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Student Feature: Story Mechanics as Game Mechanics in Shadow of the Colossus

In this student feature, USC's Ben Sherman deconstructs Sony Computer Entertainment's Shadow of the Colossus, focusing on how its gameplay mechanics, rather than its storyline, are able to evoke emotion in the player.

Under normal game design principles in the current business atmosphere, what tends to occur is a plastering of story upon previously constructed mechanics.  What makes Shadow of the Colossus's mechanics interesting is not so much that they were not previously put in place as most games are, but rather that they were specifically designed to maximize certain emotional responses from the player.  Much as a screenwriter or film editor will use the medium to build tension or create character, so are gameplay mechanics used in Shadow.  The mechanics are not used only to tell a story.  The mechanics are used to elicit emotions from the audience.

There are two extremely prominent examples of this.  One is very obvious to any player acquainted with actions games.  The second is couched in the obscurity of the design.  The first, which is not all that groundbreaking, is the frustration a player will feel when his grip meter runs low and he falls.  Frustration is not an emotion foreign to most gamers.  Failing to succeed at any task leads to this.  The gameplay equivalent is not uncommon.

The second example is the important one.  After each successive colossus, you are transported back to the main temple near the center of the world map.  Your immediate goal is to use the light from the sword to find the colossus.  What you then have is between 5 and 20 minutes of galloping around a very desolate and isolating landscape.  The game designers could well have made it a far shorter distance.  Why make the player gallop, sometimes in an unbroken straight line, for an extended period of time?  The answer: it makes the player feel the isolation that the story tells the player they should feel.

Rather than the player galloping a bit, hitting a spot on the map and fading to a cut scene where he or she is told that the protagonist "Traveled for many a day before he came upon the great Colossus," the player must experience it.  And the travel is not a simple extension of time.  Each step is carefully considered.  Each colossus is an unknown piece of the map.  The player experiences the travel through unknown territory without a companion.

This is not entirely true.  The player does have one companion: Agro the horse.  Besides the colossi, there are four apparent characters in Shadow of the Colossus.  There is the unnamed protagonist, the dead woman, voice-in-the-sky Dormin, and Agro the horse.  The majority of the time is spent with Agro.  Even some of the battles require the speed and agility of the equine partner.  For this reason, when the game forces the horse to die, it is a feeling of legitimate loss that the player feels.  The player does not feel as if the hand of the game designer came down and decided to steal some of the properties from the mechanics.  The player has spent time with this horse.  In an isolating environment, after ten or fifteen hours of gameplay getting to know this horse, he falls to his death because of something the player instructed him to do.

 


Your only friend.

 

In a similar vein, something often mentioned about this game is the palpable guilt associated with completing the tasks set before the player.  The reason this occurs is as simple as having the player do something that is morally reprehensible.  The knee-jerk reaction would be to bring up Grand Theft Auto.  This is a game where, out of the box, the player could murder a score of prostitutes.  This doesn't cause nearly as much cognitive dissonance as taking down the fifth, bird-like colossus.  This colossus does not immediately attack you.  You must get its attention by shooting it and only then does it fly down to get rid of you.  If Shadow of the Colossus were a mainstream Hollywood-style screenplay, this would be the point where there is a grand reversal of expectations.  This is a story device that is especially designed to not separate mechanic from story.  In the story line, this is where the player learns that not all colossi will attack.  Sometimes the player must instigate the battle.  In Grand Theft Auto, there is no emotional set up for the homicide.  It appears as simply a mechanic.  In Shadow of the Colossus, it unfolds as a story would, but the hand of the protagonist is synonymous with the hand of the player, so the protagonist's guilt becomes the player's guilt.

Games are an experiential medium.  No matter how good the dialogue or prose, the emotional import is given by the player's interaction and not the author's penmanship.  It is a subtle combination of authorial control and mechanical maneuvering.  Subtle characterizations must be implied through experience rather than through cut scenes.  Emotion in interactivity comes the same way it comes in movies or novels.  There must be stakes.  There must be drama.  There must be tension.  If Grand Theft Auto were a movie, and the first thing the audience saw was the bloody murder of a prostitute, it would elicit a visceral reaction.  This is the same as in the game, where a person immediately brutalizes a person and it is merely a visceral thrill.  Perhaps had Grand Theft Auto designed missions so that the first few were benign to a fault, and then suddenly you had to murder a prostitute and you were not sure why, the game might elicit feelings of guilt from the player.  This is what Shadow of the Colossus does.  It neither tells a story, nor designs mechanics.  It designs a story.

Well designed stories are about one thing, but tell another. Star Wars is about battles in space for control of an empire, but it tell us about Good and Evil.  Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is about Marlow going into Africa to find Kurtz, but it tells us about colonialism, madness, and the evils that men do. Similarly, Shadow of the Colossus is about a young man slaying sixteen giant beasts in order to bring a woman back to life.  What it tells us is to what lengths a person will go for love.

 


All for her.

 

In terms of pure story, certain things mark the progression of the plot.  One of these is the gradual deterioration of the protagonist as he goes through the motions.  His physical appearance becomes more and more haggard after the defeat of every colossus, until he is finally reduced to what is, for all intents and purposes, the walking dead.  It is the hubris of a young man in love that drives the protagonist to slay sixteen creatures that would leave most men quivering in fear.  Beyond that even, it is love that drives a young man to seek out and kill things that occasionally do not fight back and even sometimes run away.  It is love that demands the protagonist to give up his soul for the soul of the girl.

So how is the emotion of this story captured without drawn out cut scenes and elaborate prose? Well, for starters, it isn't. The beginning of the game is an exceptionally long cut scene. It runs close to fifteen minutes until actual gameplay starts. Not only that, it has redundant story beats. Only so many images are needed to convey a long journey. Once it is out of the way, though, it is the subtle mechanics of gameplay that convey the necessity of the girl.

After beating every colossus, the protagonist is transferred back to the temple. Again, all four characters are reunited. Dormin gives a quick presentation on the next colossus.  The protagonist listens.  Agro chills nearby.  The dead girl sits on the altar.  The designer gambled on the inquisitive nature of the player to make this work.  Assuming the player wishes to understand the game world in order to best work within it, it is safe to say that the player will eventually figure out undocumented moves available with Agro (hanging from the saddle, patting the horse's neck) and discover the garden on the roof of the temple (the origin of Dormin's voice).  But this leaves the dead girl.  There are no mechanics associated with her.  The player will swing his sword and try to knock her off of the altar to no avail.  The player will let the camera rest on her to see if there is any movement or change in appearance.  This is especially teased by specially placed, brief cut scenes showing her raising from the altar in a dreamlike sepia color.

Through the hours of gameplay, the player is continually returned to the temple to see the dead girl sitting upon the altar.  The player knows that something important is going to happen to the girl.  The player knows the girl is the reason the game exists.  It is the obsession that the designer creates in the mind and imagination of the player, coupled with the guilt of certain actions that translates the love the protagonist is supposed to feel for the girl.  The player does not actually feel love, but the player understands and can palpably feel the necessity of accomplishing the tasks in the game to see what happens to the girl.

Emotional connection between what the protagonist feels and what the player feels is the genius of Shadow of the Colossus.  In order to elicit tears, joy, guilt, desperation, anger, sorrow, or any other emotion from the story of a game, the mechanics must tie intimately with the story in a way that is meaningful to the experience of the player.  If the Sword of +2 Awesome is supposed to bring sorrow to all that wield it, this better happen to the player and not just the character.  Those responsible for Shadow of the Colossus understood this.  The result is an emotionally engaging game that is, essentially, sixteen overwrought boss battles separated by walking.

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