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Why I Love: The Tendrils [Shadow of the Colossus]

A game design's perspective on why the tendrils in Shadow of the Colossus might be the most important thing in the game.

'Why I Love’ is a series of lessons I’ve learned from my favorite game mechanics. (Cross-posted from my Medium)

Spoiler Notice: The ending of the game will be discussed.

Shadow of the Colossus is a story about loss. How we deal with it. And the pain and struggle we take to try to overcome it. At their core, the mechanics in Shadow reinforce these themes while each serving multiple functions within the gameplay. You climb to navigate the environment and bosses; use the sword light to find your destination and colossus weak points; and use the bow to shoot at apples and bring down colossi. Performing a mechanic here prepares you for the mechanic there. It’s practice for the real thing. Even the tendrils, which emerge out of each colossus after you defeat them, serve a far greater purpose beyond its function.

Running away from the tendrils (Shadow of the Colossus 2005) After traveling long ways to defeat a colossus, there’s little desire to backtrack on the exact same path. So these black worms that slowly ooze out of the remains of the colossi are in the game to solve that. They whiz through the air and eventually pierce your body. A cutscene plays, and you awake back at the shrine where you started. A lot of players’ first instinct is to run away from the tendrils and try to escape. But after killing more of the colossi, it becomes evident that running away is a futile endeavor.

On the surface, the tendrils are a simple and diegetic way to teleport the player to where they need to go. Teleportation as a design choice is not great, but often times the best design is the most functional one. The maxim here is to value your player’s time. What it comes down to is how games contextualize the teleport to: give it a reason why the player can teleport at some times but not others, and, to a lesser extent, not take the player out of the experience. As an example, in Skyrim it’s the difference between the taxi carriages and the fast travel via the map. The tendrils not only give a reason for being able to teleport the player, but also explain the deterioration of the player character and foreshadow what’s to come.

After defeating all the colossi, the tendrils take the player back to the shrine, and the end of the game begins. The player turns into a shadowy colossus and has the chance to try to fight off the humans who have come to stop them. This effort ends in defeat however when the legendary sword, once wielded by the player, is cast into the well at the shrine’s entrance. A vortex is created, the humans escape, and the player starts to get pulled into the well.

Escaping the well (Shadow of the Colossus 2005)

Why I love the tendrils in Shadow of the Colossus is how they prepare the player for what happens at this moment. There is uncertainty here, as there was in the player’s first go with the tendrils. The difference this time around is that the uncertainty of escaping is maintained for much longer because of how much slower it progresses. It allows the player to drag this moment out (almost) as long as they want. The scene theoretically ends when the player has let go and accepts their fate--as they have been conditioned to do by the tendrils.

Lesson: Prime the player.

The little things matter. I think that the tendrils are the reason why this final scene works so well. Beyond its functional purpose, they mold the player’s mentality and imprint upon the player’s mind a rule in the game: you cannot escape the consequences. It’s easier to let go. What goes on in the minds of players in those final moments is the will to break this rule; that through sheer effort, it’s possible to recover what has been or what will be lost. What players will learn is that it’s not so easy to let go when it comes to losing the things that matter most.

-- Stephen Trinh (@stephentrinha)

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