Shadow of Morality: When Being Bad is Good

I can’t believe it. We spent a whole month talking about Mass Effect, and didn’t talk about morality or choices once. For shame. Let’s fix that.

A long, long time ago, in a post far, far away, I wrote about Spec Ops: The Line, and talked about my disappointment in how the game handled the “lack of choice” the player had. The game expected players to feel guilt over things they didn’t have a hand in choosing, and was too “meta” for it’s own good: trying to make players feel guilty about wanting to play a game. While you don’t need to have read that article to be able to follow along today, I’d highly recommend checking it out before proceeding.

Being a Hero

We’ve talked before about different kinds of heroes in video games, but we never talked about playing as a villain. Because we don’t play as villains, obviously. We are the heroes of our own stories, and video games reflect this time and time again.

But there is one game that takes you by the hand, forces you to do despicable acts in-game, punishes you for it, and leaves you questioning whether you were tactually he hero you thought you were. And, unlike Spec Ops: The Line, it is generally well received by critics and audiences alike.

Image result for shadow of the colossus

If you haven’t played Shadow of the Colossus, I highly recommend bookmarking this page, playing (or watch someone play) it, and coming back, because we’ll be talking about the plot and characters here, and while you can absolutely skip over the story by scrolling down to “The Sticking Point,” plot points are going to be discussed there, as well. If you’re still here with me (or if you just came back!), let’s dive in!

The Story

Shadow of the Colossus is so much fantasy. You control Wander, a man who has trekked to the Forbidden Lands with his love interest, Mono, who has been sacrificed because of an undisclosed “cursed destiny.” Distraught due to the loss of his true love, Wander beseeches the god Dormin – a god with the power to revive the dead – to resurrect the woman he loves.

Image result for twu wuv

Dormin is all to happy to help Wander, under one condition: he must travel the Forbidden Lands and kill sixteen Colossi – huge animal-like creatures that have been asleep in the Forbidden Lands for ages.

Seems reasonable, so off Wander goes to slay the beasts and reunite with his beloved Mono.

The Sticking Point

I can’t completely blame the player for willingly following along and not questioning their actions. After all, we as game enthusiasts have been conditioned to think of ourselves as the protagonist in the story we’re playing, or – perhaps worse – we’ve been conditioned to not think so hard about the games we’re playing.

I also can’t fault the player for not looking at the name Dormin, spelling it backwards, and then connecting that name (Nimrod) to an ancient kind who, according to the Book of Jasher (a book of Hebrew stories and songs not included in the Bible), was cut up into 16 pieces.*

Now, let’s run with that for a moment. Nimrod wasn’t a great guy, according to the texts he shows up in. He is a man – often portrayed as a king – who defies the Judeo-Christian god time and time again. He is, by the lens he is portrayed through, a “bad guy.” He also comments (to Abraham) that “I give life and cause death.” (The Qur’an, Surat al-Baqarah, 2:258). Interesting, considering Dormin, the shadowy god in Shadow of the Colossus, is a god that can resurrect the deceased.

All Who Wander…

It is against this backdrop that the player takes control of Wander, tasked with killing sixteen giant creatures by a disembodied voice. Because we, as players, have opted to play the game, we obediently begin traversing the Forbidden Lands on our quest. After all, a man vanquishing a monster in a video game to save a woman is as old as 1981’s Donkey Kong, and that theme dates farther back than even that when taking movies and books into account. That man is always the hero, and we’ve been conditioned, as mentioned above, to see ourselves as the protagonist in a game’s story by default.

Image result for damsel in distress

But there is a razor-thin edge between being a hero, and being a villain. First, let’s break down Wander’s character a little bit. Most forums I’ve come across discuss Wander’s movements as evidence of his youth or inexperience. He is so small compared to the landscape, and the game take every opportunity to showcase this. He has trouble steering Agro at the beginning of the game (which is supported by the game’s mechanics, as you don’t control Agro, but rather you control Wander, who in turns controls Agro – a much different experience than most games that require you to “drive” something!). When he draws his sword, it flops around at his side haphazardly, instead of being held firmly like an experienced warrior would hold it.

