Game Eaters

Monday, October 24, 2005

But I don't WANT to kill the colossus!

Penny Arcade has some ramblings about the moral confusion many are reporting about Shadow of the Colossus. It basically boils down to the colossi, which you are charged to destroy at any cost, being cute and sympathetic. This reminds gamers they have a conscience and makes them think about their behavior. It's made at least one gamer ponder the readiness with which we accept game mechanics (i.e. "Kill that big thing!") simply because they are convention.

I don't object to people being "disturbed" by the amorality of Shadow of the Colossus. But I do find it funny (and sort of sad) that it takes a game like Shadow of the Colossus to make us think about the ethics of our virtual behavior. As gamers we've killed countless human beings in games with the mechanisms of our conscience barely shuddering, but when we have to kill big cute creatures we suddenly feel like monsters.

What's more disturbing? Games that invent convenient excuses for you to not feel bad about killing (they're badguys, they're terrorists, they're aliens, they're assholes, they tried to kill you first) or games that just create a morally complicated situation and let the chips fall where they may?

I'm not saying the designers of Shadow of the Colossus were necessarily trying to make a moral statement. Indeed, the "exhilarating" music during the boss battles would suggest they expect you to feel some level of exhilaration when battling the sympathetic colossi. However, this makes the colossus battles exciting in the same way that the Ride of the Valkyries scene in Apocalypse Now is exciting. I consider myself profoundly anti-war, but that sequence still gives me chills. It's exciting, terrifying, disgusting, and exhilarating all at once. To me the battles in Shadow of the Colossus have a similar quality. There are times when the chorus swells as you're desperately hanging onto some equally desperate creature, running like wild across the landscape, and, barely able to see, you manage to plunge your sword into its back as it shrieks horribly. What exactly am I feeling as this moment? Guilt? Yes. Terror? Yes. Anger? Yes. Excitement? Yes. It's a complicated experience.

I really wish more games *let* you feel bad for committing acts of violence. Because if the reason we play certain videogames is to exercise our primal fantasies of violent conflict, we need those complicated mixtures of guilt and exhilaration to be exercised as well. That's the only way they really have any meaning. So if Shadow of the Colossus makes us feel sick at times, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

After all the game *is* about an obsessive character determined to bring his lover back to life no matter who or what he has to destroy to do it. If you've finished the game you'll know the price he pays is his soul.


  • hey Matt... i've been trying to find you to email you about your thesis. i want to cite it but don't have teh final title.

    in other news, am i the only person wh doesn't like Shadows? i found the controls clunky, the narrative uninspiring, and the gameplay uninteresting.

    By Blogger kurt, at 5:54 PM  

  • You're not alone Kurt. I was wondering if it might be a good idea to put up a blog entry describing all the frustrations I had with Shadow. This should do.

    I wouldn't go as far as to describe the gameplay as uninteresting but I'd agree that it was not well-realized. The problem with having a game be all bosses is that every boss fight needs to be perfect. If a single boss fight is suboptimal or overly frustrating, it defeats any goodwill derived from the rest of the game, since there is no way to progress without defeating that boss, and nothing to do in the game otherwise.

    So what's wrong with the boss fights? In too many of them, the game relies on your character being in a particular place, looking at a particular camera angle, at a particular time, in order to see the colosseus' "clue" animation: the little movement of the boss that gives you some idea to defeat it. I believe that the majority of game reviewers managed to stumble on that particular right-place, right-time combinations within the limits of their patience, leading them to believe that the boss fights are perfect.

    From a game mechanic design point of view, many of the fights are terribly flawed. For instance, there are colossi that require you to be neither too close or too far from it. It has a close attack 1, a far attack 2 but there's no visual or audio clue that indicates that there lies the possibility of a mid-range attack 3, which happens to be the attack you need the giant to execute in order to climb on its appendage. Even worse is when the game makes it appear possible to claim some advantage by stimulating attacks 1 or 2 when said advantage does not actually exist.

    I don't believe that boss fights should necessarily depend on luck. Once you've figured out the correct strategy, there should be clear indications that you have chosen correctly, and vice-versa. There is a tremendous amount of luck involved in many parts of Shadow of the Colosseus, which both gives the player false negatives as to the appropriateness of their strategy as well as artificially forcing the player to repeat actions over and over again. In other words, just because you've figured out the correct strategy how to beat the colosseus doesn't mean that executing that strategy is actually going to result in damaging the colosseus.

    Shadow of the Colosseus feels more like a game targeted at seasoned, hardcore gamers than Ico. The game gives very little time and reason for the player to care about the characters; the incentive of the boss fight is seen as reason enough to spur the player into action. The learning curve is extremely steep, requiring the player to master simultaneous button presses, unconventional controls and unintuitive timing with the very first boss. Getting the camera to show you what you need to see to even begin figuring out what you need to do is a mini-game all by itself, and a painfully hard one at that. The ending is pretty good, but still rather predictable to anyone who has played a lot of games.

    In the end, though, most of my frustrations can probably be chalked up to the fact that Shadow is no Ico. It's not accessible to players of a wide range of skill and ages, some of its gameplay dynamics and desired aesthetics are misaligned, and it shies away from the minimalist approach that was overriding heuristic of Ico's design.

    Shadow of the Colosseus is an incredible showcase of the art direction and technology of Ueda's team but failed to benefit from the tenets of game design that were so elegantly implemented in Ico. Still, everyone should give it a try. Who knows, your experience may be perfect too.

    By Blogger Philip, at 11:09 AM  

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