Standing on the Shoulders of Giants… Then Stabbing Them Repeatedly In The Head

It’s way past my bedtime, but I wanted to get a post in about Shadows of the Colossus before tomorrow, when Civilization IV supposedly comes out and takes up all my attention.

I’m only two battles in, and the reviews are saying that it gets better as you go along. My initial take on it is that it’s a tremendous achievement for videogames, but it’s still not quite as good as ICO. You’ve got to compare the two, not just because the same people were behind both games, but because they’ve got the same sensibility. You’re dropped into an unfamiliar fantasy world, given some unconventional tools and shown how to use them, and then you push a story along to its conclusion.

That sounds like it could describe just about any game, but what’s remarkable about these two is that hundreds of games try to do that, but only a few actually succeed. When I started working in videogames, I was assuming and hoping that as games matured, they’d get better at telling stories. Ten years later, there’s billions of dollars in the business, but still not that level of artistic achievement. There are definitely standouts, but the hit-to-miss ratio is still even worse than comic books, much less movies. Either the story is so heavy that the game is over-simplified or reduced to something mundane and predictable, or the game mechanic is solid but it ends up being irrelevant because you’re a space marine or a dark elf.

ICO and Colossus are both original, they’re both unconventional, they both have beautiful settings and great art and sound design, and they both have a story and game mechanic that work together to further each other. Colossus, though, is just a little too gamey — it feels a little too much like a string of boss battles, instead of a story that I’m involved in.

The boss battles are really cool, though. I’d read descriptions of the fights — you climb up the body of a giant as it’s moving, trying to find its weak point — and had even seen it played at E3, but actually playing it is different. Because the interface is so simplified and what you’re doing is so weird, it doesn’t feel like a series of jumping puzzles like every other game, but that you’re actually climbing up on a big monster to kill it.

But at least so far, that’s all you do. There’s a little bit of horse-riding (which is a neat interface on its own) and using your sword to focus light to tell you where to go next (also neat), but it’s really a series of giant, moving puzzles. I used to describe ICO as “like Myst, if it ran in real-time and you actually cared what was happening.” Colossus is more impressive in a lot of ways, but it loses some of the relevance; even with its interminably long opening cutscene, I don’t really care what’s happening. I’m just waiting to see the next little bit of spectacle.

And I haven’t finished it, so this isn’t a spoiler, but I’ll bet a million bucks that the giants turn out to be good.