So he is young and/or inexperienced. But there is no crime in that. He is rash, as he defied Emon – a high-priest character – by stealing a sacred sword and venturing to the Forbidden Lands in the first place. And the big one: he’s selfish. His love of Mono has blinded him to the consequences of his actions, driving him to accept the help of a god sealed away. A god who even tells Wander that what he’s asking is against mortal law, and that his actions might have unintended consequences.

Image result for dormin shadow of the colossus

But no, Wander doesn’t hesitate. Any consequence is worth it to bring back Mono and mend his grieving heart.

In the Shadow

Then you have the Colossi themselves. The Colossi are huge creatures that lumber around their respective areas slowly, and it’s easy to picture them being used to having nothing to do and endless hours in which to do it. However, while Wander’s quest to save his beloved is an old and familiar theme, the Colossi do not act like the old, familiar monsters. They slowly amble around their areas, not taking notice of Wander until he interacts with them in some way. If he tries to climb them, they try to shake him off (because who wants to be climbed on, really?), and if he shoots arrows at them, they enter an “alert” state and then move to defend themselves.

Defend themselves. That’s a strange way to look at it, isn’t it? But let’s take a few examples. The first Colossus you fight, Valus, meanders around with his clumb, oblivious to Wander. He’s in a relaxed state, as indicated by his blue eyes, and even as Wander climbs him, his eyes stay blue as he tries to shake Wander off.

Image result for valus shadow of the colossusIt’s like he thinks an animal is crawling up his back and he just wants it off. But when Wander reaches his head, the camera shifts and we can clearly see Valus’s face. His eyes light up orange (alert) when Wander stabs him (understandably so), but if Wander leaves him alone long enough, he will eventually go back to plodding around his little area.

Most of the Colossi are like this: they don’t actively hunt Wander unless he initiates a fight. They’ll try to seek him for a short time, but if Wander leaves them alone, they go back to their lives. They’re not aggressive. They don’t attack unprovoked (for the most part).

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Oh, hello.

Or, during the fight against Celosia (pictured above), a relatively small Colossus tasked with guarding a sacred fire, Wander must brandish said fire at the Colossus. Why? Because Celosia is terrified of fire. He paws nervously at Wander as the man brandishes a torch, and cowers while slowly backing away until he falls off a small cliff, destroying his armor, and Wander jumps on him and stabs him in the back.

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Even during the final battle with Malus, an objectively more violent Colossus than any other one we’ve come across so far, the flow of the battle is… unnerving. After scrambling across a field getting bombarded by Malus’s fiery projectiles, and after climbing up the huge creature that is literally attached to the ground, Wander eventually finds himself on the back of Malus’s huge hand. The Colossus stops being in the alert stage, his eyes turn blue once again, and… he holds his hand steady and studies Wander. That’s all. He watches the little human watch him, without throwing him to his death, without harming him. He is curious about the creature, and waits to see what Wander will do next before responding. Of course, Wander – and therefore we – have our mission to destroy the Colossus, so the battle continues.

But to have had a chance to throw Wander to the ground, only to use the opportunity to peer more closely at the creature, says volumes about the Colossus. It also says volumes about Wander, that he would attack a being that does not seem interested in harming him.

Image result for malus shadow of the colossus

Shadow of Discomfort

Long before the end, though, many players begin to think that maybe Wander isn’t as heroic as originally thought. The music that plays at the end of each Colossus battle is not the triumphant sounds of a job well done (think Final Fantasy, Legend of Zelda, or, well, any game that has a sound after a big boss battle). Instead, the music gets softer, more contemplative, and is actually quite sad.

