There are maybe three games generally considered great art in the history of the medium, and most people haven't played most of them. One is Out of this World, which I, despite my best efforts, haven't played. One of them is Ico, which I did play -- it was great. Another is Shadow of the Colossus, a sort of follow-up to Ico by the same team. One imagines that when the studio's next game comes out, it'll be Capital A art as well. There are maybe too many things written about these games, but predictably I want my say too. We'll start with Colossus.
The premise of the game, for those of you who don't know it, is wonderfully simple. You're this guy. He is I guess called Wander -- I don't remember this being mentioned in the game, but people call him that. You've come to a temple in a forbidden holy land, dead woman in hand. You were riding your horse. You put the dead girl on an altar. A large voice tells you to kill the colossi. The implication being that she can come back, this woman, if you do as you're told. You find them. You kill them. Each time you kill one your body becomes more sick. It is clear this will not end well. You look at the woman on the altar. You go on killing.
In some ways Colossus is extremely old school. There are basically three mechanics in the whole game. One is the exploration mechanic. When it's time to kill a colossus, you hold your sword up in the air. It reflects a beam of light that shows you the general direction of your next victim. So you hop on your horse and explore the holy land, where there are some lizards, a few birds, a few trees, some hills, some mountains, some bodies of water, and so on. The environment is gorgeous in a sort of gray, understated way that sometimes also seems to be dead, or dying. The music is quiet when it is present at all. Your horse behaves much like a real horse, which makes it a pleasure to ride -- it won't run head-on into things, it will not leap blindly off a precipice, it walks or runs according to the traditional inputs (your heels, your voice). This is an exploration mechanic. There are no collectibles. (Well, there are two, but the game doesn't tell you that, they don't matter, and you should probably ignore them. Anyway they don't look like collectibles, which is the main thing.) It's really simple and easy and mostly stress-free. You do this for maybe twenty minutes at a time. It's nice.
The second is the climbing mechanic. This works pretty much like climbing in most games these days; you look for a ledge or other grippable surface, you jump up, you grab on. Now you can jump again, or crawl around, or whatever. The difference is that in this game you can climb on the colossi. They tend to have a lot of fur or other grippable surfaces on them so that once you get up there it's not tremendously complicated how you make your way to their weak points. Sometimes getting onto the colossi is pretty difficult. Sometimes you have to jump around on them like Mario for a little while. That's pretty crazy. Sometimes they try and shake you off. You have to hold on. It looks awesome.
The third is the attack mechanic. Here's how that works: you get to the part you want to stab. You press the square button to charge your attack. Your guy holds his sword up and clenches his muscles. You put the sword in. Black blood like ink squirts out in these horrifying torrents. After you do this a few times you probably have to find another weak point. There's also a bow and arrow, which mainly serves to annoy the colossi, and to make you feel like the guy from Princess Mononoke when you aim your horse in a general direction, send him running, and then focus yourself on the important business of aiming and firing while he gallops. It looks awesome.
That's the game. The mechanics barely feel like mechanics at all. There are long stretches, both in the calmest moments and the most intense, where you are barely pressing any buttons at all. What the game has done is give you a series of contexts in which you can exist.
One of those contexts is riding your horse through the environment. This looks very calm. It is calming. There's also something about the snatches of natural sound, the small, brief washes of music, the colors of the environment, that feels very poignant. You want to cry a little. You think how beautiful things are, and how sad. The save points in this game are stone monuments at which you can pray. You can pray for as long as you want. This makes you think, if you are me, "No wonder I'm sad. I'm preparing for battle. I'm preparing to die, or to kill. This may be the last time I see such beauty. Perhaps I do not deserve such beauty." And so on.
Ico also used save points brilliantly: they were couches. You could sit on them with the girl you were trying to save from the palace. You could hold her hand or not hold her hand. You could pull her there to sit or you could sit and then wait for her to sit down beside you. You would sit together, touching or not touching, for as long as you wanted. She never took your hand; you had to take hers. It made you want her. It simultaneously created and captured a feeling you were having and already had -- a confusion of innocent good will and almost lustful wanting, a need for her and a respect, a desire to protect her and the desire to be protected by her, the desire to be mothered, to be a little brother, to be a husband, and so on. These feelings were created by the save points, and you were reminded or you discovered that you had always felt this way -- it was implicit in the "holding hands" mechanic, in the way you protect her though she knows more and is older than you. Sometimes I would sit there with her on the couch for whole minutes at a time, just breathing. The characters would look around, and relax. They were resting. They had earned their rest. So had I.
This is how great game design works, and will work going forward, to create narrative: not so much by dialog or cinematic devices, but by the creation of contexts that demand character. To give me the opportunity to rest for as long as I want, and to present me with a compelling image of that rest, and to put the resting under my control, as in the monuments in Colossus or the couches in Ico, tells me without saying that my character must be exhausted. That I am exhausted. And I feel it. Creating the context of exploration manufactures in me the need to explore, and giving my character a way to hesitate will suggest to me that he hesitates, that I hesitate, that we are afraid, ashamed, etc.
