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Shadow of the Colossus: Grand Minimalism

What a game leaves out can be as important as what it puts in and Shadow of the Colossus leaves out everything that isn't needed for the ride. Except achievements.

This is a cross post from here:

If you are unfortunate enough to never heard of Shadow of the Colossus then let me give you a quick rundown of it: you kill Colossi. The best part about the game is that is pretty much all you do.

There aren’t long dungeons full of minions you have to kill, no lengthy exposition filled cutscenes spoon feeding you the story (there are some cut scenes but if the whole of them took up more than 20 minutes I would be surprised), no side quests or wacky sidekicks, not even new weapons to unlock. You find a Colossus in a large uninhabited wilderness, and then kill them in an epic battle.

This game is notable not just in how well it does the things it does, but in how much it cuts out of what normal games usually add in without thinking about how it affects the whole experience. There is kind of a strange disconnect in games that say “Save the world right now! But if you find the time get me some bafmodads.”

The great thing about linear gameplay or story (that this game uses) is that you can create a consistent difficulty level or experience. The story won’t bounce around emotionally because of light hearted side quests you can start right after someone dies.

You don’t have to balance the enemies around the fact that they have probably gotten some side quests done and so are a higher level than they would be if they just did the main story, but by balancing enemies around them doing some side quests that forces everyone to do a certain number of side quests to progress in the main story.

This can create that weird emotional disconnect where to progress you have to go help someone, who has nothing to do with the main story or even has a name, gather their chickens for them before you go and kill a mad god who wants to eat the world. Shadow of the Colossus cuts all that out, and by doing so creates a ridiculously pure game.

There is only 1 real blemish on that purity and in the games defense it wasn’t included in the original version, achievements. The PS3 version of the game added them to the game and this is a bad thing.

Achievements can basically serve 3 purposes. The first is as a signal to other players letting them know where you are in the game. If you and a friend are both playing a heavily story based game you can just look at his achievements to see where they are without you two playing that tense game of trying to guess where the person is and maybe revealing mild spoilers. The flipside of that coin is when the achievements themselves are spoilers and can we please stop that? “Watch Aerith die” would’ve been a terrible achievement.

The second is as use is as an advanced tutorial. Team Fortress 2 does this very well in that it doesn’t have a lot of tutorials in the game but uses achievements to give players new ideas on ways to play the game they wouldn’t of immediately thought of. Things like rocket jumping onto someone to kill them or using your pee to reveal spies.

The last is the most rare and it is when the achievements are used to communicate a message. In Prince of Persia (2008) they used an achievement at the end to remind the player that this is a game and they are in control and that they can stop if they want to.

Spec Ops: The Line also does this in the form of achievements that seem satirical, where most games do a “Great job killing 100 people” this game, in it’s tradition of pointing out what you are doing is terrible and that you are killing people, uses them to say “You realize you are killing PEOPLE right?”

So why add them to Shadow of the Colossus? You don’t’ need them to sync up with friends as you can just say “I’m on the fifth Colossus” and you give away nothing beyond that there are at least five (the game tells you there are 13). Having achievements that tell players “Did you know you can also use this thing to also achieve this weird effect?” doesn’t make sense in the context of minimalism.

Each object serves very distinct purposes and if something isn’t immediately obvious then that is because it is going to be part of some puzzle (not an optional puzzle, a “how do I kill this mountain?” puzzle). Lastly the achievements aren’t saying anything that needs saying.

The game was designed without them, as a complete experience without them. Adding them, while it might seem harmless, it tantamount to stapling an explanation of the work to a Piet Mondrian painting. The game was an unspoiled and pure experience, and achievements for achievement’s sake are the height of meaningless fluff in games.

I think achievements can be good things, but don’t mandate them. That would be like mandating RPG elements in every game or saying “Every shooter needs multiplayer” when those clearly aren’t true. They are additional elements that can serve a purpose, but they are not be a purpose in and of themselves.

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