What makes a game a game? One answer is player agency – we are participants in the action, not passive observers. When we play, we have a degree of freedom to choose what happens. Many of the AAA blockbusters of the last few years have taken player agency as a core tenet of their design. The goal is to make a world so deep and flexible that the player-character can do almost anything they like without hitting an invisible wall that breaks the spell, taking us ‘out of the game’ and back to the real world, controller in hand.
Game development has spent a long time pushing towards immersion – a feeling not just of being engrossed in the game, but that being able to suspend our disbelief and become part of it.
It’s a lofty goal, to be sure. But it needn’t be the only one. Enter Shadow of the Colossus. It’s one of those unqualified masterpieces that seems to score full marks in whatever aspect you care to look at. When I first played it, what struck me most wasn’t the enemy design or the music, but the game’s use of alienation, rather than immersion. Play Colossus and you’re unlikely to forget that you’re playing a game, but that’s the whole point.
Shadow of the Colossus was released in 2005 for the PS2 to instant critical acclaim. In it, a boy, Wander, arrives in a desolate land carrying the body of a dead girl called Mono. Arriving at a temple in the centre he calls upon a spirit called Dormin who claims that, if Wander can kill sixteen colossi, there is a chance that Mono can be brought back to life.
The stage is set and the premise is simple. The next colossus is identified, Wander finds it, works out its weakness, and kills it before being warped back to the temple to start on the next opponent.
There are no formal side-quests and no new items in the main game beyond the sword and bow that he starts with. Wander’s stamina grows slightly with each defeated colossus, allowing him to climb or hold on to surfaces for a little longer. Apart from that, there are no new abilities awarded or levels to be gained. Mechanics-wise, this is a game focused on the bare essentials, and it realises them extremely well.
And yet, the game world itself is enormous and almost completely empty. Forget bustling towns, wandering bandits or random enemy encounters: Colossus takes place amid miles and miles of (admittedly beautiful) desert and grassland, dotted with crumbling ruins and shrines. Occasionally an eagle flies overhead, or a lizard skitters across your path. The colossi only appear in a fixed order, and there are whole swathes of the world that the player will never see through unless they deliberately go out of their way to do so.
It’s not just the world that feels empty and spare. My summary above leaves out far less than you might imagine. Even at the end of the main game, we know very little about the characters in Colossus, and even less about the setting. Wander, while silent, is no self-insert player-character with amnesia. He and other characters introduced later clearly understand more than we do – Mono’s identity, the true nature of Wander’s ancient sword, and the significance of the land in which the game takes place. We’re forced to piece together hints and vague dialogue in order to understand even the basics.
But here’s the rub: we’re still the ones holding the controller. We’ve got to press the buttons and kill the colossi whether we understand the context or not. Wander accepts Dormin’s challenge without hesitation, but we might not feel quite so comfortable. Most colossi aren’t even aggressive, and the ones that do make the first move are usually guardians who don’t chase Wander outside their territory.
Killing a colossus is a visceral experience, with spurts of blood and animal screams as Wander plunges his sword into soft flesh. It doesn’t take long to wonder whether Wander really is the hero of this story.
An empty world, an underdeveloped story, and a main premise we don’t always want to follow are all the sort of things that game reviewers usually take points off for. The boredom, confusion, and discomfort they engender can ‘break immersion.’ Why, then, is Colossus considered a masterpiece? I only truly understood once I found myself back on the sofa.
Once we’re pushed out of the game, once the player (us) and the character (Wander) are separated, we’re able to engage with Colossus not as an experience but as a work of art. We’re able to consider not just what’s happening on screen, but why. If we trust that this game does indeed only focus on the essentials, then the amount of empty space in the world and the lack of context must be essential.
This huge, empty world gives us space to think. Finding the next colossus is usually pretty trivial, but those ten-or-so minutes with nothing but the sound of our horse’s hooves for company pushes us to think about what we’re doing, and why.
We might notice Wander’s clothes getting steadily dirtier, his hair darker. We might wonder what caused the ruins that surround this land. We might think that perhaps killing these giant, sometimes docile beings might not be worth the chance of resurrecting someone who is, to us, a total stranger. But no matter what we know that we need to keep pushing on to the next colossus, and that we’ll need to kill it.
We have a whole world at our disposal but there is only ever one destination and few distractions. Each journey to the next colossus feels a little bit more tense than the last. That tension is what fills this apparently empty world.
Such tension would be impossible to generate if we fully understood what was going on. The game feels profoundly lonely and uneasy, not just because of its dark, minimal art style but because we can’t really empathise with or understand what we’re doing in it. As the player, we’re isolated from the world that we’re supposed to inhabit.
Colossus helps us realise a broader point. Games have two stories: the one that takes place in the game and the story of us playing it. There’s certainly an artistry behind combining these two as closely as possible, but it’s not a necessary goal. When we play Colossus, we’re constantly challenged to interpret what’s going on as we do it. We’re pushed away even as we’re drawn in. Wander doesn’t need to gain new abilities, because the one growing isn’t him but us.
Jacob Geller has a stunning video about the online community that sprung up around the original game. A small group of people were convinced that it hid something more. It’s not hard to empathise: Colossus is vast and mysterious on pretty much every level you approach it. The 2018 remake added one such secret: a door that only opens if the player finds 79 coins scattered around the map.
This feels like a curiously modern touch, more stuff to justify the size of the map. But there’s nothing for Wander behind the door. His story is told already. The reward is ours alone. Colossus’ true genius lies not in letting us get lost in its world, but in never letting us forget that we’re experiencing it from the outside.
Jack Richardson is a freelance writer and occasionally contributor to NME. You can read the rest of the Remastered column here.