Today’s post is about a video game.
Don’t close the window, I have a serious point in all of this!
I freely admit that as a hobby, games are not in the least constructive, and correspondingly, as I’ve grown up, have bills to pay and dedicate most of my free time to my creative endeavors, my time playing games has decreased. But I still feel that video games have the potential to be a great art form, and should be taken seriously (the fact that the games currently and pretentiously trying to be “art” are all terrible is an issue for another day).
Today, I wish to talk about a game that, upon first playing, instantly ingratiated itself in my heart as a classic of the medium, and, as you can probably surmise from the title of this video, is a game that is as relevant to masculine men, and neo-masculine men in particular, as any game could be–hell, I’d argue most works of fiction PERIOD don’t cast as much of an earnest yet critical gaze on masculinity as this game: Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus.
Now of course to clarify, there are certainly many works out there criticizing masculinity, but as you can imagine it’s all from the court-approved “men should be more like women,” “men are the cause of all their own problems,” and “masculinity sucks” perspective. And lord knows video games are certainly not adverse to the plasticky “women in tight pants kicking ass” schtick,
No, Shadow of the Colossus views masculinity as something of a sympathetic tragic state, tragedy in the ancient Greek sense, a character trait that takes a man to ahem colossal heights and dismal lows, a nuanced and three-dimensional view of the “tactical virtues” that only an intellectual man could understand.
Anyway, let’s talk about the game:
Shadow of the Colossus is a game that I have jokingly referred to in conversation as “Robert Howard’s ‘The Legend of Zelda,’” for reasons that are pretty evident if you are knowledgeable of Mr. Howard’s life and times–semi-requited love, personal tragedy and Quixotic efforts to be great, and a dark and dismal view of humanity characterize Howard’s work, in contrast to the black and white (but still very good and enjoyable) fantasy morality of someone like Tolkien, which in my opinion is what something like Zelda bears a much greater resemblance to.
Anyway, the game is about a young (and somewhat effeminate) man and the woman he loves. The man, Wander, comes to a forbidden land, a land of death and decay, carrying the beautiful corpse of Mono, a woman sacrificed for some unexplained reason, upon his horse named Agro. Stopping in a temple and waving his stolen sword around, the disembodied voice of Dormin, a mysterious entity (or rather, entities), tells our hero that he/they (Dormin refers to himself with the royal “we”) can bring his woman back to life, but there is an enormous price to pay: go out into the wasteland, find the 16 Colossi and slay them, and Mono will be brought back to life. And so, leaving Mono upon an altar, and leaving the temple, the quest begins.
The game essentially consists of long periods of riding through beautiful voids upon your valiant steed to reach the location that your sword points you towards–a location that, without exception, will throw you into an absolutely harrowing fight against one of the 16 Colossi giants of ambiguous origin, odd beauty, and terrible power.
Fitting what I said about the, for lack of a better term, “realism” of this unabashedly fantastical game, The Colossi pull absolutely no punches against the little pest nipping against their ankles/hooves/wings/indescribable appendage–they will stomp, punch, shake, smash, run, fly, swim, and do anything else possible to kill you. And then there’s YOUR fighting techniques.
In contrast to a Legend of Zelda or some other similar action-fantasy game, there are no weapon upgrades, special skills and techniques, or really anything remotely stylish about the combat: Wander, armed with nothing beyond a sword and a bow, fights just as dirty as his opponents: arrows are almost always aimed at the neck, the eyes, the wings, or the inflating air sacs of the giants in order to bring them down to a manageable height. Wander will then proceed to mount his foe, climb up the beast’s back hair/wing bones/whatever appendage, find a soft spot, and jam his sword into it until it dies. There are no spin attacks, magic spells, or anything to take your mind off the sheer brutality of your actions, just the ability to adjust the strength of your stab. Geysers of black blood erupt from the stab wounds you inflict, and this barbarism continues until either you or the Colossi are dead.
“Sounds pretty cool Larsen,” you might say, “but what does any of this have to do with masculinity?”
To understand why, let’s look at the game thematically. Shadow of the Colossus is often cited as a companion piece to ICO, a game made by the same company. They both share similar artistic choices (such as minimalism and use of color and lighting for mood and affect), they are (MILD SPOILERS) unambiguously set in the same fictional universe, and both have plots that heavily revolve around young people in love. Just ballparking, ICO seems to involve younger characters than SOTC, and as such the romance between the boy and girl in that game is rather cute and innocent, showing the protectiveness a boy has for the girl he loves.
SOTC on the other hand shows a romance between older teenagers/young adults, and makes it substantially darker, showing the fanaticism and madness that love can drive men to. Wander, I feel, is typical of a lot of young men–he’s certainly a lot like me when I was a teen. He is a headstrong idealist to the point of honestly being a bit of an idiot, madly in love with a girl that he may or may not actually know very well (interestingly, the game leaves it very ambiguous as to what their relationship is), and Wander is willing to do anything for love, to the point where he’ll just take the advice of a shifty character (Dormin) to gallivant off and kill for his woman, without even once thinking about the ulterior motive they might have.
