How Shadow of the Colossus Nailed Good Game Design

How Shadow of the Colossus Nailed Good Game Design

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 and He is indebted to Nomad for the excellent pictures and research he provides, and to his friend Adam Whybray for suggesting the word “heterological”.

This story was originally published on April 12, 2012.


  • The game makes you feel week and powerless. Without that feeling, there wouldn’t be any accomplishment when you fell a colossi. And that comes wholly from the way you interact with the world, quick time events would change everything.

  • This has to be one of my favourite articles about Shadow of the Colossus because it is so different. It is rare that games get dissected this way. Very interesting. Love it.

  • Heterological.

    I like it. There are a lot of games out there where the logic behind the actions you have to take are either inconsistent with what you’ve been doing up until that point, or simply make no damned sense. It’s good to be able to put a word to that which isn’t just creatively assembled profanity.

    • Heterological puzzles were my favorite part of the game. Quite a thing to suggest that all players don’t like it. It creates a challenge and forces the player to consider the environment and design. It immerses the player, although I do agree 100 percent that the player needs feedback or environmental hints, otherwise the Ayer may try the correct method and fail, which is frustrating and misleading in the wrong way. However, the third colossus is a good example of heterology that works. The battlefield is bare except for the large stone circle in the center, which hints to the player that it must have a use.

      • I find it strange but very interesting that you can like Heterology.

        You’re right that it creates challenge, but there’s such a thing as cheap challenge (like bosses that take ages to kill but only because you have to do the same thing a thousand times). In the case of heterology, you don’t KNOW when it’s happening. You might spend ages trying to do it one way without realizing the game’s sneakiness in changing the rules. That wastes your time.

        • Let’s consider the opposite of Heterology. Recent Zelda and Mario games have the tendency to telegraph what you’re going to need to do at the biggest challenge in the level (final boss or obstacle). Every element will be split down into it’s smallest form.

          Designers need you to pick up a stick? They’ll give you a reason to pick up a stick. Designers need you to understand fire? They’ll give you a spiderweb that blocks your path. Designers need you to scare an enemy? There’ll be a locked room with an enemy and a button that only the enemy can reach. By the time you get to the boss, the last thing you’re doing is combining everything that the game has told you about. That can feel good. It can also feel condescending. It’s nice to sometimes have leaps of logic that relate to the real world.

          Colossus 11 is the smallest colossus in the game. In a real-world way, it makes sense that it might be the only colossus you can scare. Are there still maybe a few too many steps? Sure. For most people. Are pure autological situations the end all and be all of game design? I don’t think so. There’s gotta be a balance.

  • Great. Now I want to replay Shadow of the Colossus. Again. In addition to all the other stuff I’ve got waiting to be played. Thanks, Mark. Thanks a lot.

  • I disagree with one point, it wasn’t the stabbing of the hand on the final Colossus, it was shooting the shoulder that had me and a few other people I know stumped.

    As for Avion, simply the best Colossus in the game and easily the most memorable!

      • If you time it right you can jump from the 16th Colossus hand on to his upper chest/shoulder, (run with the hand as it spins). That’s what I did. A few falls before I nailed it.

        • That’s what I did as well.

          The only point I felt it was the game design that was at fault for making the colossus hard and not me, was the stupidly vague clue Dormin gives you for the 15th Colossus. “Find it’s hidden vitals” yeah good one buddy, because I haven’t been doing that all game.

    • Colossus 13 is still the best in my opinion (I thinks it’s called the traile drifter/ phalank). Puncturing its air sacs and racing across the desert and having to time your jump to grab on to his wings is a fantastic moment. It’s one of the colossi I’m always eager to get to when I replay the game.

  • As a game designer myself, I’m happy to see a more technologically literate article.

    And although I agree with most of the observations made; I must fell a colossus of a line in this article.

    The author says “story tellers should leave our industry forever”. I have to wholeheartedly disagree to the extent that, while I know what the author means, this statement is entirely too general and bold.

    Without story and story telling, we have no context. That works for abstract puzzlers and other experiences that don’t require context to enhance them; tetris, for example.

    Even Space Invaders has a story, and the Title acts as a synopsis for that story. I disagree that story telling and gameplay (physics oriented, in this example) are mutually exclusive. I think they can be mutually enhancing.