But players continue, watching how the effects of Wander’s actions affect him, making his skill grey while simultaneously granting him more power. Many players report having emotional reactions to losing Agro, a companion who has only ever helped you/Wander, and who you/Wander may have caused to die through your inability to see any other path than the one you were on. That real guilt is powerful, and it continues to force you to question, “Is this worth what I’m doing?”

Indeed, is it worth losing who we are in the name of blindly following a cause?

To Wander, the answer is always yes. And so the player is dragged along for the ride, watching his goal drive him ever-onward. As each Colossus statue crumbles in the temple, we the players, for most of the game, are treated to seeing the statues be destroyed, but as the game goes on, we see Wander’s focus (and therefore ours) shift onto Mono as he ignores the destruction of another creature because he only has one thought in his mind: bring Mono back, whatever the cost, whatever the consequences. It costs him his health. It costs him his horse. And it costs him the happily ever after he so desperately wanted.

Punch to the Gut

In the end, Wander’s single-mindedness destroys him, making him into a version of the creatures standing between him and his goal. But now he stands between himself and his goal. He has become his own colossus.

Image result for dormin

The Moral of the Story

In a world ruled by soundbites spread across social media, and in a time when it is so easy to find and surround ourselves with people who look, think, and act like us, it can be easy to forget that our views aren’t the only ones out there if we don’t actively seek them. But what does that have to do with Shadow of Colossus?

Remember I brought up Spec Ops: The Line before? One of my biggest complaints was the missed opportunity, and how I felt like the devs were trying to shoehorn in morals that the game didn’t really portray. The game wanted me to question why I was just blindly following what the game told me to do, but sort of missed the mark. But Shadow of the Colossus succeeds. Players weren’t tricked or deceived; rather, they experienced that single-mindedness and saw how it was affecting their character. They felt a change come over them as they played (or might have) as they realized they weren’t actually acting like a hero.

The profundity that was lost in Spec Ops was captured beautifully in a game that simply lets you experience someone else’s story. 

This sort of kick in the pants is good for all of us. To realize that we might not always be acting like the hero we want to be gives us a greater self-awareness, which results in us being open to new experiences, which results in new solutions to old problems (e.g., a different way of dealing with Mono’s death if Wander realized he was releasing a terrible god). In this way, we can keep ourselves from becoming our own colossus as we live our lives.

What do you think? Is Shadow of the Colossus simply a tragic story, or is there more beneath the surface? Does experiencing someone else’s story really throw our own lives into sharp relief? Let me know in the comments!

Until next time, thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
~ Athena

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*Do you know the story of how Esau – firstborn of Isaac – sold his birthright to Jacob, youngest son of Isaac? Well, long story short and according to the books in the Bible, Esau was out hunting and returned to his father’s camp famished and near death. Jacob (being a stand-up guy) withholds food until Esau “sells” him his birthright as first-born. What the Bible doesn’t say, which the Book of Jasher does, is that Esau’s fight was with the powerful Nimrod. Long story short again, eventually Esau kills Nimrod and cuts him into pieces.


35 thoughts on “Shadow of Morality: When Being Bad is Good

  1. Never played this game, but it sounds pretty amazing from your post. I have never played Mass Effect, though for reasons that are too silly to cover, I was obliged to watch a youtube clip of the main character in Mass Effect interacting with a journalist in three of the games, and the player picked the evil option each time. The outcome was just ludicrously silly and it made me laugh, rather than feel bad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a really great game, and worth checking out if you have the time!

      I know exactly the part you’re talking about, and I may or may not have had the same reaction on one of my playthroughs….. Yeah, Mass Effect, for all it’s great storytelling, doesn’t really do a good job of making people really consider Shepard as acting like a villain (at least in my opinion), because some of the reactions were so uncalled for – and IRL Shepard would have gotten into *a lot* of trouble, so being “bad” isn’t… well… seen as “bad” in the game (for the most part).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t played Shadow of the Colossus, but I’ve always been intrigued by the story. The premise is interesting, though I never really felt the urge to play it.

