Myths are in our video games
February 18, 2013 8:18 PM   Subscribe

The Death of Romance in the Shadow of the Colossus reads the acclaimed PS2 game as a myth about the rise and fall of the European Romantic movement.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants (28 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Dear God, that sounds like a polished version of my off-the-cuff essay for my AP English test, in which I compared Waiting for Godot to the struggle between capitalism and communism. It was total bullshit, I knew it was total bullshit, but man, it sounded good, particularly for something made up on the fly.

I read this in much the same way -- it's eye-rollingly stupid, but it's stupid in a clever enough way that it ends up being at least a little entertaining. But entertaining is not the same as insightful.
posted by Malor at 8:28 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I always thought of SOTC as the ultimate modern expression of the Romantics conception of the Sublime, which can be found both in massive natural structures like iceberg and in crumbling vine-strewn cathedrals. Both the landscapes and the Colossi dwarf the player and forces them to contemplate them in both fear and awe - and that very smallness is the key to defeating them. Even the 'small' Colossi are found in grand crumbling arenas and ruins. So this essay rings a bit true, though I'm not a fan of the political implications.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 8:32 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Trico's never coming out, is it.
posted by fleacircus at 8:53 PM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Nah. The roots of SOTC are closer to Orpheus than Prometheus.
posted by Wemmick at 9:45 PM on February 18, 2013

We are drowning in myths.

So the myths are killing us.

I’m talking about myths in a more general sense… myths as stories that tie our random, noisy, contingent lives into meaningful narratives. These myths may serve as articles of faith, or as aspirations codified into archetypes, or as warnings to those who would repeat our half-remembered mistakes. I’m talking about myths as the semantic sinew connecting our individual identities with our groaning, patchwork collective consciousness.

So the myths are giving us life.

It is the repetition of these stories in all these forms, stubbornly reciting the tautologies of our collective past, that makes them indispensable, the tensile layer between our levels of awareness.

Tautologies are indispensable because repeated? Did I read that right?
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:50 PM on February 18, 2013

Case in point (from TVTRopes):

You Bastard: Many players feel sorry for the Colossi, some to the point of not wanting to finish the game.
Which may have been the point. Like games that deal with similar themes like Metal Gear Solid 2 and Spec Ops The Line, much of the horrible stuff that happens could end if the player stopped playing the game.

posted by Doleful Creature at 10:08 PM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

It seems like people have been talking more than usual about SOTC recently. Series creator Fumito Ueda's recent statement that development is still ongoing combined with the news a while ago about the game being near completion but being held back for technical reasons point to The Last Guardian being a PS4 title, not a PS3 title.
posted by zsazsa at 10:26 PM on February 18, 2013

Since people seem to dislike the article, I'm sure you'll love the review posted on Tim Rogers website:

This is my favorite line:

You can finish it through whatever breaks you have in a day. It can also be long. Contrary to my expectations, I had a hell of a time pressing onward, and was hassled by friends, who came in to gawk at the game’s colossi, to get on with it when I hadn’t advanced in a week. “I’ll get to it,” I waved – not because Shadow of the Colossus is a shambling mess, but because it is emotionally draining. Playing it can feel like standing out under the night sky and being hit by that icy awareness of inevitability. That’s when we go back in and turn up the music and television, right? Because I had the exact same experience, both with the game and the night sky.

Coupled with what it tries, and the precious few – emphasis on precious – things it does, Shadow of the Colossus is close to an air-thin miracle. That I’ve had no real need to play it again is, contrary to reviewers’ compartmentalized, qualifying elements that include the oh-so-nebulous Replay Value, not a problem. It’s content in being what it is, and when it’s done, it’s gone through what it’s needed to. And, really, let’s try to avoid perverting its ideals. It is not the thing that has magically crossed the finish line marked ART (I still can’t figure out why that’s even an issue). It is not there to validate anyone’s agenda. At its strongest and sharpest, Shadow of the Colossus is exhausting, audacious, an inhalation of melancholic freshness that escapes in a curling chill. It might be worth noting that Fumito Ueda’s favorite game is Out of This World. The parallels between it and Shadow of the Colossus share aren’t hard to see – the unity and control in the worlds and mechanics, the confidence they have in Standing for Something, how they are, in spite of being one-time experiences, very cathartic one-time experiences. If Out of This World became “Out of This World: The Videogame” with Blizzard’s Blackthorne, then Shadow of the Colossus is, in a way, the progressive inverse of Shigeru Miyamoto’s The Legend of Zelda video game. Absolutely, it is, and always will be, a game, though there’s much to be admired about how it doesn’t take a concept and explode it, but funnels it, condenses it, turns it into a self-sufficient skeleton that resonates, nonetheless. It’s something that carves a hollow in the gut and places a weight on the shoulders.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 10:31 PM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nah. The roots of SOTC are closer to Orpheus than Prometheus.

