Shadow of the Colossus is a critically acclaimed and widely praised video game released by Team Ico in 2005. It was re-released as a high definition remaster in 2011 for the Playstation 3. The game tells the story of a young man named Wanda and his quest to bring a young girl back to life. What follows is a narrative of my journey as Wanda – what we saw, what we felt, our motivations, feelings and our wonder of the forbidden land that we found ourselves in.
I: The Forbidden Land
The ravine below haunts every step that Agro takes. My steed is nervous and cautious. The pitter-patter of its hooves dances a gentle and calculated dance upon the narrow cliff face, but it resonates within the precipice darkly. The breeze is cold like she is, yet you can feel that it is alive. You cannot say the same for her. No matter my feelings of loneliness as I travelled, I am glad she has slept with Death. This journey is not one I wish her to see. The isolating winds are not ones I wish her to feel. The sweat of her brow is not something I wish her to taste. She rests upon me, empty.
The pause I take to think about her is interrupted as an eagle swoops past my ear. The downward stroke of its wings impresses upon me the cold air. I pause to watch it. It courts the wind with the surgical precision, rising and falling at will, cutting an invisible wound delicately in the sky. It fills up quickly, not with blood, but cloud. I watch the bird’s wings carry it higher as it searches for the sun. It must be content, flying over me, untethered from the earth that sustains it. It gradually fades out of view, flapping victoriously toward the darkening horizon. I press onward.
I notice the cliff has parted ahead. The work of the mountain gods perhaps, separating due to a disagreement, turning their geological backs on one another. Agro whinnies, realising the gap in the earth ahead. A stumbling block. I say nothing, but let the stallion feel the warmth of my hand as I run it along his neck. I have learnt that confidence is an immigrant that may procreate and flow between the continents of the animal kingdom. The beast steels itself and makes the jump comfortably. I carry on.
Through woodland, where the moon’s gaze only reaches us between the gaps in the oak trees, I ride. Agro and the occasional bird plays companion to me as we press forward. Those avian friendships are fickle and forced. Some appreciate the company more than others. Some sing to me but I do not offer any replies. Unlike confidence, speech has exiled itself on one small island in the animal kingdom yet I feel like my tongue will no longer work – I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve used the muscle, so I figure I can offer no words to the wildlife.
I pass a lake and catch my reflection upon its surface. I look older, worn. I look at my end. The water ripples that form over the image are indistinguishable from the ripples that punctuate my face. My eyes are sunken from the lack of sleep. Hers are closed and unmoving. I carry on without urgency. A man who feels at his end no longer keeps one eye on the time.
Soon the plains open up before me, lush and green and soaked in rain. A rare glimpse of beauty slightly tarnished by a thoughtless cloud’s greed. But I am getting closer. I can feel it. I hope, somehow, that she can feel it too. If she can feel anything, please let it be that. I offer up a small prayer, but assume it goes unnoticed. The rain is heavy here, leaving no time for believers. I notice the ruins in the distance, their ruffled stone coats embracing the sun’s open arms. I approach them slowly, and feel those very arms embrace me. It is through these ruins where I come across the bridge. An exit, it seems. I hope it provides her with an escape too.
The bridge presides over a seemingly endless pit. I glance over the flanks of Agro briefly to try and get a look, but I only see an engulfing fog. It makes me queasy. I steady myself and press forward. The bridge collides at one end with the world I just left behind, my world and all its broken things. The other end collides with a temple, and it fares no better. Scars mark stone upon the wall. As I approach, a door slides open and light gradually fills the corridor behind it. There are stairs there that lead down. I carry on.
The inner structure of the temple is circular and tiered. Ramps lead from the top to the bottom, several stories down. I proceed slowly knowing that a misstep will surely cost the lives of both myself and Agro. I have come too far to lose those now.
At the bottom most floor of the temple lays a small pond, bordered by stone. It is empty of life. It is cold and unmoving. There is not even a breeze from the adjacent chamber to keep it company. I find a simple kind of solace in that. The water is stagnant and slightly murky. It seems unattended, left to dry up. Yet somehow, it perseveres.
The adjacent chamber is flooded with light that flows in both from the hole in the ceiling and from the vista that stretches out at its far end. I make my way toward a simple stone altar, taking in the majesty of my surroundings. Stone structures carved in the images of great beings line the chamber walls. They are beautiful, yet they somehow feel dangerous. They remind me of the lily of the valley, a plant with a veneer so appealing that its poisonous interior is oft-forgot. It kills with a smile.
