In Real Life

It's The Gameplay, Stupid: Shadow of the Colossus

Imagine, if you can bear to, a version of Shadow of the Colossus in which you interact with the colossi purely in quick time events. It’s one of the best games of all time, but it would be made worthless and insulting by such a change. And yet, from the way people talk about the game, you’d think that it wouldn’t make a difference. They bang on about the story, the music, the art direction, the way the colossi flail when you kill them. There’s no talk about the excellent gameplay and level design…

Today we will examine one of the game’s finest moments: the fight with Avion. It’s zesty and generous, elegant and dangerous. Extraordinary things can happen when you fight her, and even more extraordinary things things will happen when you speedrun the battle. Avion can teach us huge amounts about good design.

Avion as a surface

Shadows of the Colossus is about balancing and transporting your avatar around on moving surfaces. Individual colossi present us with variation in the way these surfaces move: they’ll distort, morph, tilt, vibrate, and sway. It comes to be fun by being challenging but fair, balancing simplicity and complexity. If we want to learn anything, we have to look at these bodies’ movements in great detail.

I believe Avion is the surface that moves in the most splendid ways. Her body and orientation changes significantly with every turn, flap, and swoop. The fight is fair, because she’ll seldom take you by surprise: her movements are slow and weighty – appropriate given that she’s made of stone!

She soars through the air with great speed. If you jump while you’re on her, her body will move beneath you. It feels as if you’re operating with a powerful wind on you. There’s a particle effect that helps back up that feeling, but it’s important that it’s not just an aesthetic effect, not just something happening in a QTE. It’s what we call a “friction”: a real, tactical, tactile, simple-yet-deep consideration for the player.

Avion is shaped to make the most of the wind. For fear of the wind, you might spend almost all the fight clinging to her hair, moving in a crawl. But then there’s the mad dash across her wings, which are volatile, narrow platforms. You want to jump across – but if you do the wind will blow you off. Scrambling to the tips of her wings is the most tense metre you will ever run.

Moving along her tail, if you’re against the wind it’s appropriately dangerous to jump, whereas if you’re with the wind, jumping will give you a boost. It’s delightful to leap gaily down that tail, if you dare to. The designers generously made the tail as long as they plausibly could, to extend the time you are allowed to sample that feeling. There’s also the benefit that if you fall off a wingtip, the tail might catch you, which would be pretty exciting.

When you’re confident enough with the game that you can jump with the wind, you will find Avion one of the most rewarding colossi to speedrun. The route shown above emerges as a good way of cutting out the walk up the tail against the wind. Now take a look at this trick:

What a wonderful tactic! Falling is usually a problem, but here we turn it to our advantage! And we are presented with a terrific abstract consideration: we have object x rotating simultaneously in two directions, and object y falling, and when should object y fall such that it intersects both ends of object x? It tests our sense of orientation too.

Shadow of the Colossus’ producer Kenji Kaedo previously worked on Cameltry, a game about strategic falling, rotating, and colliding. We will see that this is not a coincidence.

Avion As A Physics Object

Why is all this awesomeness possible? It’s simple — physics.

Something like the Avion battle could never happen in Uncharted. What we see in Shadow of the Colossus comes from creative players, but it could only work in a game with a designer who was liberal with mechanical design and level design – we see this liberalism in Avion.

Fighting a colossus is not a “linear” experience. There are many things that can happen, as the video demonstrates, and not all of them are specifically thought-out or polished.

Think about Wander falling down vertically, and Avion’s wingtip soaring horizontally as she turns, both with great speed. And Wander is still able to grab on, which is quite an achievement for the technology. Few people on the design team would have thought that situation would ever arise – yet it’s prepared for in the code. Once the code is in place Avion was bound to give rise to something like the wing to wing falling tactic, because she just moves and contorts in such interesting ways. This is why I say Shadow of the Colossus is a game of great depth.

At this point, we can’t get any further without putting ourselves in the shoes of the programmers.

Fumito Ueda told the programmers he wanted a game full of animated entities which the player can climb on. And they’re big. They’re not just enemies, they are actually environments themselves. Remember that part in Half Life 2 where you’re moving down a river, dodging rockets from a tank, and a huge tower collapses on you? Well, the colossi are meant to be the tank and the tower and the river!

How are we to create these unprecedented entities?

We shall give them to the player as physics objects. And we shall build a physics system that allows the player and these entities to touch and push against one another without any clipping issues.

Physics is now the best known way of creating fair and complex gameplay from code that is relatively compact and easy to put together. That’s why, right now, a lot of the mediocre games that get released are physics puzzlers. Shadow of the Colossus has a physics system AND interesting enemy behaviours on top of that!

In Shadow of the Colossus, an animation is not just an animation. Because a colossi is also a physics object, every movement creates a number of forces moving in different directions. And if Wander is affected by those forces, things will happen! The fact that your enemies are physics objects is what gives the game enough depth for those stunts to work, and the fact the colossi are so varied and powerful is what makes the whole thing fascinating.

Compare with Uncharted, whose makers have more sophisticated physics and more human resources to help instantiate the vision of the creative directors. And what they end up doing is to coding into the game essentially every last second of the intended experience, making a polished “series of events”.

Conversely, I don’t think it would ever make any sense to think of a colossi fight as a “series of events”. A colossi is a physics object, a pack of possibilities. Events happen when you fight it, but they’re not in the code. Rather, the code is a toy that gives rise to events when the toy is played with. This is the difference between building a story and building a creature.