How so? I'm familiar with the Orphic myth in many forms, and so much of it seems to be missing. Orpheus was a musician, and charmed the monsters instead of killing them. He's part of a cycle about looking back, about the change of the seasons and the time. His sin wasn't seeking his wife but in looking back at her. SOTC is about impression and mood - its the moment you step out into Hyrule Field in Shadow of the Colossus stretched into a full game. It's that vision in Fight Club of cities covered in ivy, it's an ant on a spaceship, it's the thrill of boss battles and rock climbing channeled into the guilt you feel when contemplating the death of a whale or the vastness of an ocean. It's not a personal story about squabbling gods.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 10:34 PM on February 18, 2013

I think you're going a little too far in depth compared to what most people understand to be the story of Orpheus, where he goes to the underworld to bring back his wife from the dead, curses himself in doing so. It's not an exact re-telling, but it's the same basic plot and emotional notes.

A similar thing: Wall-E is a retelling of the story of Noah and the Ark. Sure it's missing stuff about all of Noah's sons and the construction of the ark and blah blah blah, but everyone's put on ships to rescue them, and they're only able to return once a flying white thing finds a twig.
posted by LionIndex at 10:48 PM on February 18, 2013

There are very few games that tempt me to ensnare myself once more within the corporate walled gardens ringed with moats of flaming bullshit that are game consoles. (I managed to kick that habit with the dreamcast, and I still keep it around for when I cave to the sickness as the emulators available leave much to be desired) SOTC is definitely high on that list.
posted by Perfectibilist at 11:07 PM on February 18, 2013

I, too, have tended to think about SOTC in terms of the sublime, more in Kant's sense of something that exceeds the faculties of judgment than Nietzsche's artful domestication of horror. The size and power of the colossuses give them the kind of charisma and personality of a human opponent, and sorta smuggles them back into the domain of ethics out of aesthetic enjoyment. In other words, one (so disposed) begins to suspect that the monsters, rather than just spectacles or obstacles, are "ends in themselves," which effect is intensified by the fact that the rest of the map is desert. The player is left alone with them. I suppose "carves a hollow in the gut and places a weight on the shoulders" is a good way of getting at this. Thanks for the quotation, Charlemagne In Sweatpants.

One of the nice things about SOTC is that those players nipped by conscience can spend their time climbing their way up to the little garden paradise without having to kill any of the colossuses. Just those nasty little lizards, which of course deserve everything they get.
posted by flechsig at 11:23 PM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

One of the nice things about SOTC is that those players nipped by conscience can spend their time climbing their way up to the little garden paradise without having to kill any of the colossuses

Are there enough lizards on the map to get to the top without beating the game?
posted by empath at 11:28 PM on February 18, 2013

I just love how Agro's sacrifice - so selfless and instinctive - puts in sharp relief the well-intentioned but selfish evil of what Wander is doing.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:36 PM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

I quite playing after the first 20 minutes of knee-stabbing; felt it was the right thing to do.

Actually, now that I think of it, I quite Ico for similar reasons. Worrying about the death of someone else was ten times more harrowing that worrying about my own; somehow the idea that she and I could start over from a few minutes earlier had none of the reassurance that simply starting over myself has. Since then I've seen those games become a mini-genre in themselves, which is too bad, because I know I couldn't bear to play any of them. But I'm still quite happy at how I got out: after the first bouts of scary attacks and her cries and losing her a few times, we finally made it outside -- and there, of all things, was a couch. And we sat down, and everything was suddenly fine, as long as we stayed there. So we never left.

And actually, now that I think about that, I realize that's how I got out of The Road too. It didn't take a genius to know it was only going to go from bad to worse, so when they suddenly get to the magical shelter and are happy and warm and bound soon to leave or get ill or somehow proceed to their inevitable doom -- I just turned off the dvd player. And there they remain, happy and warm and feasting.
posted by chortly at 11:39 PM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I compared Waiting for Godot to the struggle between capitalism and communism.

Release the shame, man. We've all been there. I once wrote a paper comparing Chaucer and Kerouac.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:55 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I did a freeform improvisational presentation about the nature of hubris in Greek tragedy, using the Imperials and their Death Star as the keystone of my monologue.
posted by mikurski at 11:59 PM on February 18, 2013

I don’t mean myths like primitive folk stories transcribed in anthropology textbooks, transmitted in a way that no shaman could have foreseen.