    We must accept that, without context, the colossi in this game would most probably be perceived as ‘bad’, while the Player is ‘good’ – except for subtle tell-tale cues like blue eyes and mostly passive behaviors.

    But with the context at the beginning, given to us completely by an antecedent, non linear idea, we are able to weigh, emotionally and otherwise, our role within the world as we non-linearly interact with it.

    We see that the core of the story is a great tragedy – we are, in a sense, the ‘bad’ guy… But we sympathize with the characters plight, although we might not necessarily agree with his actions 100%.

    It puts us in a unique position – the usual ‘altruism’ of game Heros is sacrificed on the altar of realism and as these long, drawn out initial experiences with each colossi plays out, we have ample time to connect with it… To question our motives, to explore every inch of it’s being so we develop a connection to it.

    Then we stab it… And it wails in pain. This magnificent creature is resisting, only just (competitive to their apparent strength), the threat to its life. It doesn’t want to die… And neither do we, albeit it was us who initiated this horrible situation to fulfil our own emotional inefficiency as projected by our inability to accept the world the way it is.

    We’re locked in this struggle with them – in a similar feeling to a hurt animal needing to be mercy killed. We don’t want to be directly responsible for its

  • death, but it was us who hit it with our car.

    By carelessness, accident or otherwise, it’s our fault and now we are responsible for what happens next.

    Once that initial colossi is fell, we’ve gone too far to go back… It’s too late, and we’re the monster.

    That is the underlying context for the ‘player authored moments’ in between, and it’s really powerful stuff.

    Ueda said he wanted the game to be tragic – and setting up this context, as well as allowing more dynamic, player authored scenarios in between, is story telling.

    Each gameplay moment is set up to create a natural tension-release graph of peaks and troughs to the final conclusion.

    It is storytelling, even if the player is in control; they have as much control to create their experience as the designers have allowed them.

    Story and gameplay are not mutually exclusive, they can be mutually enhancing and I don’t think it’s fair to say storytelling should leave – although it’s arguable as to the place or validity of completely rigid story telling as we already have mediums for that and they most certainly do not take advantage of what this medium offers.

    Still – story is relevant and powerful, we just need to think about storytelling in different way for interactive experiences.

    That’s my two cents!

    Sorry for double post, hit Submit by accident!

    • I wholeheartedly agree. That very bold statement was the only thing I seemed to strongly disagree with in this post. I thank you for saying this in an eloquent and well-argumented way.
      As you said, the storytelling in games simply need to be told in a very different way from other media. Because we often get very close to a scene, sometimes having to replay it again and again before achieving success, we should not have the story smeared in our faces again and again. The story should instead appear in subtle ways, through use of telling symbols that we might notice the first time around, but only really understand when we replay it or advance in the game. Just as the eyes of the collosi, the passive behavior does so well.

  • phalanx > avion
    leaping from my galloping horse onto phalanx and flying up in the air with it was better. though avion was still amazing.

  • Someone tell Hamish Todd to read the “Music and Lyrics = Gameplay and Story” article on this very website ASAP. Cheers.

  • Great article, The Shadow of the Colossus remains one of the most memorable and replayable games, thanks for explaining some of the reasons for this so well, here’s hoping Ueda can produce a similar experience to SotC in The Last Guardian!

  • OK, so this ran stupidly long and came across as pretty critical, so I should preface it by saying that this is a really great article. I think your analysis of what makes the ludic aspect of the colossi encounters so successful is pretty much on the money, and it’s good to see someone approach SOC from that level of discussion rather than focussing on the well-trodden aesthetic virtues of the game. More serious dissection of great games in this way can only be a good thing. However, I have some serious disagreements with the underlying analysis of the article.

    A large part of my disagreement is well articulated in the comments by MiZu – namely that the tragic power of SOC cannot be divorced from the narrative and aesthetic whole. I find it useful to consider a total ‘ludic reduction’ as a mirror image of the counterfactual ‘Quicktime of the Colossus’ you raise at the beginning of the article. Obviously, I’m with you insofar as that game would be vastly less interesting. However, throughout the article I was also imagining, similarly unbearably, a a version of Shadow of the Colossus in which the game purely consisted of an aesthetically and narratively devoid version of the colossi encounters. This version would remove the enframing story elements, the long rides across desolate planes to track your prey, the music, the distinctive beauty of the collosi (say making them smooth, primary coloured shapes based on the same basic outline and some different texturing to signify points where the player could grab), and so on.

