Shadow of the Colossus is an intentionally emotionally charged game; this is one of the major contributing factors to its distinction in the medium of video games and one of its strongest points. The emotions and questions it raises are one of the major reasons why many people call Shadow of the Colossus a video game that is on the level of art; Pan's Labyrinth director and avid gamer Guillermo Del Toro said in an interview with Edge magazine:
"There are only two games I consider masterpieces: Ico and Shadow of the Colossus."
A lot of players have commented on forums and in reviews that, after slaying the colossi, they felt guilty. The feeling varies depending on the player and the colossus. Basaran and Malus stand out as two that generally receive little sympathy due to them being somewhat frustrating to reach, climb, and defeat, whereas the peaceful natures of Avion and Phalanx make them the most empathized with. Regardless, the sense of guilt is very commonplace amongst Shadow of the Colossus players.
Players have said they felt guilty because:
- "My wife makes me feel very guilty when I play this. As the colossi fall, she says things like 'Oh, that poor creature. How can you do that to it? What did it ever do to you?'. It really makes me feel terrible."
- "Well, I FINALLY beat this gem of a title recently, and while very excited about my accomplishment (though a tad late), I couldn't help but feel like it was all wrong. As in killing the actual colossi was a bad thing. Kinda felt guilty giving them that final blow and then absorbing their 'spirit' into myself."
- "I felt God awful after killing each and every one of them. When those majestic beasts fell to the floor with "blood" flying all over the place out of where you stabbed the final blow I died a little inside."
- "That's the intention, you're supposed to feel guilty. They're actually afraid when you're on top of them, stabbing them in their vulnerable spot."
The sensation of guilt is integral to the game; although there is never any direct attempt to address or even acknowledge guilt on the part of Wander within the game; Shadow of the Colossus was made for the player to have an emotional reaction to it. In a short essay on Gamasutra, Ben Sherman writes:
- "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."
He goes on to say:
- "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. 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."
On a side note, many fans and gamers believe that the feeling of guilt after slaying each colossus is heavily influenced by the soundtrack. The somber theme and vocals to "The End of the Battle" play a large role in reflecting the destruction of each colossus, and many players report feeling sad while listening to it.
There seems to be a general consensus amongst players that they are doing something wrong by killing each colossus. The act of tracking each one down where it has been in solitude for an unknown period of time with the sole intention of slaying it is essentially hunting, albeit with the intention of a good final outcome (the revival of Mono). Players have said that they felt like murderers for killing such ancient and unique creatures, suggesting that the players perceive the colossi themselves as innocent (this would also explain why the more aggressive colossi such as Celosia and Malus are less empathized with).
Interestingly though, sometimes the more aggressive colossi (primarily Cenobia and Celosia) receive lots of empathy from many players. While initially unclear why, this is probably because they are the smallest and are very resemblant of real animals, which makes them seem more defenseless and less "villainous" than most other colossi.
There are a variety of other factors that contribute to the amount of empathy that each colossus receives. Phaedra is much larger than the aforementioned Cenobia and Celosia, but it is less aggressive and it's appearance and/or movement is more graceful. Furthermore, the cries of pain that Phaedra makes each time it's stabbed is also noteworthy for making players feel sympathetic. These are all contributing factors to why Phaedra tends to receive a decent amount of empathy from many players.
- "Sony’s ethereal adventure is properly heart-breaking if played off the sauce. It’s those eyes. Each colossus we’re tasked with offing horribly has the most gentle, sympathetic peepers we’ve ever seen. Played sober, the guilt, as we plunge our sword into their craniums in agonising slow motion, is like watching Bambi get stabbed and served up as venison kebabs."
Are the colossi innocent?
As mentioned above, many players feel guilt for killing each colossus. But are the colossi themselves innocent? After all, they all embody the imprisoned spirit of Dormin, who tricked Wander into releasing and reviving him. Dormin is unquestionably the antagonist of the game, so is it fair to suggest that the bodies his spirit are housed within are the villains as well? Certainly there are some colossi that are more aggressive (both visually and in terms of attack) than others; Dirge and Celosia are prime examples, making them appear less innocent. However, others such as Phalanx and Avion are far from aggressive, and act purely out of defense and self-preservation.