    That said, I feel similarly about the way that Spec Ops: The Line played out. I felt like there was a missed opportunity to make an emotional impact, though I do appreciate a developer trying to explore the horrors and fog of war. I’d like to see more games do that.

    I remember having a similar discussion with Anidaan (haven’t seen Anidaan on here in a while…) about villains, and what makes a well-written one. Personally, I think that a compelling villain is one that feels he or she is doing the right thing. I think that is something that is generally unexplored, with examples like Saren from Mass Effect being close, while never quite making it. Bad guys that are motivated only by hate, greed, or only exist because the plot demands it are boring to me.

    I’d also like to say that I’d love to see more games that play with perspective. Ones that keep the player just outside of the loop. Gimme some depth to my stories!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a great game! If you have the time (and desire), it’s definitely worth checking out.

      Yes, I definitely prefer my villains to have backstories and be driven by something other than one of the seven deadly sins simply because they’re the “bad guy.” Saren is a great example of a “bad guy” with the potential for a fascinating back story, and I really wanted just a *little* more about him, like you mention. Are you familiar with Handsome Jack from Borderlands? I think his backstory is really interesting, and players get to explore it a little more in… Borderlands Pre-Sequel? Borderlands 2? I don’t remember which one (I watched it instead of played, so my memories aren’t the clearest).

      Definitely! There’s so much potential to explore different aspects of humanity and psychology, so I’d love to be challenged with more games that really keep the player asking questions! (the good kind, I mean)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have a friend that is obsessed with Borderlands, so I’m very well acquainted with the lore of the series. Oddly enough, he did make for an interesting villain, though most of the folks that I remember telling me about the Pre-Sequel couldn’t tell me anything about the story.

        I wish more media in general took the time to craft characters with believable motivations. Instead, we seem to be stuck in trope-land.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Bookmarked for later reading. 🙂 I bought Shadow of the Colossus around Christmas – never played it before and I can’t wait to get to it. Though I have to get all this ME: Andromeda out of my system first, haha.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I said I’d be back after finishing the game…and I recently finished it, so I’m back! I plan to write a whole post about this game because I have too much to unpack about it, but your analysis of Wander’s quest here is spot on. Personally, I reached new heights of frustration with this game, one branch of which stemmed from being Wander. I really didn’t understand him at first – to me he was neither a hero nor a villain. He simply had to defeat colossi in order to bring back Mono. Words like “blind” and “single-minded” fit all too well, because that’s what I was for practically the first two-thirds of the game. You mentioned Celosia, and for me, it was the turning point. I think part of it had to do with its size and that you’re able to come face-to-face with it. The way it shied away and pawed at me once I had a torch was disconcerting. That was when I really started to feel like the bad guy. From that point on, my whole attitude towards Wander’s quest and the colossi changed. I truly didn’t expect to feel so affected. Bravo, Shadow of the Colossus…bravo.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Welcome back! 😀

          YES! It’s so great, because the game really makes you feel what Wander is going through – the single-minded “I have to do this because I was told to” attitude, until he (and you) are sort of slapped in the face with it, at which point you are he become (sort of) separate entities again… and there I go babbling about Shadow of the Colossus again haha. I’m glad it eventually had an effect on you, and I’m looking forward to reading your full thoughts on it!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I think Shadow of the Colossus tells an ambiguous story better than most games out there. Even relatively early on, I was questioning if the protagonist was in the right, and the game never explicitly had to tell me to think that way. It’s a welcome change from the Limbo approach where the story is vague and lacks substance to the point where the fan theories are the only thing the game has going for it or the Spec Ops approach where the writers dash all notions of subtlety (and not in a skillful or purposeful way) to tell players “Wrong! This is how you should be thinking. Get it? Get it, now? Are you sure? Don’t care – I’m going to repeat myself 100 more times even if you understand completely.” Almost any other game I’ve played that resorts to ambiguous storytelling (or even just moral ambiguity) has failed in at least one of those ways. I’ve even played at least one game where the writers’ own inability to take a firm stance on their protagonist’s morality made for a thematic mess when it came time to wrap up the proceedings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. I was not okay with Wander’s quest at “bring person back from the dead” because that *never* ends well, yet he seemed unconcerned. I was almost glad it didn’t work out, because it made for a much more impactful story, in my opinion.

