Playing ‘Shadow of the Colossus’ opened within me a shame that fictional violence had never provoked before
The first time I thought of video game designer Fumito Ueda, I didn’t know his name. I was transitioning to that nebulous space between childhood and adulthood, where you’re both yet neither, where your body’s flooded with hormones and you can’t help but habitually avoid mirrors.
Watching the commercials bisecting Dragon Ball Z on Toonami, I heard a fire burning, a door opening, and a child entering what seemed like a large church. The boy had horns, or a helmet with horns, and a glowing white girl followed him. Then flashes of gameplay: the boy dragging the girl, fighting shadows, navigating this enormous castle or cathedral or whatever it was, and then a title — Ico. I had a PS2 back then but not the means to buy a game. But I wanted that game. I wanted it despite my fear to ever show interest in anything, my desperation for so many things. I didn’t want my parents to know about the howling need in me. Didn’t want my siblings to know what I liked. Didn’t even want my friends to know. Didn’t want to become vulnerable to their judgment. Even that day, watching Dragon Ball Z, I reflexively changed the channel when I heard someone approaching—didn’t want anyone to know I was watching a Japanese cartoon about earnest men with huge muscles fighting aliens.
I wanted to be someone who played artistic games.
I thought about Ico but let it go. I still watched the commercials, though, and longed for whatever that world was, whatever that game promised to be but expressed it exactly never.
I finally bought Ico as an adult. I played it for a few hours and then never again, yet I still think of it often. I wrote an entire novella about Ico, or at least what I thought Ico should have been. I wrote this before I’d even played the game, which is why, when I finally played it, I never felt the need to finish it.
By then I knew of Fumito Ueda and understood he was an IMPORTANT GAME DESIGNER that a certain type of person talked about, even though none of his games seemed well-liked. But those who did like them — well, they were devoted.
I wanted to be the type of person who was devoted to niche art.
The Wikipedia page for Fumito Ueda led me to Giorgio de Chirico, whose painting was the inspiration for Ico’s cover art. In de Chirico’s paintings, I found what the younger me had wanted from Ico. It wasn’t the story. It wasn’t even the game. It was that sense of space — the immensity of our smallness in the grandness of existence. I remember staring at The Nostalgia of the Infinite for days. I was drawn to the smallness, the insignificance of the two in that painting. The building itself that makes up most of the painting didn’t draw me in. Rather, it was all that empty space.
My friend died a few days before he turned 26, and I remember watching him play Shadow of the Colossus while I was tripping on mushrooms, sliding far away from myself and the room, M83 blasting through my ears. On the screen, my friend’s character awkwardly climbed a monstrously large giant. Vaguely, I wanted to play the game in the way I wanted to play Ico, which I still hadn’t back then.
I wanted to be someone who played artistic games. I wanted to be someone who liked those games. I wanted to be someone who people recognized as someone who played and enjoyed artistic things. Back then, I spent so much time talking about Godard and Kawabata and Zvyagintsev and Malick and Woolf, as if I could speak into existence who I wanted to be.
Recently, I began playing Shadow of the Colossus for the first time — the remake, not the original. The stunning visuals immediately grabbed me, reminding me of the person I had been, doing drugs with my dead friend. The massive scale of the mountains and architecture filled my TV, giving me an ethereal world to get lost inside. I thought of de Chirico, and my chest flooded with light.
I’ve stared into the abyss of violence, watched it stare back monstrously, and shrugged.
When my character laid down his love, bright with light, begging for resurrection, only to be told he must defeat the spirits first, I didn’t have any deep insights. I just thought it was a good way to open a game. It reminded me of Zelda games, which throw you into an open-ended scenario and let you wander, with only cryptic details about the narrative. I raised my sword and followed where the light guided. Clumsily, I got on my horse, Argo, and maneuvered to a cliff. Even more clumsily, I climbed.
I saw the first of the colossi and thought of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, except Saturn had become a twisted, almost mechanical creature, built more of stone than of flesh. Without questioning any of the prompts that guided me here or the voices sending me on this quest, I awkwardly, clumsily climbed. Awkwardly, clumsily, I stabbed the giant, fountains of black blood streaming past me. After much longer than it should have taken, I awkwardly killed the first colossi with my ancient sword.
As the giant dissolved before me, I felt something new. Even before the black tendrils stabbed through me, bringing me back to the temple with my dead lover, the symphonic voices calling me to more violence, I felt myself turning on the game. Killing the giant didn’t feel like an accomplishment. Instead, I felt shame. Disgust. Revulsion.
All intellectualization fell from me. I no longer thought about Degas or de Chirico or French New Wave or anything else. Nostalgia and memory didn’t remind me of my dead friend, of old commercials, of who I had been before.
I just felt bad.
I’ve played many games, many hideously violent games. I had just finished God of War a few days earlier. I’ve read American Psycho and Richard Grossman’s pitiless hallucination that is The Book of Lazarus and the grotesque transgressions of Dennis Cooper and Kathy Acker. I’ve stared into the abyss, watched it stare back monstrously, and shrugged. My heart and good sense brutalized by a lifetime of movies like Gasper Noe’s Irreversible.
I’m not easily shocked or turned off by unpleasantness.
