? Talking about what we experienced and what mattered to us will always be a worthwhile conversation to have, and 2018 was full of phenomenal games. What about you? Share your favorite game of the year in the comments! Each week we will be tackling a video game, old or new, that at least one of us believes deserves to stand as one of the greatest games of all time. We'll dive into its history, development, and gameplay, while trying to argue for or against the game of the week. Sometimes we will be in harmonious agreement, other times we might be fighting a bitter battle to the very end. However each episode shakes out, we hope that everyone who listens will find the show entertaining and informative. Outro music: Skies of Arcadia 'Valhorteka' by Garpocalypse feat. Darkflamewolf (https://ocremix.org/remix/OCR03836) You can download or listen to the podcast over on Soundcloud, our hosting site, and iTunes. A YouTube version is available, as well! If you want to have your opinion heard on air, share your opinion in the comments, follow the show on Twitter, and participate in the weekly polls: @BestGamesPeriod New episodes of The Best Games Period will be released every Monday Don't forget to sign up for Extra Life to help sick and injured kids in hospitals around the US and Canada by playing games! View full article
  7. Time moves slowly and inexorably forward. The world changes, and we grow old telling stories together. Those stories, the ones that stick with us, communicated something important to us. As a medium, game creators have spent decades learning how to put together ever more effective stories that can offer that thing of precious importance, that moment of beauty, clarity, success, failure. In a sea of stories, Shadow of the Colossus stands out as a fairy tale in the classic sense, and the remake by Bluepoint Games serves to enhance what was already a foundational piece of video game history. Shadow of the Colossus tells the tale of a young man named Wander who travels to the Forbidden Land, a landmass sealed off from the rest of the world. Using an enchanted sword, he strikes a deal with an enigmatic entity named Dormin who agrees to bring the woman he has brought with him back from the dead if he can complete an impossible task: Defeat 16 colossal incarnations of the towering stone statues that line the temple. Armed only with his magic sword, a bow with unlimited arrows, and his trusty horse Agro, Wander sets forth into a long-abandoned world of ruins and natural wonders to battle towering behemoths the size of skyscrapers. The simple, powerful set up allows the visuals, music, and gameplay tell the vast majority of the narrative. That open approach to storytelling led a lot of people, even the marketing team for Shadow of the Colossus, to interpret the adventure as one about true, undying love. Wander, after all, goes to incredible lengths for a woman with whom he has a close connection. However, playing through the remake, a version remade after over a decade, I realized that my perception of the game has shifted to seeing it more as a tale about loss and the inability to let go being an ultimately destructive force. That flexibility and changing interpretation feels interesting. It's a reminder of how much time has passed since I played Shadow of the Colossus in 2005. Back then, the question of whether video games were capable of being art was a hotly debated topic. The internet was on fire with hot takes about what it meant to be art and whether interactivity itself negated art. Now that the question has largely been settled, it feels liberating to be able to think, "okay, it's art, so what does that mean? What does all of this, as a piece of art, mean?" Everyone will have to struggle with loss at some point in their lives. It's not pleasant. It hurts. There's the impulse to yell and scream and gnash your teeth because you would do anything to have that person back in your life. And Shadow of the Colossus asks the seductive question: What if you could throw everything to the wind and bring that person back? What price would you pay? And at first, the answer seems obvious, heroic even. But as the game progresses and one by one the beautiful, deadly colossi, who were all minding their own business before Wander showed up, begin to take their toll. The feeling of triumph and accomplishment gives way to self-doubt. Is this the right thing? That question of meaning scratches at the fundamentals of what I believe make myths and fairy tales resonate across time. Because Shadow of the Colossus is art. To some it could be a tale of love, to others it could represent a cautionary tale about obsession, and playing the remake it brought to mind loss. Shadow of the Colossus manages to have the narrative flexibility to accommodate multiple interpretations, and that's a quality that can bestow a great deal of longevity to a piece of art. I'd argue that's at least partly why we are getting a remake of a game that's two-and-a-half generations of technology behind the current PlayStation console. It's a testament to the artistry of the original PlayStation 2 release of Shadow of the Colossus that the visuals largely hold up due to its adherence to a strong minimalist aesthetic that focuses on natural beauty. The entire production possesses a washed out quality that cleverly hides some of the deficient parts of the world as Wander and Agro make their way across the quiet plains and subdued forests. With the remake, none of the world needs to be hidden by visual tricks; flowing water glitters in the sunlight, grass sways with the wind, dust motes flit through the air. The effect of the increased focus on detail afforded by the technological leap and the original style is jaw-dropping. To put it bluntly, this remake of Shadow of the Colossus stands as one of the most beautiful games I have ever played. I found myself slowing to a walk to soak in the moments of natural beauty that made yet another outing in the Forbidden Land unforgettable. With the share function on the PlayStation 4, I constantly paused the action to fiddle with the newly added photo mode in pursuit of that perfect angle to show off Bluepoint's gorgeously rendered take on Team Ico's classic. It was a compulsion to ogle the work put into everything on screen and then share that with the world. If I had to nitpick the presentation, there were a few elements that felt a bit off. The biggest would be Wander's strange lack of facial animations. The update gave him somewhat of a baby face; not a huge problem, but slightly different from the original character model. His face seems to lack some degree of animation for reacting to events, something more noticeable with a built-in photo mode. Outside of cutscenes, Wander is content to stare passively into the distance, regardless of the circumstances. Wobbling on the ledge of a colossus-sized fall? Not even the faintest recognition of his own mortality. Lastly, and this might be one of the most nitpicky things of all, one of the subtle elements of the original release of Shadow of the Colossus was the slow shift that visualized Wander's fall from grace. As each colossi met its death, he became less human. Players saw that change happen bit by bit, witnessing horns sprout from his head and his skin turn pale and black veins appear on his body. The remake seems to only gradually make his skin paler until the very end when he suddenly has horns and horrific cracked skin. It would have been nice to have a subtler touch applied to his transformation to give it more of a build-up. All of that being said, the small issues present in the Shadow of the Colossus remake are an exceedingly small price to pay for an update that's otherwise a fan or newcomer's dream come true. An updated control scheme provides people frustrated with the PS2 controls a new way to play, while also retaining the retro layout available for those who have grown used to how the original played. Small additions to the game like a series of hidden coins that can be collected for a secret reward that have been scattered across the world to reward players who poke into every nook and cranny. Additional clarification has been added to some of the colossi themselves to show what can and cannot be climbed and grabbed. The same with some parts of the environment that now have grabbable surfaces to avoid frustrating falls. The gameplay remains as harrowing, exciting, and frustrating as ever. Players who found the camera a problem in the original will find similar issues here. Agro's AI enhanced controls will prove just as frustrating (or appropriate) as it was in 2005. Running up gigantic swords, struggling to maintain a grip on a gliding stone eagle high in the sky, or outsmarting walking artillery batteries all remain exhilarating, rendered more breath-taking by Bluepoint. Kow Otani's soaring track still sends chills up the spine, playing with the player's emotions, masterfully directing the the reaction players have at any given moment. As far as I could tell, the soundtrack remained unchanged, but I might have missed a few subtle alterations. The soundscape of Shadow of the Colossus remains one of the most cohesive pieces of the whole package, bringing all of the elements together with a neat bow. Conclusion: Shadow of the Colossus was already a phenomenal game that shaped an entire generation of people and helped solidify the acceptance of video games as an art form. The remake provides a face lift from the ground up that brings forth a whole new world of beauty that enhances a timeless story. If you missed out on the original on PS2 or the HD remaster on PS3, this is the definitive edition that you owe it to yourself to play. Shadow of the Colossus is available now for PlayStation 4.