    What would be left would be 16 visually and narratively abstract encounters with physical objects, which, as your article outlines, would still be head and shoulders above most contemporary games in terms of inventiveness and player expressivity. It seems that this is a vision of the game that you are extolling. For example, in this purely ludic reconstruction of the game, where the beauty that emerges is entirely due to dynamic interaction with games mechanics, what you call the ‘heterological’ moments of design obviously stand out as problematic. You mention colossus 11, and this seems to be a good example of a segment that I get a lot out of in the actual game, but which would clearly stand out as poorly designed in this counterfactual version.

    My question then is ‘what would this counterfactual version of the game be saying?’ To clarify this, I should say that Shadow of the Colossus as I have played and loved it seems to me to be one of the great artistic successes in gaming at least in large part because it is has a rare emotional and thematic clarity, and it absolutely unifies its (exceedingly well designed) gameplay with these developing emotions and themes. Now obviously interpretations over what exactly these themes are is a issue for another day, but as an example one of the most brilliant things about the game to me is the way it very consciously inverts the emotional effect of traditional game situations. The battle of the protagonist to vanquish overwhelmingly powerful opponents is familiar in its basic mechanics to anyone who’s fought a boss or two in their gaming lives. But what is unique about Shadow is that uses this very familiar mechanic for a decidedly unfamiliar effect. Whereas in most games qualitatively very similar battles would be intended to evoke a feeling of triumph, here they evoke palpable loss and tragedy.

    I feel that an interesting hallmark of maturity in an art form is that it can be aware of its own norms in such a way as to invert them in this way, and do so in a way that is conscious and unified. This is one of the standards by which I judge SOC to be such a staggering achievement: it exploits the expectations of the audience to tell an emotional story of tragic power, and does so in a way that draws on the unique possibilities of its medium. In contrast, I feel that the counterfactual ludic reduction of the game that you seem to be extolling would be largely stripped of this power. Yes, it would indeed still be an impressive and highly enjoyable achievement of game design. But how would its underlying thematic/emotional message be distinct from, say, ‘Monster Hunter Tri’? I feel that things that make Shadow distinct in these respect are its storytelling and aesthetic aspects, and I’m interested in how you think they could be achieved in a version of the game which was reduced purely to its ludic core?

  • @Matt, @MiZu, @Hapzep,

    Not everyone experiences that grief, you know. I didn’t, and when I watched a friend play through it, he didn’t either. When people suggested it to me I think “ok, I guess that makes sense”. I can see it theoretically, but I don’t think it’s that striking – or important.

    First, it’s not especially revolutionary that SoC makes you feel guilty about killing what you’re killing. I know there are a handful of Final Fantasy games that do it, and System Shock 2, and Drakenguard, and that’s just off the top of my head. Perhaps Shadow did it the best?

    Well, I think it’s problematic for you that, in addition to the mournful music and flailing, there’s also the music-cuts-out-colours-wash-out-time-slows-down flourish of the final blow. That’s clearly meant to give catharsis, and not much else. Also, think about speed running colossi – you just have to approach a statue and press a button. The game is asking us to mourn the loss of something that it allows you to call back at short notice. Perhaps they should have changed that, to make it more thematically coherent? Oh no they goddamn shouldn’t! The speed runs are fun and interesting, as I hope the article demonstrates. So it’s the usual story/gameplay conflict – fortunately in this case the designers supported the gameplay.

    Mind you, you’re still apparently hurting the colossi even if you’re not killing them, so perhaps the player can feel like a dick while they’re fighting? I don’t think so. They’re too busy thinking about the actual game at that point. And they always will be. So long as gameplay is interesting, we will think only about the gameplay. I believe the only way to draw the player’s attention to anything outside the gameplay is to make the gameplay dull. A large number of developers consciously do this. One day they will feel ashamed of it

    One other thing I’ve heard people say is that they feel guilty hurting a colossus because the colossus isn’t hostile to them. In principle, that makes perfect sense. In practise, that would suggest that hostile ones (16, 14) might feel different to kill than passive ones (2, 13). I’ll just say that I didn’t feel any such difference and I’m just very skeptical towards anyone who says they did. MiZu, this is related to your context-free “good/bad” question. I really just don’t think it’s very important to players whether colossi are good or bad. It’s like the Little Sisters – people might say they were saving them out of principle, but they’re just saying things they think they ought to feel.