I pull on the reins of Agro as I steadily approach the altar and sling her from Agro's back into my waiting arms. The soulless vessel of the girl is wrapped ceremoniously, in a black robe that covers her entire body, but for her face and feet. Her eyes are closed. I carry her to the altar and place her gently down, lowering her via the creases where her neck cranes and her legs bend. I take care with her delicate frame. The blood inside has no doubt congealed because I feel her stiff against me. I throw the robe off her and let her soulless body embrace the light. Her white dress fails a little less easily as she lies on her back. Seeing her like this steals the air from my lungs, the beat from my heart. She lies so still. A fraction of her beauty remains, even in death, and it overcomes the magnificence of its surrounds. It overcomes me. She is captivating still. She captivates me. I reflect.
I’ve heard travellers, whose faces I can no longer remember, speak of a land where the dead can be brought back to life. The place they spoke of always varied. It had been morphed, mutilated and misinterpreted by the minds of men. Yet they always mentioned the one who could bring back the souls of the dead. Somehow, I felt like I had found the place that they spoke of. It replaced the marrow of my bones with hope, the pumping of my blood with passion. I did not display it, but I felt a reserved joy.
The brilliance of the day sat behind her with its legs crossed as it twirled its ghostly fingers. It played with her hair, conjuring up the zephyrs that made it sway ever so softly. Was she content in death? Could I bring her back? Should I bring her back? The same travellers who spoke of this place, often also told of the consequences of reaching it. A terrible fate would await those who dare journey to this land. Trespass was akin to death. I did not answer the questions I had asked myself.
I had no time to, anyway.
I hear the familiar, startled neigh that Agro lets slip and feel the fear that squeezed his throat. I turn to face my noble equine partner, and notice the shadowmen risen and half-risen from the temple floor. I draw my sword, holding it directly in front of me, pointing it at the creatures. It signifies a challenge which they seem to accept.
Then my sword glows and its hilt rattles inside my hand, but I hold it firm. The threat of the shadowmen disappears as they sublimate and are carried off by the gentle breeze. I have inherited this great weapon and with it, have triumphed. It is the Ancient Sword. The shadowmen now understand that they could not challenge such a thing.
A voice fills the room and I question it.
“Are you Dormin?”
It offers no immediate reply so I continue.
“I was told that in this place at the ends of the world there exists a being who can control the souls of the dead.”
The voice confirms its identity as the one I seek, Dormin. Its voice is commanding. God-like. It is a voice that does not speak to you, but speaks within you and around you. It is a voice that demands respect. It is a voice that transcends time and space. Yet it is just a voice.
“She was sacrificed for she had a cursed fate. Please… I need you to bring back her soul…”
My pleas are mocked at first; the great being’s laughter fills the temple. It seems that for a second, it blots the beauty of the sun, and reveals the ugliness of the land that I now find myself in. The hope that once filled me slowly seeps from my pores, themselves ugly with dirt and sweat.
Then Dormin explains that although the law of mortals dictates souls cannot be returned, the Ancient Sword that I possess may provide a way for me to reach her upon the plains of the nether realm and bring her back to my own. It startles me for although I know the power of my sword, I have no idea just how deep that power runs. Dormin assures me that if I do as the being asks, I may yet be with her again.
“What do I have to do?” I ask
Dormin draws my attention to the idols that flank the hallway of the great temple. They stand tall, guarding the hallway of this great chamber. My mind races, trying to keep up with my heart. I offer up a small prayer but it is quashed by the pounding voice in the hall. Two from two. Dormin explains that the idols are what I am to destroy. He clarifies that these idols cannot be destroyed by the hands of a mere mortal, in case I was thinking this would be easy. The hope, which fluctuates unsteadily within me, again begins to seep out of my tired pores.
“Then what am I to do?” I ask further, seeking illumination. I do not understand. If it is the idols I must destroy and even the Ancient Sword cannot destroy them, then how am I to fulfil the being’s request?
The explanation that Dormin provides is that these idols all have real world counterparts, physical beasts that can be destroyed. He calls them the colossi and states simply that if one can destroy the colossi, the real world incarnations of these idols, then the idols themselves shall fall. He does not begin to offer advice as to where they will be found or how they may be destroyed.
I immediately respond, “I understand.” I now know my task; I know how to bring her back. Dormin’s voice provides a warning; he cautions me that my actions may carry a weight that I am not yet aware of. I listen, but my mind is elsewhere. I am already thinking of her embrace, the way her skin falls against mine, the way her hair collapses over her shoulder blades. I think of caressing her under a smiling moon and feeling the softness of her lips. I slip through each state of love like a vagabond passes through towns. Silent. Unnoticed. In the wake of such thoughts, I render Dormin’s cautioning irrelevant and unnecessary.
