DISCLAIMER: This was a term paper I wrote for a class, so forgive me if it sounds like a robot wrote it. Also, it has a bunch of spoilers.
In 2006, Matt Wales of computerandvideogames.com asked Fumito Ueda, game designer and director of Sony Computer Entertainment’s Shadow of the Colossus, “If you had to distill the original concept for Shadow of the Colossus into one sentence, what would it be?” His response: “My way of ‘cruelty’” (Wales). The interviewer asked no follow-up and left the world with that ambiguous response. Ueda created a fan-favorite story about a boy who loves a dead girl so much he kills sixteen eponymous colossi to try and bring her back to life. He is led by a mysterious deity or set of deities called “Dormin” on the quest to kill the beasts. In the process trying to bring his love back to life, Wander steals a religiously sacred sword and runs away to a forbidden land where she might be able to come back to life. Players guide Wander on his repetitious task of killing monsters until ultimately Wander becomes the evil god Dormin, until a village elder casts a spell to seal him away. Wander then takes the form of a boy one more time as he struggles to reach his love one last time. This story is conventionally tragic, the hero has a goal, is tricked and dies before he can see the fruits of his labor. However, Wander is also an existential tragic hero.
Shadow of the Colossus explains its meaning through ludic and narrative means. Video games use familiar techniques such as prose and dialog to tell stories and meaning. These forms are tried and true in other media and work for games as well. However, games have a companion ludic element unique to the medium. The ludology of a game effects its meaning in several ways. Luke Arnott compares the XBox platformer Braid created by Jonathan Blow and Georges Perec’s novel Life A User’s Manual. Arnott argues that storytelling in these two works is “based on instruction or command […] ‘storytelling in the imperative mood’” (Arnott 434). While normal prose describes the passing of events and the description of objects, games and Perec’s novel tell their stories through instruction. Shadow of the Colossus’ story is one instruction, Wander is tasked by the mystical Dormin to kill sixteen colossi in order to get what he wants. The game then instructs Wander, and the player, where to go next by light reflected off a mystical sword. The instruction is plodding and so is the story. It is meant to be quiet and repetitive, but still exciting and dangerous. Shadow of the Colossus’ story is the interaction of Wander with these colossi and eventually his village elders, done mostly without words, and when there is dialog, the language is made up. This further explains Arnott’s argument that “[a] book will necessarily privilege words over objects, whereas a video game will privilege objects over words” (Arnott 439). Shadow of the Colossus story is told by the wordless interaction of characters and objects, not prose or dialog.
This interaction of game objects and systems is described as “dynamics” or the run-time behavior of the mechanics acting on player inputs and each others outputs over time” (Hunick, LeBlanc, and Zubek 3). Dynamics in the framework presented by Hunick, LeBlanc, and Zubek, are the games interpretation of player inputs (mechanics), and where designers convey meaning on those actions. The mechanics in Shadow of the Colossus include running, jumping, and swinging a sword. However, in the game these actions often interact with the run-time system of colossi that present a challenge to those inputs, and after the first few, the conflict begins to feel more existential than physical. This is because “[expression] comes from dynamics that encourage individual users to leave their mark: systems for […] changing levels or worlds, and for creating personalized, unique characters” (Hunick, LeBlanc, and Zubek 3). The player of Shadow of the Colossus creates “their mark” on the world their given in such a way that Wander’s story becomes an existential tragedy. This is reinforced by the third element of Hunick, LeBlanc and Zubek’s MDA framework, aesthetics. They describe aesthetics as “desirable emotional responses evoked in the player” (Hunick, LeBlanc, and Zubek 2). For most games, this emotion usually defaults to “fun.” However, not all instances of Shadow of the Colossus result in this aesthetic. Sometimes the empty world and harsh looking deaths of colossi cause an “absurd” or “anguish” aesthetic. Ueda and his team at Sony use dynamics to provide a meaning to their game that produces certain existential feelings in their players. The framework of design provides a method to analyze the existential meaning of Wander’s story.
According to Jean-Paul Sartre’s definition, Wander fails to become an existential man. Sarte explains in his lecture and essay “Existentialism is a Humanism” that an existential man (or woman) possess three qualities: anguish, abandonment, and despair (Sartre 4). He defines anguish as the burden of the realization that a person’s actions is their interpretation of exemplary behavior. It is when a person considers his or her “action as good, it is only [he or she] who choose to say that it is good and not bad” (Sartre 5). Wander exists in the land of colossi because he chose to run away to revive his love, ludologically he exists there because the player chooses to go on. By continuing to kill colossi, the player and Wander accept that their choice, is contrary to in-game societal norm. The game lets players ascribe their own morality to Wander’s actions. There is no punishment for killing colossi, and there is no inherent reward either. This projection of ethics is the very act of accepting anguish. The player, and Wander have to accept that what they are doing, is also what they view as good.
Sartre’s second trait of the existential man, abandonment, a state where a person is “condemned to be free […] because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does” (Sartre 6). Wander’s disobedient actions lead him to feel accountable to no man or god, only to himself. Although in his world supernatural and powerful beings are very tangible, it is not their will he follows, but his own. The construction of the game has Wander interact with no other characters, there is only a horse and colossi to fight. There is no other character to account to and thus, ludologically, players are abandoned and take responsibility for all the effects they have on the world. Wander never once accounts to anyone else, the elders, the Dormin, no one. His actions are his own and never places blame on any other person or thing. He accepts his actions as his own. At the end of the game, his horse leaves Wander utterly alone with his decisions, and he walks forward to his next task. Where Wander fails to attain this existential abandonment is when he feels obligated to his passions to resurrect his love.
