Game mechanics have a push and pull. There are thousands of them in every game we play, but it’s the dynamics of these mechanics, the way each interacts with the other, that determines the way a game will play. What is the impact of blindly including a compass, minimap or quest marker? Can we make these guiding mechanics elegant, and diegetic? The answer, is that one year before Oblivion showed the world the future of navigation in video games, Shadow of the Colossus mastered it.
Shadow of the Colossus uses a repeating structure. The protagonist Wander wakes in the Shrine of Worship, travels to the next colossus and defeats it, and is sent back to the shrine. On their way to the colossus, the player has full control over where they go in the overworld. All locations, even boss arenas, are accessible from the beginning; sombre hollows of lands that hint at the design of each colossi. But there’s little point to wandering in The Forbidden Lands when not traveling to the next colossus. White-tailed lizards that are scattered across the map increase Wander’s maximum stamina, but their effects are minimal outside of post-game content.
The Forbidden Lands are large, and the colossi have to be killed in a linear order. How does the player know where to go? By holding the ‘O’ button, Wander will hold his sword to the sun. The beam of light that it reflects is desaturated and unfocused, but by aiming the blade, the ray will narrow and glow, until the controller rumbles and the player is in the direction of the colossus.
The sword’s light guides the player through the world, but it doesn’t function like a radar or compass. When Wander is on foot, he has to stop moving to shine the sword. When riding his horse, Agro, Wander can keep the blade focused but can’t steer. The player has to treat the light as an approximation of colossi distance rather than fidgeting with it. And since this beam of light relies on the sun, the player is vulnerable when in a dense forest or dark canyon. Shadow of the Colossus wants you to get a little lost, to not be sure of where you are going. The player isn’t following a dotted line; they’re an explorer in an unknown world.
But Wander’s light beam serves another purpose. See, it doesn’t point to the colossus but rather its weak spot, the point that the player has to reach and attack. Sometimes during a fight this glowing sigil will change location, making the sword’s light beam essential to victory. Wander’s need to stop moving on foot or lose control of Agro when shining the sword up makes checking the direction of the light a tactical decision, one that puts the player at risk of getting stomped or gored.
Defeating a colossus leaves a beam of light that stretches into the clouds—visible from almost anywhere in the world. These beacons become not only tombstones for the creatures Wander has murdered, but landmarks to guide the player on their journey. As the player sets off from the temple again, the stretches to a colossus start to feel familiar, until the sword sends the player down a new path, revealing a grove or tomb they had missed.
Shadow of the Colossus walks the fine line between giving the player direction and letting them get lost in its world. Like all of Fumito Ueda’s games, it’s subtle, elegant, and masterfully designed.
You can find more of my essays here.