“It doesn’t matter” I proclaim, stoic. It truly doesn’t. No matter what Dormin’s request was, nor how dangerous it seems, I had already committed to completing it. I had committed to it the moment she fell into her slumber. I may have committed to it the first time I looked into her eyes.
Dormin remains silent at first, as if scorned by my emotionless remark, but then his voice fills the chamber again. He explains to me that the Ancient Sword shall guide me, that by raising it to the light, I will be able to focus the sun’s rays and reveal my path. A path that will lead me to the colossi. A path that will lead me back to her.
I wait not a moment longer.
I rush out to through the stone pillars that front the temple and stare out into the vast expanse of land in front of me. There are scattered remnants of life. Photosynthesis reigns supreme among the peaks and troughs of the plains. A few unfamiliar birds dot the skyline like stars upon an oil painting of the night. They don’t notice me.
I raise the Ancient Sword and let it hum as the sun fills it up. At first it is difficult to get a fix on my destination, but my persistence pays off. Open your eyes and look north. The only direction I need. I sprint back to Agro and jump on him, kicking him with my heels to get him galloping. On either side of the altar, there are stone stairs that lead out to the plains and I progress down the left hand side and out into the fields. The sun is ever-present. I’ve felt it crawl all over my skin from the moment I got here, but out on the plains it feels like an elixir. It empowers me. I kick Agro harder and he gallops at full speed.
We come to a dead end, a dug out hole in the side of a small cliff face. Stone ruins embellish the small mountain with a regal tone. A castle made of stone. The journey here has sapped me of much of my strength and as I try to ascend the stone castle I slip, falling a couple of times back to the earth. I can barely pull myself up over the ledge but as I move higher, my agility and poise begins to return, even if my stamina does not. I dive roll underneath a broken stone pillar and climb again.
It is when I reach the top of the stone castle that I feel it.
The ground trembles, unhinging small rocks from the relative safety of their mountainous home. They scurry down the cliff like rodents searching for a hole in the ground.
It’s a lumbering mess of stone, wood, grass and vine. Taxonomically, you could likely assign it to the Ursus genus. The bears. It holds a club as large as the legs that keep it upright. It lurches past me but I go unnoticed. Each footstep shocks the earth.
I realise quickly that I can catch it on foot, so I start to run toward it without a second thought. If these are the beasts that Dormin wants me to defeat, then so be it. I withdraw my bow, tightly strung, and place an arrow upon it. I pull back hard, but my first shot flies wide. The shot goes unnoticed. I fire again, this time slowing my breathing and placing my heart back in its box behind my ribcage, far removed from my throat.
It hits the colossus upon its right shoulder.
The beast barely winces.
But it notices me. It turns and I see the whites of its eyes bear down on me. It is a painful gaze. Perhaps it knows I have come to defeat it or at least, challenge it. At first it does not seem malicious, but a feeling grows within it. It is threatened and cornered. Like any predator, it decides it must fight to survive.
I approach slowly, giving it a wide berth, much wider than it can reach. I use the sword to focus the sunlight, and let it guide me.
I fire another arrow at the beast. It lands right between its eyes but it barely registers, like a fly bite on an elephants hide. It slowly raises the club above its head and I immediately realise the danger. I strafe as far right as I can; hoping that the beasts prolonged windup gives me a little more time. It does, but barely. I just avoid the downward swing, but the impact of the club smashing into the brittle earth throws me off my feet.
I lay motionless for a few seconds and she floats across the blacks of my eyes. Pale, cold. Smiling. It allows me to gather myself.
I reassess. Arrows aren’t going to work. At least, they don’t seem like they will. I have the sword… but what good is that against the stone behemoth?
I see it raise its club again and decide to run straight at it, sword raised. It seems unable to follow me with its eyes. I slice at its feet but it just lifts its legs and brings them down, throwing me off balance. Even the Ancient Sword is useless against stone. It lumbers forward and groans slightly, but I stay away from each footstep and far enough behind it that it does not know where to look.
Its rear left leg is covered in dense hair that completely shields the calf. I run at it and jump, but it lurches forward again. Thankfully, I avoid the giant’s feet. The flood of adrenaline starts a fire that releases the pain weaving its way around my legs. I focus on the hairs and calculate a jump, grabbing the dense calf hair of the beast with my right hand. Gravity resists the riot, but I protest louder, my fingers grip harder.
I hold on for dear life as it shakes violently. It can feel me wriggling on its leg, a pest. It tries to shake me off again but my grip is tight. My arms are weakening, but I’ve come so far. I have to hold on. What now?