  8. Time moves slowly and inexorably forward. The world changes, and we grow old telling stories together. Those stories, the ones that stick with us, communicated something important to us. As a medium, game creators have spent decades learning how to put together ever more effective stories that can offer that thing of precious importance, that moment of beauty, clarity, success, failure. In a sea of stories, Shadow of the Colossus stands out as a fairy tale in the classic sense, and the remake by Bluepoint Games serves to enhance what was already a foundational piece of video game history. Shadow of the Colossus tells the tale of a young man named Wander who travels to the Forbidden Land, a landmass sealed off from the rest of the world. Using an enchanted sword, he strikes a deal with an enigmatic entity named Dormin who agrees to bring the woman he has brought with him back from the dead if he can complete an impossible task: Defeat 16 colossal incarnations of the towering stone statues that line the temple. Armed only with his magic sword, a bow with unlimited arrows, and his trusty horse Agro, Wander sets forth into a long-abandoned world of ruins and natural wonders to battle towering behemoths the size of skyscrapers. The simple, powerful set up allows the visuals, music, and gameplay tell the vast majority of the narrative. That open approach to storytelling led a lot of people, even the marketing team for Shadow of the Colossus, to interpret the adventure as one about true, undying love. Wander, after all, goes to incredible lengths for a woman with whom he has a close connection. However, playing through the remake, a version remade after over a decade, I realized that my perception of the game has shifted to seeing it more as a tale about loss and the inability to let go being an ultimately destructive force. That flexibility and changing interpretation feels interesting. It's a reminder of how much time has passed since I played Shadow of the Colossus in 2005. Back then, the question of whether video games were capable of being art was a hotly debated topic. The internet was on fire with hot takes about what it meant to be art and whether interactivity itself negated art. Now that the question has largely been settled, it feels liberating to be able to think, "okay, it's art, so what does that mean? What does all of this, as a piece of art, mean?" Everyone will have to struggle with loss at some point in their lives. It's not pleasant. It hurts. There's the impulse to yell and scream and gnash your teeth because you would do anything to have that person back in your life. And Shadow of the Colossus asks the seductive question: What if you could throw everything to the wind and bring that person back? What price would you pay? And at first, the answer seems obvious, heroic even. But as the game progresses and one by one the beautiful, deadly colossi, who were all minding their own business before Wander showed up, begin to take their toll. The feeling of triumph and accomplishment gives way to self-doubt. Is this the right thing? That question of meaning scratches at the fundamentals of what I believe make myths and fairy tales resonate across time. Because Shadow of the Colossus is art. To some it could be a tale of love, to others it could represent a cautionary tale about obsession, and playing the remake it brought to mind loss. Shadow of the Colossus manages to have the narrative flexibility to accommodate multiple interpretations, and that's a quality that can bestow a great deal of longevity to a piece of art. I'd argue that's at least partly why we are getting a remake of a game that's two-and-a-half generations of technology behind the current PlayStation console. It's a testament to the artistry of the original PlayStation 2 release of Shadow of the Colossus that the visuals largely hold up due to its adherence to a strong minimalist aesthetic that focuses on natural beauty. The entire production possesses a washed out quality that cleverly hides some of the deficient parts of the world as Wander and Agro make their way across the quiet plains and subdued forests. With the remake, none of the world needs to be hidden by visual tricks; flowing water glitters in the sunlight, grass sways with the wind, dust motes flit through the air. The effect of the increased focus on detail afforded by the technological leap and the original style is jaw-dropping. To put it bluntly, this remake of Shadow of the Colossus stands as one of the most beautiful games I have ever played. I found myself slowing to a walk to soak in the moments of natural beauty that made yet another outing in the Forbidden Land unforgettable. With the share function on the PlayStation 4, I constantly paused the action to fiddle with the newly added photo mode in pursuit of that perfect angle to show off Bluepoint's gorgeously rendered take on Team Ico's classic. It was a compulsion to ogle the work put into everything on screen and then share that with the world. If I had to nitpick the presentation, there were a few elements that felt a bit off. The biggest would be Wander's strange lack of facial animations. The update gave him somewhat of a baby face; not a huge problem, but slightly different from the original character model. His face seems to lack some degree of animation for reacting to events, something more noticeable with a built-in photo mode. Outside of cutscenes, Wander is content to stare passively into the distance, regardless of the circumstances. Wobbling on the ledge of a colossus-sized fall? Not even the faintest recognition of his own mortality. Lastly, and this might be one of the most nitpicky things of all, one of the subtle elements of the original release of Shadow of the Colossus was the slow shift that visualized Wander's fall from grace. As each colossi met its death, he became less human. Players saw that change happen bit by bit, witnessing horns sprout from his head and his skin turn pale and black veins appear on his body. The remake seems to only gradually make his skin paler until the very end when he suddenly has horns and horrific cracked skin. It would have been nice to have a subtler touch applied to his transformation to give it more of a build-up. All of that being said, the small issues present in the Shadow of the Colossus remake are an exceedingly small price to pay for an update that's otherwise a fan or newcomer's dream come true. An updated control scheme provides people frustrated with the PS2 controls a new way to play, while also retaining the retro layout available for those who have grown used to how the original played. Small additions to the game like a series of hidden coins that can be collected for a secret reward that have been scattered across the world to reward players who poke into every nook and cranny. Additional clarification has been added to some of the colossi themselves to show what can and cannot be climbed and grabbed. The same with some parts of the environment that now have grabbable surfaces to avoid frustrating falls. The gameplay remains as harrowing, exciting, and frustrating as ever. Players who found the camera a problem in the original will find similar issues here. Agro's AI enhanced controls will prove just as frustrating (or appropriate) as it was in 2005. Running up gigantic swords, struggling to maintain a grip on a gliding stone eagle high in the sky, or outsmarting walking artillery batteries all remain exhilarating, rendered more breath-taking by Bluepoint. Kow Otani's soaring track still sends chills up the spine, playing with the player's emotions, masterfully directing the the reaction players have at any given moment. As far as I could tell, the soundtrack remained unchanged, but I might have missed a few subtle alterations. The soundscape of Shadow of the Colossus remains one of the most cohesive pieces of the whole package, bringing all of the elements together with a neat bow. Conclusion: Shadow of the Colossus was already a phenomenal game that shaped an entire generation of people and helped solidify the acceptance of video games as an art form. The remake provides a face lift from the ground up that brings forth a whole new world of beauty that enhances a timeless story. If you missed out on the original on PS2 or the HD remaster on PS3, this is the definitive edition that you owe it to yourself to play. Shadow of the Colossus is available now for PlayStation 4. View full article
