I have a couple of topics to write about boiling around in my head, but this one seems to be the most timely considering the rumour going around of a Shadow of the Colossus/Ico HD re-release next year.
Shadow of the Colossus (and not Beatles Rock Band, inserting snarky jab at the New York Times here) is frequently touted as perhaps The Most Important Game Yet Made. If for some reason you don't know much about this game and need some background, this review on Tap Repeatedly does a great job of explaining, it as well as being a strong example of the sort of praise that is levelled on this game from all quarters. Of all the games that are held on a pedestal as the defining experience of Games As Art, Shadow of the Colossus is one you can guarantee will always come up in the conversation. If the topic of morality and moral choices in games is ever raised, there is always a voice to assert that Shadow of the Colossus, which forces you to do evil, else turn off your console, did it best. Games are not art, says Roger Ebert, but we beg to disagree because dammit, we have Shadow of the Colossus.
So... why don't we rip it off more?
I'm not talking about making a sequel. The Last Guardian is the next game in the "series", such as it is, and I have no doubt that it's going to be a completely different game rather than more of the same, in the same way that Ico and Shadow have the same art style but are otherwise only tenuously connected. What I'm talking about instead is learning the design lessons from that game and applying it to other games to create the same emotional content. What worked about this, why was it so magical, and why aren't we looking at this more?
Two of our Big Seminal Games - Ocarina of Time, and Shadow of the Colossus - have taken the rather bold step of having a great big open area in them where there's almost nothing to do. Where it comes to Ocarina, this is mostly because of technical limitations and because designers were still feeling their way through how to handle space in the 3D action-adventure genre, but, in Shadow, it's deliberate and it works. The long, quiet vistas are combined with piecemeal reveals that show there is more hidden in this large open world than is visible from on high. The fact that there's very little to do in the open world of Shadow works in this case because it's a contrast to the fighting that you do have to do, and its frantic pace. It also combines the simple joy of childhood exploration - climbing rocks and trees and leaping ponds to see if you can, just to see what's around the next corner - with an intuitive control scheme. Your character is athletic enough to make the leaps you never could as a kid and probably wouldn't dare as an adult, but he doesn't have to be a flashy parkour expert to accomplish these tasks and their challenge is appropriate.
To say nothing of the boss battles... well, I will actually not say much, because the mechanic of climbing a big thing, finding its hidden weak point, and attacking that weak point is not what people talk about when they tout this game. The idea of fighting something big is certainly important, but what really sticks with people is the manner in which they die: pitiful, collapsing in to themselves, letting out the shuddering gasps of dying animals. By contrast, think of the bosses that you triumphantly murder in a standard action game, bursting in to showers of gore or maybe, despite the lack of logic, causing literal explosions after their death or destroying their base around them forcing you to escape. The action-movie glorification of violence rather than examining its reality. Not that there's anything wrong with action-movie style violence, but it's commonplace in games and doesn't stand out, and is therefore striking in its absence.
You have one companion, a horse, with whom you adventure. Another Ocarina innovation that Shadow perfected. We get attached to animals, and the horse is always loyal to you. We got attached to the horse in the Neverending Story. We get attached to Argo. Naturally these horses must suffer fates for the proper story pathos. Sorry, I'm spoiling things for you, but you know how it goes.
The above three elements - open but peaceful world, no glorification of violence, animal companions - are all things that other games have tried to steal, but have fallen so short you can't actually make a good comparison. In fact, maybe Assassin's Creed was trying to be Shadow of the Colossus. All the elements are there: a big open world with a lot of travel, having to "parkour" from set piece to set piece, lots of shuddering and drawn-out death sequences, and horses. But Assassin's Creed didn't trust its open world: we have to give you "something to do" in this environment, so it will be populated with patrols you have to sneak past and so-on to break the gameplay. The parkour wasn't challenging enough to really be a mechanic. And the death sequences, my god. The long, drawn out speeches that nobody gives a damn about just pale in comparison to the brief animation of a statuesque creature in its final, pathetic rattles. It was as if Creed just didn't have the faith that silence, animated well, could be enough.
Far Cry 2 didn't trust its open world either. Here we have a game with a beautifully realised African setting that turns up over and over again in game talks praising its quiet intensity and its respect for nature. But actually playing the game... just while you're exploring someplace worth exploring purely for the joy, some local yahoo shows up in a Jeep and tries to run you over. Guys are suddenly shooting at you, and you don't even know why. It's as if the designers were saying, "Well, we don't really think that our open environment, by itself, was compelling." Guess what... it was! If they had trusted that in the first place, and saved the violence for when it was appropriate (the missions), then the game would've been much more enjoyable and felt more logical and less drawn-out as a whole.
And now, an entire paragraph about the horse. I used to be a "horsy girl" when I was a kid, the kind that always wanted to ride and be around horses. And even if you're not a horsy girl, I think this is totally relevant because it seems like everyone who wasn't making Shadow of the Colossus doesn't understand what we want from our in-game horses. It's not merely a way to make travel go faster. It's not just for the pure joy of riding the thing, though, please make the riding fun. What we really want is a sense that "this is my horse." A "Hi-Ho Silver", a travel companion that is loyal to you to the end and will accompany you through thick and thin, your sturdy and personal mount. Agro is so amazing because he is my horse. Assassin's Creed let you get a horse, but then it got the element of "horse as companion" wrong to the point where I couldn't even count on "my" horse being the same colour between one loading screen and the next. And Oblivion, with its variety of different breeds and horse-haggling, got this wrong too. I don't care what I paid for it. I just want that horse to be my loyal steed and I want to be able to treat it well and maybe get it nice things and I want to count on it to be underneath me to run me away from the Dangerous Thing just when I am about to fall. Fable II had "Agro" in the form of your personal dog, and almost got this feeling right, to the point where people are attached to the dog and are willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of (admittedly totally undefined and unimportant non-player) virtual people just to get their dog back. The only problem with the dog is that it has all these wants and needs outside of yours that are somewhat distracting, and Agro didn't have even that. And we all like it that way and we love that beautiful horse.
The artistic experience of Shadow of the Colossus will always be unique. That doesn't mean that we can't learn from it about what works and try to re-imagine these bold decisions. Open worlds full of pure exploration that are interesting enough to hold your attention and the faith that the worlds, in fact, will. Worlds where death is not incidental, and every murder matters. AI companions that exist only with your interests in mind, who do not annoy you with their wants and needs but are simply your friend.
Specifically, horses, because pretty much everybody likes horses even if they don't want to admit that. Just look at the otherwise amazing popularity of Robot Unicorn Attack...
True confession time: it took me like two hours to beat that big spider one, where you have to crawl up on its stomach after a geyser knocks it over. I mean I literally couldn't figure out what to do.
Republished with permission from Amanda Lange.
Amanda Lange is a Game Production instructor at The International Academy of Design and Technology in Detroit, MI. She has also worked with Michigan State University on various game projects for use in research. Her interests encompass all elements of game design and writing, 3D modelling and texturing, and she writes her thoughts about a variety of games on her blog, Second Truth.