And yet this beautifully cinematic game with obvious Orphic themes, lacking the visceral physicality of God of War’s violence, shocked me in an unfamiliar and unsettling way. In God of War, I beheaded monsters, stomped their heads like water balloons, ripped their chests in half with my own hands, and didn’t even flinch. But in Shadow of the Colossus, awkwardly stabbing this gigantic lumbering beast brought on a revulsion I’d never experienced. Even so, I persisted. I raised my sword again, followed the light. I got on my horse, mesmerized by the visual splendor of this empty, haunting, gorgeous world.
If de Chirico had made his subjects nature rather than architecture, they might have looked like the world of Shadow of the Colossus. Despite my earlier revulsion, I kept going. I found myself on the game’s side again. Even the clunky controls and the awkwardness of every movement seemed to matter less as I approached the next colossi.
The immense lumbering beast came, and I tried to hide my horse, believing, for some reason, the monster could hurt it. It’s not something I’d ever considered in a game with horses before. In most games, a horse is transportation, no different than a motorcycle or car. It can’t feel and probably can’t even be damaged. Even so, I tried to protect my horse.
I spent way too long awkwardly trying to hit the bottom of the giant’s feet. When I finally succeeded and it stumbled to a knee, I spent probably 10 minutes shooting its feet before I figured out how to climb. I climbed and then, awkwardly, clumsily stabbed, releasing fountains of black blood. When I had exhausted its first vulnerable spot above its tail, I managed to climb, awkwardly, clumsily, to its head, where I began stabbing again and again, awkwardly, clumsily, brutally, releasing the black blood in streams until the colossi fell.
The abstract weightlessness of violence in Shadow of the Colossus caused the vicious violence to hit somehow harder. The murder of this second monster — before the black tendrils took me once more back to the temple where my lover lay, deathly — again assaulted me with feeling, this unutterable perverse act I had just performed. I killed the giant — an immense beast who posed no threat to me or my horse. A beast as much part of the landscape as the temple where my lover lay.
What was it to me? What did these nameless colossi mean to me?
I knew going in the narrative of the game would be light on details. This didn’t bother me. In some ways, it excited me. I loved the haunting emptiness of Hyrule in all its many iterations, but maybe especially the vast oceans of The Wind Waker. I’ve loved it my whole life. The way I am the creator of my own narrative every time I step into Link’s skin.
But I wonder if the absence of details, the narrative hollowness of Shadow of the Colossus forced a void that I filled without intending. My brain’s need for narrative, for comprehensible emotional resonance, gripped, awkwardly, clumsily, the only living creature in the game and filled it with significance — with my own sense of morality and humanity.
I think again of these Orphic themes, of Saturn Devouring His Son. Orpheus’ desperation to bring his lover back to the living leads to a quest into the land of giants. Giants so similar to their landscapes, they remind me of gods. This empty land of beauty and massive lumbering gods where I seek resurrection.
The Titans ripped Dionysus — god of insanity, ritual madness, and religious ecstasy — apart and ate him. For this, they were murdered by Zeus. From the ashes, we — humanity — rose. We are the bodies of Titans sparked by Dionysian divinity, and Orpheus is our bridge to salvation. It’s purification we seek, reliving and relieving the deicide to spend a blessed eternity.
With every Titan I murder, I, too, die. I wake purified in a temple of light where my lover remains. Again I venture out to kill a god in the land of gods only to have that violence stabbing me back to the temple, purified and alive.
Is this not the cycle we seek to escape through Orpheus? Was the beheading of Orpheus a repudiation of his own misgivings over ritualized purification? Were the mournful hymns his decapitated head sang for Eurydice, or for himself, for all of us who believed a better world was possible, that salvation was promised? Were the beheaded prophecies visions of a healed wound?
It wasn’t simply that murdering the second giant gave me no satisfaction. It ripped satisfaction from me. The joy and pleasure of riding through this beautiful, empty world — I was the desecration. How long had these colossi wandered painless through this land made for them?
If this is the true dream of Orpheus, was it worth it? Is it worth it?
Strangely, I don’t even know if this is intended. Any of it. This immense revulsion, this clinging shame. When I was transported back to the temple, I saved my progress and turned off the game. Turned off the PS4. Turned off the lights. Walked away. Haunted by digital gods, lumbering beasts, mountains stepping right out of the landscape.
It’s easy to say that a game has never made me feel this way before. It’s harder to say why that is. Why have the thousands of violent hours never hit me like this? So many games have demanded I kill and kill, and I’ve never given much thought to it. Even after stopping Shadow of the Colossus, I played Final Fantasy V for an hour, killing monsters habitually with the repeated press of a single button. Never for a moment did I think of the life of those monsters or the significance of a story demanding the deaths of enemies by the thousands.
But I don’t know if I can keep playing Shadow of the Colossus. Don’t know if I want to be the person who can complete it. Don’t know if I can kill all these giants and then walk away the same. The hour I spent in this beautiful world filled me with a sense of despair.
This is either a sign of Fumito Ueda’s genius or his incalculable cruelty, and I don’t know if I have it in me to discover which Fumito Ueda stood behind the screen designing this Orphic nightmare, this vicious beheaded singing.