Shadow of the Colossus beings with the same premise as Donkey Kong or Super Mario Bros.: save the princess. It’s practically a law that all fantasy heroes must eventually save a princess. The core of what makes them a hero is expressed in their rescuing of this damsel in distress.
Shadow of the Colossus plays into this premise — initially. It keeps the details of its world and narrative vague, but its imagery plays into the expected tropes: hero tries to save princess by making deal with devil, hero is eventually betrayed by devil, tragedy ensues. But the broad strokes of this tragedy hide the details that would subvert it. Shadow of the Colossus is not so much a story of a failed hero as it is a deconstruction of heroic tropes. The visuals purport to tell one story, and it’s easy to get swept up in those initial impressions. However, the words and details that fill in those images show us that there are no heroes or villains in this story, no simple good or evil, and no princesses or devils.
The opening cut scene plays into the typical heroic tropes, setting up a foundation that the game will later tear down. We see a man guiding his horse along a dangerous mountain pass and at one point, he commands his horse to jump over a large gap. This is clearly a man on a mission, a man who will not be deterred by the risk of death, and the swelling soundtrack reinforces the scope and importance of his undertaking, turning it from a mission into something more majestic — a journey. We watch, naturally assuming that in time we’ll learn who this man is and where he’s going.
We soon see where he’s going. He travels through rain, fields, and forests, until he comes to an ancient gate and an impossible bridge, leading him to a grandiose tower that stands in the center of a hidden valley. However, we never really get to know our supposed hero. In fact, we never even learn his name.
In the credits and instruction booklet (and Japanese title of the game), he’s referred to as Wander, but his name is never mentioned in the game proper. The other important supporting characters are named, but not him. This is a clever trick to make us more sympathetic to him in the beginning, to better lure us into falsely assuming he’s a heroic figure. “Wander” is very close to “wanderer”, a title that implies a lack of power and competence.
A wanderer is not defined by his successful deeds, but by his travel, and not just any travel, but his ineffective travel. He has no destination, no goal, no mission. He’s not on a journey. He’s simply lost in the world with no home or personal connections. Wandering is not a heroic trait, so the name Wander would make us suspicious. As such, the name is never spoken, nor shown. It only appears in the game during the end credits when we should have already realized that Wander is no romantic hero.
Once Wander enters the tower, he makes his way to an altar and places the body of a woman upon it (her name is Mono, but again we won’t know that until the credits). It’s clear she’s dead, so we immediately assume that Wander is on a heroic journey to bring her back to life, to save her from death. She’s a damsel in distress trapped someplace unpleasant, and Wander is her knight in shining armor here to rescue her.
Except we’re given no evidence of this. We simply assume this to be the case based on what we see and our knowledge of traditional tropes. We don’t know if she’s a princess, and we don’t know what her relationship is/was with Wander. All we know of her life and death is what Wander tells us: “She was sacrificed, for she had a cursed fate.”
There’s a lot to unpack in that statement. She was sacrificed, which implies action by a third party, with the implication that death is a better alternative than her “cursed fate”. Whoever killed her was also trying to save her by choosing the lesser of two evils. However, we also don’t know what she thought of that initial attempt to save her. We know nothing of her consent, either regarding her original death or her subsequent resurrection.
This should make us suspicious of Wander. Any proper damsel in distress wants to be rescued. They’re in distress, after all. They may be passive characters within the overall heroic narrative, but their desire to be rescued is always made clear because a non-consensual rescue is really just a kidnapping, and a proper hero would never do something as awful as kidnapping. Some of the first words spoken in the game work to subvert the heroic imagery, but that heroic imagery is so powerful that we dismiss the contradictions. We assume that death is something one naturally wants to avoid, to be rescued from, so we continue to assume that Wander is a romantic hero. The truth, however, is that this is a situation with no clear moral ground, and heroes need a moral ground to stand on.
Shadowy figures then appear before the altar and advance towards Wander. They move menacingly, hunched over like animals about to attack until Wander draws his sword, glowing with power, and they disappear into smoke. Visually, this is a moment of light vanquishing darkness, and the fact that Wander holds the sword reinforces his presumed righteousness. The weapon is even referred to as the “Ancient Sword,” and it plays an integral role in resurrecting Mono as it’s the only weapon that can kill the colossi. It’s a magical and mythical thing.
However, this is not a Sword in the Stone situation. As we learn in the end, Wander didn’t earn this magical blade, he stole it. That thievery is important not because it breaks some fantasy law in a fantasy world, not because stealing is morally wrong, but because such an action suggests that the specialness of the sword is not reflective of its wielder. Heroes carry special swords because it marks them as different, unique, setting them apart from the rest of the world. If Wander had to steal the Ancient Sword, it means he is not different or unique or set apart from the rest of the world. He’s an imposter, forcing himself into a heroic role that was never meant for him.
Upon seeing the Ancient Sword, Dormin speaks, and we’re introduced to the game’s supposed devil. It’s easy to place Dormin into this archetype because he / she / they / it is a supernatural being with the power to raise the dead, and nothing marks you as evil faster than power over the dead. Wander’s deal with Dormin — to kill 16 colossi in exchange for Mono’s soul — seems like a Faustian deal, but that assumes that Wander has moral integrity to lose and that Dormin is inherently untrustworthy, that the being is out to trick Wander into a bad deal.
