When Shadow of the Colossus dropped in 2005, I doubt many expected the minimalist and soft-spoken video game to go on and inspire many well regarded big-budget video games like Breath of the Wild or Elden Ring, or to even be featured in a major Hollywood movie (Reign On Me). So much has been said about the game in the years since its release; it’s a work of art in the truest sense of the word, a meditation on the lengths we’ll go through to save the ones we care for, a thrilling adventure story, a tragedy. I’m partial to the tragedy camp, and with all great tragedies, Colossus is anchored in its story by one of the greatest tragic heroes of all time: a character simply known as Wander. Colossus doesn’t have much in the way of concrete storytelling, instead favoring to imply many of its beats. In the beginning, you see our tragic hero Wander bringing a girl to an altar where she lies dead and encounters a being known as Dormin who makes a cursed deal with him; destroy the sixteen colossi that roam this forbidden land, and the girl will be revived. He is warned from the beginning that this will be no easy task, and even if he is successful, he’ll still have to pay a great price for his wish.
It’s a simple premise, and throughout the game, very little else is given in the way of story or real character progression. There are no long dialogue sequences about Wander’s motivations, backstory, or anything resembling a traditional arc. Instead, what we’re given is Wander’s silent devotion to the one he cares for as he goes out and takes on larger-than-life creatures, some peaceful, others combative on sight, all of which dangerous and can stomp out Wander in an instant. What drew me into Wander as a character wasn’t so much that he was the atypical adventure hero, but one that through the course of the game felt doomed. With each colossi that falls, the feeling of achievement is cut short by the disturbing dark elements that invade Wander’s body as melancholy music plays that goes a long way in making the player question whether or not what they’ve accomplished was an achievement worth celebrating despite what’s at stake.
This, of course, was by design as the game’s director Fumito Ueda mentions in an interview with Cane and Rinse stating, “When I first showed my staff the sequence of sad-sounding music being played after defeating a colossus in “Shadow of the Colossus,” they thought it was a bug and laughed because they were so used to games that would play a fanfare after defeating a monster.” When I beat my first colossus within the game, I too felt a pang of distraught at what I had brought, and Wander’s silence goes a long way in pointing the finger that I was the one responsible.
The brilliance of Wander as a character has more to do with the fact that his motivations are so clear cut and straightforward that as a result it creates a direct connection between player and character. Similar to video game characters like Gordon Freeman in the Half-Life series or Chell from Portal (Valve is just really good at these kind of characters… who knew), the brilliance of the silent protagonist is allowing the player to immerse themselves in a way that isn’t intrusive to the games writing of the character. Anyone can relate to wanting to go out of their way to help or save the ones they care for, and Ueda uses that sense of empathy to great effect here in crafting a character that isn’t a superhero or indestructible. Ueda, in the same interview with Cane and Rinse, said of this design, “I’d say that I wanted the protagonists to have some kind of vulnerability that players could empathize with rather than to be immaculately perfect protagonists.” It goes even further when you compare Wander to other action-adventure heroes that would normally give a sense of empowerment to the player by being these larger-than-life heroes. Characters like Link (another silent protagonist) or Lara Croft display characteristics that the everyman or woman does not. In another interview with website shmuplations after the idea that silent protagonists may expand the players’ imagination Ueda responds:
It’s a little difficult for me to explain, but games like Flashback, Out of this World, and even Grand Theft Auto III… I’m not very good at English, so I don’t really understand what’s going on in those worlds very well. That’s been the case with most games I’ve personally imported. And yet, it’s precisely my not knowing that makes the experience exciting.
This idea of not understanding and piecing it together in a way that makes sense to the player is not only a great storytelling design for video games, but it is also one that elevates Shadow of the Colossus to a status that most video games are only alluded to having; the comparison to that of a work of art. Much like when someone approaches a work of art in a museum, it becomes difficult to parse through what is meant to be understood, and thus the viewer of said art allows themselves to give meaning to what they are seeing. The same can be said for Shadow of the Colossus and its protagonist; is Wander the triumphant hero, a selfish villain, or is he someone who eludes these categorizations?
When I played Shadow of the Colossus all those years ago, sitting criss-cross on my grandmother’s carpet floor as a child, I felt as though I was a hero attempting to save his love in typical hero fashion. When I played the remaster years later, sitting in my bedroom as a young adult, I found myself shifting in the belief that I was an ignorant fool killing innocent creatures. Were I to play it now, I’d find myself feeling sorry for Wander that this was his last option. Shadow of the Colossus is remarkable for many reasons, from its gameplay to its art style to its unique direction, and right at the center of that is a character who allows a player to take in all these qualities without detracting from it. In my mind, that’s what makes Wander a significant character and arguably one of the best.