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Shadow of the Colossus

(Sony Computer Entertainment; US: Jul 2007)

The Art of Patients

Anyone who read Entertainment Weekly in the past year received a breathless update about Hollywood’s shrinking grosses. The magazine continually diagnosed the causes behind the bulimic box office totals (expensive tickets, rude moviegoers, poor product), but it never gave anyone but industry insiders a reason to care.


King Kong has made $500 million worldwide to date, but apparently in a more film-friendly climate, it might have made even more. This line of reasoning mirrors sports columnists who champion “underpaid” athletes who generate excellent statistics at $6 million dollars a year, while peers hauling home twice as much yield mediocre numbers. Okay, the average reader thinks, it would be tough, but I’d valiantly try to make due with that reduced rate without being too covetous of other contracts. Maybe I’d hire a psychiatrist to treat the inferiority complex that stems from my inadequate compensation.


The real sympathetic story here, more than the deserved failure of bloated abominations such as Stealth and The Island, is that the emphasis on profitability has shut out superior foreign-language and independent fare. LA Weekly film editor Scott Foundas, writing for Slate.com last month, lamented that three of his top ten favorite films of 2005 received extremely limited showings (one week or less, in a single city.)


Cinematic connoisseurs can eventually catch these underexposed titles at home on DVD. Increasingly, consumers use the same component to play video games, which offer the same inviting accessibility without the frustrating first run phenomenon. Gaming has become the ideal media for intellectually engaging fare such as Shadow of the Colossus, which is more of an art film than most of the flicks filling boutique-theatre screens.


Shadow uses subtitled dialogue, with its mystical mentors the Dormin speaking in nebulous group mumbles. Its gameplay includes silent stretches and subtle cinematography, but it also incorporates the best aspects of blockbuster features, such as a triumphant symphonic score and meticulously rendered monsters. When the first beast appears, it’s as if King Kong has suddenly appeared in Gus Van Sant’s Gerry desert.


In the opening cutscene, Wander, our hero, travels across an austerely gorgeous landscape carrying a cloaked figure. When the blanket unfurls in a strikingly graceful sequence, it reveals a deceased female about whom Wander petitions the Dormin. These unseen figures advise him that he must roam the cursed land and slay sixteen Colossi, after which she might or might not revive. Undaunted by their ambiguity, he summons his steed Agro (a flawlessly animated black beauty of a horse) and, guided only by an imprecise gleam off his sword’s blade, he awaits his first foe.


He encounters no other living things while searching for his behemoth adversaries, which only adds to the trek’s gravity. Too often, levels overpopulated with annoying enemies render boss battles anticlimactic. With Shadow, the quest feels like an immersion into wild nature, with gale force winds, rushing water, and horse’s hooves providing the only noise. The backdrops, rich with painterly detail, include verdant forests, majestic ruins, and jagged sun-reflecting cliffs.


The Colossi certainly justify the journey. Traditionally, video game villains, no matter how proportionally large compared to miniscule warriors such as Mario, Link, and Mega Man, have fit within the screen shot. By contrast, Wander is barely the size of these beasts’ toes, and he must scroll through several screens to explore their anatomies.


Each battle involves climbing onto the Colossi and clinging to tufts of fur while in search of vulnerable spots into which Wander can plunge his sword. (Along with a bow stocked with unlimited arrows, this is the only weapon he’ll need, and he starts the game with both.) The Colossi use several tricks to get Wander out of their hair, such as shaking their heads or plunging deep underwater. While uniformly enormous, they vary wildly in terms of bodily construction.


The Colossi confrontations are suitably epic, often lasting between thirty minutes and an hour. In the past, difficult boss battles involved continual retries. Shadow demands a different sort of patience. The Colossi, especially the first eight, don’t inflict much damage (when they do it’s easy to hide while the life meter replenishes itself), but they’re difficult to board and extremely fidgety. The game excels at simulating the difficulty of, say, attempting to swing a sword while scrambling for balance on a flapping wing as those aforementioned gale force winds rush by.


At first, it might seem absurd that Wander could defeat such creatures. Why don’t they just squash the twerp? But consider this: you’re hiking outdoors when you feel a crawling sensation on your leg. It’s a poisonous spider (the lethal equivalent of the sword-armed Wander), but you don’t know this at first—you just want to get whatever it is out of your pants. You flail, but the arachnid moves quickly, a step ahead of your instincts. Imagine, too, that your limbs were immeasurably larger, and not powered with quick-twitch muscles. Every reaction is a lumbering process. You shake spastically, but it clings, then bites. Game over.


After Wander defeats each colossus, he collapses in exhaustion. (An agreeably flawed physical specimen, he also stumbles regularly, has trouble catching his balance, and struggles for breath.) Unearthly black tentacles entrap him, and he’s deposited back in the Dormin’s shrine, where the shadowy souls of the vanquished Colossi peer pensively at his inert body. The Dormin then announces the next opponent in cryptic-guru jargon. (“A tail trapped within a pail, deep within the forest.”) And Wander and Agro once again traverse the desolate realm.


Shadow wasn’t an immediate smash. It initially appealed to fans of this team’s previous (and equally beautiful) project ICO, a sleeper hit. Word of mouth spread through assorted communities. Stoners dug the languid pace, the graphics-first crowd marveled at the underwater-camera views and undulating windblown fur, challenge-craving gamers heard about the brutal hard mode. Months after its release, it graduated from a cult sensation to a widely acclaimed property.


This could never happen in the feature film world, where one lackluster week means a quick hook from the multiplexes. But in gaming, a patient approach still pays off, and some ambitious underground entries can clobber any big-budget colossus.

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