      It’s definitely hard to tell a good story, and I think it’s even harder to tell a *hard* story – that the perceived protagonist (or in video games, the player) isn’t the shining hero, after all, while still keeping them sympathetic. Subtlety, which Spec Ops so distinctly lacked, is hard to write. It’s so much easier to bash people over the head with the writing equivalent of a 2×4, but that lack of trust and confidence in your audience doesn’t service anyone at the end of the day.

      And I agree; relying on the player/reader/watcher to answer the questions is not the way to tell a story. No writer should rely on his/her fans to write the story for him/her. Ugh.

      So this turned into a rant of just saying I agree with you over and over again (haha). But I appreciate you weighing in!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow great article, one of the best I’ve read. I’ll be honest, when I first played Shadows of the Colussus, I never actually questioned my actions overall. I did hate the loss of Agro when it happenned, but I never questioned Wander’s recklessness in how he went about it.

    Reading this really makes me see this game in a new light. I really loved it the first time, but now I love it even more. I’ve never played Spec Ops, but I completely see your point, especially how you drive it home with that Harry Potter example.

    Regardless, even the first time I did see the whole experience as a very tragic story. I really want to play this again and pick out and observe these key moments. Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I think you’re in good company with folks who didn’t really double-guess their actions. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts if you get a chance to play it again!

      And I’m glad you checked out the Spec Ops article, too. It’s an interesting contrast; maybe a game “worth” playing for the experience, but a little disappointed with some missed opportunities (also, glad you like the Harry Potter example 🙂 ).

      Thank you again! I’m always glad when someone has an “a-ha!” moment about a game!! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. no problem, your stellar writing deserves all the praise it gets

        Yea I’m sure many thought the way I did. In reality I just always found it so cool to be climbing the idols. I’d love to impose my thoughts into Wanders mind while fighting. He would be climbing and say “WOW! I can’t believe I’m doing this! This is so cool!” Mean while the Colussus is screaming “NOOOO! STOP THIS! WHHYYYY!”

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I know I might sound strange for saying this, but this is the most romantic game. Towards the end of the game, I still sympathize with the protagonist regardless if he was wrong. I know I sound like the classic stupid nice girl.

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    1. Not at all! I think there are many times when good people do not-so-good things for good reasons (or, at least reasons that seem good to them). Wander isn’t a bad person by any means. He’s driven by his love of Mono, but unfortunately he doesn’t some bad things because of it. It’s absolutely a tragic game, because neither of them get the “happily ever after” that the players wanted/expected.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Great summary of one of the greatest games in history. Wander’s tragedy is all the more potent because we experience and discover it too late with him. Maybe it’s because it’s late here and I’m sleep deprived, but I need to ask how his story relates to the title that sometimes being bad is good? Is it because the opportunity to play as a villain shines some light upon new perspectives that aren’t our own, facilitating understanding? Also, I’m glad I haven’t played Spec Ops! I think this is why Emperor Palpatine is one of my favorite villains. He’s sort of an irredeemable evil guy, with no gray areas to empathize with. Dude’s just a punk.
    Also, also, Nimrod is mentioned briefly in Genesis as a mighty hunter before the Lord. It’s been a while since Hebrew class but I remember reading that that “before” in the biblical text can mean “against” or “turn the face away from”, hinting at an antagonistic stance to YHWH. Crazy ancient stuff and it’s fascinating how it ties into Shadow of the Colossus. That central shrine is very Babel-esque. Thanks for the read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading! Yeah, I cut a lot of the information on Nimrod out of the article, because it just got too long, so YES thank you for filling that in!! I thought that was really fascinating.