I unsheathe the blade and it hisses as the metal reacts with the air. I hold it high above my head, determined.
It comes down with great force and lodges itself in the beast’s calf.
The colossus staggers. My grip is unshaken. I feel the beast tumble forward but it quickly regains its balance. I thrust the sword again into its calf.
It falls forward, knee first, into the earth. The sensation of pain must feel alien to the monster. I look around, but my footing slips and I slam into the earth. The beast pounds the same earth blindly, trying to finish me, with its hoof-like feet. The weight of each footstep throws me back several metres. It knows I’ve found a weak spot and it lets out a cry.
Several more thrusts to the calf and I bring the beast down again, this time noticing I can climb onto its back. I attempt to reach for another patch of dense hair that rests along its lower back. The beast is angry and it continues to swing me violently. My grip holds, but my energy is draining rapidly. I stab it right in the spine, and with that I feel even more energy leaving me. Another quick thrust is all I can manage before I meet the earth, again. My lip bears a small cut, and the blood runs down my cheek. There is no pain though. There is no room for that. The little feeling I can sustain is for her.
I notice now the platforms that jut out of the creature’s spine. I question their existence. A godsend? A trap? Then I cease questioning at all. There are no questions here, for there is no one to answer them. I regain as much energy as possible before climbing on the colossus again. I plunge the blade of the Ancient Sword as deep into the calf as possible, and bring the beast down to its knees. This time, I clamber up the hair of its back until I reach the lowest spinal platform.
Safety, for now.
The beast must think I’ve fallen for it ceases its violent and erratic shaking.
I climb higher. I can feel the heat of the monster, hear its heart beat. Smell it. It is like earth and wet stone. It is like mould in heavy rain. It’s exotic, yet homely. The creature continues to lumber with me upon its back. My stomach aches and my arms feel numb. I can barely feel the tips of my fingers, let alone clutch the sword. It is then I feel hunger, but I disregard it. I climb higher, the hair of the beast providing me with handholds, like a forgiving mountainside carved by the gods. I see where my first arrow hit. It lays silent in the beast. A monument to my failure. A monument to inexperience.
I can see the skull, and a sigil that lights up on top of it, like a beacon.
I shuffle toward it, the beast relatively calm beneath me. It seems too easy now.
My over confidence gets the better of me and I forget where I am. The beast feels my feet trample upon its skull and begins to buck violently, like a bull prodded in a rodeo. Luckily, my arms are wrapped in the dense forest of hair that covers its skull. The violent vortex that the beast creates spins me around, but I hold on and come to rest over the beast’s left eye. It bucks again as it realises it is yet to dislodge me. I imagine it gives me credit for being persistent, if nothing else, and that helps. I have no time to worry about its feelings. I feel outside of my body, my arms are so numb now that I can no longer feel them or the grip I have on its hair. I know it exists, because I am still here. Yet, I feel like any moment and I will tumble from the apex of the creature to the hard earth below and this fall will be fatal. Birds circle me, as if foreseers, vulture-like, ready to feed on the carrion of a broken vessel.
It bucks again but as it does so it flings me back onto its skull, just as my grip finally loosens. I try to crawl back down its neck and realise that I can stand straight up on its back, maintaining my balance, without it throwing me off. The beast simple doesn’t notice me upon its back, silently standing. It must be used to the birds that pick at the follicular forest that runs around its spine, and imagine me as one of them.
I decide to regain my stamina and make a final stand. I tighten my grip on the Ancient Sword. I breathe slowly. I let my lungs fill up with the air up here. It takes longer than normal. I feel out of breath faster than normal.
The steps I take toward the beats head are gallant, victorious steps. The fight is almost over. I plunge the sword with the full extent of my strength straight into the beast’s skull. Black pours out and clouds the sky. I want to yell, I want to scream victory, but the thin air chokes me. I simply rest my head on the hilt of my sword.
The colossus falls forward, watched by only the birds and I, like the last redwood in a dead forest. It collapses from loneliness, as much as it does from its wounds. I manoeuvre myself awkwardly, but ride it to the ground without injury. I stand alongside the giant corpse victorious, drained.
The beast dissipates like the shadow men before it and a great darkness begins to cut the sky, crisscrossing it, sharp and deep. It hits me with such force that I can barely breathe, and then I collapse.
I wake up in the temple where the maiden lies and watch the colossus’ idol crumble.
Dormin gives me my orders, directs me to the next test.
I notice now that a dove has appeared at the maiden’s side. Sunlight glistens off its silken wings, reflecting light around the lonely chamber. It must feel so small against the backdrop.
I set off on Agro again, holding the sword high, focusing the light. It guides me. I press onward.