The Question of Morality in Shadow of the Colossus

Editor’s Note: this article, written by Izzy Maffetone, took second place in the 2012 Larry L. Stewart Prize for Critical Essay on Entertainment. Thanks to everyone who participated! 

My inquiry on Shadow of the Colossus began with a conversation I had with my mother during my course of play. While I had initial resisted her observations, upon completing the game I realized that many of her questions got to the crux of the moral issues present in Shadow of the Colossus. While Shadow of the Colossus is “old” in terms of gaming, the issues and tone it has set are particularly relevant today (hence, why I chose to focus on this topic). With the popularity of mission-based/kill-based games (The Assassin’s Creed Series immediately comes to mind), such issues need to be brought to the forefront: how do games, and the worlds they create complicate (or even manipulate) our moral judgment?

“What is this game even about?”:

In Shadow of the Colossus, a man (Wander) travels to a forbidden land with his recently deceased lover (Mono) pursuing a legend that the dead can be revived there. He arrives at a ruined temple where a disembodied voice (Dormin) explains that Mono can be revived if Wander fells the 16 Colossi that dwell in the land, a deal Wander accepts. Meanwhile, Wander is being pursued, as a traitor, by people from his own land (Lord Emon and Company).

“Why are you attacking that innocent creature?”:
This was the first question my mother asked. Before she had, I hadn’t even considered the point:  I had attacked the Colossi because I told it needed to be done to accomplish as both a character (revive my dead lover) and a player (beat the game). The logic ingrained in me through years of gaming has taught me to trust my objective, Because of my assumptions about protagonists and objectives I had to assume that my course was the right one. But was I wrong? Were the Colossi really innocent victims? Was I the menace, killing innocents for a self-serving purpose?
My identity as the protagonist, combined with the shared mission of playable character and player had complicated my morality. I rationalized: my mission was more important than these creatures, they must be evil in some way. Scholar David Ciccoricco perfectly sums up my rationalizations, noting it becomes easy to seek out the Colossi, who have done me no harm because “all you know—all you remember—is that you must kill them in order to complete your quest.” Now, this is an unsettling assumption because it implies that gamers are somewhat mindless—moving from objective to objective, with the only goal being completion. However, that observation is what makes
Shadow of the Colossus so relevant: it calls attention to the way that the “Gamer” role intrinsically complicates one’s perception of moral ambiguity. As a non-gamer, my mother immediately questioned my in-game actions: as a moral human-being, my actions did not make logical sense. I was acting as a murder (and truthfully, how many modern games ask gamers to occupy that role?)  I was attacking creatures that had not wronged me in any way. The game essentially calls into question objective-focused gaming. What do gamers lose when they are centered wholly on the objective? What moral sacrifices must be made?

Until the game’s final cut-scene—Dormin is freed and wreaks havoc on Emon and his men—the thought that the Colossi could be guardians, as opposed to obstacles, never crossed my mind. Admittedly, there were hints early on: for example, each time a Colossus was defeated a vessel resembling the Colossus would break open and release shadows, and Wander’s appearance becomes less and less human as the game progresses; nonetheless, while these changes were subtle enough to give me pause they were not blatant enough to prompt outright questioning. In the same way that my objective had clouded my moral judgment, I was able to ignore these unsettling hints. I refused to ask myself the tough question: am I doing the right thing here?

“If the disembodied voice told you to jump off a cliff, would you do it?”

I have addressed the conflicts of choice within linear gaming before, (in reference to Bioshock) but again, Shadow of the Colossus brings this concept to uncomfortable clarity. Though my mother was using a cliché to display the illogicality of my defense “the disembodied voice told me to do it” she acknowledges an uncomfortable gaming truth: a gamer probably would. Within the context of Shadow of the Colossus, Dormin sets the objective. In linear games the objective is everything: without an objective the character (and player) is lost. In this way, Dormin gives the gamer purpose.