Adding to his “corrupted Everyman” sort of characterization, note the scrawny mediocrity that is Wander’s physique, and his utter lack of skill and technique that Wander has in his swordsmanship–indeed, attempting to swing your sword when walking around not on a Colossus shows Wander to clearly have no training in swordsmanship whatsoever, and sometimes he’ll just trip over his two feet for no reason.
To paraphrase HL Mencken, when it comes to romance, men are the romantics, and women are the pragmatists. “Man is…too doltish, too naive, too romantic…too easily deluded,” Mencken said.
History has shown there have been many analogues to Dormin, taking advantage of the masculine spirit and idealistic, romantic tendencies of young men to recruit for the military or other miserable tasks. In fact, War Before Civilization, which I reviewed not too long ago, cites examples of the women of tribal cultures shaming the cowardly and hesitant warriors and goading them into battle, so there have likely been “Dormins” as long as there has been battle.
Note that the exploitation of masculinity still goes on, even in this day and age that denigrates and eschews masculinity as some atavistic nonsense: those who would denigrate men for not submitting to the ritualized shaming and humiliation will ALWAYS try to goad them into it by using the language of “manning up”–“Man up and pay into a system that doesn’t do anything for you,” “man up and wear women’s shoes,” and so forth.
As the dead Colossi begin to pile up and Dormin continues to advise/exploit our hero (to be fair, Dormin generally proves themselves to be honorable in giving advice and upholding their end of the bargain. What’s shifty about him is his motive for doing all of this), Wander begins to undergo marked physical change–he gradually becomes more pallid and haggard, and his veins begin to run black. Gradually, it is revealed that those who originally sacrificed Mono have decided to stop Wander’s quest, and the conflict builds to a destructive climax.
Without revealing too much, I will say that Wander’s physical change is a symptom of a far greater spiritual and moral change; symbolic, perhaps of the corruption that the killing of the Colossi has done to his soul. At the end, it’s difficult to decide whether the quest can be considered righteous at all. Of what little we see of Mono, she certainly seems like a nice girl, and the doves surrounding her in the temple are a rather explicit expression of innocence and chastity, but the time comes where any young man who has a sweetheart, and has had to sacrifice for her, has to ask himself: “Is she really worth all of this?”
The abrupt and undoubtedly deliberate musical change that occurs when you start to get the upper hand over the Colossus, a stirring and heroic theme of battle that turns into a somber and grim dirge as each colossus hurtles to the ground in its death throes seems to be symbolic of the rush of adrenaline and heroic toil that is battle turning into regret when the dust clears and the warrior catches his breath, as if to ask “was any of this worth it?” To speak from my own experience, this might just be me, but whenever I got into a fist fight in school or whatever, whether I won or lost, and I’ve done both, I’d feel miserable and ashamed of myself for succumbing to this atavism once the adrenaline of combat dialed down. The musical sea change embodies that emotional roller coaster very aptly.
In his quest, Wander fights like an–ahem–man possessed as he clings to the scrotal hair of his giant foes, enduring blunt force, frigid waters, scorching sand, and searing wind, all in the name of love. His determination and bravery is certainly something to be respected (in fact, he effortlessly and brilliantly shows three of the four of the tactical virtues defined in The Way of Men, a book that is otherwise entirely unrelated to this article, but is one that I highly recommend), but these traits render him, at best, a tragic hero due to the fact that his heroism and bravery are, essentially, pointed in the wrong direction (and frankly, I’m not sure if there is a “right” direction for him), because he lacks the worldly wisdom of an older man, and is motivated into the committing of atrocities by the idea of a woman presented to him by a manipulative entity, rather than from orders directly from the woman in question. Thus, much like the famous Nietzsche quote, he fights monsters only to become one himself.
This, again, has many parallels throughout history, as plenty of wars (some would say the vast majority of wars) have been fought by poor, idealistic young men ordered to kill by war profiteers and ideologues that wouldn’t be caught dead doing any of the fighting for themselves. How, might I ask, is Wander any different from some young kid in the American Heartland duped into going to Iraq to find “weapons of mass destruction” and “defend democracy,” only to come back and find a country that spits upon everything he thought he was defending?
I will not claim to know what the writer of the game’s story had in mind when he crafted this tale, all I will do is give my interpretation of it, which is that Shadow of the Colossus is a tragic tale of a young man’s love, strength, courage, and idealism being cynically exploited, and suffering horrifically because as a result of his actions. Something that should provide pathos for all of us reading.
As masculine men, we know that men and women are not the same, and we know that a man is far more likely to do insane things for love, and is far more likely to fanatically dedicate himself to something, such as (but certainly not limited to) a woman. And with our perspective, we should understand why the events depicted in this game took place, how to avoid similar manipulation in our own lives (regardless of the source), and how even a video game such as this can provide meaningful life lessons.
Do whatever you need to do, even if you’ve never played a video game before in your life, I’d recommend playing this now, or at least watching a Let’s Play of it on Youtube, to access one of the most outstanding parables of manhood in this day and age that you’ll ever see.