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A landscape of memory; returning to Shadow of the Colossus

This article is part of PS2 Week, a full week celebrating the 2000 PlayStation 2 console. To see other articles, go here.

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It’s hard to calculate the distance from the clifftop to the sea below. My body, my eyes, the trembling in my legs tells me it is far, too far. Yet I can make out the marbling of the dark water as the foam traces fractal patterns after every impact. The white spray flash-bulb frozen against grey stone. The glassy shapes traced by swirling currents. These details feel close, painfully close. Perhaps it is the rhythm, the yawning in and out that closes the distance. Or the complexity, the hypnotic pattern of wave impact and tidal draw. Either way, it is a connection that is felt, both in the sharp edges of the wind and the distant roar of the breakers. To me, it’s a familiar connection, one so atomized into the structures of my mind that if it were to disappear from the world I could rebuild it entirely, piece by piece, until it felt right.

Yet this clifftop, this sea, doesn’t feel right. There is wind, at least a fallacy of wind, and there is the sound of distant waves, but the connection is off, absent. The visceral feeling of standing both on the clifftop, and imagining yourself buffeted by the waves below is somehow missing, the mysterious ingredients of its make-up out of reach. There is a lightness to everything, an impermanence, as if all the tensions could be reconciled in a moment, like crumpled paper suddenly folded into neat squares. It is an unfair comparison, of course, this limited digital world held against the unlimited pathos of memory. But, like the waves and the clifftop, the connection is there.

In memory everything is virtual

I am speaking of my own memories and the image on the screen in front of me. The image is from Shadow of the Colossus (2005): A young man stood on a clifftop, looking down at the sea below. This image is defined by its feeling of fragmentation, incompleteness. Key pieces of information are missing, unable to be represented in this limited visual space. The temperature, the texture, the smell of the image are all absent, all fragmented. My memory of the clifftop is the same; missing pieces that have slipped away, details and complexities lost to time and perception. I have stood on many clifftops, and watched countless waves break, and so when I recall the feeling, the connection, I am recalling a tapestry. My mind is filling in gaps with variations of that same memory, ones both distant and recent. And then it is also adding fabrications, songs, films, games, paintings, poems; each one a fragment that might make up a whole. The experiences blend easily, parts of each switching places like shuffled cards. In memory everything is virtualthere is no distinction between the digital and the analog, the played and the lived. I recall something I once read from an interview with William Gibson: “On the most basic level, computers in my books are simply a metaphor for human memory: I’m interested in the hows and whys of memory, the ways it defines who and what we are, in how easily memory is subject to revision.”

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Just off the Northernmost coast of Scotland are a group of islands. Scattered into the sea like a handful of stones, they stretch away from the mainland towards the great pole beyond. Some of them are low and flat, almost barren. Others are protected by high cliffs, where the waves crash in a powerful chorus. These islands, despite the hostility of their climatetheir treeless hills and stormy seashave been home to people for eight and a half thousand years. The remains of these people can be found all across their rich peat fields. Not in the physical form of bones and corpses, but in the heavy stone structures they left behind. Stone circles mark lands of unknown significance, villages sunk into the soil conceal themselves from ancient winds and humped burial mounds house the dead. It was on these islands that I grew up. I played in the ancient homes of long dead farmers, looped in and out of stone circles on wayward paths, and climbed down long dark passages to reach the resting places of the dead. I clearly remember the emptiness of the burial mound at Maes Howe, a place where, on the winter solstice each year, the weak yellow sun shines down the entryway to light a set of carvings on the far wall of the tomb. I ran my fingers across that wall, feeling the stone cut by the neolithic peoples of the island, crisscrossed by the runic graffiti that invading vikings had added many centuries later. There were no corpses, there was no blood, but the dead were all around me, close enough to touch.

