So I’m working on a piece on Monster Hunter World and the things it does perfectly and the things it does quite poorly as well as an analysis of Hyper Light Drifter and the importance of tight controls and a review of the new game Deadbolt. But today we’re going to take a look at a game that is often mentioned when people talk about their favorite game ever made and one that’s almost always referred to whenever the subject of video games as art comes up.
The remake/remaster of Shadow Of The Colossus released and I don’t think we’ll get another example of just how far games have come and just how much we expect for a good long while.
We’re going to look at what Colossus does so, so well, like it’s amazing art direction, Colossus animations, narrative style, graphics, presentation, music and clever puzzle platforming designs. We’ll look at what it does not as well like it’s camera, it’s controls, the player animations, sign posting, and the actual moment to moment gameplay and finally we’ll examine how several of the things that made the original so very memorable strangely hurt the experience of playing it today.
This is probably the first article/video I’ll make where a significant percentage of you disagree with me so let’s keep in mind that none of these pieces are talking about objective facts. These are all opinions. I am a notoriously cranky old guy with no patience. I’m the dude who yells at stop lights for their obstinacy. And if I walk into a gas station with more than 3 people in line I leave, because I get angry in lines. But as an otherwise pretty average dude with average tastes I think that makes these opinions pretty relevant to...your average video game playing person.
Of course spoilers for a ten year old thrice released game will follow.
It’s impossible to discuss this game without touching on two things. The issue of video games as art and how important camera controls are in modern gaming. Almost all the writing on this game will reference it as a work of art and whenever the debate about the artistic merits of video games as a medium is broached it’s SOTC that is used as exhibit A. I think it’s pretty clear these days that video games can be art. In fact I don’t think it’s possible to argue the other side, but his was not always the case.
Early video games were unambiguously a kind of toy. They were toys that adults occasionally played with but for the most part the people playing video games were the same people who were playing with GI Joe’s and Barbies. Kids. Because kids played video games and video games were products that needed to be sold most games were aimed at children and developed specifically to appeal to them.
The golden age of the NES featured a tremendous library of brightly colored games with cute mascots. Even the horror themed games were kids horror. When I was a kid almost ZERO games even featured any blood. Even the popular mainly for the gore Mortal Kombat required entering a secret code to get any gore in the Sega Genesis version of the game.
From Pac Man through the Super Nintendo most video games and almost all console games were made for kids. But by the mid 1990s a large group of the kids who grew up playing video games were becoming adults who still wanted to play video games creating, for the first time, a significant market for games with more mature subject matter.
By the late 1990s a slew of games like Fallout, Half Life , Metal Gear, Thief and others had proved that the generation who grew up with Mario was going to keep playing games as adults. This adult market meant that games could take on much more adult themes. And while most of those games, in hindsight were in fact works of art, the artistry was in the design of the gameplay systems, or in the way they told a story. The limitations of the hardware still meant that graphics were relatively crude and that games weren’t yet able to be truly cinematic.
The earliest video games had a fixed camera system because it was the simplest system to implement and because the early consoles didn’t have an input that could be used to control a camera. Through the early 3D games era this fixed camera system was able to be used to produce, for the first time, games that felt cinematic. Having total control of the camera means a development team can have the player see exactly what they want.
Resident Evil is an excellent example of this fixed camera being used to perfectly serve a games goals. Much of the tension of that first game is a result of the cinematic camera angles that are used. Scenes were framed much like they are in movies and television, and the developers used that to create fear in the player. Imagine the first Resident Evil if you could stop and swing the camera around corners or into the spaces that are purposefully blocked from your view. It eliminates many of the scares. A fixed camera was best suited to a cinematic experience.
Team Ico’s first game used this fixed camera system even though it was released on the first console to feature a controller with a second stick, finally making a fully free camera both possible and intuitive to the player in the console space. Ico used a minimalist sound design and an open to interpretation narrative to create one of the first art house cinematic games ever released. The 3D Puzzle platformer fixed the camera whenever the player entered a room, but as the player moved about inside a room the camera would pan and swoop producing an effect very similar to dolly or tracking shots in films. This movie like experience took what might have been a rather dull puzzle game and turned it into a new and exciting title, unlike anything most gamers had ever played.
Many of these details were kept in the loosely connected prequel that Team Ico spent the next four years creating.
Shadow of The Colossus released to almost universal praise and it was instantly called an all time classic and one of the first games to truly feel like a cinematic work of art. It was still, essentially, a puzzle platformer but the grandeur of the spectacle and hundreds of small details combined to make the gameplay feel much more substantial than it actually is.
Here’s where we finally get to how the gameplay itself and especially the camera system in Shadow Of The Colossus both make the game special and also hold it back from being the perfect masterpiece it’s credited with being.
