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 part 4 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.
If you would like to read the first three parts of Wanda's journey, covering the game's opening cinematic to the fourth colossus, you can find those parts here: I, II, III
The light is constant here, upon the temple’s vista. The sun hasn’t yet shown its age, its guidance unwavering. Its direction leads me to a ruined castle that erupts from a still lake. The water is undisturbed, motionless. It rests like she does against a pillar of stone. Yet every now and then it sighs when earthly lungs exhale upon it. It sighs when Agro stands at its edge, sweating from her brow and heaving her hot, wet breath against the lake edge.
It impedes Agro’s passage, but not my own and I slip into it. The water feels ever thicker against me, as it works in concert with gravity to slow my movements. My muscles ache, cramping as I make my way across the lake, and my legs struggle to keep me afloat. I’ve been ignoring the idea of food for such a long time now that it has become foreign to me. The lizard’s tail, raw and gamey, dropped into a distended stomach and was rapidly metabolised by dying organs. It feels like forever since I consumed it. It provided little energy. It was a single turbine constructed in a sprawling metropolis, a single gallon of fossil fuel for a fleet of fighter jets. It was not enough.
My legs feel stuck in the ooze of the murky lake, but I press forward and squeeze through a fracture in the bones of the ruined castle. A hole that will never be repaired. I pull myself up onto a ledge, the amber-like liquid of the lake falling off me slowly, as if trying to escape the dull surrounds of the stagnant lake. I reject it, and this time gravity takes my side, ensuring the water slides off my exposed skin. Of course, it sinks into the fabrics I wear, and sticks to me.
I run down the long stone corridor which is bordered by a rickety fence, rusted from the rain. It is embellished with spiked tips, yet most are blunted and decaying. For a world with so much beauty, there is so much death. I run partly out of excitement and partly to ward off the cold. Water sloshes underneath my feet with every step and as I reach the end of the corridor I proceed through a stone archway and find myself in the inner sanctum of the ruins. It is flooded and pieces of concrete and stone jut out from the water like thorns on a rose. The colossus presents itself at that moment, flying overhead. Its shadow drowns out the light from the sun and I feel the cold sting of my clothing as it whips against my skin. The sun returns.
The fifth colossus comes to rest on a long stone pillar, lonely, high above the lake. The lake is bordered by a mountain range, which sits behind the skybeast like a curtain. I can see why a temple or castle would have once laid here. The great wall of rock protects and provides.
The skybeast is more than a simple hawk or raven. Its beak is as menacing, yet its wingspan rivals even the dragons of old. I catch my heart in my throat, a recurring theme in my journey, and force it back down as if preventing emesis. The skybeast fails to notice me, still high above the lake. I look over the edge of the ruins I stand on and notice the length of the drop. There’s the heart again.
I take off, feet-first, and plunge into the water. It sticks to me again, like amber, and I struggle, like an insect, to fight against it and return to air. I am successful, but I feel my lungs close, constricting my chest muscles. That isn’t fear, it is purely reflex. That’s every muscle fibre contracting to escape the cold sludge. That’s my bones playing Atlas. That’s my capillaries tightening. That’s my fingers curling into claws. Fight or flight. Here, in the water, staring up at the skybeast, it seems like both.
I clamber into an alcove in one of the ruined thorns that potmark the lake and take aim at the dragonbird. My bow drips with water and my fingers slide across the string. My first shot goes awry, but the second scorches into the skybeast’s wing. It takes flight immediately, a startled crow.
The light from the Ancient Sword tries to focus on the creatures body, but it cuts through the air and circles the flooded ruins, seeking me out with too much pace. I huddle in the alcove that I shot it from and it doesn’t bother with me, instead, it just circles. Now it is vulture-like. It seems as if the skybeast has studied all avian form and evolved them into stone. It picks apart the genetics of each, like carrion, then zips them back together. It shouldn’t even be able to fly yet there it is. A monument to defiance and careful assembly.
I enter the water again, my legs trembling as they submerge, and head for a set of three pillars, barely scraping the surface of the water. I stand on the second in a row of four, looking up an noticing a connecting archway above me. If the skybeast is too swoop now, it will get low enough for me to grab on.
At least, that is the hope.