  9. The 2012 release of Dragon's Dogma seemed to hit at a time during which people were hungry for rich open-worlds with unique combat systems, difficult encounters, and that touch of artistic strangeness. It scratched an itch that the gaming community was having at the time and earned itself a cult following that persists to this day, spurring the game, along with its expansions, seeing a PC release and even a port last year to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The grapple/grab mechanic brought on a lot of comparisons to Shadow of the Colossus, and seeing as the Shadow of the Colossus remake recently released, what better time to talk a little bit about Dragon's Dogma? With schedules being what they are, sometimes coordinating a full episode of The Best Games Period can be difficult. When we can't have a proper discussion, we will be breaking off to do these shorter mini-casts, Honorable Mentions, to talk about fringe games that we might not otherwise be able to talk about on a full episode. Outro music: Sonic the Hedgehog 'The Ultimate Ab Solution' by Ivan Hakštok and finbeard (http://ocremix.org/remix/OCR03685) If you want to have your opinion heard on air, share your opinion in the comments, follow the show on Twitter, and participate in the weekly polls: @BestGamesPeriod New episodes of The Best Games Period will be released every Monday
  10. The 2012 release of Dragon's Dogma seemed to hit at a time during which people were hungry for rich open-worlds with unique combat systems, difficult encounters, and that touch of artistic strangeness. It scratched an itch that the gaming community was having at the time and earned itself a cult following that persists to this day, spurring the game, along with its expansions, seeing a PC release and even a port last year to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The grapple/grab mechanic brought on a lot of comparisons to Shadow of the Colossus, and seeing as the Shadow of the Colossus remake recently released, what better time to talk a little bit about Dragon's Dogma? With schedules being what they are, sometimes coordinating a full episode of The Best Games Period can be difficult. When we can't have a proper discussion, we will be breaking off to do these shorter mini-casts, Honorable Mentions, to talk about fringe games that we might not otherwise be able to talk about on a full episode. Outro music: Sonic the Hedgehog 'The Ultimate Ab Solution' by Ivan Hakštok and finbeard (http://ocremix.org/remix/OCR03685) If you want to have your opinion heard on air, share your opinion in the comments, follow the show on Twitter, and participate in the weekly polls: @BestGamesPeriod New episodes of The Best Games Period will be released every Monday View full article
  11. Gen Design certainly isn't a household name quite yet, but Fumito Ueda's new studio seems to be cooking up something interesting. Comprised of members of Team Ico and headed by the creative mind behind Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and The Last Guardian, the fledgling studio hasn't made any grand announcements about its first project. That all changed last week. To ring in the new year, Gen Design's website offered a simple message, "Happy New Year 2018! May this be a happy and fruitful year." Visitors to the site may be forgiven for clicking through the message to get to the site itself, but eagle-eyed visitors might have noticed that they were able to scroll down quite a way revealing the image below. The image contains the signature style Team Ico cultivated in the past while leaving us with so many questions. Who is the girl awakening on the stone slab? Will she be the protagonist? What is the giant creature near her? To add to the cryptic mystery, one astute Resetera user dug into the image's source files and found a layer titled "Beauty and the Beast 2018." While Gen Design put a lot of time and effort into finishing The Last Guardian while under contract with Sony, it's not inconceivable that they might have made significant progress on something new since its founding in mid 2014. Here's hoping that we learn more about this mysterious Beauty and Beast pair when the big reveals roll around during E3 this year.
  12. Gen Design certainly isn't a household name quite yet, but Fumito Ueda's new studio seems to be cooking up something interesting. Comprised of members of Team Ico and headed by the creative mind behind Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and The Last Guardian, the fledgling studio hasn't made any grand announcements about its first project. That all changed last week. To ring in the new year, Gen Design's website offered a simple message, "Happy New Year 2018! May this be a happy and fruitful year." Visitors to the site may be forgiven for clicking through the message to get to the site itself, but eagle-eyed visitors might have noticed that they were able to scroll down quite a way revealing the image below. The image contains the signature style Team Ico cultivated in the past while leaving us with so many questions. Who is the girl awakening on the stone slab? Will she be the protagonist? What is the giant creature near her? To add to the cryptic mystery, one astute Resetera user dug into the image's source files and found a layer titled "Beauty and the Beast 2018." While Gen Design put a lot of time and effort into finishing The Last Guardian while under contract with Sony, it's not inconceivable that they might have made significant progress on something new since its founding in mid 2014. Here's hoping that we learn more about this mysterious Beauty and Beast pair when the big reveals roll around during E3 this year. View full article
  13. Though E3 proper hasn't yet begun, the pre-E3 press conferences have! This year, we are going to be capping off each day with a podcast discussing the news of the day with the talented bunch of people we've collected to cover the year's biggest gaming trade show. Day three covered a lot of ground between Ubisoft and Sony. The two industry titans threw out some pretty exciting announcements, like a completely overhauled Shadow of the Colossus for the PS4 and confirmation that, yes, Beyond Good & Evil 2 exists. Jack Gardner, Marcus Stewart and Naomi Lugo cover the basic, need-to-know announcements from the day. Kick back, relax, and enjoy the show with us! View full article
  14. Though E3 proper hasn't yet begun, the pre-E3 press conferences have! This year, we are going to be capping off each day with a podcast discussing the news of the day with the talented bunch of people we've collected to cover the year's biggest gaming trade show. Day three covered a lot of ground between Ubisoft and Sony. The two industry titans threw out some pretty exciting announcements, like a completely overhauled Shadow of the Colossus for the PS4 and confirmation that, yes, Beyond Good & Evil 2 exists. Jack Gardner, Marcus Stewart and Naomi Lugo cover the basic, need-to-know announcements from the day. Kick back, relax, and enjoy the show with us!