Yet Dormin never makes any attempt to manipulate Wander. It doesn’t try to bait him with grand promises. It says, specifically, “With that sword, however, it may not be impossible… That is, of course, if thou manage to accomplish what we asketh.” It then spends more time laying out the terms of the deal clearly — that Wander must destroy the statues around the altar, but they cannot be destroyed by “the mere hands of a mortal”. He must kill each of the corresponding colossi and then each statue will shatter. Their conversation focuses on the task and the challenges that will face Wander. Dormin even offers an honest warning of the dangers, “the price you pay may be heavy indeed.”
If Domin were trying to trick Wander, or at least seduce him, then the conversation would focus on the reward instead of the task. It would downplay the difficulty instead of offering an honest warning. There’s nothing within this dialogue that suggests Dormin is a malevolent being. It doesn’t scheme. It doesn’t trick. It is straightforward and honest.
And of course there’s the important fact that Dormin holds true to its end of the deal, even as things go to hell in the ending. When the smoke has cleared from the final battle, when Wander is dead, and Dormin has been sealed away some place new, Mono wakes up, alive and well.
That final battle is caused by a priest named Emon and the soldiers under his command. They arrive just as Wander kills the final colossus and is teleported back to the altar where the other men gather.
Here the game reverses its presentation of Wander. By this point, we’ve likely spent several hours killing the majestic colossi, and with each kill, as the music changes from a score suggestive of swelling adventure to one of sorrowful mourning, we’re encouraged to consider whether their 16 lives are worth Mono’s life. The gameplay unravels the romanticism around Wander, so that by the time he appears before Emon, exhausted, eyes, and veins blackened by… something, we already think less of him. Wander is not a romantic hero who dies a noble death. At best, he’s a rogue who suffers selflessly, but without Mono’s consent for her resurrection. He’s more likely a rogue who suffers selfishly.
Emon tears into in him for these reasons, condemning Dormin as well, and in doing so, he seems to become the new de facto heroic figure. Emon embodies “the wise old man” trope, the elder character that passes knowledge on to the younger character, a kind of mentor who exists to admonish Wander for breaking the secular and moral laws of the kingdom. This is the relationship that the game presents to us visually with Emon standing at the top of the altar literally looking down at Wander who now crawls on the ground and looks corrupted by the darkness in his veins. But as before with Wander, to place Emon into that role assumes that he holds the moral high ground, that he truly does speak from a position of moral authority. Wander can’t defend himself from these accusations, and would likely fail even if he tried, but Dormin can.
Once Wander is executed, Dormin posses his body, and the confrontation between Emon and Dormin is fascinating as there seems to be a history between the two that complicates their characters.
Visually, Dormin is presented as a giant devil, a colossus made of shadows with the head of a bull and the body of a man. Yet the first words from it are an accusation towards Emon that portray it as the underdog in this battle: “Thou severed Our body into sixteen segments for an eternity in order to seal away Our power.” It’s a clear statement of fact, and it’s clear that Dormin has a personal vendetta. However, there’s nothing in its statement to suggest who was in the moral right or the moral wrong in the past.
Then Dormin says something interesting: “We have borrowed the body of this warrior.” It’s an interesting choice of words because “borrowed” implies a return. It suggests that Dormin has not taken control of Wander permanently, even though Wander is already dead, but rather that this possession is just a temporary means of combating Emon. Dormin says this of its own volition.
In other words, this is its immediate way of describing its actions, not a defense from an accusation of possession. This suggests that, at least in its own eyes, its actions aren’t meant to harm Wander. They’re meant to harm Emon, of course. However, this exchange portrays Dormin as, ironically, more human and more flawed than he previously appeared. It’s not a godly being defined by a single trait. It’s an emotional being, driven to violence at the sight of an old enemy, but still conscious of how its actions might impact those it does not mean to harm. It uses Wander as a tool in the moment, but not recklessly so.
If Dormin is not an embodiment of evil, then Emon cannot be a heroic figure. Sealing Dormin for a second time becomes an act of selfish self-defense rather than an act of selfless protection. It’s also worth noting that Emon doesn’t take the body of Mono with him as he flees the altar, and he never commands a soldier to do so either. He simply runs and casts a spell to trap Dormin as he leaves — not the actions of a heroic figure.
Then Mono wakes up. She eventually finds her way to the top of a tower, where there exists an Eden-like garden. The music swells and the game ends on a relatively happy note, but there’s still the fact that Mono has been abandoned. All three figures who tried to help her have left her arguably worse off than she was before, since now she is left alone to her “cursed fate” (she does have an infant with horns with her, a possible incarnation of Dormin and Wander, but a crying supernatural infant is hardly good company).
Wander is a thief who couldn’t accept Mono’s sacrifice, and took it upon himself to undo it, regardless of her consent, and regardless of whatever cursed fate may await her. Emon may be more villainous than he lets on, someone who sealed away a deity for personal protection. Dormin appears as evil in many forms, but never acts evil, and if we consider it based on its actions and words, then it’s the most honest of the three.
Shadow of the Colossus begins as a game about a hero rescuing a damsel in distress, but by the end, the hero is dead and the damsel is still in distress. Everyone has failed. There are no heroes or villains, no simple good or evil, no princesses or devils — only people, foolish and selfish.