    So I’m not convinced the story and gameplay come together that well in the colossus fights. But I will readily concede other parts of the game where they do come together! Here they are (SPOILERS):
    -controlling Dormin at the end
    -trying to escape the portal’s suction at the end
    -trying to escape the tendrils emerging from the colossi corpses after each fight.
    -the fact that you start every colossus journey pointing in the direction of your dead girlfriend

    It is not a coincidence that all of these are narratively interesting (and some are subtle, @Hapzep) but also tedious.

    “Each gameplay moment is set up to create a natural tension-release graph of peaks and troughs to the final conclusion.” there you’re disagreeing with what I said about liberalism in level design, so you have more work to do.

    The following is directed at Matt, who is a good friend of mine, so my style might change!

    “The battle of the protagonist to vanquish overwhelmingly powerful opponents is familiar in its basic mechanics to anyone who’s fought a boss or two in their gaming lives.”
    “how would its underlying thematic/emotional message be distinct from, say, ‘Monster Hunter Tri’?”

    NO. Nooooooo! You have to learn to look closer! Look at *the things that the player spends most of their time doing*! i.e: balancing on distorting surfaces and making fascinating decisions about how to do so! It’s a very complicated and beautiful system that many programmers and designers slaved over! It has a lot to say to you! Look at it guys! LOOK AT *IT*! (God Hand’s too!)

    Mate I’m glad you bring up the counterfactual version. However, you’re wrong that it would cut out Agro riding! Check out these videos, again from Nomad, the finest scholar of this game: – watch this one to the end.

    Agro is another physics object. Moving on him is enjoyable because he’s well-tuned (that tuning would be worth another article!). If he wasn’t interesting to ride and obedient then it wouldn’t matter how cute his neighing was, or what his place in the story was.

    It’s the gameplay, stupid (actually you’re all very clever but you’re onto a loser here.).

  • I think we’re getting down to some pretty core issues of difference here. I can’t help but get the impression that we just play games in fundamentally different ways. I’m not necessarily saying I take one way as ‘better’ than the other, but I do find the contrast interesting. Not only did I experience the grief, but it’s far and away the overriding impression that game has left on me, and that has only deepened as I’ve explored it further and replayed it. This difference seems quite pervasive. For example, I don’t feel that the ‘music-cuts-out-colours-wash-out-time-slows-down flourish of the final blow’ is even remotely intended to produce catharsis (at least not in the positive, ‘I am victorious’ sense), so much as absolutely reinforce the tragedy and loss. You’re caught up in this engrossing battle, and just at the moment that would be most traditionally triumphant all of the rising battle music cuts out and you watch this beautiful and totally unique creature you’ve just slain fall to the ground to muted and melancholic music and then be consumed by blackness.

    And this all then ties into why I find the whole supposed ‘story/gameplay conflict’ framing that these discussions tend to take at least largely redundant in this case. The gameplay absolutely embodies the storytelling – I don’t buy that the distinction is that sharply drawn. On your analysis some kind of primacy to the ludic side because we need to ‘look at *the things that the player spends most of their time doing*’. And yes, I agree that when we do that we find the ludic aspect of Shadow to be fascinating and beautiful. But ultimately all of that fascination and beauty serves a purpose (while, yes, undeniably interesting in its own right) – its contribution to the game a whole thematic work.

    The FACT that the underlying system is so compelling plays a vital role because it draws the player into engaging with the colossus battles on a visceral level pretty much every time. The player’s ability to abstract themselves and think ‘I’m being kind of a dick here’ is largely precluded because the mechanics are so engrossing and demand so much attention. Of course, as you put it, I agree that we’re ‘too busy thinking about the actual game at that point’ (although I obviously wouldn’t equate the ‘game mechanics’ with the ‘actual game’. Yet this absolutely works in the games thematic favour, because it draws the player in only to more successfully execute its tonal inversion at the point of victory. The sense of melancholy at your deeds would be so much less powerful if you weren’t absolutely engaged with the act of battle right up until that point.