  15. We are only a day out from the release of The Last Guardian, the game that has taken Team Ico over eleven years to create. Earlier this year we discussed the developer's first game, Ico, and the impact it had on game development going forward. To be a bit topical, we are happy to present a lengthy, in-depth look at Team Ico's second game, Shadow of the Colossus. The 2005 PlayStation 2 title carried the spirit of Ico into a large open-world full of magic, danger, and beautiful stillness. Though not glowingly received by critics at the time, regard for the third-person adventure game seems to have grown over the years. Usually opinions on a game degrade over time, so the case of Shadow of the Colossus might strike some as particularly odd. Has a large segment of the gaming population collectively chosen to wear rose-colored glasses or have people been slowly realizing the merits of the game that pits a man against living mountains? Also, this marks the one year anniversary of The Best Games Period podcast - a huge thank you to everyone who took the time out of their day to listen in each week. We really appreciate those of you who have left comments and reviews. We hope that you'll stick with us as we keep talking about the best games through 2017 and beyond! Each week we will be tackling a video game, old or new, that at least one of us believes deserves to stand as one of the greatest games of all time. We'll dive into its history, development, and gameplay, while trying to argue for or against the game of the week. Sometimes we will be in harmonious agreement, other times we might be fighting a bitter battle to the very end. However each episode shakes out, we hope that everyone who listens will find the show entertaining and informative. Outro music: 'The Sunlit Earth' by Kow Otani (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POTlM3SyMVo) You can download or listen to the podcast over on Soundcloud, our hosting site, and iTunes. A YouTube version is (sometimes) available as well, so you can watch what we are talking about while we talk about it! You can also follow the show on Twitter: @BestGamesPeriod New episodes of The Best Games Period will be released every Monday
  16. We are only a day out from the release of The Last Guardian, the game that has taken Team Ico over eleven years to create. Earlier this year we discussed the developer's first game, Ico, and the impact it had on game development going forward. To be a bit topical, we are happy to present a lengthy, in-depth look at Team Ico's second game, Shadow of the Colossus. The 2005 PlayStation 2 title carried the spirit of Ico into a large open-world full of magic, danger, and beautiful stillness. Though not glowingly received by critics at the time, regard for the third-person adventure game seems to have grown over the years. Usually opinions on a game degrade over time, so the case of Shadow of the Colossus might strike some as particularly odd. Has a large segment of the gaming population collectively chosen to wear rose-colored glasses or have people been slowly realizing the merits of the game that pits a man against living mountains? Also, this marks the one year anniversary of The Best Games Period podcast - a huge thank you to everyone who took the time out of their day to listen in each week. We really appreciate those of you who have left comments and reviews. We hope that you'll stick with us as we keep talking about the best games through 2017 and beyond! Each week we will be tackling a video game, old or new, that at least one of us believes deserves to stand as one of the greatest games of all time. We'll dive into its history, development, and gameplay, while trying to argue for or against the game of the week. Sometimes we will be in harmonious agreement, other times we might be fighting a bitter battle to the very end. However each episode shakes out, we hope that everyone who listens will find the show entertaining and informative. Outro music: 'The Sunlit Earth' by Kow Otani (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POTlM3SyMVo) You can download or listen to the podcast over on Soundcloud, our hosting site, and iTunes. A YouTube version is (sometimes) available as well, so you can watch what we are talking about while we talk about it! You can also follow the show on Twitter: @BestGamesPeriod New episodes of The Best Games Period will be released every Monday View full article
  17. Earlier this week, I wrapped up my review of Divinity: Original Sin and one of the minor problems that I briefly mentioned was the lack of narrative direction. I understand why it isn’t there; Larian studios didn’t want to funnel their players into any one predetermined path. Doing so would undermine the entire appeal of their game and diminish the sense of freedom Original Sin allows its players. As I thought about my experience with Larian’s modern take on old-school RPGs, I couldn’t help but feel like this was something of a missed opportunity. Original Sin was certainly entertaining, but will I ever feel compelled to replay it? Will I remember the details of its well-worn plot or the characters in a month or two? The somewhat somber conclusion that I came to was a flat no. I’ve always been a proponent of games as both a vehicle for both narrative and enjoyment. However, it seems that when one sacrifices narrative for enjoyment the entire package suffers as a whole. I still get the itch to play the first Mass Effect and experience the adventure again, despite the fact that the gameplay is clunky at best. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I rarely feel the need to go back and revisit Guitar Hero, though it was amazing amounts of fun when it initially released. And that isn’t saying that all games should have narratives; it is merely an observation that fun seems to be this ethereal and transient thing while well told stories last. I have a running bet with a friend of mine on which game people will still talk about in twenty years: BioShock Infinite or The Last of Us. It is a silly bet with $50 on the line, but if I am completely honest, people will probably still talk about both titles. The dialogue will continue, not because they were both fun (though they are both quite enjoyable to play), but because of the stories they tell and how they go about telling them. I wouldn’t be willing to place a similar bet on there being ongoing discourse about the narratives in Divinity: Original Sin, Crackdown, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Dark Souls, or Grand Theft Auto 4. The greatest strength that these games provide, player agency, seems to diminish the effect their stories might have otherwise exerted. This brings me to what I feel is a valid question: Why? Why is it that open world games seem to have fewer stories that connect with players? The first conclusion that I find myself drawn toward is that open world game design clashes with traditional narrative structure. There is a concept in Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces’ that stipulates many stories have a ‘call to adventure’ wherein the narrative beckons the protagonist to begin their quest. There is also an addition to that idea referred to as a ‘refusal of the call’ where the protagonist for various reasons declines the initial appeal. Though ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces’ was written with traditional, linear narratives in mind, these two ideas are useful when talking about open world structure. An open world completely destroys almost any attempt to create a similar type of story, and yet many of the narratives we find in open worlds cling to a linear structure. Since the players in most video games are the protagonist, this means that the hooks meant to invest them into the story must be effective or else most players will find various reasons to ‘refuse the call’ while going from initial plot point A to important plot point B. This was exactly my problem while playing Skyrim. I sank over one hundred hours into Bethesda’s open world and never made much progress on the main storyline. There was always a new cave to explore, a new sidequest, a new dragon shout clue. Any dramatic tension that might have been built up disappeared the instant an unexplored map marker appeared. I’d guess that many of you have similar experiences with open world games. The opportunities and incentives to refuse the call simply win out through sheer numbers over the singular call to adventure. You might argue that this is a problem that could be solved through design by including more motivations to follow the core storyline. I’ve heard ideas thrown around ranging from providing a timer to create tension like those found in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask or Dead Rising. Another idea would be to incentivize the main quest with better loot or various other digital rewards. That sounds all fine and dandy, but when you bring the idea of curbing or influencing player behavior in an open world game to the players themselves, you are met with a resounding, “LOL, NOPE.” Creating effective drama in a narrative is like shooting a bow and arrow. The string of the bow tenses as it is pulled further and further. If you hold the arrow back for too long your arm begins to get tired and there is the possibility that the string or bow will break. Releasing the arrow after it has been fully drawn causes it to shoot far and fast, but if you let the string go slowly slack, the arrow will just clatter to the ground harmlessly. Drama demands a certain amount of tension; tension which most players in open world games dislike because it makes them feel like they are ‘on the clock’ so to speak. This gives people a sense of being rushed or forced down certain paths, which they then resent. