For all its influence, Shadow of the Colossus' best design practices have gone ignored

Countless developers cite Team Ico's atmospheric adventure game as inspiration, but few modern games employ its teachings.

Even when viewed as an object of its time, Japan Studio’s Shadow of the Colossus always skewed anachronistic.

Released as a spiritual successor of sorts to Fumito Ueda’s directorial debut Ico, Colossus is an open world game about slaying 16 monstrous colossi in order to return life to the deceased maiden Mono. These beasts are scattered across the empty dunes and fleeting ruins of The Forbidden Lands, an exiled place watched over by the numinous Dormin. And I do mean ‘empty:’ there are no characters to confide in, no petty monster outposts to raid, no shops to splurge at. You’ve only the player-character Wander, the onyx steed Agro, a bow, and a sword’s guiding light as company.

The team at Japan Studio demonstrated a remarkable level of restraint and confidence by refusing to populate Shadow’s world with checklist-style tasks of dubious value. Ueda and his team specialize in suggestion, not rote explanation. Coming across a series of ancient pillars in the midst of a vast desert isn’t marked on a map or crossed off of a checklist; neither is piercing the first colossi’s skull after piecing together how to reach its furred nape from the ground.

You can explore mountains, forests, crags, and beaches off the beaten-path (as numerous intrepid explorers have in the years since), but such decisions are never acknowledged concretely through attainable goals or anything other than your own self. Nor are you explicitly reprimanded for killing of the often-docile giants in ways akin to Dishonored’s morality system; your complicity in killing to enact Wander’s endgoal is framed in such a way that is taken seriously, but you’re not being beat over the head about it. Design choices like these make Shadow of the Colossus’ world even on dated hardware feel authentic; a space once inhabited, now lost.

Years ago, I wrote on the emotional and intellectual power video games can wield through silence and contemplation, if only they so choose to. So why then do large games, as one of the marquee cultural loci by which we process these troubling times, choose only to become noisier? As interactive pieces of software, video games are uniquely positioned to provide players with a variety of experiences to have at their own pace.

Shadow of the Colossus versus the remake (below). Comparison via USGamer. Shadow of the Colossus versus the remake (below). Comparison shots via USGamer.

Yet developers spend an inordinate amount of time, money, and effort creating worlds filled with bombast and clear-cut objectives which leave nothing to imagination. And to what end, exactly? How many people will do every single sidequest and assassination in Assassin’s Creed: Origins, find all of Super Mario Odyssey’s nearly 900 moons, or uncover every Korok seed under a rock or hidden in a tree in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild? And with every question posed answered in concrete fashion, where then does the player go to wander and dream?

I bring up Breath of the Wild’s most superfluous, ‘gamey’ element slightly in jest. The game’s portrayal of a Hyrule in flux following Calamity Ganon’s takeover is the closest any game has come to evoking Colossus’ pervasive sense of solitude. For as much as the game has been praised for its many innovations in systems-driven play, what managed to hit home for me with remarkable consistency was the way a few piano notes, roaring winds, and crisp splashes of water from pond frogs could score a panoramic view; the way Kass’ monophonic accordion performance acts as a sort of diegetic waypoint guiding me toward a place of interest. It’s the space and the phenomena that space envelopes which speak volumes without saying much at all.

Breath of the Wild doesn’t get all the way to that Colossus ideal—it frequently commodifies its environmental and architectural wonders for tiresome fetch quest nonsense soundtracked by grating musical jingles. Still, it’s worth considering how such a work could release in 2017 and shake up the open-world game formula not only by focusing on what made Zelda good in the first place but also by reflecting outward a fierce quietude not seen much in the triple-A space since Colossus launched in 2005.

Many large game developers have professed being inspired by the disquieting worlds of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus; from Naughty Dog with The Last of Us to FromSoftware with Demon’s Souls, and even to 343 Industries with Halo 4. But these games, Breath of the Wild included, are frequently chatty and goal-oriented; less experiential and abstract. Independent developers of games like Fez, Journey, Inside, and – indirectly, having been inspired by JourneyDesert Golfing have come a bit closer, managing to take influence from Team Ico’s games whilst crafting unique, holistic experiences which never feel the need to constantly pester the player with meaningless tasks. They let their worlds do the talking.

So Shadow of the Colossus’ remake by Bluepoint Games – which releases on PlayStation 4 today – arrives to a triple-A games ecosystem in which its influence is clearly visible in the works of its peers yet largely superficial. Colossus had a lot to say about the nature of colonialism, material gain for self-interest, and our corporeal existence within our world, but also the ways in which those things are inexorably intertwined. All this without hardly saying a word. To liberally borrow the surface-level elements which make Team Ico’s work immediately attractive in service of another uncritical murder simulator or hollow spreadsheet game is to miss the point entirely.

My hope is that the remake and the success of Zelda: Breath of the Wild can inspire large developers to reevaluate why Colossus’ unique approach helps make it that much more successful. I like ambitious, messy works with lots to say, but there’s room too to cut the fat, to shut up and listen to the world around you. Now, more than ever, such works seem nothing less than vital.