This sentence already gave me at least four reasons not to give this any more of my time.
posted by LMGM at 12:40 AM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I once wrote a paper comparing Chaucer and Kerouac.

They're basically the same person. Just look at all the letters in their names.
posted by cthuljew at 2:25 AM on February 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Bullshit like this essay is why movies are considered a legitimate art form and games are not. I mean, gamers are right, there is an art to gameplay and it can be sublime, but holy fuckles, do they not understand the difference between deep analysis and nonsense.

That said, this line...
As I ride my rhetorical steed into the denouement of my analysis, I should pause a moment to address the implications of this reading.
...makes me more okay with the knowledge that I and everyone I have ever loved will one day die. So there's something sublime perhaps in that.
posted by Rory Marinich at 5:38 AM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

That said, this line...

As I ride my rhetorical steed into the denouement of my analysis, I should pause a moment to address the implications of this reading.

...makes me more okay with the knowledge that I and everyone I have ever loved will one day die. So there's something sublime perhaps in that.

Ye gods.
posted by HostBryan at 5:58 AM on February 19, 2013

That's painting with a pretty broad brush isn't it, Rory? Bad criticism (like this essay, I agree) can be found in all fields. Not to say that games criticism is especially mature or well-established, but there's some good stuff out there. I like the writing at Nightmare Mode and Unwinnable, and the Idle Thumbs podcasts. There's been some good stuff over at RockPaperShotgun, and on Kotaku, especially Patricia Hernandez's stuff. Also Leigh Alexander and Rab Florence, ex- of Video Gaiden.
posted by Drexen at 6:10 AM on February 19, 2013

Are there enough lizards on the map to get to the top without beating the game?

Maybe not. I was under the impression that there were, but my impression was informed by an exploit. Not that there's anything wrong with exploits.
posted by flechsig at 6:39 AM on February 19, 2013

Also, that Tim Rogers essay suffers from the same thing everything Rogers writes, which is to say that it's perceptive but masturbatorially long, and because it's hard to think straight mid-orgasm he says a lot of really wrong things without bothering to edit them out.

For instance:
Coupled with what it tries, and the precious few – emphasis on precious – things it does, Shadow of the Colossus is close to an air-thin miracle. That I’ve had no real need to play it again is, contrary to reviewers’ compartmentalized, qualifying elements that include the oh-so-nebulous Replay Value, not a problem. It’s content in being what it is, and when it’s done, it’s gone through what it’s needed to.
One of the few disappointing things about Shadow of the Colossus is how un-fun it is as a game. The mechanics are crude to the extent that they become frustrating to play with. I'm not talking about the deliberate crudeness of Argo, which actually feels delightful – I much prefer riding Argo to riding Epona in any Zelda game. I mean things like how unresponsive the aiming reticule is for firing arrows, and how much the jumping can lag at crucial moments that lead to your character doing stupid things. Worst of all, though, is how fussy the Colossi themselves can be. There are a few where, even if you know exactly what you need to do, you can spend a good hour just trying to make them do it. Stupid fucking animals, I know what I'm supposed to do, I'm doing it, now just follow your goddamn script so I can launch my sneak attack!

Maybe this was another statement by the game's creators, but I seriously doubt that it was, because, contrary to what Rogers and Mr. Romantic up there are saying, the makers of the game come off in interviews as bright and grounded and not completely sold on themselves as architects of some divine, miraculous experience. (I bet it's because they, unlike Rogers, read good books and watch good movies.) I think it's just the difficulty any game developer has when they're designing a genreless game. But it's made the game impossible to finish, for me, though I've seen every Colossi played multiple times by a friend. There are just a few bosses which I don't have the patience to beat.

And that's at the crux of why I think critics like Mr. Romantic are not only pompous as fuck but also actively harming the perception people have of games. Because that paradox – that Shadow of the Colossus is more fun to watch than it is to play – is vastly more interesting to me than the one of whether you're a moral person for killing a Colossus. I think the story honestly just mirrors the process of playing a game through to its end. You are presented with sixteen beautiful puzzles, sixteen challenges, and by beating each one you render it dead. Even if you go back for a rematch something vital's been lost, because now you know exactly what to do; you have bested these things in the most important way. And in the end, you've triumphed, but what of it? There is nothing left for you now; you are a dead man walking. Do you want to be a Colossus? Well, that's a pretty miserable experience too: you are too large for the world, too large to do anything but swat at the flies which will ultimately kill you.

