March 04, 2007
Taking The Road to Shadow of the Colossus
Not too long ago I happened across Cormac McCarthy's latest, The Road in my local library, and so I picked it up. I haven't read McCarthy before, but I'll probably read more of him now. I'll warn you before even starting that there may be spoilers below, both of The Road and of Shadow of the Colossus. [edit: Having now come to a point where I'm spoiling to beat the band, I'm coming back up here to warn you properly. Spoilers of both definitely follow. So if you still haven't finished Colossus, Tim, then don't keep reading. Or at least be warned.]
When it comes to thinking about books that I read, I often employ a formalist approach, particularly if the form of the novel in question stands out from others around it¹. I'm not strictly a formalist, by any means², but I think it's a useful way to think about books, and sometimes, about games. In the case of The Road, I'm very struck by how its form complements its content.
The form is pretty loose; there are no chapters, merely passages of varying length, though none more than a few pages as I recall. These sections are simply set apart by a couple of extra blank lines, no adornments whatsoever. The passage of time is rarely mentioned. Considering the content of the novel -- that of an unnamed father and son making their way through a post-nuclear holocaust world -- this format is entirely appropriate. In the novel, life is reduced to mere survival, the father often commenting to himself that he doesn't know why he's continuing on, just that he is. In a life with survival as its singular concern, we spend so much time focusing on our own safety that little time remains for contemplation; and when it comes, that contemplation merely passes in and out, as if our consciousness is suddenly awakened for a time before slipping out again.
In The Road, those cases are often social -- well, as social as this post-apocalyptic vision gets. Maybe it would be more accurate simply to call them encounters: encounters between the father and son (discussions, questions), encounters between them and others (who wish to do them harm or not), encounters between the father and his own demons (from past, present, and future). The rest of their living -- the spaces between the encounters -- could surely make for another narrative, but McCarthy wants us to focus on these.
Finally, the last encounter of the book causes us to re-evaluate what's gone before. The father dies, and dies without taking his son with him, though he has grappled with that throughout the book, in many of what I've called its encounters. He dies, knowing that his son will probably die, and probably in some horrible way. And just then, the reader is given hope, as the story is turned on its ear and a group of folks come out of the woods around the boy. It's a powerfully strange moment, and it makes you re-evaluate much of what went before.
This whole structure powerfully reminds me of Shadow of the Colossus, which is structured around 16 very specific encounters surrounded by moments of comparative blankness, and ending with a sequence that causes us to think about what's gone before.
Game structure isn't new, by any means, and so formalism is a tool we can apply about when we talk about games. For example, part of what made Mario 64 so terrific was its form, which was discussed by Doug Church in Game Developer way back in the nineties (and reproduced on GamaSutra, I find now; registration required). Form is, of course, largely the success of the recent entries in the Grand Theft Auto series; even if you don't care for the games in terms of content (I don't, though I see the appeal), you have to respect the innovation in form.
Anyway, back to Colossus. First, the blanks. They are not, of course, truly blanks, and each player no doubt experiences them somewhat differently. They can be used to explore the space, to marvel at the beauty of the place (despite some performance trouble spots, this game was staggeringly beautiful), or you can run as quickly as you can to the next Colossus. Either way, you'll be existing in a space that is somewhat blank, from an interactivity standpoint -- and the sun-bleached appearance of that area adds to the feeling of blankness. That time is also used to expand the relationship between you and Agro³, as you spend the time fiddling with the interface to see what other cool tricks the horse can do, or just marvelling at the vitality of the controller vibrating in your hand in time to the hoofbeats. You might spend time puzzling over the relationship between the protagonist and the young woman who lies (dead? in a coma? in some sort of stasis?) on the altar back in the hall of Colossal statues.
Next, of course, are the encounters, which are extraordinary, of course, and which are magnified by their setting. I think they would have lost something had they been placed alongside the standard repetitive gameplay that makes up most action-adventure games. When I think of other games with boss fights, I think of them going one of two ways: either the bosses are primarily encounters like any other, perhaps with small additions to the core mechanics, or they add new mechanics entirely4. Both of these approaches have problems: your boss battles become less interesting from a game perspective because they are simply more of the same (though they may be satisfying in terms of game fiction, which is how these are often dressed up), or your boss battles are frustrating because they introduce new mechanics that for one reason or another you find difficult. Colossus sidestepped this entirely -- the core mechanics of combat are used only for the Colossi, and since there are only sixteen of them, there isn't really enough time for them to get completely old5. The structure of the game emphasizes the majesty of the Colossi.
When you think back on the game, you will not think on the blanks so much as you will think on the encounters, in much the way you will remember The Road. When thinking of The Road, I remember specific encounters in the context of a backdrop of bleak survivalism. When I think of Shadow of the Colossus, I remember specific encounters in the context of a backdrop of majestic beauty. And in both cases, what came at the conclusion made me spend time rethinking what had gone before. In both cases, the form strikingly complements its content, which I think elevates both.
Well, I'm not sure what I'll talk about next, but I'm sure I'll find something. I actually managed to finish quite a number of games back in December, and I've been spending some time in Outland lately, so we'll see. I'll be away at GDC next week, which will likely spur me to post, though I may not have time to while I'm there. Cheers.
¹ So, if reading a book of letters, I'll ask myself why that particular story lends itself well to an epistolary approach, if in fact it does. (back)
² The simple fact of the matter is that I'm simply too amateur a literary critic to be dogmatic about these things. I do, however, completely enjoy works which satirize academicians who spend so much energy defending against enemies of their approaches and isms, like Zadie Smith's On Beauty, which I read some time back in the fall. Good times. (back)
³ To my mind, this relationship is one of the most powerful in games -- I felt very strongly for that horse by the time he helped me to cross what appeared to be an uncrossable bridge on the way to the last Colossus, and his sacrifice on behalf of the protagonist at that point was extraordinarily painful and poignant. (back)
4Generally speaking, I prefer the approach of Zelda -- new mechanics are introduced more or less in each dungeon (perhaps before you enter, perhaps not), and those are used for the boss battle and then further in the game. (back)
5There was one exception to this, as I recall. I remember being quite frustrated on the final Colossus because I couldn't figure out how to get from one hand to the other, or from a hand to the shoulder or something, and it involved using the bow instead, which hadn't really been a vital aspect of prior encounteres. That was a case where I had to figure it out and was a little stymied, but as I recall some help from a friend on IM got me through. (back)