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the people who don’t care and do what they want anyway, which has the effect of deflating tension until it is non-existent, killing the drama. At this point, it might be fair to question the point of having a narrative in an open world experience at all. Perhaps it is best to look at how narrative in the genre has evolved to its current state for additional insight. Open world games began as text adventures in the 70s, but the first graphical attempt at an open world came in the form of 1979’s Adventure on the Atari 2600. While the game itself gave few clues as to what story, if any, was being told, the instruction manual provided players with the tools to contextualize the collections of shapes on-screen. In 1986, The Legend of Zelda refined the idea of an open world by adding engaging combat and puzzles, though the narrative was still largely contained within the game’s manual. Then, in 1998, Ocarina of Time released and became the go-to example of how to pull off an open world. To this day Ocarina is considered one of the greatest games of all time, lauded for its tight gameplay, exploration, and narrative. For the first time, an open world game had a narrative that was not only successful in a functional sense, but also in a way which seemed like it captured the essence of adventure. That part of the game might seem tired and less revelatory over a over a decade and a half later, but when it released people were amazed by the cheeky Princess Ruto, the odd society of the Gerudo, and the journey of a young boy to save the world. Ocarina of Time managed to tread a very thin line; one that encouraged and rewarded exploration while also minimizing distractions from the player’s pursuit of the narrative. Have you ever noticed how a lot of the areas you initially pass by in Ocarina of Time have paths and secrets you can only access with gear later on; gear that you only acquire by progressing through the story? Ocarina manages to gate various areas in this manner, but it never feels distracting or irritating. I’d guess that’s because it provides incentives to proceed, both in terms of new gadgets, but also by using what has become one of the most iconic gaming annoyances: “HEY, LISTEN!” Players who get overly sidetracked are reminded that they’re supposed to be saving the world and not wasting quite so much time competing in fishing challenges or fighting chickens. These gates and mechanics result in a tightly controlled story which funnels the player from dungeon to dungeon. While players might have accepted this in ’98 and have come to accept it as a staple of The Legend of Zelda series, they certainly wouldn’t appreciate such tactics in a game like Far Cry 4. Ocarina balances the openness of its world against its narrative needs very well, but it isn’t perfect, something that has become more apparent to me over time. It is a classic hero-saves-the-kidnapped-princess story, a tale we have all heard more than a few times. Sure, it has a few unique twists, but that isn’t enough to make the narrative feel completely new. It is an old story told very competently, which is high praise for a video game, but it isn’t Shakespeare, Dickens, or Dumas. Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of developers at the turn of the century took the success of Ocarina of Time to mean that bigger open worlds with more things to do was what players truly wanted, not recognizing the need for a change in storytelling tactics. That leads us to the current day. Rapidly advancing technology has given developers more tools with greater power than ever before, ballooning the costs of development for open world games and causing more developers to play it safe by sticking with providing larger and larger worlds. Many gamers and developers seem to be stuck in the idea that bigger is better when it comes to open world video games, while forgetting the lessons of Ocarina of Time. With a smaller game world than most open world games since, Ocarina of Time is more successful on a narrative level than Skyrim’s massive realm. I feel the need to clarify that I don’t mean to talk smack about Skyrim. There are many, many things that it does much better than Ocarina of Time and its scale is utterly gorgeous, but on a narrative level it calls flat for me. The problem is that when a game touts its massive game world and sells millions of copies, many other developers attribute the success, at least in part, to how large the game world was. That’s the reason we see CD Projeckt hyping The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt as having a game world larger than Skyrim and 30 times as large as The Witcher 2. As a side note, it seems a bit backward to me to tout how large a title’s in-game world is before players have gotten their hands on it. What if the general reception of the game is terrible? Doesn’t that just mean there is more of it to find unenjoyable? A great parallel of this mindset can be seen in the film industry. On the one hand we have Transformers, a series of films that trots around the world with giant robots beating the crap (oil?) out of each other that succeeds in being huge, loud, and flashy, with each film trying to be bigger than the last; and it is all so incredibly boring. On the other hand, we have 12 Angry Men a classic film from 1957 about a jury arguing over the guilt of a young man on trial for murder. Almost the entire film takes place in a small jury room and it is riveting. The film makes good use of the small space, shooting from interesting angles while dramatic tension is created between the various members of the jury. The size of the set isn’t what makes a film interesting, and neither is the size of a game world. It seems kind of like we are stuck when it comes to storytelling in open world games. Developers can attempt to tell a story that our players can completely ignore, which leads to lazy, uninspiring narratives; they could lightly sprinkle the narrative into the game in such a way that it is both unimportant to the player and the game itself; or we can tightly control the gameplay options to restrict the open world and tell our story appropriately. All of these options seem to come up a bit short if a developer wants to tell a meaty, interesting narrative in an open world. It might seem odd to look for a solution in linear titles, but that seems to be the only recourse to find a moderately comparable solution, since there are nothing quite like open world games in any other form of media. Observing some of the most interesting narrative titles from the last decade or so reveals what could be an interesting answer and possibly the future of video games: Game mechanics as storytelling tools. There is a tendency to view mechanics in games as simply a means to an end; that they are just how games work. It is a shame that we look at the basic means by which this medium functions and just shrug them off. But those underlying mechanisms are one of the characteristics that set video games apart from other mediums. Perhaps that is why some of the best games of our time have made use of mechanics to aid in storytelling. Look at Jonathan Blow’s Braid which uses its core time reversing mechanic to devastating effect. It completely turns the tables on the accepted theme of princess rescuing that many games have adopted as a shorthand for adventure. It reveals a troubled protagonist who has created his own version of events while ignoring the truth of what happened; someone who desperately desires to rewind the clock and take back what they did, but ultimately finds that this is one thing that can’t be fixed. For a more blatant example, look at this year’s Transistor from Supergiant Games. The mechanics of the combat contain several layers of meaning. On a surface level, they build the world of Transistor and reflect the digital nature of Cloudbank. Each combat ability stems from a person who has been absorbed into the Transistor and must be combined in different ways to unlock each individual’s history. Using these abilities, these souls, naturally brings up questions about humanity and the moral questions of what you, and by extension the characters around you, are doing. These mechanics are both core to how the game is played and compose the heart of their respective games. This is what open worlds need to strive to do. Developers can escape the confines of linear storytelling if they ingrain the mechanics with weight and meaning. *spoilers for Shadow of the Colossus ahead* The melding of mechanics and story was a concept that Shadow of the Colossus (one of my favorite games of all time) understood very well. In fact, I’d be willing to argue that it is the only open world game that has succeeded in doing so in a nearly flawless manner. Every single mechanic in Shadow of the Colossus tells us something important. What’s that? Wander swings the sword clumsily? That makes sense since it is revealed later that he stole the sword. He rides his horse Agro very competently and it comes when whistled for? They probably have a deep bond that will be exploited later for dramatic effect. He shoots arrows very well? He was probably hunter or an archer of some kind. Within the space of several minutes with no dialogue the player can make some accurate assessments of Wander’s character. As the player progresses through Shadow of the Colossus, they slay enormous magical beasts for a mysteriously imprisoned entity in exchange for the soul of a deceased loved one. For every colossus that Wander kills, the game makes it clear that this is a sinister task with grave consequences via inescapable dark energy which pierce Wander’s body. At first the change is so subtle many players don’t notice, but after several of the creatures are dead, Wander begins to change, both on the outside and the inside. Small horns begin sprouting from his head, his hair turns black, and his skin goes white, eventually taking on the look of someone near death. But as these changes occur, he also gains more stamina and health, tangible things in the game that help the player overcome the remaining colossi. Wander’s willingness to give up his humanity over the course of Shadow of the Colossus speaks to the lengths to which he will go for the sake of his love, a sacrifice that becomes all too clear in the final moments of the game. Though the world is open, the minimal design ensures that there aren’t many distractions beyond the beautiful views encountered en route to the next colossus’ location, thus naturally overcoming the player’s urge to wander and break dramatic tension. It seems to me that in order to tell a completely successful narrative in a video game, developers need to embrace the things that make video games different and use them to tell their story. For too long, open world games have relied entirely on player agency while neglecting to consider the importance of what their mechanics are saying. And this isn’t just a problem for open world games, but something that a lot of linearly designed games also get wrong. Integrating mechanics meaningfully into the narrative will be what brings video games into their own. The industry is on the cusp of a change in design philosophy and I can’t wait to see what comes next.