The whole "look at you, slowly becoming a villain, boo hoo hoo, poor colossi" never quite held up to me. It's too obvious. Black tendrils that frickin' stab you every time you win a thing! It's hardly subtle, and this is in a game capable of subtlety. We're also given every indication that Colossi are unnatural. They don't even fit into their landscapes; they interact with nothing; they are not a part of this ecosystem. They can do nothing but pace the same ground over and over, trying to keep themselves alive for the sake of life. The most meaningful parts of their existence are the parts where they're trying to kill you – and this has not happened in however long, for the land is sealed away. And the game's art direction makes this clear. When you're fighting a Colossus, you're engaged in something grand, something majestic. It's something that's destroying you, but so what? Without that self-destruction, there is only the silent, solemn contemplation of the world around you. And that's great for something, but this world is never going to change and it is too finite to appreciate forever.

I remember owning this game freshman year and sitting around the TV watching various people try to play it. Shadow always drew a huge crowd, more than Super Smash Bros. ever did. It was pretty incredible to watch, after all: watching these epic, cinematic events happen and realizing that somebody was controlling their happening was an almost electrical thrill. The gamer was frequently frustrated (because of those few damn asshole Colossi), but even when he was, the crowd loved it; in fact, watching his failure made the eventual success that much more exciting, because it proved that the game wasn't coddling him. When he finally succeeded, he succeeded despite the possibility that things would go wrong. And even the big "twist" revelation – the transformation into a Colossus, the slow death – was about as exciting for the crowd as it was for the player. You mean this is the reward for all your hunting? You're given a slow painful death instead of a victorious reunion with your love? No! Nooo!

Game critics, I think, are in love with exhaustion, are in love with that which drains, because it is still a novelty to play a game which is willing to be less than perfectly rewarding. That's not a bad thing, as exhausting games can do something unique, but they overvalue the exhaustingness, as if to discover that a game can be wearisome and still worth playing, that "fun" is not the highest value of a game, is truly surprising. So while I do think that Shadow of the Colossus is very obviously a tragedy, I feel that the nature of that tragedy is misinterpreted. The tragedy is not that you did an evil thing. It's that that evil thing was necessary. It's that Wander isn't a fool, we assume; he knows he is making a pact with a dark god, he knows that what he is doing is slowly killing him; yet he must keep going. Maybe at one point, before this game happened, there was a purpose to his life beyond this dead, empty land full of strange beasts. That died with what's-her-name over there on the slab. Now the only thing left is to bring her back, and to destroy these beasts one by one.

There's something sublime and hard to quite pin down about the purpose to all this. You achieve great things, overcome great hardship, yet you die before you see your efforts rewarded. Is this a selfless act, a sacrifice of one man's life and pain for the sake of another's? Is this a cursed mission, as the men who come to kill you seem to believe? What proof do we have that these men come to kill you understand more than Wander does? What proof do we have that Wander is not a noble protagonist?

Or is it simpler than that, that Wander is truly only doing this for the glory of killing, for the sake of finding new beasts to overcome? Is it that his quest is hollow, that he knows there is no reward, but that to do nothing is unacceptable? In this sense it's a love story* as much as Ico was, as much as The Last Guardian will likely be, and it's ambiguous in the way good love stories are: which part of this is truly worth loving? Is it the quick thrills, the wild rush? Is it the pain that comes after? Is it the feeling of slowly, slowly connecting yourself to this land, tying yourself in it by wandering it and by thrusting yourself at these great and enigmatic things, always different but always the same, until the only thing left of them is your memory? Maybe it's the realization that all of this matters only as much as you decide it does. That if you don't value the fights with the Colossi, they are worthless; if you don't care about this world, it is not beautiful; if you do not mind your sacrifice at the end, it is not truly a sacrifice.

This is why the Romanticism argument is so obviously beshitted: arguing that this thing is somehow directly tied to Romanticism requires confusing cause and effect. Obviously Shadow and Romanticism have things in common, but the commonality lies beyond both of them, and the attempt to tie the two together just results in unnecessary entanglement. And while Tim Rogers obviously believes wholeheartedly in his interpretation of the game, and it's an interpretation with much insight, he assumes his own experience is the universal one, when clearly it is not. Why must he attack reviewers and insult their reactions to the game? Why must his interpretation be the only one that suffices? That Shadow provokes these many responses proves that it is worth engaging with as a game; playing it reveals the many ways that a person might respond to its contents.