The concept of the disembodied-objective-spouting-voice is a common trope in gaming. Linear games need a seamless way to move the character/player through the game without obscuring the main story. This takes many forms: entourages, pursuing mysterious figures, clues that leading from one venue to the next. Most simply is the disembodied voice, outlining the mission for each area. Historically, those voices have been trustworthy. To use a well known example, Ocarina of Time’s Navi, though infamously irritating, pushed Link towards his destiny as a hero. Therefore, ingrained in gamers’ psyches is the idea that these voices push us towards our heroic destiny. 

Shadow of the Colossus complicates this: Dormin is self-serving. His ultimate goal is his revival and though there are clues to his unsettling motives, his authority is accepted based on the trope that player and guide share a common agenda. Shadow of the Colossus deliberately establish this shared agenda, emphasizing Dormin’s promise to revive Mono—a promise the hinges on Wander’s destruction of the Colossi. While Dormin’s motives may be dubious, it really isn’t until the final cut scene Dormin manipulative nature becomes clear. Though Dormin warns that Mono’s revival comes with “a great cost,” he neglects to inform us that the cost is Wander’s soul. Though Dormin fulfills his promise (Mono is revived) he destroys Wander’s is destroyed, becoming a vessel though which Dormin becomes corporeal. 
“Maybe some things are forbidden for a reason?”:

I explained to my mother that I in a Forbidden Land, performing a forbidden act when she asked if some things were forbidden for a reason. I responded that (a) it was a game and (b) the forbiddeness of this realm was arbitrary. I had adopted Wander’s attitude: I was immune to the laws that governed this world, I was entitled to forbidden knowledge and actions. I believed, like wander that Lord Emon had forbidden this realm for those more selfish than I, this restriction did not apply to me.  

The forbidden returns focus to Dormin and his namesake Nimrod (Dormin is Nimrod backwards). Nimros is famous for constructing the towe of Babel, a project that resulted in his characterization as a “God-on-Earth figure” and resulted in his destruction. In a fate remarkably similar to Dormin’s, Nimrod was “cut into pieces and spread across the Earth.”  This connection is unmistakable and calls our attention not only to Dormin’s hubris, but Wander’s in summoning him. Wander expects that through Dormin he can control death—a belief that implies that he is somehow above God.

Lord Emon’s first words Wander in the Temple support this claim: “Have you any idea what you’ve done?! Not only did you… trespass upon this cursed land, you used the forbidden [resurrection] spell as well.”# Wander’s most egregious act, then, is resurrecting Mono: his other sins are secondary. Dormin’s appearance in the final scene makes this especially unsettling. While the game has previously portrayed Emon negatively, when Dormin possesses Wander’s body he confirms Emon’s fears. Dormin, large, dark and horned, indiscriminately attacks Emon’s men, and we realize why Dormin’s dangerous and dark powers were sealed.  We finally see why this land was forbidden and, for the first time, understand the threat that Dormin poses to humanity: he is manipulative, powerful and destructive. The closing scene illuminates the destructive power of the forbidden—bringing us full-circle in evaluating the cost of our choices:  Wander lost his soul, humanity, love and life. The conclusion of the game confronts us with the moral costs of obedience and objective-driven gaming, constructions that allow gamers to believe that they are above morality by operating inside a game world.  

Editor’s note: due to a formatting error at the fault of The ACP staff, the author’s originally intended citations were not properly placed when this article was originally published. All quotes from this article derive from David Ciccoricco’s “Play, Memory”: Shadow of the Colossus and Cognitive Workouts. We apologize for the lack of citation prior. 

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  • Sara Goodwin

    I like the idea of suspended morality while in the game-world. The “in a forbidden land, performing a forbidden act” part when your mother asked if things were forbidden for a reason is really interesting. I remember playing Final Fantasy games with my brother – I was a spectator/advisor while he did the actual playing – and our conflicting moral attitudes sometimes caused problems. I would want him to do or not do certain things in game, and he didn't see the point of many of my suggestions. I was motivated by wanting the characters to be happy, get together, etc., and he wanted to fight and win.