      I agree it’s a lot easier to have “good guys” and “bad guys” with no grey areas, but then I’d be out of a job here and that would be very sad (at least for me haha).

      And you’re absolutely right about the title! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yay my comprehension still works! I thought of the quote the road to Hell is paved with good intentions after ruminating on your article. Even in terms of the biblical persons, even the holiest of them are portrayed as having human flaws and vices. Minus one of them, of course.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Yet another one of your awesome articles I have to bookmark. I swear I have played many games! Just none of the epic ones you talk about, haha.

    On the topic of morality in games though, I remember my evil playthrough in Fallout 3. I hated myself for all the acts of terror I caused (even if it was just a virtual world), but I needed that shiny PSN platinum trophy. I definitely prefer being the hero, but it can be an interesting change of pace to walk on the evil side, occasionally.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah sometimes when the evil is really forced on you, it’s not as, shall we say, as motivating to really “think” about. So definitely check out Shadow of the Colossus if you have a chance!!

      …and just consider those bookmarked posts little reminders to play some pretty cool games 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Great read. I never thought of Shadow of the Colossus’s protagonist as a villain. Like you said, he seems naive and blinded by his feelings. I liken him a little more to Joel at the end of The Last of Us, although obviously the consequences were not necessarily at the same level, and there’s less ambiguity to Shadow of the Colossus’s ending… Anyway, this is definitely an interesting topic to think about!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right. I suppose a term like anti-hero would be more fitting than to imply that poor Wander is a villain, much lie Joel was, too! Either way, I think it’s important to experience these sorts of things, because they make us question our in-game actions and throw them into sharp relief because everything we do isn’t quintessentially “good.” I’m glad you liked the article! It’s definitely an interesting way to think about games 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Personally, if there are no achievements/trophies at stake, I tend to be as sassy as possible in my morality decisions. If there’s an option, I’ll always go with the sarcastic response. Unless it’s at a tear-jerking moment, then I’ll usually be rather comforting/reassuring. I’m not a monster!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I can finally come back to this. I’ve seen all of Team Ico’s games now with Shadow of the Colossus as the last. When the ending happened and we found out what Dormin really was and wanted, the first thing I thought of was “dark reunion,” because it reminded me of the same paradigm in Final Fantasy VII. It wasn’t until then I thought of Osiris who was cut into 13 pieces. I actually did not pick up the Dormin/Nimrod connection until reading about it, nor did I know about Nimrod being torn into 16 pieces. Even now when I try to find information about that, it’s difficult, but several theorists have mentioned it.

    The very first colossus Wander kills immediately made me question. Just listening to the “death” music is a huge clue. It’s not the triumph of man over monster; it’s the tragic death of an innocent creature who did no wrong, and then when the (literal) shadow of the colossus escaped to infiltrate Wander who lost consciousness, I knew this was going to be no typical game. And each battle was the same. Wander goes out, finds a colossus, kills said colossus, takes in the shadow, passes out, awakens back in the temple, the statue crumbles, Dormin tells him of his next foe, Wander goes out… It had a structure like no other game before. There is literally NOTHING else for Wander to do but kill colossi (with the paltry exception of finding white tailed lizards to increase his grip and fruit to increase his strength for the express purpose of making it easier to dispatch his foes), and that, too, is very telling. This land is empty.

    I also love the multi meanings of the title. Wander literally stands in the shadow of the colossus while he’s fighting them, and he’s filled with the shadow when he wins. The nature of the shadow is the essence of Dormin, so the title directly references the entity since Wander is literally a vessel to bring all the shadowed pieces back together. It’s a brilliant game. I’m still thinking about how the other two connect and also the order. I know Shadow comes before Ico, but I’m not sure if The Last Guardian is before or after. I can come up with arguments for both. I don’t want to say too much about Guardian just in case you haven’t played that one yet though 🙂

    Like

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