In the past players were much more forgiving of wonky cameras because it was new and we had no experience controlling a camera with a controller. But we’re decades into the age of fully controllable cameras now and players require a high degree of precision. Wonky camera’s can ruin games and platformers especially require precise camera control to prevent players having to frustratingly repeat sect ions because their jump didn’t connect due to an awkward or obstructed view.
The Shadow Of The Colossus is, at it’s heart, a puzzle platformer. It’s a truly unique take on the genre and so well designed visually that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that it’s basically a 3D platformer. But it’s the truly impressive cinematic feel of the game that sets it apart from it’s 3D platformer peers.
SOTC achieves this cinematic spectacle through all the things you’d expect in any game. Lighting, sound design, art direction, animations and character design. But what sets this game apart from other games is it’s use of the Rule Of Thirds.
The Rule of Thirds is a principle of photography and cinema that deals with directing the eye of the viewer to the part of the frame the photographer or director wants highlighted. This set of guidelines is taught in almost all film and photography programs and holds that the human eye tends to split a frame into sections. As such, when composing shots, the photographer should dissect the frame into 9 sections with two horizontal and two vertical lines. Objects that are to be the focus of shots should ideally be placed at or near the intersections of these lines, or at least along one of the two horizontal lines.
Why does The Wander look so much more cinematic riding his horse than does Geralt Of Rivia....or Jack Marston? It’s because Team Ico is using the rule of thirds and offsetting the player character to either the left or right horizontal line of the frame. That alone provides much of the cinematic “feel” of the game. But it doesn’t end there. The game, like Ico before it, is constantly pulling back or zooming in or sweeping down in a simulated dolly shot. And this does in fact lead to breathtakingly beautiful moments. Especially when riding the horse. And this worked perfectly in ICO because the fixed camera meant the areas were specifically and perfectly designed to accommodate those shots.
But SOTC is a semi open world game. Each encounter begins with the player using his sword as a beacon to direct him to the next Colossus. This often requires quite a bit of searching and backtracking most of which is done while riding the horse. Because these aren’t straight routes to a destination the player often needs to look around to find a cave or a tunnel or just to get a bearing on where they are.
And this is where the games lack of a fully controllable camera and insistence on always offsetting the player frame left and panning and zooming the camera can lead to some annoyance. A fully controllable camera would make this entire process simpler and more efficient but SOTC doesn’t have a FULLY controllable camera because the game is absolutely dedicated to delivering a movie like experience. So while riding at a full gallop through the open fields this camera is nearly perfect delivering a fully cinematic experience unlike almost any other game in history. But when you need to find that cave, or spin the camera behind you to see if you’ve passed something or when you’re riding in a narrow tunnel things go awry.
When you spin the camera around SOTC won’t leave it there for you. It’ll pause for a moment before snapping back to the cinematic shot the developers want. The illusion of freedom is totally broken for me in these moments and I’m end up thinking “OK I get it, your game is a movie and you want to direct my eye but I want to Look OVER THERE.” In the narrow tunnels this moving camera and player framing leads t o bad controls and poor depth perception. And if this was the only place this camera issue cropped up we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But, again, SOTC is a PLATFORMER. And 3D platformers require precise cameras.
After you’ve found the Colossus you’re looking for the actual gameplay of SOTC is relatively simple. It begins with a cinematic cut-scene, then goes to a puzzle sequence, moves into a stamina management platforming section before finally ending with another cut scene.
Lets begin by saying that the beginning and ending cut-scenes in the remaster aren’t good. They are absolutely stunning works of visual art. The introductions, design and animations of the Colossus are so fantastic that just watching them is entertaining. Probably more entertaining than actually playing many of the platforming sections.
After the cut-scene the player is given control back and the puzzle is figuring out how to get onto the Colossus. The game does a pretty good job of slowly ramping up the difficulty of these puzzles although the sign posting can be pretty obscure on some. In particular the two smaller bull encounters were obscure enough that even after looking up the answer my response was “seriously? I was supposed to know to climb up and dislodge a fucking torch to back it off a cliff?” But for the most part the puzzles are hard enough to be interesting without being so hard they’re annoying. The puzzles are well designed and quite clever but after figuring out the mechanics things get a bit dicey again.
Once you’ve figured out what you need to do it’s time to actually get into the platforming. During these sections the game tones down it’s rule of thirds framing but doesn’t eliminate it. The player is still slightly offset in the shot to maintain it’s cinematic feel. But 3D platforming with a player avatar that isn’t in the center of the screen and using a camera that insists on snapping back to the shot the director wanted framed can be a pretty frustrating experience. This is best demonstrated in the encounters that require using the horse. The game has coded the horse to be ridiculously offset to the side of the frame and the riding controls are awful. (side note this isn’t how horses work. You don’t need to kick a horse 11 times to get it to canter)
This offset and wonky camera, even when on foot, also means that judging jumps and distances is very difficult. The truth is that once you’ve figured out what to to the rest of the game boils down to holding R2 when the Colossus shakes and moving when it doesn’t. And the screen shake and animations during the climbing of the Colossus, again, makes the encounter fully cinematic in a way no other game does. But simultaneously falling off a Colossus because the camera angle makes precision impossible and having to do it all over again can be extremely immersion breaking.