It’s sad that modern triple-A 3D platformers are so vacuous. Physics have gotten so much better: we could be gambolling around on distorting entities much more complex than the colossi at this point. But the only games to really take advantage of the technology are Mario, Igneous, Noby Noby Boy and to some extent Journey. We need more designers to gain the confidence to just give us a physics object. And we need storytellers to leave our industry forever.

Avion As A New Piece Of Behaviour

Avion is stimulating in that she has some unique behaviour, but that behaviour is predictable in the most positive of ways.

When behaviour is too unique, it’s horrible. If the game doesn’t warn you about it, you will inevitably get stuck. You’ll attempt to utilise every tool you’ve been introduced to in your effort to move forward, but it won’t work. Eventually you’ll figure it out – but there’s something off about it, as though the designer was unreasonable to request it. You’re relieved you can move on, but there’s a nasty taste left in your mouth.

An example of this in Shadow of the Colossus is in fighting the final colossus. Defeating her involves instigating a new behaviour, a behaviour we can only trigger by stabbing her hand. Her hand has nothing but grey hair on it. Stabbing grey hair has never done anything until this point, so a lot of people don’t know how to move on, and they get stuck. How do they work out what to do? By accident or by walkthrough, probably. Either way, stabbing the grey hair as a solution to this “puzzle” provokes the feeling I’m talking about. It feels cheap, inconsistent, dishonest, time-wasting, inelegant.

This part of the game, and other games which give this feeling, are often described as “having adventure game logic”. To save time I’m going to call them “heterological”. The word is meant to convey that there is a different, or diseased, logic to them.

So the part where you stab the sixteenth colossus in the hand is heterological. Other heterological colossi need you to “trick” them in some obscure way (4, 6, 9, 11, 12, 15), and some require you to find a way of breaking their armour (3, 11, 14, 15). Nobody likes this aspect of the game. The developers tried to smooth it out by giving you audio clues, but this comes across as clumsy and patronising.

Colossus 11 requires you to pick up a stick (you’ve never been required to pick up anything before) light it on fire (you have never seen fire spread between objects before) intimidate the colossus with the fire (you have never been able to intimidate colossi before) and chase it off a cliff, whereupon its armour breaks (it’s seldom clear whether or not armour is breakable). And after that, the weak spot is revealed. Almost every part of this fight is heterological.

It’s ridiculous. Look at this image though – it’s pretty striking, and it’s an interesting situation to be in. You have to think about how to make him move in the direction of the cliff while keeping your distance so he can’t gore you. It’s like nothing else in the game, which is both a good and a bad thing.

Uniqueness like that is only possible if we permit some artistic license, if we permit games to be slightly heterological. But we permit it within reason: designers must learn to walk the line between having unique set pieces, and sticking to the game rules that they’ve already laid down.

Avion’s designers were walking that line better than they were for any other colossus, better than anyone has for any video game set piece I’ve ever seen.

You are in a lake. Avion is in the distance, a silhouetted hunched-up bird perched on a ruined battlement in a dense fog – a most excellently gothic image. You know you have to kill this bird, though you have no idea where to begin; there is no chance of you being able to climb the battlement. But you know you have precisely one way of interacting with her while she’s so far away from you: your arrows. You find something to stand on, and shoot her.

Instantly, Avion swoops vengefully down on you. You see hair on her shoulders, and jump to grab it – all of a sudden, you’re on her. The gain in momentum is so huge that Wander is briefly paralysed and the camera takes a second to catch up. And then you’re flying, with all the power and precariousness that flying should entail.

So we get a nice unique act – the swoop. It’s slightly heterological because it is new behaviour, but it’s ok in this case! The behaviour resulted from the use of basic tool (arrows), and it happened quickly. It’s crucial that designers encourage players to discover new behaviour when it exists. In my Medusa Head article, the first hallway does this job; for an example of even more clever encouragement-design I recommend Anna Anthropy’s article on Catacomb Abyss.

Compare this to colossi 4 and 6, which are dangerously heterological. They specifically exhibit a new kind of behaviour when you hide from them, which is arguably using a basic tool (movement). But they only respond to your hiddenness after a minute or so. That’s very slow, so it’s hard for the player to realise that their hiding has changed anything at all.

Variety and consistency are two beautiful things They usually oppose one another, but there are some places where they work together. Beautiful art (and beautiful science) is often about finding those places. In order to please the ear, music composers must conform to a large number of rules and patterns. Some of the patterns are laid down by our cultural history, other patterns get laid down by the composer themselves. Composers have to be consistent with these patterns – and then they must find room for variety. The task of the creator of behaviour in games is almost identical to this.

The Avion battle in Shadow of the Colossus is a small miracle — an encounter that provides the player with a unique challenge, yet gives us the appropriate tools and knowledge with which to complete the task. It’s almost seamless. In order to defeat Avion the player must precariously walk across the wings of a bird in flight — a difficult task. In designing this challenge the designers walk a similar tight rope, and they pull it off with remarkable dexterity and grace.

Hamish Todd is a writer and game designer. You can see more of his work at www.actionbutton.net and www.insertcredit.com. He is indebted to Nomad for the excellent pictures and research he provides, and to his friend Adam Whybray for suggesting the word “heterological”.