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The Art of Shadow of the Colossus (2/6): Gameplay and Story

Following on the analysis of this beautiful game, where we talk about its pace, boss-fights and scenario.

Frederic Fourcade

March 16, 2014

11 Min Read

This is the second part of my series of articles about Shadow of the Colossus. You can find the first part here.

Note: If you have not played this game, do not read this article. Play the game, enjoy it, and then read this article. It could mess up (a little) the joy of discovery (contains spoilers).

Shadow of the Colosus-02After dealing with the beginning of the game, we will now turn to more specific topics of this game: The rhythm, the boss-fights and the scenario.



One of the most striking aspects of the game is its pace. Each "chapter" (the destruction of a colossus) consists of three distinct parts:

  1. Research The first is to look for it, based on the indications of the temple's "God", and especially the direction indicated by the hero's sword. This phase allows us to travel freely on horseback through a relatively large area. Since there is nothing to do other than look for colossi (except hunting lizards or fruits), it seems appropriate to offer a spread of land both substantial enough to provide a wide variety of landscapes (desert, woods, rocks, swamps, mountains, etc …), and at the same time small enough so the player does not get lost, and eventually gets bored. Freedom is really given to the player so he can experience the game in accordance to his style of play (rather exploration- or action-oriented). During this part, no music accompanies the player, creating a sense of loneliness and an even greater invitation to contemplation. Indeed, music is often used, in movies or in games, to inspire some pace to the action, and can unconsciously encourage the player to look for action or rather go for a walk. (in the example above, the approach phase is non-existent, but in order to not spoil later bosses, I just show the third one)

  2. Approach Once the lair of the giant discovered, the "approach of the colossus" phase begins. It can vary in length and challenge: it can consist of long platform/climbing phases, or a simple "corridor" to go through. In any case, this phase is marked by a change in the environment, initiated by a short cinematic, with a quiet but oppressive music, and ruled by the linearity of the level-design, forcing the hero to move straight to the boss. The experience of previous colossi, and their dramatic appearance, even creates a tension in the player, constantly wondering where, when and how the next colossus will appear, but also what will it look like, what size he will be, etc. ... This phase, quite short, is an excellent mental preparation for the next phase. This explains why it is not possible to save the game after entering this phase.

  3. Fighting Then comes the phase of the battle itself against the colossus. Here we are back to more traditional things, with music punctuated by percussion or strings from the symphony orchestra (mainly violins, cellos and double bass). The music in the game will be further discussed in a later article. When I say "traditional things", I'm not referring to the fights themselves, but the pace of the game, which uses rather common recipes of action video games, while the level-design represented by the bosses makes these fights particularly interesting and original in term of gameplay (see the relevant section). 
    (Warning: Spoiler!)

    (The fight against the colossus, which requires some reflection to figure out how to reach the weak spots, and platform-typed skills to get there)

Between each of these phases a cinematic is played concluding the previous phase and introducing the following one, so that the changes in pace are carried out smoothly. The end of a chapter then follows on the start of the next one without pause.

Level-designing boss-fights

Now that we have briefly overviewed the fightings, we will discuss what makes them unforgettably fun moments but also what's so unique about them.

Generally speaking, the level-design of a boss-fight is not made by the boss himself, but mainly by its environment (where can we hide? How to use the setting to create openings? How to get closer to his weak point?). The boss also complies with a character-design that should make it more impressive than other "standard" enemies. In Shadow of the Colossus, the battle system (which consists of climbing and moving on the colossus) actually merges the level- and chara-design of the boss. With the exception of two bosses on the sixteen of the game, they all require the player to climb onto the colossus to reach his weak spot(s), in order to destroy them with his sword.

With each boss, the challenge is different. The first three giants provide an introduction to various game mechanics used throughout the game. The first one ony requires the use of the sword and climbing abilities to kill him. The second one shows no visible way to climb onto him. The use of the bow is then required to touch the giant's soles to make him stumble. The third one requires the study of his actions to find a way to get to him. Not only do we have to wait until he hits the floor to mount on his weapon, but, realizing that we can not climb up his arm, it will require the player to set a trap to get rid of this obstacle . The game then adds a very important concept of this game: reflection. It is this reflection which creates tremendous immersion in combat. The hero needs intelligence to overcome the colossal power of these giant living statues. This intelligence is not integrated into gameplay (as is often the case in RPGs) or partially guided by the game (which is the case of boss-fights in Zelda games, for example). Here, the player's own intelligence is the key that will help the hero bring down the colossus, the game becoming a circumstantial way of turning into pictures the solving of the given problem. The hero / player's triumph over the Colossus is driven by his superior intelligence, which reminds us of this human feeling of superioriority over any other species, regardless of their raw strength. The puzzles grow more complex gradually, interacting with larger environments, as well as air, marine and underground giants, an calling on more powerful and varied weapons.

(Warning Spoilers!)

(here, defeating the boss requires the use of the environment to trap and flip him, and then to find a way to be over him when he will recover)

This puzzle/action feature of the game's fightings could come close to those found in the Zelda games for example, but it seems to me that a major difference makes it a unique game: Never does the game introduce a new weapon or a new power to destroy the boss; the player alone must find his way to solve the challenge. Thus we face puzzle-game challenge, packed in an action-game presentation. This combination in the boss-fight design contributes greatly to the special feel of this game.


I personally believe that a work of art in general, or an element of it, is worth more for the power and the depth of its mark onto our memory than for the emotion we feel at the time we experience it. The scenario of the game answers perfectly to this paradigm. Indeed, it is only told in the introduction and epilogue of the game, with the notable exception of a short cutscene after the death of the 13th colossus. This ensures that the game is played in one go, without pausing the game flow to tell the story, where most games regularly put gameplay in "pause" to progress through the plot (using cutscenes or dialogue) . Some game designers (Shigeru Miyamoto, especially in 2D marios) prefer to completely avoid intrigue not to impact the pace of the game.

The genius of Fumito Ueda not only consists of splitting the plot between the introduction and the epilogue, but also of coming up with a conclusion that drives the player to rethink, or even judge, everything he has done during the game. He even goes so far as to make it playable, giving the player the imporession that he might change the doom of the hero, and let him fight as long as his willing against his fate, until he eventually decides to submit to it. As surprising as this ending is, we think again about the scenes of the giants' death, struck down by the hero's sword, heavily collapsing in a music which at the time let us catch a glimpse of the tragic outcome of this adventure.

De facto, by the second time you play the game, your actions are not performed with the same level of motivation, because we know at this point that a choice will have to be made between saving our beloved one and saving entities with quite commendable fate. Obviously, and this is a limitation of the game, there is no alternative, and refusing to kill the colossi is as good as refusing to play the game.

To be continued (again)

In the third part of this article, we will look deeper into the role of Agro and the relationship that the hero (and the player) creates with him.

If you want to read more articles about video game as a proper art form, please visit my blog gameasart.net

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