Almost 13 years ago, video games changed. Yes, that was when the seventh generation of video game consoles began with the release of the Xbox 360 (and the impending release of the PlayStation 3) and saw the birth of several monstrous franchises like Guitar Hero and God of War, but we’re talking about just one game here: Fumito Ueda’s masterpiece Shadow of the Colossus.
You already know so much about it. How could you not when it’s the first name out of 87% of the video game-playing population’s mouth when you ask about their favorite game? It’s a modern landmark title only rivaled by the likes of Geometry Wars, Braid, and Half-Life. But more importantly, Shadow of the Colossus engendered the idea of the video game auteur.
It sounds a bit highfalutin considering names like Shigeru Miyamoto have been there from the start and not to mention basically every game in the halcyon Atari days were created, designed, and developed by a single person, but the actual development of Shadow of the Colossus was both strident and stringent enough in a modern age where the Internet meant the endless news cycle also applied to video games that everyone knew about it.
The creator of the abrasively underrated and then-underground classic Ico (a title nearly as troubled as The Last Guardian) was garnering a tremendous reputation of an unrelenting perfectionist. Out of 500 artists, he only found two worth his time. He asked programmers to create a robust, dynamic physics system that had to be even dreamt of in an era when rendering circles was a challenge. And goddammit if that horse wasn’t the best horse.
But out of this singular, unwavering vision that eventually did have to compromise, a sort of felicity occurred. To capture the sort of mood he wanted, Ueda made the same sort of aesthetic choices that informed Ico‘s visuals. That slightly muddy, hollow world was also populated by some of the best lighting you could find on a console or otherwise. He wanted you to feel lonely, and it worked.
Through that, it happened to tap into something else. We’ll never know exactly what Ueda had in mind without compromises on the table, but the result in 2005 and in the 2011 remaster was a strangely ethereal, impressionistic painting of a world. It was hazy and occasionally would make you squint but it felt grand and immense in a way that games that simply tried to top the ladder of higher and higher graphical fidelity just couldn’t achieve.
(Just look at Far Cry, a whole game created at the sole sacrifice of design and gameplay to make a massive world feel truly massive.)
And then, just two days ago, the remake—not just a remaster—by Bluepoint was released for the PlayStation 4.
It brings to mind the Ship of Theseus, a thought experiment by Plutarch from his Parallel Lives biographies. You have a ship. It’s been yours for years and years and years, carrying you from port to port on one adventure after another. But as the winds batter the sails and rocks crash against the bow, you have to make repairs. You replace the mast and the rudder has been made new several times over. So little of the original ship remains, in fact, that you have to ask: is it still the same ship?
Whether the interpretative effect was intended or not, the result that came tumbling out of Team Ico in 2005 was the game that it is to this day. And that barren, unremarkable landscape seeped into you brain over 15 hours and your brain bled back over. It filled that simple world of harsh edges and flat plains until that forbidden land became real. It was, in effect, what happens when you sit and let Monet’s Impression, Sunrise soak into you.
With the remake, however, the graphical fidelity is cranked up to a truly contemporary level. It is a simply stunning game. The share button on the PlayStation 4 was seemingly made for this release. Everything feels…real, as if they were ripped from some world you’ll never touch but you can see right here on your screen. The grass is lush as it undulates in the breeze, sun streaking through the dense branches of the trees overhead. Even in a world of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Monster Hunter: World, it’ll catch your eye.
And you can’t fault Sony: to the unfamiliar, that level of panache will sell copies. Nor can you fault Bluepoint because there’s nothing really to fault. It simply is a different experience they have created, one that can’t touch the one you created with your PlayStation 2 nearly 13 years ago. A different game. A different time.
It asks a fascinating academic question of what whether the arc of the brush in the hand or the paint it leaves behind is the more important part of art. It’s a question that will undoubtedly never find an answer, but the discussion of it is what’s vital. We’ll play these games, we’ll look back on our times with them, and we’ll ask if they are the same. If we are indeed on the same ship.
We’ll wonder what we preserve—how we preserve video games. How do we capture an experience that doesn’t exist in isolation? How do we bring with it all the social and political and technological context? What, if any of it, is disposable? Perhaps, most terrifyingly, the game itself is what becomes disposable as remakes become the meat and potatoes of an industry failing to put a manageable cap on triple-A development.
I’ll let you know when they inevitably release Shadow of the Colossus for VR.