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Shadow of the Colossus is filled with fictional proof of a long passed human presence. Though the central tower of Dormin’s shrine suggests that this land is a holy place, not a home, the map is scattered with broken halls, fallen towers, lonely arches. The scale is monumental, but there is something distinctly human about this trail of ancient evidence. Perhaps there is nothing more humanizing than death. Even the Pyramids of Giza, those vast monuments to belief in human immortality, have an aura of grief hanging over them, one of the deeply personal experience of loss and losing. A tomb is a powerfully different space to a grand shrine or cathedral, though they often occupy the same land. The latter demands you look upward, to salvation, omnipotence, and the continuation of the spirit. But a tomb will only ever lead your eyes to the ground. It doesn’t matter if tombs themselves might preach reincarnation, or the paradise of heaven, they are still unable to escape the earthiness of death. Decomposition has no theology. The structures of Shadow of the Colossus are memento mori; moments of remembrance that the ground you tread might hold the bodies of those who were once in your place.

However, the game never shows its dead, never exhumes their bodies. Even in the most tomb-like parts of its architecture, simple carvings are the only detail to be found, along with a distinct sense of emptiness. Where are the bodies? Where are the skeletons? Or even the caskets and the mortsafes? Throughout the entirety of Shadow of the Colossus you will not encounter a single dead body, skeleton, or corpse. You will never follow a blood trail, or find signs of a struggle splattered across the walls of some dark corridor. Despite this, death is everywhere. It lies on open wastelands stripped bare by the wind, among the piled stones of distant shrines, and concealed in the darkest corners of long forgotten edifices. It’s one of the many design decisions that makes the game a true rarity. When games wish to tell a story, they reach straight for the bodies. They liberally scatter them in steely science-fiction corridors, line them up along brick walls. They float them in sewers and stack them in dumpsters. They leave them slumped on desks like executive toys, their blood pooling out of the shiny surface. In games, corpses are a meaningless literalization of death. They are used as symbolic assets, ready to communicate the imminent arrival of some fearsome enemy or terrifying monster. In short, they are furniture. Which is why Shadow of the Colossus doesn’t contain any. No corpses, no ancient sofas or chairs, no rusted tools or rotting barrels. No beds and no bunks, no coffins and no caskets. There is no need for such decoration: This landscape is a tomb.

In games corpses are a meaningless literalization of death

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I pick up the controller and walk the young man down the long sloping path to the base of the cliff. There I am drawn to the waves. There is an expanse of beach all around, ominous in its scale. There will be a battle here, I know that already, but I want to preserve this moment a little longer. I make him run out across the beach, so flat and grey and dry, like no beach I have ever walked on. The light descending seems dusty with age, a strange thought in this world with no true history of its own. He reaches the breaking waves, rolling onto the beach in an unnervingly even pattern. The sound is wrong, disconnected. I can hear the lapping of a placid sea, calm and even, and yet I am faced with waves as high as a man, riding up out of the sea with a constant force. I walk the young man along the edge of the water,  struggling to resolve this disconnection between sound and image. I want a sound that can drown out everything else, a crashing, roaring sea eroding this world into oblivion. A sound that breaks the cliffs down and carries the pieces off to another shore. Instead, the insipid sound of a toe-lapping tourist beach trembles through the speakers. I hit mute, preferring silence. Then, in a sudden movement, as if this is what I had planned to do all along, I run headlong into the waves.

As I do this I remember something. But it can’t be a real memoryit’s impossible. The sea was too cold, the waves too strong. It would have been idiotic, suicidal even, to dive into their depths. It was possible to swim in the summer, sure, when the island’s waves were low lapping contours, approaching the land one by one. But no, the way I remember it, these waves were breakers, walls of foam straight off the North Sea, blown by Arctic winds. They were winter waves, sharp and biting, and my brothers and I walked out into them. We were rolled over by them, drenched, dragged and then we came back up for air. We plunged into them, cartwheeling into the foam laughing, and returning to the surface gasping. I can still feel the icy cold, the weight of the water, the salt, the sandall crystallized. Yet it never happened. It is a crude, hacked-together dream, built of the wave dodging we did as children along the North Sea coast, and the joy of throwing ourselves deep into other, warmer waters, on softer, southern beaches. That doesn’t stop me remembering it though, as a single memory, powerful and exhilarating in each recurrence.

