Some time ago, I told my friend Jordan that he had to play Shadow of the Colossus to completion, and that I wouldn’t tell him what I thought about the game until he was done with it. He finished it last night, and the brief conversation that resulted made me want to revisit an earlier post on trauma and consequences in narrative games. (Spoiler alert for all that follows, of course…)
One of the things I find most interesting about Shadow of the Colossus is that it provides an excellent counterexample to the idea that a game has to have multiple branches and choices to tell an interesting and emotional story. As Jordan noted, the end even feels like “forced failure” (an excellent example of Shuen-shing Lee’s argument that games can evoke tragedy by forcing players to lose). It is a game largely about sacrifice, and what sacrifice is worth: your horse sacrifices itself to save you on your way to the final colossus, and you (playing the protagonist) gradually sacrifice yourself by allowing a demon to inhabit your body, as part of a deal that brings back your deceased love. Your love, now imprisoned in a beautiful but uninhabited valley, eventually rises and witnesses these sacrifices: your protagonist is now transformed into a cursed infant, and your horse unexpectedly returns with a limp. It’s a classic “save the princess” story, only much darker and more thought-provoking.
On the surface, however, there really isn’t even that much “story” to speak of. The majority of game time is spent solving puzzles that take the form of action sequences. We get only a short narrative burst after each colossus we destroy, and we don’t even see much in the way of human-to-human interaction; your girlfriend is dead for most of the game, and you become a demon just as soon as the only other humans in the game show up.
This doesn’t mean, though, that you don’t end up caring for anyone. In our IM conversation today, Jordan noted:
I thought it was cool that I developed an emotional connection with the horse, even though the horse is so simple and all you know is its name. […]
When I beat Shadow, at one point I thought something like: “oh … the girl came back to life … that’s nice… OMG WTF THE HORSE IS BACK AND HIS LEG IS BROKEN!!” […]
I cared more about the horse than the girl I was trying to save.
This matched my own experience completely, and I have to admit I find this odd and puzzling. Why is it that the return of my horse brought me close to tears, whereas the rising of the girlfriend stirred me not at all?
I think this gets back to that previous post, which focused on why death should be emotionally affecting in games, and I think it links in with Shuen-shing Lee’s aforementioned argument. I recently attended a conference presentation about emotional engagement in games, and I asked the presenter how designers can make people care about characters in a game when players tend to be fixated on winning. She said that the trick is through repeated interaction with supporting characters in the gameplay, such as by forcing the player to keep grabbing Yorda by the hand in Ico (made by the same people as Shadow of the Colossus). As I wrote previously, though, some people just get annoyed at the sidekicks we need to protect. Maybe Agro, the horse in Shadow, is a better example of how to establish an emotional connection: not by repeated protective interaction, but by repeated helpful interaction.
The supporting characters who have been cited as bothering players are those who can die, making them a liability. As Jordan again notes, “I guess it helps that the horse is invincible.” Agro might not always be where you want him to be standing, but he’ll always come when you call him, and he never stands in harm’s way long enough to get killed (unless you force him to do so).
In some ways, he’s more a tool than a character, but I don’t think I would’ve reacted the same way if the sword I’d been using the whole game had been shattered near the end instead of my horse plummeting into a gorge. Agro has actual emotion in his whinnying and gestures, and your protagonist has an emotional connection with him beyond what he has with the sword. If you leave the controller untouched for a few moments, the protagonist will start petting Agro and talking soothingly to him. And, of course, Agro willingly bucks you off near the end to save you, and you must watch your protagonist scream as his companion recedes into the distance below.
I suppose, then, that I probably cared more about my horse than about the girlfriend (I realize now that I’ve been typing “the girlfriend” versus “my horse”…) because games, as a medium, are designed to make us want to win. Narrative games in particular may make us want to avoid death just to avoid narrative disruption (through the typical “die and retry” model of games). Agro actually helps us survive and win; the princess is just a token reward after all the gameplay is complete. Beyond that, though, it’s the small, lifelike details around the edges, presented over the course of the game, that make it possible to see an imaginary horse as a trusted friend.