Diamonds in the rough

Warning: Major Shadow of the Colossus spoilers ahead

It’s not often that a game features a flawed protagonist. Suzie at Girls Don’t Game mentioned that most many videogame characters feel like Greek gods—even if they are flawed, they’re immortal. No matter the missteps, the restarts, or the Game Over screens, the videogame hero wins in the end.

Shadow of the Colossus presented a flawed hero. Not only that, but he lost his life in the end, and his masterful characterization could sometimes alter the player’s perceptions of the hero, the game, and their own actions. Wander appears at the beginning of the game carrying a dead woman into a temple. He begs for help from the morally ambiguous God Dormin, who tells him that he will resurrect the woman if Wander does him a tiny favor—kill all of the colossi that roam the land.

It’s easy to doubt Dormin’s word, and only a little harder to question Wander’s motivation. The colossi are beautiful, exotic, and mostly peaceful—many won’t react to Wander until he starts shooting them with arrows or crawling up their fur. The player begins to wonder: is what I’m doing good or bad? Why is this woman so important? On a meta-level, why am I playing this game if I am somewhat repulsed by my/Wander’s actions? When I killed the thirteenth colossus, a gargantuan sky-serpent that floated lazy circles over the desert, I began to think that I was playing the villain; I was not ridding the land of colossi, but murdering natural wonders.

As Wander defeats the colossi and takes their mysterious black snakes of energy into his body, he becomes more pale and decrepit. By the last colossus, he’s limping along, barely holding himself together. His own actions are destroying him. In the end, his destruction of the colossi allows Dormin to possess him, and he is destroyed.

If Shadow of the Colossus were fiction, it would be a tragedy. In fact, it conforms almost exactly to Aristotle’s definition of Greek tragedy. The story follows a noble hero with overweening pride and a tragic flaw—his inability to accept his lover’s (?) death. The hero makes a mistake—trusting Dormin—that leads to his ultimate downfall—possession, defeat and death. Does Wander experience a “change from ignorance to awareness of a bond of love or hate” (Aristotle’s words)? Maybe or maybe not. But regardless, I’m willing to nominate Wander as gaming’s first tragic hero.

Please visit the Round Table’s Main Hall for links to all entries.

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~ by Ian D. on May 6, 2008.

4 Responses to “Diamonds in the rough”

  1. Spot on post, Ian. Thanks for contributing it!

  2. I really love this blog, thanks for linking us (GDG) so I could stumble upon here. I didn’t play Shadow, but I have played other games where the character begins to wonder what s/he is doing; Fahrenheit is a game in which you play both sides, the bad guy and the good guy, and they end up realizing there’s something more going on. On one hand, the cop wants to catch the killer; on the other, she realizes something different is going on and she wants more than just career success (her life is very empty).

    Anyway, ramble aside, great post :)

  3. Great post! When I was writing my post on Hero characters, I strongly considered SotC because I also felt it sketched a compelling tragic protagonist. And most amazingly, it does this almost completely visually with very little explanatory dialogue. Great stuff.

  4. […] 100footcroc posted an excellent review of Wander, the hero protagonist of Shadow of the Colossus. The article is absolutely worth […]

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