And this is why, I think, Shadow is more fun to watch than it is to play. Watching it, you get something broad-stroked and epic. You get fights with giant Colossi, you get the beauty of exploration, you get the sadness of Argo's death, the tragedy of Wander's self-betrayal. The story is beautiful and classical and cinematic in a way that few video game stories really are. As a gamer, however, you are not permitted to sit back and watch these things happen on screen. You must wander; you must fight; you must betray. And you are free to feel whatever you'd like about any of these things. Some players decide not to keep going, others pay the sadness no mind, others finish and are so conflicted they never pick it up again. Team ICO clearly didn't make this game for the last category, though, because Shadow owns up to its own gameness. There's a time trial mode, even! And if you beat it you can unlock cool new abilities and weapons! They were smart enough not to put these in the main playthrough, but they weren't so insistent upon themselves that they couldn't add a fun element that's also surprisingly well thought-out. That's there for the people who like this game enough to keep playing it, and it's easily ignored otherwise.

I think, by the way, that while the game being less fun to play than to watch is why I prefer seeing new people play it to actually playing it myself, its less-fun-ness doesn't make it a meaningfully worse game – not even those crude design decisions that bother me so much. A game is fundamentally more than fun. It provokes self-reflection: in even the shallowest games you must ask yourself what you're doing and why you're doing it, and try to change your behaviors to better overcome the game's challenges. Shadow is a deep game that asks a lot of questions, and the occasionally frustrating design choice makes it no shallower. I think it could have been more successfully fun with more polish, but the fun is the least of it; heck, even its beauty proves that there's more to entertainment than good game controls. And that's worth gamers and developers realizing, because maybe it'll start to push us to think about what games might be if not fun, and ask for games to do more than simply entertain us.

Now that that's all said, I'll also add that this musical number from the epilogue is one of my favorite pieces of VG music. The songs that play throughout the game are great, and this one only plays the once, and it's not even the grand finale track, but something about it gets me every time I hear it. It's properly fantastic-epic in a way that most epic fantasy soundtracks for games aren't, subtle in ways that these sorts of soundtracks usually don't think they have to be, yet it's still majestic. I <3 it.

* You can even argue that Argo has a part in this, as a companion faithful and never-thanked, who served you through all your life, even risking his life, and who miraculously arrives at the end to be there for the girl you loved.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:41 AM on February 19, 2013 [8 favorites]

That SOTC is more fun to watch than to play (which I agree with, if for personal reasons) gets at the assumption that some critics make when treating games like SOTC or, say, Bioshock; the assumption that the "meaning" of the game is resolved in the storyline, which is to be read, and that the "lesson" is the corny twist at the end. The "boohoo poor colossi" thing makes some sense if one thinks that a game is to be interpreted like a movie and that the role of the critic is to recall the audience, who otherwise just sits passively and takes it in, to some more-or-less arbitrary set of moral or sociopolitical conditions. "Just look what you did!" a la Michael Haneke. But if Wander isn't an fool, neither is the player (nor the people watching). Surely, she knows that she's "ensnared within the corporate walled garden ringed with moats of flaming bullshit that are game consoles." She doesn't need it to be rubbed in her face. Rory Marinich's distinction between the tragedy of the evil and the tragedy of the necessity of the evil is helpful, I think, because it keeps in view that there is something positive about killing the colossuses; there's something to gain. That's, after all, what most people are playing for. It's practically axiomatic, like balls and strikes. SOTC is perhaps less like Bioshock, in this respect, than Fallout 3, where the useful and meaningful things "shine out" all around from the piles of garbage. The dirty secret of Bioshock is that after all it's JUST a solid first-person shooter, which means that by analogy the dirty secret of SOTC would be that it's JUST a bitter parody of Zelda. But like Fallout, SOTC transposes a player into a desert and lets the player and the spectators discover for themselves, within certain parameters, what's worthwhile. This includes the scores of Youtube videos dedicated to speedruns of one colossus or another. The colossuses are so glorious, that fighting them and watching others fight them just happens to be what most people find to be most worthwhile.
posted by flechsig at 8:43 AM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm typing this on a bus, and a moment ago I grabbed onto a handhold with one hand, trying to steady myself as the bus jumped and swayed. SOTC is filled with thousands of those moments, and the tension as you climb the Collossi is what makes it more fun to play than read about.

And Rory, Tim Rogers didn't write any if the essays I linked. The second one was just hosted on his site. As always, I find people's dislike of his style utterly mystifying.

SOTC's grand trick is that it realizes games are best at evoking guilt since you, the player, performed the actions that you're guilty of. I think Dark Souls refines this even further, while fitting the Romantic and Sublime metaphors closer.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 1:37 PM on February 19, 2013

If you didn't like this article, I'm sure you'll love the Adam Sandler drama that uses SOTC as a way for him to deal with the aftermath of 9/11.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 2:36 PM on February 19, 2013

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