Shadow of the Colossus Makes Me Angry…But I Love It
Hey Future Caleb. It’s time again I speak to you, in the future, about some gaming dilemma I’m having because of course, in the future, you’ve got it all figured out. The world is a logical plane of existence devoid of all mystery, and you like it that way. I’m playing Shadow of the Colossus, and I’m a bit angry.
Though you, future Caleb, have it all figured out, here in the present I’m playing Shadow of the Colossus, and I, like many of its players, have questions about the game’s theme, its purpose, its mystery. But lacking answers to those questions doesn’t make me love the game any less. It’s a beautiful work of art. I’m captivated by it.
That’s what great art does. It captivates us. And being captive, says anyone concerned by the etymological ancestry of the word, is a bad thing. To be captive means to be held against one’s will. But being captivated by art is a good thing, right? This apparent conflict reveals a necessary mystery with art. The audience actually enjoys not being in full control, not truly knowing why they are drawn to a work of art, why they are captivated. The willingness to submit to, and actually enjoy, being captive seems strange.
This concept fights with my logical brain all the time. I yearn to know the answers to things, but knowing the answers presupposes that I want to eradicate mystery. Which, if my earlier logic is correct, means part of what makes me love a work of art is at risk when I try too hard to solve its mysteries. Do I have to choose between loving a mystery or loving an answered question?
Probably not. Most media is pretty clever in that it provides the facade of mystery while answering the narrative’s questions, often using a well-worn trope. We’ve all seen the trope, the character in fiction who knows everything, the wise old lady, the village savant. The homeless old lady who teaches Kevin the importance of family in Home Alone 2. The oracle in The Matrix franchise, literally called “The Oracle,”–not really going for subtly there, are we Wachowskis. These people are there to answer the question, at the risk of some of the audience preferring to maintain the mystery, or perhaps more egotistically feel like they’ve solved the mystery themselves. Though, it must be said that even without the wise old lady trope, Home Alone 2’s narrative isn’t one built on mystery. In fact, most mass market media forgoes mystery. Movie producers cater to the lowest common denominator because it’s a much safer financial investment.
And this brings me back to Shadow of the Colossus. It’s not lowest common denominator. It caters to those who like mystery more than answered questions. So, why is it successful? Here’s where video games and other forms of media diverge, and Shadow of the Colossus is a perfect conduit for this exploration.
First, let’s start with a couple of quotes from members of Team Ico, the creative team behind Shadow of the Colossus. When asked about the protagonist’s relationship to the game’s damsel, producer, Kenji Kaido says “I want to leave it to the user’s imagination.”
When asked about the significance of horns in his games, director and lead designer Funito Ueda says “I like to leave that to the player’s imagination!”
I have trouble believing that there aren’t actual answers to these questions. If a work is created in a vacuum, for example a single painter and her painting, then sure, I can believe that the artist might not fully understand the vision. A single artist working in a medium like paint, one that allows a certain level of spontaneity, is going to naturally allow more exploration. But when you’ve got a team of people working on a single project that takes years to complete, I have difficulty trusting that such questions go unanswered. To align an entire group of people around a director’s goal seems to demand a comprehensive understanding of that single project. But then again, maybe animators and devs just need a paycheck and don’t really care much about the project. I doubt gaffers on the set of Home Alone 2 cared whether or not the wise old lady stayed in the final cut.
But video games invite the player to solve their mysteries by giving the player tools to do so. This implies that there is a solution, even among a game full of mysteries. Passive mediums don’t give viewers such tools, so the audience is more willing to be satisfied with an unsolved mystery, more comfortable accepting that the very intent behind the work of art is to make the audience guess. I, personally, think this is a cop-out, but it’s still an oft-cited motivation.
So the very presence of interactive tools–a controller with buttons and associated actions–means any presented mystery should be solvable. But what about game mechanics? Can mechanics alone make a game? Yes. But when the creators introduce narrative, those creators are indicating that mechanics alone are not making this particular game (casting aside the idea that narrative is inherent in any scenario involving conflict, whether explicitly stated or not; I mean, consider that Tetris, a game that superficially avoids even the hint of narrative, is being made into a feature length film). Games, perhaps are unique, in that their reason for being is to be solved. There’s a lose condition. Movies. Books. Plays. Paintings. These things don’t have a loose condition.
Maybe it’s as simple as this. Maybe that’s what separates a good narrative game from a bad one. Good ones have mysteries that have specific solutions. Bad ones have mysteries that don’t have specific solutions, and even in the case of good ones where creators refuse to answer questions, that’s the creator saying the answers are there, but they want you, the player, to find out for yourself. The applicable term here is worldbuilding. Good devs use worldbuilding to answer those narrative questions without doing so overtly.
But still, no matter how much I rationalize myself away from frustration, it is frustrating to me knowing there’s a team of developers behind a video game that knows the answers to any question. When game creators refuse to answer questions, forums filled with fan theories then become ignorant playgrounds full of guessing. It’s like being a detective. You know the killer knows everything, but he refuses to tell you. So you spin your wheels. You spend months away from your family trying to piece together a mystery that isn’t really a mystery. So yes, I’m saying that game devs are serial killers!
But, I must admit. Playing in the ignorant playground is fun. That’s kinda what I’m doing right now. Perhaps Kaido and Ueda know this is more important than a solved mystery. And I just have to remind myself of that. And you, present viewer, just need to subscribe to this channel and share with your friends and comment below, do you get frustrated when game developers refuse to answer questions about a game’s mysteries?
8bit Dungeon Level Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com), Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/