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Never trust memory.
I remember Shadow of the Colossus as a brilliant video game that, in many ways, changed my perception of what video games can do. I held it as a standard-bearer for how an interactive narrative can go beyond normal storytelling, and I loved playing it. But that was five years ago and time makes a big difference on such things. Particularly since Sony's remastered it as one-half of the Ico/Shadow of the Colossus collection. Now everybody who's heard about "that game" finally gets a chance to play it…and I get to see where my memory lied to me.
You're gonna make an interesting stain, tiny mammal.
The camera sucks. No way around that one, I'm afraid. It's a bonehead. Main protagonist Wander comically runs like a girl. His horse, Argo, controls very badly indeed. I can't even fully rely on the exact same themes and emotions I felt the first time I played it, but that's fine. It's the same game. I'm different.
That's why, despite the now-apparent flaws, Colossus impresses me far more than it originally did. It's not the same experience.
If you're unfamiliar, I'll sum the game up: A young man named Wander makes a devil’s bargain with a disembodied spirit to save the life of a young girl. All he's got to do is hunt down and kill 16 gigantic creatures. It's 24/7 boss battles…no minions, no mini-bosses, no puzzles. Find 'em. Ace 'em. That’s it.
Only midway through, you start to realize something’s horribly wrong here. The colossi aren't evil or overtly destructive; a few ignore you completely until you pick a fight with them. Yet here you are, killing them. Each victory corrupts Wander's body a bit more, reflecting the true nature of the work he’s doing. And you, the player, actively push this tragedy forward. You make things worse. To save one girl, Wander murders 16 innocent creatures…and you're helping him.
Aw, man…that's the last time I go drinking with Tom Cruise.
I’d annihilated terrorists, torn beating hearts out of kombatants, ran down thousands of pedestrians (accidentally), and genocided at least a dozen alien races, but Shadow of the Colossus made me question what I was doing and why. And back in 2005, that made for a fascinating, almost Hamlet-esque spiral of selfishness, corruption, and self-destruction for a maybe-good cause. Too horrible to condone, too engaging to look away.
Now? I’ve got a wife and kids, and it occurs to me that if circumstances forced my hand, I’d go to the lengths Wander does. Hell, I'd go further. That adds a very different flavor to the proceedings. I find creeping dread replaced by iron-willed resolution, tragedy supplanted by hope. Where I didn't necessarily want Wander to complete his quest before, now the consequences can be justified, if not exactly forgiven.
I’m not alone, either. Bitmob community member Sumo Attuquayefio turned to Colossus as a coping mechanism to help him deal with his daughter’s cancer diagnosis. He wasn’t saving Wander’s girl, but his own. Eternal damnation? Small price to pay. Pennies on the dollar, friend.
Gonna need a bigger boat. Plane. Whatever.
But here's the thing. Colossus never stood a chance of changing my perception of what video games can be again. It did change my perception of Colossus.
If I went back and charged through Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare — another personal benchmark for design and flow — I'd have fun, but I wouldn't get anything new out of it. Shadow of the Colossus reached deeper thematically and left plenty of room for interpretation and exploration. Which is ironic for a such a stark game, but there you are. I suspect that when I pick it up again in another five, six years for another fresh play-through, I'll see something new and unexpected out of it again.
And I plan to do exactly that…leave it alone for a good long while, then return to Wander and the Colossi to see what else they can show me. I won't be the same person. It won't be the same game. That's an amazing thing.