The real issue lies in whether the colossi are entirely possessed and animated by Dormin or whether they are actually separate entities that Dormin happens to have been imprisoned within. The fact that the idols that line the corridor in the Shrine of Worship are of the colossi and not of Dormin suggest that, at some time, the colossi existed and were, literally, idolized by the natives that built the shrine and ruins within the Forbidden Lands. This may mean that they once existed free of Dormin's presence within them, suggesting that perhaps, at some point in history, they had been genuine living creatures with no association to Dormin. Alternatively however, it could mean that the statues were created with the purpose of housing the parts of Domin's power. If this were the case, then it may be possible that through Dormin's sealed power, the 16 colossi came into being as living incarnations of the individual idols after having Dormin's power sealed within them.
Is Wander the villain?
With a lot of fans voicing the opinion that the colossi are innocent, so in turn many do say that they felt Wander became the villain over the course of the game. Everything Wander does is out of his love for Mono. Stealing the ancient sword, entering the forbidden land, doing Dormin's bidding regardless of the "heavy price" Dormin mentions at their first meeting; everything is done in order to revive Mono. Whether Wander acted out of desperation, grief, love, or a combination of the three, his actions, while well intentioned, were potentially catastrophic, even if he wasn't aware of the ultimate ramifications of his actions. In a Destructoid article on Shadow of the Colossus, Droll writes:
- "Shadow of the Colossus is a game where a good character with a noble goal does very bad things. Wander will do anything to save his Mono, the girl who was killed in his village for unknown reasons. He will climb any mountain to restore his love. 16 innocent colossi will die for his broken heart."
As mentioned earlier, many players felt that Wander was murdering the colossi, which is the other factor contributing to the issue of whether Wander is actually the villain of the game. In the same Destructoid article, Droll notes:
- "I was shocked by the ways Shadow of the Colossus forces the player into the role of the villain (long before the game’s final twist). Many videogames shy away from the inherently murderous aspects of the gameplay by putting the player in a defensive position; you aren’t just murdering a whole platoon of Nazis, you’re fighting to survive. Shadow of the Colossus puts the player in a very different role: the aggressor. The player is the attacker. The player is a murderer. Murderer. How many games give the player such a hurtful label? We’ve played games where we’ve taken the role of 'killers' and 'soldiers'. We’ve been given the option to murder that allow players to break the overarching rule structure and take lives. All of these games, however, sidestep any kind of direct 'wrongdoing'; the Hitman games have you murdering bad people, while the Bethesda games state, quite clearly, that the option to murder or not murder is a 'choice' made by the player. There is never a doubt in my mind that Wander is a murderer. Manipulated or not, Wander (and the player) are forced to kill 16 innocent colossi. It feels wrong. Every time a colossus is finally slain from that final strike onto the beast’s glowing runes, it topples to the earth. The death knells of the colossi are some of the most haunting scenes ever created for a videogame. It’s a slow, agonizingly long fall. It manages to completely obliterate all of the excitement of our victory. We see the results of our grim labor and we feel the Earth tremble against the weight of our crime. Shadow of the Colossus allows us to empathize and sympathize for the colossi. How many times has that happened in a videogame?"
In a Gamesradar article on the Top 7 'Whoops, you're evil!' moments, Shadow of the Colossus ranked number 1, which backs up the notion that Wander (and by extension, the player) is the villain. Gamesradar writes:
- "Did Wander know what his fate would be from the beginning? Did desperation drive him to sacrifice himself to a demon in the hope of bringing Mono back to life? It’s hard to say, but the ending’s twist forced us to completely revise our view of what up until then had seemed like a fairly standard boy-hero-saves-sleeping-princess story, and turned it into something dark and tragic. And then, just as we were coming to grips with that, we were confronted with the heartbreaking sequence in which Wander tries futilely to run to Mono while Emon’s containment spell sucks him toward a shimmering pool."
As with the issue of guilt, the morality of Wander's actions is not something the game attempts to clarify. From an outside perspective, such as Lord Emon, what Wander has done is unforgivable, but from inside, from Wander's point of view, all he did was what he had to in order to bring back the one he loved. The key question as to whether Wander's action were good or not boils down to whether the ends justified the means, a question which seems to have been left intentionally open by Team Ico for the player to decide.