    In this sense, the juxtaposition of gameplay vs. story is to me analogous in the final analysis to someone trying to abstract the beauty of cinematography from the success of a film. Yes, there is absolutely a beauty and an artistry to this, and its something worth exploring in abstract, but ultimately the camera is just one of the tools that the filmmaker uses to create the film as a whole work, a poetic interpretation of reality, and it is this final work that stands or falls as a work of art. Gameplay, in the sense of mechanical systems, is exactly the same – a primary tool of the game developer, but not at all determinate of the totality of the worth of work produced. Good, well thought out, seriously analysed gameplay is important, vital, in the same way as an understanding of the visual space created by the camera is vital for the filmmaker – because if a primary constituent of the experience of the work is not taken seriously then the work isn’t going to be able say what it tries to say successfully.

    This is why I find articles like yours interesting, but have to reject the final analysis. For me, all of that stuff like the videos of Agro you just posted, or the speed runs, are interesting ways of exploring a particular aspect of the game. Doing a speed run is fun, and an interesting way to push at the limits of a games mechanics and see what emerges. I agree with you that the industry would be all the more artistically rich if game developers were expected to create gameplay which remained interesting under that kind of scrutiny. But really if you cut the ability to speed run, and I’d never seen someone find the fastest possible route over a mountain by making the game glitch a little, I simply don’t buy that what you’d lose on a final artistic level would be a quarter of what you’d lose if you cut out the storytelling and aesthetic elements.

    And this ties back into what I was trying to say with the comments about the counterfactual version and ‘Monster Hunter Tri’. Yes, this counterfactual ludic reduction of Shadow* that I imagined would of course be VASTLY superior work to your common or garden beast slaying game, because it’s such a masterpiece of design. But for me question would still remain over what, as a work of art, this reduced version would be saying that differentiated it from something like MHT? It would be more interesting on a basic level in the same way as 2001: A Space Odyssey is visually artful in away that, say, Krull just isn’t, but what would it really be evoking on a deeper level that could rival the successes of Shadow as the work it actually is?

    *Which, by the way, you’re right in saying would contain a purely ludic version of Agro

    Oh, and I totally saved the little sisters out of principle 😉

    • “What would it really be evoking on a deeper level that could rival the successes of Shadow as the work it actually is?”
      Mkay, to hone on on exactly one thing: the game succeeds in presenting you with the 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?”

      This is a difficult “maths question”, if you will, that the game makes very beautiful and very real to us. There are many, many others like it, all concerning similar rotations and distortions. Like much of the best music, like the most astounding buildings, like Portal and Braid, it’s mathematical.

      Maths is beautiful. Eternal. Influential. Irrefutable. And it’s also complicated but fair – like the best video games. You want deep? Nothing is deeper than maths. And even if it doesn’t sound appealing, I’m telling you that, with or without realizing it, your brain gobbles up beautiful math. If there’s a game without it, you won’t enjoy that game.

      I say that even if you can demonstrate to me that the game deals cleverly with the theme of human destructiveness… it is highly probably that the game’s exploration of that theme will still be less deep than its exploration of the mathematical realm the gameplay exists in. Sorry to move the goalposts on you!

      “Of course, as you put it, I agree that we’re ‘too busy thinking about the actual game mechanics at that point’. Yet this absolutely works in the games thematic favour, because it draws the player in only to more successfully execute its tonal inversion at the point of victory.”

      I knew you’d say that. I think you’re making a compromise though. You’re accepting that the story and the gameplay are separate things.

      Like with Deadly Premonition you’re forced into saying “…and the disconnect is *used* to create such-and-such a feeling”. That’s not sustainable! Saying that the disconnect is consciously used, I feel, carries the implication that it could be consciously *not* used. And it appears that game developers cannot avoid having it there.

      Oh, and I bet that, like me, you looked up the bad ending on youtube 😛

  • OK, so here we go. It is of course, the same basic disagreement we always come down to.

    Everything you just said is fair enough, so far as it goes. I don’t deny for a second that ONE of the underlying beautiful aspects of Shadow is the mathematic engagement at the core of the collosi fights. That’s obviously deep and worthwhile – music of the spheres and all that. But none of that changes my central point, which I don’t think we’re ever going to really agree on. I don’t buy that just because the mathematical side is beautiful and of deep relevance, that means that the other aspects that make the game artistically successful are less legitimate. A great work can be worthwhile on many levels, that’s part of what makes it a great work.

