Ars Ludica Special in: Shadow Of The Colossus and the Aesthetics of Silence

Twelve years ago, the gaming industry saw a little pearl that would upset the way people looked at video games forever. Twelve years ago, a young warrior was the guinea pig for this event. Twelve years ago, Fumito Ueda created Shadow of the Colossus.


A young man raises his sword to heaven. A ray of light touches it and branches out into many distinct rays, illuminating its path. In front of him, a boundless land full of dark and forbidden secrets; behind him, an irreparable sin, to be expiated with a pact with darkness itself. And nothing but a list of sixteen victims awaiting his arrival.

This, in summary, is Shadow Of The Colossus; and already from these very few phrases it is clear how much there is at stake, how much there is to say, how complicated it can be even just trying to talk about a work of this kind. In the case of the writer, the second major work of Smoking Ueda it is undoubtedly one of the games to keep in the heart, one of those to bring high as an example of what the video game can be and become. If they ever asked me “How can a video game aspire to be art?”, I would just answer to play Shadow Of The Colossus and try to ask the same question again. Because it is a monumental, ambitious, marvelous and beautiful work; and, like all works with this value, it is also tremendously complex.


This article is part of the cycle "Ars Ludica“, Which aims to search for the artistic components in some of the most representative video games. Those who already think that video games can be an art form will probably find strong confirmation in the course of this article; for those who strongly believe that they are not, the invitation is to continue reading. Because there is no more beautiful art than what appears to the eyes of those who know how to admire it.
If you are curious about our analysis methodologies, take a look at the following links: Introduction to Ars Ludica; complements.


The Shadow of the Colossus Narrative: between Silence, Poetry and Music
Art between interactivity and gameplay

We have often stated, in these pages, how the artistry of a video game is first and foremost at the basis of the relationship between interactivity and immersion, both components in close dialogue with the player. Obviously, everything must be in close connection with a work of objective quality: to cite a specific case, if a Beyond Eyes (which we love to remember in these cases) is an excellent example of an artistic approach that uses interactivity and immersion, the work of Tiger Squid Studios is not, however, a videogame masterpiece, despite its implied beauty. Art does not have to be an excuse to forgive a form of negligence - a concept we recently expressed on our podcast as well Holygamerz, during the episode with Sabaku no Maiku. Fortunately, to say that Shadow of the Colossus being negligent would be an unforgivable sin.



Wander's journey

Anyone who has played the work of Ueda knows its premises: a boy, desperate for the death of his beloved, decides to embark on a journey to a forbidden and dark land, in search of a divine creature capable of bringing the girl back to life. . Arrived at the Shrine of the Cult with his trusty mount, agro, the young Wander will find himself having to eliminate, in exchange for the life of his beloved, sixteen “Colossi” - anthropomorphic and zoomorphic ancestral creatures endowed with a mysterious dark power. And Wander will not think twice: he will instantly set out in search of his first victim, eliminating without remorse one colossus after another.

But it is enough to take the first steps inside the Shrine to realize that you are faced with something unusual. Wander's footsteps echo in the temple, his voice calling Agro echoes on the walls of the gigantic central nave, and the wind whips the walls of the structure bringing with it various natural sounds from outside. There is something strange, there is no doubt, something that you cannot immediately perceive: silence.

Silence is the strongest component of Shadow Of The Colossus: it marks every journey, every movement, every step that precedes the battle with one of Wander's victims.

The impact of silence

When we mention "silence", of course, we do not mean a total absence of sound. Shadow of the Colossus it is simply devoid of music in its exploratory stages, leaving the player immersed in a mass of ambient sounds without a backing track. "Subtractive design", as we have defined it several times; and the result is extraordinary, astonishing, majestic and capable of awe. The player feels every single step of Wander, every movement of Agro, every animal that surrounds both: it is immersed in an exclusively natural, ancient, primitive, forbidden game world. While riding across the boundless plains, the player feels nothing but the wind and Agro's hooves on the ground; and travels to an immaculate land, never touched by man, where music simply seems out of place. As a result, the player cannot help but feel tiny in the face of such a spectacle.

And the “silent game-design” of the virtual camera only emphasizes such a sense of disorientation, such respect for a pure and wild, but also essentially harmless environment. Camera movements are slow, smooth and elegant, moving from a medium to a long shot to emphasize views and distances. Agro and Wander become almost dots as they cross a rock bridge, and the most curious player can move his eyes to the beach below or to the distant horizon, silently admiring the beauty of a setting so refined and “simple” at the same time.



Music as a narrative medium

But the game is not totally without music: outside the (few) cutscenes scattered throughout the game, the soundtrack obscures the echo and reverberation of the sound effects especially during the battles with the Colossi. Majestic, dynamic, tense soundtracks, with string instruments and orchestral arrangements of unparalleled beauty that contribute to the narrative of the video game: without dynamic music, the clash with the Colossi would be totally different. Dynamic, because each phase of the fight is marked by a different portion of the piece, or by a completely different piece: if Wander has his feet on the ground during the fight with a gigantic rock bird on a lake, the soundtrack will be calm, placid like the waters below. If, on the contrary, Wander jumps on the back of the Colossus and starts moving on its wings, the soundtrack will adapt to the moment, bringing tension to the player engaged in the undertaking. And so for practically every Colossus, each of them tends to have a different track.

And it is precisely during the battles with the Colossi that it is released all the poetry of Fumito Ueda's work.