The idea of taking to the skies is not one I welcome but it seems the beast has nowhere to settle, nowhere to fight me from the land. This battle will be won in the clouds. I fire an arrow, attracting the creature of the sky and it begins its descent. I recognize the movements immediately. This is how the Falcons swoop in for a kill. This then is the coup de grace, and this time, it is meant for me.
As it swoops, the hair that rests upon its wings becomes visible and I immediately realign myself with them, ready to grab hold. I am going to have to jump at it and wrap myself in the dense fur. I flick my hands at my sides, trying to dislodge any remaining water, anything that will cause me to slip. It approaches. I count down in my head.
The beast’s mouth is open wide, and it bellows thunderous like the Quetzalcoatl.
I jump, and my arm slips through the thick forest of hair. As I slip downward though, I catch some, a tuft that is matted and dying. It provides the perfect handhold. The surge of adrenaline kicks in, like it always does, when I finally mount a colossus. I feel my heart as a drumbeat, harder and more pronounced, more regular. It thuds. Knocks. My heart wants me to answer the chamber door and defeat the raven and it charges me to do so. The lack of energy that overcame me in the stagnant river is an afterthought.
There is an arctic chill upon the wind at this height, one that terrorises me evermore as I stand in the shadows of the mountain. I stumble across the beast’s wingspan and move toward its tail. It is covered in the decaying hair, making it the safest route to a sigil. However, like the colossi before it, it tries to shake me, to send me plummeting back into the water like a misguided missile. It writhes, its whole body undulating. Unbound by the tethers of gravity, it is free to roam an extra dimension than the colossi before it. It’s a dimension I am not familiar with.
I reach the tail sigil, plunge twice and it fades. The light from the Ancient Sword falls on the tips of both wings, and I make my way first, for the right one. The lack of hair to hold on to here makes it difficult to hold on, and I notice the weakening of my fingers as the stamina that had swelled in me begins to seep from my pores. The cold air deals with it quickly. I make light work of the right wing sigil, but the beast has one trick left up its sleeve. It flips its entire body upside down. It’s incredible to see the beast control gravity, a force beyond my own comprehension. It does as it likes in the sky. I am not worthy of dethroning such a creature through slaughter, yet for her to live, I must destroy it. Cruelty is too kind a word for it, yet as I hang here, my arm entrenched in the thick hair, I know that cruelty is the only way out. My selfish need to live outweighs my desire to conserve such a beautiful, powerful being.
I lose my handle on the wing and begin falling into the lake. Fortune favours the brave however. By some miracle, as I fell the skybeast swung its body around, catching me with its opposite wing. I would have laughed, but the wind battered my teeth, and they clattered around inside my skull instead. I had escaped what would have been the end of me.
The last sigil shone brightly at my feet.
Skin sang in tune with the Ancient Sword and the beast was felled. We fell into the water together, and I waited for the darkness to overcome me.
I awoke again, in the chamber, and stared at the place where the idol once stood. My mind fell on my father, the boar and my bow. I smile yet behind me, in death’s eternal embrace, she sleeps.
A giant lurks underneath the temple; it lusts for destruction, but a fool it is not.
Dormin cautions, yet it now feels unnecessary. My confidence is now like the great oak trees, and it harbors within its branches the many advantages of slaying five colossi. Thick branches emanate from its trunk, those of heightened stamina, muscles adapted for climbing and an improved eye for my bow. While I starve in this forbidden land, my body seems to be holding up; my skeleton does not wither like a poorly-fed dog on a diet of scraps and thrown-outs. It does not fracture. Muscles do not atrophy from lack of food. My stomach grumbles at the thought.
I set out, southwest, guided by the light of the Ancient Sword. Agro reaches full speed quickly and does not fatigue, though I have not seen him eat since we arrived. It makes me again wonder about the forbidden land and the gods. A flash of wonder sparks through my skull. “Are we being provided for, cared for, nurtured from above? Am I being moulded to carry out tasks that need not be carried out? Will they even bring her back?” Questions like these have ended journeys before, so I refuse to answer them, yet I cannot ignore a phrase that my father once relayed to me in the early days of our boar hunts.
“One must not kill for the sake of killing” he would say. I would always nod, understanding, yet I find myself on Agro’s back, galloping toward another colossus, looking to increase my kill count. Betrayal is merely a symptom of a disease known as grief. I offer up a prayer of forgiveness, hoping that it reaches my father’s spirit.