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I turn back to the screento Shadow of The Colossus and the young man running into the waves. The image is comical: The young man is turned on his head by an unnaturally silent, unnaturally smooth wave. He is rolled back up the beach, and deposited unceremoniously on the sand. I try again, running forward the moment he has regained his feet. He is caught earlier this time, and is pushed back, turned around and left lying on the sand again. His horse trots up the beach and rears up, as if confused by his master’s idiocy. I send the young man into the waves once more, choosing my moment this time, a gap between tides. He runs into the water until the current holds him in place, he braces against it, legs spread wide and arms out. It holds him there until the next wave slides silently in and flips him over, bouncing him on his head for good measure this time. I take this as a challenge: It’s a game now, I think, and I run at the water again.

It was a game then, too, a game of staying dry in a world of wet. As the North Sea rolled in we would run across white sand beaches, voices taken by the wind. As each wave drew the water back, rattling pebbles in the wash, we would surge forward, filling the space on the drying sand. And then, as the breaker hovered and plunged, we would stay as long as we could before jumping out of the way, jostling and pushing each other into the sea’s path. There was a dog too, sprinting back and forth behind us, barking at the excitement of three brothers. The madness of that ragged creature far outstrips the uneven programming of the young man’s horseits digital analogin Shadow of the Colossus, and yet perhaps these are the two elements that feel closest of all. Both are distant flickers at the edge of the memory, comical side characters that charge through on trajectories of their ownunknown and unknowable.

I hit mute, preferring silence

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To me, the landscape of Shadow of the Colossus will always have associations with the city of Stirling. It was there I spent a summer living with a friend, wandering the expanses of its wind-scoured world in an almost aimless fashion. I had played the game before, but it was over the course of those summer evenings, worn out from menial work, that I would slump down into my seat and ride out between the stone bluffs for no other reason than to be somewhere else. We would trade secrets, discuss theories, and nights would stretch on as we hunted lizards with the playfulness of children, firing arrows just to watch how they flew. We played the game on a large flatscreen TV in the rented flat, a perk clearly designed to bring in students, of which there are many in Stirling. It was a cheap and ugly thing, sub-HD, and smeared the image at the slightest movement, turning Shadow of the Colossus’ already bleached look into an impressionistic smudge. Even if this wasn’t the case, the landscape of Shadow of the Colossus was broken, perhaps even ugly. Its simple geometry and muddy texturing was less than convincing, and the stone features that rise from it had the unnerving of habit of changing shape or jumping entirely into existence from nothing as we approached them.

It is perhaps because of this that I remember the game’s landscapes so richly. In the spaces left by the smears and the bloom I inserted detail, invented texture. However, even in their crude form, these landscapes have a particular quality. Though their fidelity is limited, the modeling and shaping of their cliffs and bluffs, scree slopes, and erratic boulders rings true. It is exaggerated, sure, with sea cliffs higher than any in existence and huge stone escarpments rising like skyscrapers, but it feels right. For someone who had spent a childhood in the often powerfully dramatic lands of Northern Scotland, there was a truth in the topography of the game, a sense of shape and form that was instantly familiar. The game’s yawning valleys and round stone hills brought to mind the slopes on either side of the saddle-backed mountain Suilven, found in the far North-East of Scotland. And the game’s Southern coastline brought back memories of exploring the Quiraing, an almost alien landslip on the Isle of Skye. These memories felt almost freely accessible to me as I rode across the game’s “Forbidden Land”, imbued, as they were, in the landscape around me. In those moments of escape in that Stirling flat, I was attempting to walk back into my memories. It’s a delicate act, identifying what it  is in the game’s landscape that so profoundly triggered these associations, but perhaps it comes down to the process of erosion.

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The landscape of Shadow of the Colossus was different once. Of its 100 squares of map, only 16 have Colossi to discover and defeat. However, when the game was first planned, its director Fumito Ueda wanted 24 of the beasts to find and slay. As has been obsessively cataloged by what is a tireless fanbase, the game’s landscape possess many traces of this original design. Ruins, landforms, and arenas all remain from the missing eight giants. The game’s “Save Shrines”, which barely serve a purpose, are sometimes obscurely positioned, and discovering them all becomes a task in itself. The result is a landscape of distinct purposelessness, one where seemingly meaningful or important forms lie everywhere, their context and explicit use lost to time. This genuine ambiguity mixes inseparably with the game’s own sense of history and atmosphere, its crumbling ruins and lost temples, to create a sense of emptiness comparable to that of the standing stones and burial mounds I played among during my childhood. In those days they were often unmarked, and without a guide or a placard displaying historical context, the stone symbols were left unexplained, to play across my mind, as mysterious as the missing colossi.