The Implicit, the Sense of Guilt, the Unsaid
Wander and remorse

So far, after all, we have only scratched the surface of Shadow of the Colossus and its beauty as a videogame work. Although, at first glance, Ueda's second work already has a lot to say, there is also a lot that is suggested, hinted at, barely stated, or even completely silent. Starting with the name of the protagonist.

We said that our desperate warrior bears the name of "Wander“, But his name is never mentioned in the course of the game, and there is nothing beyond a few entries in the extras to suggest it. A very specific design choice, adopted in several other ways in RPGs - mainly to increase identification. An explicit and pronounced name, psychologically, it distances the user from the character himself, even if it is a completely unconscious mental process. This is why RPGs allow you to customize the name of the heroes, or even just them why the Hero, in Dragon Quest VIII, is not voiced in any of his dialogues. In this case, however, the name also has a very specific meaning: "Wander" is the English verb for "wander, wander", and it is a "talking name" - Charles Dickens forgive us for the reference - which already suggests the role of the character within the story. Wander is a wanderer, a traveler, a warrior constantly moving from one goal to another, who rarely stops to rest - and, anyway, always by choice of the player.

But it is certainly not the most "powerful" element of the Shadow of the Colossus implicit: the strongest and most meaningful, undoubtedly, go in pairs, and are remorse and selfishness.



Guilt strikes the player on the death of each opponent

Wander is a selfish devoid of remorse, but we are never told in any way in the course of the game: everything is simply suggested, suggested by his having to face a creature to continue, by his being relentless and merciless towards those majestic creatures. ancient. The player becomes an accomplice of such selfishness, killing one Colossus after another, facing increasingly powerful enemies and overcoming unparalleled obstacles. Wander does not care that those creatures are millennia old, nor that they are beautiful and respectful, nor that they are essentially harmless: when he approaches their lair and the Colossi are forced to fight back, Wander kills them in cold blood and without mercy. And, when a Colossus dies, the soundtrack suggests that we have just committed an unforgivable sin, a mistake for which, sooner or later, we will have to pay: dynamic and tense music relaxes, becoming a melancholy and moving theme, while the Colossus collapses to the ground now lifeless. The scene is poignant: a beautiful, ancestral, millennia-old creature destroyed by the selfishness of a tiny human determined to bring his beloved to life. And the player has no choice: if he wants to advance in the game, the Colossi must be destroyed. One after the other.

This is, perhaps, the most powerful implicit and the strongest narrative medium adopted by Ueda's masterpiece: Love is selfishness, a form of selfishness that does not stop in front of anything or anyone, not even respect for life and innocence. The Colossi sleep or wander in their lairs, unaware of the impending danger, without harming anyone; their only fault is that of being an obstacle between Wander and the soul of his beloved.

By depriving the player of the possibility of choosing in the face of such a great ethical dilemma, paradoxically, Shadow of the Colossus it uses interactivity as a narrative means to exclude the player from any choice, piercing him with a more powerful sense of guilt every time a Colossus falls to the ground. A sense of guilt that Wander obviously does not feel is his.


The Silent Art and the Majesty of Remake
Shadow of the Colossus and the emphasis of contact

All this happens in total silence, narrative or musical. Using subtractive design and exclusion, the work of Fumito Ueda emphasizes the contrast: life and death, selfishness and ethics, the player and his avatar. While initially emphasizing the desperation of Wander, the player is faced with a journey along sixteen Colossi, sixteen victims who progressively distance him from the choices of Wander, leading him to position himself in a diametrically opposite way with respect to the determination of the young man. Shadow of the Colossus it stops being a video game after three or four Colossi, becoming rather a hymn to life and a slow agony for even the most detached player, who can only feel an increasingly powerful sense of guilt after each defeated enemy. Until culminating in the finale that everyone here should know, or that we are experiencing in these days.

At this point and after last February 7, it might seem that the writer is talking about the Remake, released earlier this month on PlayStation 4. In fact, all the elements just mentioned were already present in the original work, released in 2005 on PlayStation 2; and we're talking about almost thirteen years ago. The BluePoint Remake, as we will see in the review of our Pietro Iacullo, he did not introduce everything we have just talked about; but it reproduces exactly, faithfully, with full knowledge of the facts, all the experience that is Shadow of the Colossus, making it even more majestic and wonderful than the original. The attention to detail, the subtractive design, the silence, the soundtracks, everything is in its place and everything fits perfectly, bringing back to life a work that inevitably, with the details allowed by PlayStation 2, would not be never looked so visually impressive - despite being a masterpiece in its day. We didn't think it was possible to improve Shadow of the Colossus, yet BluePoint has succeeded: injecting beauty into an already unprecedented work of art.



A work that fits into the narrative universe composed of Ico e The Last Guardian, two artistically equally wonderful works that address equally poignant themes. There is no shortage of references to both works for those who already know them, and there are also some juicy Easter Eggs that we will like to examine in the review; Easter Eggs that refer to works that have changed, in their own way, the way of understanding video games a little more each time, with an aesthetic, poetic and artistic capacity that video games have always potentially had, and which has been emphasized by medium only shortly thereafter.

As we said at the beginning, twelve years ago Fumito Ueda created Shadow of the Colossus. And, twelve years ago, Shadow of the Colossus changed the way of looking at the videogame medium (at least, for those few who have managed to play it), leading the player to live an unprecedented artistic experience. An experience that any video game enthusiast should live on their own skin.

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