Agro and I travel through a sparse forest of trees and arrive upon a vast steppe that extends beyond the limits of the human eye and disappears in the distance. The blue sky clashes with the flat, green fields and a thin yellow line forms across the horizon like the glow of the sun in the morn. Across the steppe, a temple melts into a rock face and the light from the Ancient Sword carries me there. We travel deep within until Agro can no longer progress, and I dismount and head further underground. The rocks that potmark the walls of the temple gradually disappear until I find myself in a great hall, extending in front and below me.
I search the walls for the colossus, and use the ancient sword in an attempt to discover the location of the beast, yet it only gives of a dim yellow that barely reaches for the shadows upon the wall. The chamber is deep, so I begin to descend to its lower level against the closest wall. The handholds are brittle like I imagine my bones to be, yet they hold up under my weight, just like my bones do. My descent is slow and planned. I shuffle feet and hands carefully, so as not to fall. This is one descent I fell that I may not recover from.
As I place two feet back on solid ground, the wall I climbed down begins to seep into the ground. The curtain of stone descends to reveal the colossus resting, but now awoken. It stumbles out of its own chamber and into the hall, a whispy white beard sways as it steps. But for the beard, I notice nothing to hold on to and quickly realise that I either need to get higher, or the beast needs to be knocked lower, before I can ascend it.
Directly ahead of me lies a wall which I recognize as scalable. I scurry up its face and rest upon its cranial plate. Not high enough. The colossus lumbers toward me, its hand clasping a stone mace. It does not slow, instead, it barrels through the wall and sends me hurtling toward the cold chamber floor. I regain composure quickly, keeping my wits about me, and notice that there are two more walls of the same nature in the distance before the chamber comes to an abrupt end.
My feet slap against the ground as I run and climb the two walls. Perhaps exhaustion will be my ally this time, and the colossus will collapse before it can catch me.
It smashes through the second wall with ease and my hopes for an ally are quickly thwarted. I climb over the third wall and find myself at the back of the chamber where a pantheon-like structure resides, clasped to the wall. Stone pillars hold up slabs of concrete. An underground Acropolis. I hide behind a stone pillar, in the dark, breathing heavily as the colossus slams through the third wall.
If it notices me under here I will be buried alive in the ruins of these ruins.
As it approaches the pantheon it slows, blind. I press my back into the pillar that provides me shelter and wait. My breathing gets heavier, wetter. I can feel my legs shaking against the cold stone of the pantheon’s pillar. It dances with cold steel, the Ancient Sword, clattering against it. I move my legs slightly further away to drown out the noise, to stop the two from tangoing.
Then my heart beat pounds against my chest. The thrill of an opening.
The colossus bends down to look inside the pantheon, yet it fails to notice me, shrouded in dark. The pillars protect. Its beard hangs low now and the blue of its eyes disappears. Has it closed them or is it blinking? I take the chance and dart out from behind the pillar to my right, coming around directly in front of the beast. I make a leap for the beard, clasp it and the colossus snaps back. I name the monster Barba, a word we have for the Greymen of the clan, one that signifies their great knowledge. The Greymen grow beards, pure white, which stretch from their chins to their feet. The length of their beard is a sign of their wisdom, a mark of their time on this earth.
If this colossus holds even half the wisdom of the Greymen, this fight may be prolonged.
I clamber up Barba now, the still air of the chamber stale against my face. It tastes like soot, like fires burnt. It reminds me of the fires at night, that her and I would dance around and in turn watch our shadows dance too. The colossi’s shadow does not dance, it engulfs. The first sigil lay on the colossus’ skull, slightly off centre. The Ancient Sword wails in harmony with the Barba’s roar. Darkness geysers out of the wound until the sigil fades.
The second sigil lies upon the beast’s back, on the lower left. The beast struggles to regain control but my superior stamina and increasing bravado ensure I keep my feet planted, my hands thoroughly wrapped in hair. I descend slowly, hovering over the sigil, its fluorescent blue crawls up my cheeks.
The battle is won and Barba falls.
I regret naming the beast for now I feel some sense of remorse. It was locked up here, in a chamber deep underground, without sunlight. It may have never seen the sun. Now it never will. Questions linger again about what these beasts are, why they must be destroyed, yet Barba’s darkness penetrates me and I awake again, in the chamber, to a fallen idol.
She still sleeps.