This is what makes Shadow of the Colossus world an eroded one. Its carefully modeled landforms are precise studies of the effect of weather and time on earth and stone. Its map is shaped by game design decisions lost but not corrected. Its broad visual strokes and bleached colors are the perfect canvas for the slow decay of memory, detail creeping silently in long after the console has been turned off. It feels like an impossibly rich realm of memory, a real place, and yet each time the disc is put in the console it reveals itself to be disappointingly fake. Its dysfunctions and glitches are all too present, its half-finished aspects so noticeable. The 2011 HD remake only compounds the problem; its jagged edges and sharpened textures blasting away any of the remaining softness the game might possess. The internet is filled with 1080p images taken from this game, or pin-sharp shots taken from PC emulators. Both feel like flash photographs of past events, all too revealing in their white acrid light. Now, after all these years, I cannot return to the way it was on that smeary screen in that unremarkable flat. It has eroded too far, and what has filled the cracks scored by time is too strong to be carved out.

Its broad visual strokes and bleached colors are the perfect canvas for the slow decay of memory

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I let go of the thumbstick. After a moment, I draw the young man back from the edge of the sea, suddenly feeling ridiculous. In this moment the distance between the memory of dodging waves and the process of guiding this digital avatar again and again into a contrived barrier feels the most distant. The connection has been dropped somehow, the distance once again too great. There is a task to be completed, an enemy to be slain. In the context of this vast endeavor, the boyish silliness of running repeatedly into the waves suddenly loses its weight, becomes futile. I guide the young man back up the beach, toward a vast cave mouth that is set into the cliff face. I sharpen my mind, and prepare myself for combat.

Early into the battle, once I have scaled one of the giant’s vast four legs and found purchase at its shoulder, I notice what is missing. Music. Grand orchestral music, the kind befitting a battle of this scale and scope. I realize I muted the sound during my wave-dodging and never turned it back on. I reach for the remote to restore the epic score, and then stop. I suddenly notice the direction in which the colossus is headed. I swing the camera around to confirm it, yes, he’s headed straight towards the sea.

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Without the music pushing me on to make the kill, to defeat the great beast, a calmness suddenly takes over. I haul the young man up onto the rocky spine of the creature, and perch there to get a better view. The colossus plods across the sand, almost reaching the waves. I look back, and see the young man’s horse patiently following behind, trotting in the footsteps of this gigantic beast. It is a bizarre procession towards the sea, this vast beast, ridden by its fragile rider, followed by a skittish horse. The colossus strides out into the waves, its huge hooves hammering into the sea. It drives forward and then suddenly stops. It paws ineffectually at the ground; held in its place by the current. Across the other side of the inlet I see a bird, skirting the clifftop effortlessly. The great beast takes a few more steps into the sea, but the futility of its movement is clear. It turns awkwardly on the spot and then stomps up the beach, still carrying the young man, his horse close behind.

When I strike the final blow, driving the young man’s sword into the beast’s head, the sound is still muted. The creature falls silently to the ground, reeling over its front legs and slamming into the beach. I drop off its back and begin running. I don’t even come close to reaching the waves before the black tentacles find methose shadowy limbs that burst from every fallen colossus. The young man falls to the sand as the tentacles pass through his body, and the image begins to fade. I scramble for the mute button, suddenly wanting to hear the waves before I leavebut I am too late. All I am left with are a handful of whispers, hissing over the speakers like empty noise.

I return to the beach later. The beast’s corpse is barely recognizable, fused with stone and covered in sand. All over it tufts of grass grow, as if it had been lying there for decades, perhaps centuries. I stand and look at it for a while, try to climb it, and then give up. Before I leave the beach I run into the sea one last time, knowing what will happen, but hoping that somehow this time it will be differentthat this time I might break through the barrier and reach something new and yet known, just beyond the waves.