You have a sword, a bow, and a horse. That’s it.
These are the tools you are given in Shadow of the Colossus, and they are there from the very beginning: The opening shows a young boy on horseback crossing a ruined bridge. The bridge itself leads on and on, a wonder of the world, and the plains that it spans are pristine in the oldest sense of the word. This descends into an abandoned shrine – and it’s here that the first stirrings of menace begin to appear. Shadowy figures seep out of the stone floor and move threateningly toward the boy. In response, he draws his sword from his scabbard. This gleaming weapon, freed from its sheath, sends them shrinking back into the darkness. It’s only at this display that the invisible spirit inhabiting these ruins speaks up: “Hmm? Thou possesses the Ancient Sword?”
The tip of that sword carves out the plot of the game. The boy, Wander, has travelled to beseech this being to bring a dead soul back to life – a young girl, sacrificed by her people to break a curse. The spirit agrees, provided that Wander first track and vanquish sixteen colossi, chimeric monsters of stone and sinew, standing as tall as mountains. By holding the sword up to the light, the reflected beam points you towards the stamping grounds of these beasts. Much of the gameplay has you spurring your horse along with your sword raised high, following that thin strand for miles. The colossi themselves are invulnerable, save for a few scattered glyphs upon their bodies, which must be sought out through any means necessary – you duck, dodge, and leap, clamber up legs, scramble across shoulders, cower inside bellybuttons. After all that effort, finally killing one of the damn things is in turns monumental and visceral, a cross between St. George slaying a dragon and Joe Pesci slamming a pen into a guy’s neck.
So. A sword, a bow, and a horse. Only in a videogame could such a setup seem Spartan. In the usual order of things, this is the start of a breadcrumb trail from one item to the next, with new technologies arriving to meet new challenges, until you have more gizmos than you know what to do with. This is the arc of games like The Legend of Zelda, which traditionally start Link off with a sock-cap and wooden sword and finish as a bristling swiss-army-knife of death. At the end of A Link to the Past, you’re packing a thrice-upgraded sword, bombs, arrows, a mirror shield, a fire rod, an ice rod, a hookshot, magic boots, a magic hammer, a magic boomerang, a cape that makes you invisible, a medallion that makes earthquakes, and a wand that makes blocks. Just in case, you know, anyone needs any blocks.
This same model could very well suit a game like Shadow of the Colossus. Because, do you know what might put a dent in those big stone monsters? Some explosives! And maybe a grappling hook to scale them easily. No more scrambling around, trying to avoid being stepped on. And while you’re at it, some armor would be nice – plate or scale preferably, but anything would be better than that threadbare tabard that Wander is running around in. Also, lasers. And in fact, certain items do exist to help you out – masks of power, electric harpoons, arrows that explode. Trouble is, they’re unlocked much after you’ve beaten the game, as a reward for completing various time attacks. Serving as extra-credit rewards for excellence, these artifacts have an extracanonical feel to them – victory lap stuff. Meanwhile, in the real game, Wander has to make do with what he’s got.
If this puts Shadow of Colossus in a minority, it is testament to how large a role weaponry serves in videogames. In a medium so dependent on combat in all its forms, games usually tend towards the exotic. We have weapons as gratuitous thrills, from Team Fortress 2‘s megasize-minigun “Sasha,” described as costing “400 thousand dollars for twelve seconds” by a Heavy Weapons Guy long on mayhem and short on math, and Doom‘s quintessential “BFG,” which set the standard for Gs that are Fing B. We have weapons as boss-mincing macguffins, Arthurian “Master Swords” that turn otherwise invincible big bads suddenly vincible. And then there is the RPG-style scavenger hunt for a steady stream of weapons, each more ornate than the last, that are understood not as concrete hunks of steel but as rock blocks of stats. Why wield Excalibur if Masamune has better damage? These are worlds with more kingmakers than kings.
Of course, all of these games are excellent in their own right, and each of these systems suit a particular purpose. But perhaps we’ve been spoiled with all this glamour and gilt. We’re given swords made of light or darkness, demon-killing swords and demon-haunted swords, swords cast in the reaches of heaven or the fires of hell. There are sword hands, gun hands, guns that are also swords, swords that are also guns, +5 vorpal whateverbane swords. Perhaps the blame can be shouldered by games like Final Fantasy VII, which upgraded the longstanding genre of ‘Sword and sorcery’ into ‘Swords-as big-as-a-human-being and sorceries-long-enough-to-make-yourself-a-sandwich-with-an-olive-on-top-and-everything.’ Nowadays, though, this theatrical excess is the rule. Supplying that constant need to kill things and look awesome while doing it, gamedom will always have a steady stream of bigger and brighter weaponry, an arms race for the virtual set.
But Shadow of the Colossus has a different approach, and it’s one that patiently sidesteps all this martial gimcrackery. The sword that Wander wields in his quest to kill the game’s sixteen colossi is none of these things – it is not some stray digit in a numbers game, or deus ex machina uberbrand that will cleave his enemies in twain with a single blow. This is not a game where you scatter your foes like leaves, all without mussing your perfectly-feathered hair – rather, it’s one that has you scraping along by the skin of your knuckles, clinging desperately to some shaggy forelimb to avoid being dashed to a tacky red smear. In this same way, Wander’s weapons have a certain heft to them, a shape and a weight, impressing themselves as tangible objects of wood and metal. Consider how your arrows, beyond working as a distraction, serve as a lesson in scale. There’s a distinct sense of helplessness that comes from watching an extended salvo bounce harmlessly off a colossus’ tough exterior, or quill its fleshy bits like so many pinpricks. It plays out like a scene from Jaws: We’re gonna need a bigger bow.
Similarly, Wander’s sword is simple, understated, a weapon of timing and precision more than raw, showy power. Strike the wrong spot, and it clatters harmlessly off the colossus’ flesh. Pause too long with it poised to strike, and you’ll lose your balance and ruin the thrust. And though it is undoubtedly magical, it is a restrained, even poetic sort of sorcery. It lights the way, and it leads you there – after that, you’re on your own. Limited in this way, the simplicity of Wander’s equipment seems to communicate the immensity of his tasks: It may not be much, but it’s all he’s got.
A sword, a bow, and a horse. Even with all this, there is never the suggestion that the task at hand is impossible. Even in the game’s direst moments, with some determination, this toolkit can best the longest odds. There is a long tradition of stories that tell of minscule underdogs throwing themselves at musclebound goliaths, and they all seem to end the same way. Part of it is that your weapons serve in this role, as a small, accurate strike that might fell the heaviest opponent. But part of it, also, is the suggestion that there are things we bring to battle that make us more than ourselves, that temper our sword and our swordarm.
When Wander strikes his bargain to revive his dead maiden and is told, flat-out, that if he succeeds he will pay a terrible price, he shrugs it off. Even as the game progresses, and it begins to hint that in shattering the colossi, Wander is whittling away his very soul one cut at a time, he doesn’t stay his hand. The confidence that he wields burns brighter than the glowiest, showiest sword in gamedom, and suggests that there might be more at stake in this story than blood and steel and stone. Shadow of the Colossus, in its elegance and restraint, transforms a hack’n’slash sojourn into a long form ballad about the numinous things that remain when all else falls to dust.
Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, where the only chimeric monsters of stone and sinew are the moose. He should give Link a call, because he could really use some blocks right about now.