  18. Earlier this week, I wrapped up my review of Divinity: Original Sin and one of the minor problems that I briefly mentioned was the lack of narrative direction. I understand why it isn’t there; Larian studios didn’t want to funnel their players into any one predetermined path. Doing so would undermine the entire appeal of their game and diminish the sense of freedom Original Sin allows its players. As I thought about my experience with Larian’s modern take on old-school RPGs, I couldn’t help but feel like this was something of a missed opportunity. Original Sin was certainly entertaining, but will I ever feel compelled to replay it? Will I remember the details of its well-worn plot or the characters in a month or two? The somewhat somber conclusion that I came to was a flat no. I’ve always been a proponent of games as both a vehicle for both narrative and enjoyment. However, it seems that when one sacrifices narrative for enjoyment the entire package suffers as a whole. I still get the itch to play the first Mass Effect and experience the adventure again, despite the fact that the gameplay is clunky at best. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I rarely feel the need to go back and revisit Guitar Hero, though it was amazing amounts of fun when it initially released. And that isn’t saying that all games should have narratives; it is merely an observation that fun seems to be this ethereal and transient thing while well told stories last. I have a running bet with a friend of mine on which game people will still talk about in twenty years: BioShock Infinite or The Last of Us. It is a silly bet with $50 on the line, but if I am completely honest, people will probably still talk about both titles. The dialogue will continue, not because they were both fun (though they are both quite enjoyable to play), but because of the stories they tell and how they go about telling them. I wouldn’t be willing to place a similar bet on there being ongoing discourse about the narratives in Divinity: Original Sin, Crackdown, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Dark Souls, or Grand Theft Auto 4. The greatest strength that these games provide, player agency, seems to diminish the effect their stories might have otherwise exerted. This brings me to what I feel is a valid question: Why? Why is it that open world games seem to have fewer stories that connect with players? The first conclusion that I find myself drawn toward is that open world game design clashes with traditional narrative structure. There is a concept in Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces’ that stipulates many stories have a ‘call to adventure’ wherein the narrative beckons the protagonist to begin their quest. There is also an addition to that idea referred to as a ‘refusal of the call’ where the protagonist for various reasons declines the initial appeal. Though ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces’ was written with traditional, linear narratives in mind, these two ideas are useful when talking about open world structure. An open world completely destroys almost any attempt to create a similar type of story, and yet many of the narratives we find in open worlds cling to a linear structure. Since the players in most video games are the protagonist, this means that the hooks meant to invest them into the story must be effective or else most players will find various reasons to ‘refuse the call’ while going from initial plot point A to important plot point B. This was exactly my problem while playing Skyrim. I sank over one hundred hours into Bethesda’s open world and never made much progress on the main storyline. There was always a new cave to explore, a new sidequest, a new dragon shout clue. Any dramatic tension that might have been built up disappeared the instant an unexplored map marker appeared. I’d guess that many of you have similar experiences with open world games. The opportunities and incentives to refuse the call simply win out through sheer numbers over the singular call to adventure. You might argue that this is a problem that could be solved through design by including more motivations to follow the core storyline. I’ve heard ideas thrown around ranging from providing a timer to create tension like those found in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask or Dead Rising. Another idea would be to incentivize the main quest with better loot or various other digital rewards. That sounds all fine and dandy, but when you bring the idea of curbing or influencing player behavior in an open world game to the players themselves, you are met with a resounding, “LOL, NOPE.” Creating effective drama in a narrative is like shooting a bow and arrow. The string of the bow tenses as it is pulled further and further. If you hold the arrow back for too long your arm begins to get tired and there is the possibility that the string or bow will break. Releasing the arrow after it has been fully drawn causes it to shoot far and fast, but if you let the string go slowly slack, the arrow will just clatter to the ground harmlessly. Drama demands a certain amount of tension; tension which most players in open world games dislike because it makes them feel like they are ‘on the clock’ so to speak. This gives people a sense of being rushed or forced down certain paths, which they then resent. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the people who don’t care and do what they want anyway, which has the effect of deflating tension until it is non-existent, killing the drama. At this point, it might be fair to question the point of having a narrative in an open world experience at all. Perhaps it is best to look at how narrative in the genre has evolved to its current state for additional insight. Open world games began as text adventures in the 70s, but the first graphical attempt at an open world came in the form of 1979’s Adventure on the Atari 2600. While the game itself gave few clues as to what story, if any, was being told, the instruction manual provided players with the tools to contextualize the collections of shapes on-screen. In 1986, The Legend of Zelda refined the idea of an open world by adding engaging combat and puzzles, though the narrative was still largely contained within the game’s manual. Then, in 1998, Ocarina of Time released and became the go-to example of how to pull off an open world. To this day Ocarina is considered one of the greatest games of all time, lauded for its tight gameplay, exploration, and narrative. For the first time, an open world game had a narrative that was not only successful in a functional sense, but also in a way which seemed like it captured the essence of adventure. That part of the game might seem tired and less revelatory over a over a decade and a half later, but when it released people were amazed by the cheeky Princess Ruto, the odd society of the Gerudo, and the journey of a young boy to save the world. Ocarina of Time managed to tread a very thin line; one that encouraged and rewarded exploration while also minimizing distractions from the player’s pursuit of the narrative. Have you ever noticed how a lot of the areas you initially pass by in Ocarina of Time have paths and secrets you can only access with gear later on; gear that you only acquire by progressing through the story? Ocarina manages to gate various areas in this manner, but it never feels distracting or irritating. I’d guess that’s because it provides incentives to proceed, both in terms of new gadgets, but also by using what has become one of the most iconic gaming annoyances: “HEY, LISTEN!” Players who get overly sidetracked are reminded that they’re supposed to be saving the world and not wasting quite so much time competing in fishing challenges or fighting chickens. These gates and mechanics result in a tightly controlled story which funnels the player from dungeon to dungeon. While players might have accepted this in ’98 and have come to accept it as a staple of The Legend of Zelda series, they certainly wouldn’t appreciate such tactics in a game like Far Cry 4. Ocarina balances the openness of its world against its narrative needs very well, but it isn’t perfect, something that has become more apparent to me over time. It is a classic hero-saves-the-kidnapped-princess story, a tale we have all heard more than a few times. Sure, it has a few unique twists, but that isn’t enough to make the narrative feel completely new. It is an old story told very competently, which is high praise for a video game, but it isn’t Shakespeare, Dickens, or Dumas. Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of developers at the turn of the century took the success of Ocarina of Time to mean that bigger open worlds with more things to do was what players truly wanted, not recognizing the need for a change in storytelling tactics. That leads us to the current day. Rapidly advancing technology has given developers more tools with greater power than ever before, ballooning the costs of development for open world games and causing more developers to play it safe by sticking with providing larger and larger worlds. Many gamers and developers seem to be stuck in the idea that bigger is better when it comes to open world video games, while forgetting the lessons of Ocarina of Time. With a smaller game world than most open world games since, Ocarina of Time is more successful on a narrative level than Skyrim’s massive realm. I feel the need to clarify that I don’t mean to talk smack about Skyrim. There are many, many things that it does much better than Ocarina of Time and its scale is utterly gorgeous, but on a narrative level it calls flat for me. The problem is that when a game touts its massive game world and sells millions of copies, many other developers attribute the success, at least in part, to how large the game world was. That’s the reason we see CD Projeckt hyping The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt as having a game world larger than Skyrim and 30 times as large as The Witcher 2. As a side note, it seems a bit backward to me to tout how large a title’s in-game world is before players have gotten their hands on it. What if the general reception of the game is terrible? Doesn’t that just mean there is more of it to find unenjoyable? A great parallel of this mindset can be seen in the film industry. On the one hand we have Transformers, a series of films that trots around the world with giant robots beating the crap (oil?) out of each other that succeeds in being huge, loud, and flashy, with each film trying to be bigger than the last; and it is all so incredibly boring. On the other hand, we have 12 Angry Men a classic film from 1957 about a jury arguing over the guilt of a young man on trial for murder. Almost the entire film takes place in a small jury room and it is riveting. The film makes good use of the small space, shooting from interesting angles while dramatic tension is created between the various members of the jury. The size of the set isn’t what makes a film interesting, and neither is the size of a game world. It seems kind of like we are stuck when it comes to storytelling in open world games. Developers can attempt to tell a story that our players can completely ignore, which leads to lazy, uninspiring narratives; they could lightly sprinkle the narrative into the game in such a way that it is both unimportant to the player and the game itself; or we can tightly control the gameplay options to restrict the open world and tell our story appropriately. All of these options seem to come up a bit short if a developer wants to tell a meaty, interesting narrative in an open world. It might seem odd to look for a solution in linear titles, but that seems to be the only recourse to find a moderately comparable solution, since there are nothing quite like open world games in any other form of media. Observing some of the most interesting narrative titles from the last decade or so reveals what could be an interesting answer and possibly the future of video games: Game mechanics as storytelling tools. There is a tendency to view mechanics in games as simply a means to an end; that they are just how games work. It is a shame that we look at the basic means by which this medium functions and just shrug them off. But those underlying mechanisms are one of the characteristics that set video games apart from other mediums. Perhaps that is why some of the best games of our time have made use of mechanics to aid in storytelling. Look at Jonathan Blow’s Braid which uses its core time reversing mechanic to devastating effect. It completely turns the tables on the accepted theme of princess rescuing that many games have adopted as a shorthand for adventure. It reveals a troubled protagonist who has created his own version of events while ignoring the truth of what happened; someone who desperately desires to rewind the clock and take back what they did, but ultimately finds that this is one thing that can’t be fixed. For a more blatant example, look at this year’s Transistor from Supergiant Games. The mechanics of the combat contain several layers of meaning. On a surface level, they build the world of Transistor and reflect the digital nature of Cloudbank. Each combat ability stems from a person who has been absorbed into the Transistor and must be combined in different ways to unlock each individual’s history. Using these abilities, these souls, naturally brings up questions about humanity and the moral questions of what you, and by extension the characters around you, are doing. These mechanics are both core to how the game is played and compose the heart of their respective games. This is what open worlds need to strive to do. Developers can escape the confines of linear storytelling if they ingrain the mechanics with weight and meaning. *spoilers for Shadow of the Colossus ahead* The melding of mechanics and story was a concept that Shadow of the Colossus (one of my favorite games of all time) understood very well. In fact, I’d be willing to argue that it is the only open world game that has succeeded in doing so in a nearly flawless manner. Every single mechanic in Shadow of the Colossus tells us something important. What’s that? Wander swings the sword clumsily? That makes sense since it is revealed later that he stole the sword. He rides his horse Agro very competently and it comes when whistled for? They probably have a deep bond that will be exploited later for dramatic effect. He shoots arrows very well? He was probably hunter or an archer of some kind. Within the space of several minutes with no dialogue the player can make some accurate assessments of Wander’s character. As the player progresses through Shadow of the Colossus, they slay enormous magical beasts for a mysteriously imprisoned entity in exchange for the soul of a deceased loved one. For every colossus that Wander kills, the game makes it clear that this is a sinister task with grave consequences via inescapable dark energy which pierce Wander’s body. At first the change is so subtle many players don’t notice, but after several of the creatures are dead, Wander begins to change, both on the outside and the inside. Small horns begin sprouting from his head, his hair turns black, and his skin goes white, eventually taking on the look of someone near death. But as these changes occur, he also gains more stamina and health, tangible things in the game that help the player overcome the remaining colossi. Wander’s willingness to give up his humanity over the course of Shadow of the Colossus speaks to the lengths to which he will go for the sake of his love, a sacrifice that becomes all too clear in the final moments of the game. Though the world is open, the minimal design ensures that there aren’t many distractions beyond the beautiful views encountered en route to the next colossus’ location, thus naturally overcoming the player’s urge to wander and break dramatic tension. It seems to me that in order to tell a completely successful narrative in a video game, developers need to embrace the things that make video games different and use them to tell their story. For too long, open world games have relied entirely on player agency while neglecting to consider the importance of what their mechanics are saying. And this isn’t just a problem for open world games, but something that a lot of linearly designed games also get wrong. Integrating mechanics meaningfully into the narrative will be what brings video games into their own. The industry is on the cusp of a change in design philosophy and I can’t wait to see what comes next. View full article