Half the battle in these sections is literally fighting to keep the camera from panning into a bad spot or getting caught on a piece of fur or a wall. It’s often very difficult to judge where you are in relation to walls or parts of the Colossus t hat you need to jump to. Inevitably this means you’re going to, many times, attempt a jump only to realize that you weren’t where you thought you were and plummet to the ground to do it all again. I’ve never had a camera lead to more disorientation that this game because it wasn’t until this game that I realized just how used to being center frame I am in games.
And that’s the main issue here. SOTC is amazing because of how cinematic it is. And it feels that cinematic because of the way the camera angles are deployed. But that same system is what produces a bunch of immersion breaking frustration.
And somewhere along the line it becomes evident that the actual platforming is more spectacle than game.
It’s in the timed challenges where these issues are really driven home. With a timer counting down in the corner you need to not only know exactly what you need to do but be perfectly precise with your jumps. And the camera system simply can’t handle that kind of precision.
But beyond even that the time trials show just how much of the actual gameplay here is simply holding a button down and waiting for the Colossus to stop shaking. Listen I get it, the spectacle of the Colossus trying to shake you off is half of the experience but when under a time constraint it made me even more frustrated than I got during the normal mode game. Again, yes, I am old and cranky but I can’t be the only one who, after the fifth time I’d charged my sword to strike only to have the Colossus shake so I had to do it again, shouted “Jesus Christ I fuc*$%g get it, it looks like a movie can I just fuc#@$g stab it now?”
I don’t know. Maybe I am the only person who thought that. Let me know in the comments.
Ok, I’ve done the unthinkable and criticized a game that most people think is beyond reproach. So I think I should make it clear that I agree the game is very close to perfect. And it does several things as well, or better than any other game.
SOTC has a engaging narrative style and a story expertly told through everything other than dialogue. It’s a masterpiece of the visual language of film and that alone makes it a game worth playing.
From the first time the player kills a Colossus the tone of the music, the way the shots are framed, and the minimalist sound design gives an eerie feeling that something is not as it seems. It’s no coincidence that the first Colossus you face isn’t attacking you. It’s ignoring you completely and walking away and when it finally turns and notices you it’s one of the most impressive moments I’ve ever had playing a game. And I’m almost 2,000 years old.
It doesn’t beat you over the head with a message. There are several ways to view the protagonists actions and it’s morality is left open for the player to interpret.
It’s a wonderful story and an expertly produced narrative that uses cinematic tools rarely seen in games.
And this remaster uses the power of current hardware to be absolutely gorgeous. The Colossuses (Colossi?) animations are perfect, the lighting and world design are engrossing and the detail and art direction lead to top notch environmental story telling.
But I can’t help but feel more could have been done. I can’t help feeling slightly let down. I can’t help but feel that it needed just a bit more modern polish and it needed to make concessions to the expectations of the 2018 player.
The player animations are stilted and awkward looking. Once I noticed that the Wander’s right hand stayed in the sword grip animation I couldn’t unnotice it. When I realized that even while swimming the right arm is in the sword holding animation it irked me. The mechanics of actually riding the horse are dated and frustrating.
But most importantly it’s the camera. It’s hard to play a game with a camera that feels like it’s from a PS2 game. Which it is. If the player had simply been given complete control and the panning and zooming stopped whenever the player was trying to manually move the camera a good chunk of my frustration would have been gone and I’d have been focusing on everything I loved about the game and not the things that pissed me off. But I guess the game is such a masterpiece that a change like that just wasn’t possible. Because if I had full control of the camera I wouldn’t be looking exactly where I was supposed to look and how could the developers be sure I’d fully appreicate their sweeping dolly shots?
If I could leave the camera where I wanted how could they be sure I’d frame the shot according to the rule of thirds?
Is this a petty complaint? I guess. But I went into this game expecting near perfection because I’d never heard even a peep of criticism about it before. And the camera problems built from mildly irritating to down right frustrating by the time I got to the last extremely annoying Colossus. What should have been a culmination of the gameplay was like a mini expression of all the problems with camera control, wonky angles and imprecise movement. And I was happy to have played it while also being happy it was over.
Pliny the Welder would love if you’d check out his other articles and videos. He’d also appreciate any suggestions on future aritcles and videos. He’d really REALLY appreciate some tacos. But that’s asking too much I think. Unless you’ve got some on you. I mean if it wouldn’t put you out or anything....no. No forget it. I’m sorry I asked.