    I really don’t feel that there’s any compromise or separation (at least in the absolute sense) involved in the position I’ve been advancing. Here I think the analogy with music is exactly relevant, but I draw different conclusions from it. Take a great piece of classical music. Now the underlying structure of, say, a Bach piece will indeed be mathematical, and his rigorous application of that structure is very much a primary tool in composing a powerful work. But it isn’t the ONLY one, and nor is the be and end all of the work. The work will also take account of the individual sounds of the instruments used, and the expressivity of the players – call this analogous to the aesthetic elements of Shadow. And, on a different level, the piece is intended to convey something, in the case of Bach often a religious evocation, and a full understanding and engagement with the beauty of the work involves understanding what it is that the structural and aesthetic elements are being marshalled towards – we could call this the narrative or the emotional aim of the piece, analogous to the themes of loss, monstrosity and obsession which Shadow of the Colossus so devastatingly embodies.

    This is why I just can’t grasp the dogma that the structural elements must be ALL that game developers should concern themselves with. It seems absurd to me in the same way as insisting that all music abandon its claim to narrative evocation, because the maths is the real core, or that all narrative prose is a mere shadow of the pure poetry created by the rhythm of language. Or, again to return to my earlier analogy, like the claim that cinema ought not to tell stories because its unique aspect is visual, and hence that is the only criteria on which a film should be judged. And I’m interested to see what your feelings on that point are, because it really seems to me like you’re going to end up committed to those kind of views on other mediums if you follow your own reasoning. Do you disagree?

    Yes, some games will be largely successful on the mathematical level alone, much as say some experimental movies might be ‘pure cinema’. For example, I largely agree with you that Braid’s mathematical side is considerably more successful that its narrative side. But there are other games I love, say classic adventure games, or Deadly Premonition, where the successes are primarily narrative. Art is an extremely broad thing. Why is it necessary to prescribe one thing that a medium can do, and discard everything else?

    The exact reason why Shadow is one of the few games, perhaps THE game, to really point towards the possibilities of the medium is that all of its elements – structural, aesthetic, thematic – are working in congruence to produce something that could not have been done in another medium. Each of its elements, yes, has its own beauty, and analysis in abstract of these is an important thing. Yet in the end the work stands as the unity of these.

    To return to your final point, yes indeed, the disconnect is always there. But, not to harp on about it, but I think this kind of disconnect is going to be in any medium. There is a ‘disconnect’ between pure visual evocation and narrative in cinema – those are ultimately at best going to be only partially aligned aims. But what tends to separate a truly, capital G, Great film from a merely very good one is that this disconnect is acknowledged, and then harnessed into the final work. The reason the gaming medium is so much less than it should be is, and I think we are in agreement here, is that developers don’t understand the implications of their mechanics, and as such this disconnect works against the thematic unity. What I don’t accept is the move from that acknowledgement to the assertion that all that is worthwhile is the mechanical aspect.

  • I believe, for a large number of reasons some of which you’ve heard, that striving for a good story will always involve compromises to gameplay. Therefore, critics paying undue attention to story (or graphics, or music) may encourage compromises to gameplay. That is disgusting to me.

    Just because you love something doesn’t mean it can’t be improved! The good artist and the helpful critic, will think hard about how to improve things. In the case of many of the best adventure games (which I don’t discard), a clear way to improve them would be to remove all the clicking and item smooshing, because they’re tedious. But if you remove those, what you have is no longer a “game”, is it? It’s a cartoon, basically, a really good cartoon.

    What just happened? That was me making an observation about how to improve a bunch of items of entertainment. And what I suggested changed the entertainment medium that those items were in. In such a fashion, we can make other observations about mediums. I don’t see why there’s such a taboo about that.

    As regards film and music… analogies are fun, but they’re not necessarily helpful. You have to look at the specific properties of each medium.

    Human beings can listen to something and watch something simultaneously. So it makes sense for filmmakers to make films with sound. I don’t think human beings can conceive of a system in an abstract way and a concrete way at the same time. So a game developer who expects them to do so will run into a number of problems.

  • Found this recently. Good article. I don’t agree with your “death to storytelling” aside – I’d say I’m roughly aligned with Matt in the comments on that – but good analysis of the mechanical aspects of the game.

    • Following the original post of this article, Kotaku later reposted it in a remastered version to take advantage of more modern browsers. That was so successful that they have returned to it again now with a full remake of this beloved article from the ground up, taking full advantage of the improvements in browser technology in recent years whilst still displaying the utmost respect for the original source material.

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