  19. Great video games aren’t random mishmashes and hodgepodges of disparate visuals, mechanics, and stories. With games that stand the test of time, those elements need to come together to create a cohesive whole. Given that video games are an interactive medium, arguably their most important component is how they allow players to interact with them. The Stanley Parable, Shadow of the Colossus, and Beyond: Two Souls, perfectly capture this concept, albeit in different ways. I’ve made a point of mentioning a game called The Stanley Parable recently. Talking about The Stanley Parable is difficult without spoiling much of what makes it enjoyable and thought provoking. However, I don’t think it is giving away too much to say that the core of the experience is built around player choice and how that relates to game design. Developer Galactic Cafe stripped down the gameplay to the bare minimum required to convey this message to players. The Stanley Parable uses similar mechanics to games like Dear Esther and Gone Home, giving players only the ability to move and interact with certain objects. One of the criticisms leveled against both Gone Home and Dear Esther was that the level of engagement afforded by the limited scope of the gameplay wasn’t interesting or necessarily fun. Where those games fell short, The Stanley Parable excels by using its mechanics to help demonstrate and complement its story through intelligent game design. Essentially, players are presented with a series of branching paths and options with an amusing narration responding to whatever the player happens to be doing. The narration urges players down a predetermined path, while other opportunities are constantly presented for players to derail the experience. This allows The Stanley Parable to not only directly talk about the struggles of developing video games but also demonstrate those difficulties through the player’s experiences. Interactivity and storytelling are difficult to reconcile with one another, as interactivity is necessarily freeing and storytelling is by nature restrictive. Shadow of the Colossus marries the two in an interesting way. Colossus’ story revolves around a young man who brings his deceased love to a forbidden land and makes a pact with a demon or deity to bring her back from the dead. At the end of their interaction, the supernatural entity nebulously states that the price might be higher than the young man could imagine. As players progress through Shadow of the Colossus, killing the sixteen colossi, players begin to notice subtle changes, both in the visuals and in the gameplay. With each defeated colossus comes a flood of dark tendrils that infuse the young man’s body and transport him back to the starting area. Each time that happens, the young man receives increased health and stamina and begins to look more haggard, eventually sprouting small horns, transforming into something inhuman. This is done with little to no dialogue, but as players, we experience the transformation ourselves and recognize that something sinister is taking place; the cost alluded to at the beginning. It is an achievement in subtlety that few games ever manage. While the story in Shadow of the Colossus remains static with no branching paths, it leaves the details hanging for players to interpret and experience differently with each playthrough. That's how you can have many players walking away from Shadow of the Colossus with different takes on what happened in the game. Was it a love story about a man going to the ends of the world for the woman he loves? Was it a dark parable cautioning against hubris? Or perhaps it was a tragedy about someone coping with grief in destructive ways? These vastly different outlooks depend on how people interact with Shadow of the Colossus and the set of life experiences each individual brings with them. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we have games like Beyond: Two Souls, which treat gameplay mechanics almost as a hindrance rather than a strength. Playing Beyond: Two Souls feels like watching a bad movie that grudgingly pauses every so often for players to do quick-time events and contextual button presses. The game rarely communicates when players are making important choices that are arbitrarily more important later on in the plot and plot-related decisions are essentially the only meaningful gameplay in which players can partake. Yes, it has branching storylines. Yes, it integrates player choice. Yes, it looks great. But its story doesn’t serve its gameplay and that renders the interactive element of the game inert. When players can't understand how their choices mattered, that represents a fundamental problem with a game supposedly built on player choice. Interactivity should be used to help tell a story rather than having a story draped around unrelated mechanics. When the two don’t sync up right, we get games that might as well be movies or books. If we wanted that, we would go to a library (those are still a thing, right?) or flip on Netflix. View full article
  20. Great video games aren’t random mishmashes and hodgepodges of disparate visuals, mechanics, and stories. With games that stand the test of time, those elements need to come together to create a cohesive whole. Given that video games are an interactive medium, arguably their most important component is how they allow players to interact with them. The Stanley Parable, Shadow of the Colossus, and Beyond: Two Souls, perfectly capture this concept, albeit in different ways. I’ve made a point of mentioning a game called The Stanley Parable recently. Talking about The Stanley Parable is difficult without spoiling much of what makes it enjoyable and thought provoking. However, I don’t think it is giving away too much to say that the core of the experience is built around player choice and how that relates to game design. Developer Galactic Cafe stripped down the gameplay to the bare minimum required to convey this message to players. The Stanley Parable uses similar mechanics to games like Dear Esther and Gone Home, giving players only the ability to move and interact with certain objects. One of the criticisms leveled against both Gone Home and Dear Esther was that the level of engagement afforded by the limited scope of the gameplay wasn’t interesting or necessarily fun. Where those games fell short, The Stanley Parable excels by using its mechanics to help demonstrate and complement its story through intelligent game design. Essentially, players are presented with a series of branching paths and options with an amusing narration responding to whatever the player happens to be doing. The narration urges players down a predetermined path, while other opportunities are constantly presented for players to derail the experience. This allows The Stanley Parable to not only directly talk about the struggles of developing video games but also demonstrate those difficulties through the player’s experiences. Interactivity and storytelling are difficult to reconcile with one another, as interactivity is necessarily freeing and storytelling is by nature restrictive. Shadow of the Colossus marries the two in an interesting way. Colossus’ story revolves around a young man who brings his deceased love to a forbidden land and makes a pact with a demon or deity to bring her back from the dead. At the end of their interaction, the supernatural entity nebulously states that the price might be higher than the young man could imagine. As players progress through Shadow of the Colossus, killing the sixteen colossi, players begin to notice subtle changes, both in the visuals and in the gameplay. With each defeated colossus comes a flood of dark tendrils that infuse the young man’s body and transport him back to the starting area. Each time that happens, the young man receives increased health and stamina and begins to look more haggard, eventually sprouting small horns, transforming into something inhuman. This is done with little to no dialogue, but as players, we experience the transformation ourselves and recognize that something sinister is taking place; the cost alluded to at the beginning. It is an achievement in subtlety that few games ever manage. While the story in Shadow of the Colossus remains static with no branching paths, it leaves the details hanging for players to interpret and experience differently with each playthrough. That's how you can have many players walking away from Shadow of the Colossus with different takes on what happened in the game. Was it a love story about a man going to the ends of the world for the woman he loves? Was it a dark parable cautioning against hubris? Or perhaps it was a tragedy about someone coping with grief in destructive ways? These vastly different outlooks depend on how people interact with Shadow of the Colossus and the set of life experiences each individual brings with them. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we have games like Beyond: Two Souls, which treat gameplay mechanics almost as a hindrance rather than a strength. Playing Beyond: Two Souls feels like watching a bad movie that grudgingly pauses every so often for players to do quick-time events and contextual button presses. The game rarely communicates when players are making important choices that are arbitrarily more important later on in the plot and plot-related decisions are essentially the only meaningful gameplay in which players can partake. Yes, it has branching storylines. Yes, it integrates player choice. Yes, it looks great. But its story doesn’t serve its gameplay and that renders the interactive element of the game inert. When players can't understand how their choices mattered, that represents a fundamental problem with a game supposedly built on player choice. Interactivity should be used to help tell a story rather than having a story draped around unrelated mechanics. When the two don’t sync up right, we get games that might as well be movies or books. If we wanted that, we would go to a library (those are still a thing, right?) or flip on Netflix.
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