Another context is that of the combat itself. The thrilling, menacing music and the constant need to run disguise the fact that these are puzzles. They are, however, urgent and beautiful puzzles that inspire exhilaration and genuine fear.
Probably the defining "holy shit" moment of the game is the sequence when you fight the big bird. You've been exploring for a while now. You come out onto this huge lake. It just goes and goes. You have to leave your horse behind. You jump and swim. You come out to the center of the lake. You feel very alone. There's this bird thing flying around above you. It settles on one of several pillars. It's very far away -- a sepia blot. You can't get up to the bird, but you have this bow. You have to piss the bird off. It's got to come to you. So you piss off the bird. It comes down from the pillar. So far so good. It comes toward you. This is what we wanted.
You see how large it is. It's coming toward you. It's swooping. It's getting really big now. This is what we wanted. Right? It's right here, it's going to hit you like a train.
You jump straight up into the air.
You catch the wing.
For the rest of this fight (if it goes well) you will be on this bird while it flies far, far above the lake. You will be terrified. You'll probably say "oh shit" a lot. You'll crawl around on it, tentative. You have to go out on the wings. Its wings that it is flapping. If you fall, it really feels like falling. You may scream.
In terms of gameplay, in terms of systems, this sequence is all very simple. It doesn't take a tremendous amount of skill. Again, you don't actually press many buttons, don't actually do much actively. But it feels very involving. You have all these feelings. As you tense your muscles, as you prepare to plunge your cursed sword into the wing of the glorious terrible creature you ride a mile above the holy land, as a plume of hot black blood erupts around your fists, you'd better believe you have feelings. Beautiful, awful.
The boss fights aren't all this good, but many are close. I'm especially fond of the giant serpent you fight in the water. You hold onto it, you clutch, and it drags you under the surface, where you can't breathe. I have a weird phobia of water in video games that only seemed more strange when I met a guy who shared it. What's to be so worried about? This sequence gave me something to worry about. I was horrified. I felt, in a way I never feel in other more ostensibly action-driven games, like a hero, like a resourceful survivor, like I was actually brave.
And then the guilt sets in. This is the part of Colossus both most thrilling and most ultimately troubling, from the perspective of those who would tell stories through games. The first colossus you fight feels like a normal boss, if one perhaps a little more interesting than most. That is to say, you never for a second doubt that it deserves to die. Of course it does. The second time, though, you have some doubts. It's got this face. It wears this expression. You feel awful about what you're doing. It's sort of flashy, the feeling, the way certain sequences in Saving Private Ryan are flashy. The guilt was surprising and pleasurable then. It still is now, more or less, but I don't love it now the way I did.
The thing is that a) the game sometimes takes control away from you, briefly, to foster the guilt. This feels artificial within the design, it feels disruptive. And b) this is more of the same moralizing bullshit other media have been depending on for some time. That is, I'm playing a video game. Video games are, as of this moment, violent. There are many reasons for this, the main one being that it's easy to make a violent game fun and interesting. You made the violent game. You made the context in which I committed these crimes, and you created my character such that this was all he could do. It's sort of shitty to lay the blame on me, here, isn't it? This is like the way Princess Mononoke and, to a greater extent, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, its mother, create this desire in you to see exciting, violent sequences of combat and then punish you for wanting to see those things.
Of course, the alternative -- creating the desire to see violence and then glorying in the violence -- isn't much better, but it doesn't smack so much of hypocrisy. Sometimes I don't care about hypocrisy, which I think is generally a useless idea. Sometimes I do care. These are bad times for me to play Shadow of the Colossus, or to enjoy certain other highbrow art, which tends to invest quite a lot of its energy in guilt, which sometimes seems to me a very second-rate emotion, and sometimes seems to me the only possible emotion.
What ultimately sells the guilt, what makes it work, is the exploration sequences. There is the possibility, implied by the game but never emphasized, that you could go on praying forever. That you could simply walk around the holy land with your horse, seeing the sights, swimming in the water, and so on. You might play Shadow of the Colossus forever without actually fighting any colossi. Of course no one does this. Eventually you would get bored, or you would remember your character's motivation (the dead woman), and you would go back on the hunt. But you do have something like a choice. You have opportunities to doubt yourself before you kill. This isn't a perfect solution, but it's something.
What Shadow of the Colossus ultimately teaches us about how to make games capital-A Art, however, is not the importance of shame and guilt, or even narrative. Other games since Colossus have guilted you about the fact that you were playing the game they gave you, which is ultimately a way (especially in BioShock) of commenting on the fact of your playing the game. What Shadow of the Colossus does better than anything else is the simultaneous discovery and creation of character through context, and not just art direction or mood music but player interactions. In some ways the heart of the game is the moment where a colossus is trying to shake you off and you, against all odds, hold on. This requires very little input, sometimes none, but it's a choice that you make, it's a space and a scene in which to live and breathe (if you can breathe) and feel. How you live and breathe and feel in this scene creates your character. It is the narrative. It makes your Wander who he is, and reveals who he always was.