Team Icarus and the Problem with Shadow of the Colossus
Perfection is irreducible: it has no smaller parts and can be subordinated only to itself. It can never be defined in comparison to other things. So perfection is a great last creation. Team Ico learned the same lesson as Orson Welles, who began his film career with the most acclaimed film he would ever make, when they made Shadow of the Colossus. Like Citizen Kane, its perfection can be praised but not advanced, extended into copies but never reduced to be made again into something new and more perfect.
A year ago this Christmas we were gifted with Team Ico’s new game, The Last Guardian, which had been a promise since E3 2009 (actually, the game was started by Ico and completed by another team made up of some of its personnel, overseen by Japan Studios with Ico as “creative consultants” … it’s a sordid tale barely told by Wikipedia, possibly involving a bond completion company, and which I am not qualified to tell). In any case, Guardian turned out to be, not a bad game, but a game that no one needed. It had appendages of Shadow but no bones. Actually, Guardian would have made a wonderful appetizer for its predecessor, as it feels for all the world like a testing bed for technology just waiting to be the game that had already been made.
And at E3 this year we saw the great epitaph for Guardian: a graphics demo for the Shadow rerelease on PS4, the giant dog monster slinking tail-tucked back into its sketchpad. The problem is not a dearth of creativity: designer Fumito Ueda clearly has no qualms with the avant-garde if he’s willing to devote a decade of development to a Francisco Goya interpretation of Hey You, Pikachu! In fact, I believe we could use more humans just like him. The problem, I think, is in following perfection.
Like a great anatomical drawing, Shadow is constructed into form by function alone and this resulting convergence is what it calls “beauty.” It has no extra parts, even those that should have been requirements of the medium (Ueda calls this “design by subtraction”). There are no equipment upgrades or levels to earn, no knowledge to gain of any kind – it has progress but no advancement. The sixteen colossi bosses are not enemies but levels, essentially imploded three-dimensional models of temples from The Legend of Zelda. The surface of their backs keeps time as you solve the puzzle of their anatomy. They are so unlike enemies that their death is a travesty: Kow Otani’s score and the elegiac collapse of all the colossus’ meticulous structure robs the player even of the staple emotion of feeling their victory over obstacles. You feel as though you’ve taken something beautiful from the world. You begin to intensely introspect every action you take. Mountains start to seem like the graves of some lost myth; every inch of the world seems to contain a story that you could miss if you wander too far, or blink too soon.
Can we call this “progress?” The player evolves in Shadow from a stalwart conqueror with a princess to save, into a conscientious orator of actions, a curator of necessary tragedies and costly ambitions. It is no accident that the player is literally reborn at the game’s conclusion, nor that Team Ico, after that performance, could not be.
If you add meat to Shadow’s bones, you’ve glorified and so diminished its perfection. Any function of a modern console would disrupt its form – you see how the sight and sound programs of Guardian deflate the magic with the trials of technology. They failed to tell an interactive story at the most basic level, despite excelling in their usual flare, with the depth of a symphony, in the realms of scoring the weighty visuals and rendering the world with the tact of a fairytale. Guardian lacks the most basic immersion required of any story, video game or not, interrupted by the quirks of programming and the alienation of imperfect mechanics. The player becomes self-professedly blameless against the faults built into the system of Guardian, as much as the player of Shadow had to confront every minute action with an awed sense of responsibility.
To be expending resources now in updating the textures of their old masterpiece for their faithful wanderers is tragic. Great designers should not be reduced to cover bands and curiosities. To make Shadow that early in his career, to fly that close to the sun of his own ambitions, Ueda built an impassable mountain for himself. To go around it, design something new, something perfect in another realm, would have taken the kind of humility that I don’t suspect the creator of perfection could possess. Instead he placed his art at the mercy of unready technology and squandered eight years of expectations. I only hope I have not just written his epitaph, but I cannot think of stooping any lower than following such a daring experiment by increasing the polygon count of his old work, I suspect, to keep the lights on for the next decade of Ueda’s excursions.
Perhaps they should take a cue from the great director and, rather than strain their workaday skeletons at imitation – the most thankless of all artistic tasks – gain 300 pounds of glorious belly and subsist on steak and interviews and memories for the rest of time. It might rob us of art we will never know, but it would certainly save us the trouble of expecting something from them.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: email@example.com