This obligation causes him to never have Sartre’s third trait, despair. Wander is a tragic hero in the sense that he ultimately is never able to “act without hope” (Sartre 8). At times the player can feel this despair, as fighting sixteen colossi is a lot of game to play, and finding each one is a very similar task. This repetition without seeing Wander’s love come any closer to life can lead the player to feel a despair aesthetic. However, Wander has hallucinations of a living partner which breathes life into his hope and motivation. In Wander’s most free moments, he still remains subject to his passion, love, and hope until he dies. The existential tragedy is not in death, but in not accepting it.
Albert Camus introduces a distinct type of existential hero, the absurd hero, in his book The Myth of Sisyphus. Wander fails to fully accept the absurd, and thus becomes a tragic figure according to Camus. Wander’s story shares many traits with the Greek hero Sisyphus of whom Camus says, “He is, as much through his passions as through his torture” (The Myth of Sisyphus 120). Camus defines Sisyphus’ existence by his punishment as much as his pleasures that led to his sentence. Sisyphus loved staying on Earth with his wife, when he was not supposed to be there, and was therefore punished to perpetually raise a boulder up a hill, let it roll back down, and then repeat. This punishment, inseparable from the passion that caused it, forms his identity. Wander, a prisoner of passion, subjects himself to repetitious and life-endangering encounters with monsters for his love. Wander is as much a colossus killer as he is a lover. This definition of Wander is given to the player through the game’s ludology. As each and every colossus is killed, the player must make Wander walk past his love and into the world where his next task awaits. In this way, Shadow of the Colossus exemplifies “the increased complexity of the computer game” that allows “repetition to take on novel and productive aspects” (Kirkpatrick 88). By walking past Wander’s love, finding colossi in the same manner, and disposing of them in the same way, players interact with and feel the passion and torture that define Wander and Sisyphus.
Where Sisyphus and Wander part ways is where Wander’s story becomes a tragedy. Camus believes that Sisyphus was a hero, and his story triumphant, “If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?” (The Myth of Sisyphus 122). When Sisyphus ceases to view the boulder pushing as punishment and just views it as existing, then he becomes a hero. Sisyphus, according to Camus, exemplifies Sartre’s despair, and ceases acting on hope. In Shadow of the Colossus’ narrative, Wander comes very close to attaining this. After the last colossus is slain, and the village elders come to take Wander away, he starts to take the form of the Dormin, the supernatural forces that had given him, his absurd task. He goes so far as to drive a village warrior’s sword into his own heart and bleed the same shadowy substance that left the colossi’s wounds. He himself turns into a giant, bent on the destruction of the warriors that came to capture him. In this instance, Wander becomes part of the absurd of which he previously fought against. This is reminiscent of the end of Camus’ The Stranger when before Meursault’s execution, he accepts his role as part of the absurd: “for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the benign indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate” (The Stranger 126). However, Wander’s story does not end with his transformation into an absurdist monster. As the village elder performs some magic destroy Wander and the Dormin, he takes a human form again and struggles to walk toward his love one last time. His efforts are futile and tragic. He ultimately dies before seeing that all his efforts did bring her back to life. Wander never truly abandoned hope as a motivation and never fully accepted the absurd effecting him as well as becoming part of it. He did not become an absurd hero, but becomes an absurd tragedy.
Both Sartre and Camus define an existential hero as someone gives no longer uses hope as a motivation for action. The player guides Wander on this existential adventure and the game carefully uses its ludic parts to reinforce the fight against the absurd. This leads to the player to feeling the conflict against the absurd, but also be entertained. The games narratology reinforces the context of Wander’s absurd tasks. Wander comes close to becoming a hero in the same manner of The Stranger’s Meursalt, but when faced when one last hope, Wander clings to it instead of accepting futility.
Arnott, Luke. “Unraveling Braid: Puzzle Games And Storytelling In The Imperative Mood.” Bulletin Of Science, Technology & Society 32.6 (2012): 433-440. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Dec. 2013.
Camus, Albert. The myth of Sisyphus: And other essays. Random House Digital, Inc., 1955. Web 4 Dec 2013.
Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Matthew Ward. New York: Vintage International, 1988. Print.
Hunicke, Robin, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek. “MDA: A formal approach to game design and game research.” Proceedings of the AAAI Workshop on Challenges in Game AI. 2004. Web. 4 Dec 2013.
Kirkpatrick, Graeme. “Between Art And Gameness: Critical Theory And Computer Game Aesthetics.” Thesis Eleven 89.1 (2007): 74-93. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Dec. 2013.
Sarte, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, New American Library, New York (1975). Web. 4 Dec 2015.
Shadow of the Colossus. Sony Computer Entertainment of America. 2005. Video game.
Wales, Matt. “Interviews: Fumito Ueda” ComputerAndVideoGames. Future plc, 19 Jan 2006. Web. 4 Dec 2013.