In the years since I first wrote about Roger Ebert’s disdain for video games, he’s been in the back of my mind each time I’ve picked up a controller. He believed, and argued quite strenuously, that video games could never be art. At the height of the firestorm of controversy he unleashed with this statement, Ebert went so far as to declare that no game could ever achieve the same level of artistic transcendence as the great films and novels and paintings from around the world, all of which stood head and shoulders above such a hopelessly shallow medium.
It’s a ludicrous, haughty, even arrogant proclamation. And yet, as I discussed with Robbie Dorman on the Serial Fanaticist Podcast, in the years since his death, I’ve tried to at least understand where Ebert was coming from. He is a giant in the world of criticism and a smart and generally open-minded critic at that, even if he has a particular view of what’s required to create “great art.” That makes his critiques, however frustrating, worth unpacking, even if they’re not necessarily worth accepting.
Many of his arguments hinge on the relationship between creator and audience. He had a very rigid view of that relationship, one that demanded a certain level of isolation between the two sides of it. Ebert saw a purity in that, a way in which an author or director or auteur could put their soul into a work, then and only then imbuing it with something transcendent and making it ready to be received by an audience that is wholly separate from this process. He viewed this sacred act as something impossible, at least in theory, given the interactive nature of video games.
And yet, several recent critically-acclaimed works play in the space between audience and creator. Wolf of Wall Street, Inglorious Basterds, and The Sopranos each spend time luring in the viewer, getting them to root for, maybe even become enticed by, the life and lifestyle on display.1 And then they aim to shame us for it. They say, “Look at the boundless luxury, at the brutal vengeance enacted against bad people, at the unrestrained power of a mobster.” They invite us to live these fantasies and then let them run aground on the harsh realizations, on the ugliness at the core of these things, that the creators use to indict both the subjects of these films and also the objects of them — us.
Shadow of the Colossus, a 2005 video game from creator Fumita Ueda and Team Ico, is that same idea realized in a video game setting. The way the game uses the unique elements of its medium to achieve this, but is also constrained by the medium’s limitations, prompts us to once again consider Roger Ebert’s pronouncements about what art can and cannot be.
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The game is a subversion of the usual formulas and unspoken rules that most games abide. It nevertheless embraces the basics and offers a certain familiarity, playing like a stripped down version of a Zelda game. Firmly present are the sword and bow and horse, with monsters in the offing who must be slayed to save the princess. But gone are the dungeons and the collectibles and the colorful cast of enemies and allies alike that make the world of the game feel alive and whole. Shadow of the Colossus is, instead, a game of isolation, where your only company are the creatures you kill and the disembodied voice that guides you along the way.
That disembodied voice and similar tropes SotC employs are a staple of these action-adventure games. It represents an unseen guiding force, there to help the player become acclimated to the game’s setting and its mechanics. More often than not, it serves to establish the lore of the realm and the terms of the quest. It’s a voice of authority, one that has, throughout gaming history, been a reliable source of instruction. Whether the instructor is realized as a fairy companion or a talking boat or simple text boxes delivered on high by the game creators themselves, those lessons and the beings who deliver them have so often been taken for granted as good and trustworthy. They’re there to help you on your way and confirm that your struggle is a righteous one.
That, however, is the rub of Shadow of the Colossus. So much of what makes the game unique is the atmosphere it creates — the minimalist, expansive landscape; the soothing, and in-turn soaring soundtrack; the awe of the beasts, melded from flesh and fur and the ruins of a lost world. But the jarring feature of SotC is that it uses these aesthetics to lure you in and only then, little-by-little, reveals an awful truth.
You are the bad guy, or at least a bad guy, and that disembodied voice led you to evil, rather than to justice.
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What starts as a fairly standard video game quest — slay the beasts, save the princess — eventually unveils a hidden dark side. The truth is that you are not Link. You are not the guileless hero on a noble journey. You are, if not selfish, than at the very least myopic as you fulfill the game’s commands.
Shadow of the Colossus gives subtle hints in this direction before the big reveal. Despite the fact that the game’s massive enemies resist and at times attack you, there is pathos in their deaths each time you prevail against one of them. Eventually, you discover that the disembodied voice that’s been giving you clues and leading you into the fray with these beasts is an ancient evil, goading you into freeing it unwittingly.
Each kill you make on its behalf brings you closer to your goal, to resurrecting a lost soul, but yours becomes stained in the process. Each towering monster defeated results in visible changes to your character’s appearance: paler skin, dark marks across your face, and a look of utter weariness. Eventually, by your actions, the evil is unleashed, and it consumes you, while one of the game’s few other human presences admonishes you to atone for what you’ve done.
In essence, Shadow of the Colossus pulls the same trick that those championed works of film and television do. It uses the medium and the tropes of the genre to lull you into a false sense of security, and perhaps even righteousness, before pulling the rug out from underneath you. Just as Braid uses the template of Mario games to startle the player when it departs from expectations and plays around with that blueprint, SotC uses the traditions established by Zelda and similar games to make the player unquestioningly complicit in a grave wrong
After all, you have to listen to the voice, right? Of course you’re going to keep slaying these immense creatures even if their deaths make you a little uneasy. What else are you going to do? Just not play the game? Lay down your sword? Give up?
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That is the challenge for, and the advantage of, video games like Shadow of the Colossus as compared to The Wolf of Wall Street and its ilk. Scorsese can use the glamorizing hues of film to rouse your admiration for Jordan Belfort’s glitzy lifestyle and use that to comment on how our culture idolizes and absolves people like him despite their misdeeds. Tarantino can use the cinema’s power to propagandize to tempt his audience into cheering for brutality from “the right people” in one breath, while prompting them to scorn the villains for the same brutality. David Chase can use the audience’s natural impulse to want to see the protagonist succeed in order to make them silently complicit in Tony Soprano’s deplorable acts.
But Fumito Ueda can one-up each of these auteurs. The bad acts of Shadow of the Colossus, the ones that threaten to harm the innocent and unleash a terrible curse unto the world, are your acts. You are not an observer in these events. You are a participant, and that magnifies the force of the game’s reveal.
It also makes the guilt conveyed by the climax of the game more visceral and personal. Ebert’s line in the sand against the idea of video games as art came down to the problem of player choice. To his way of thinking, the potential for the player, rather than the author of the work, to drive the story is a fatal flaw. And yet, in Shadow of the Colossus, that is the element of the game which makes the themes, the impact of the story, most keenly felt.
While the game does establish certain win conditions and sets the player on a particular path, you choose whether to follow the dictates of that disembodied voice; you choose to kill these incredible beasts, you choose to continue on this quest despite the creeping suspicions the game fosters. That autonomy serves Ueda’s purposes with Shadow of the Colossus. It helps him to make meaning, to spur on the sort of empathy that Ebert values and then turn it against the player to explore how participating in these horrible acts can taint an individual, even one with seemingly noble aims.
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And yet, playing Shadow of the Colossus gave me a new appreciation for Ebert’s perspective. I still firmly believe that video games can not only be art, but that they can be “great art,” by any reasonable definition.2 But playing Shadow of the Colossus gave me a greater understanding for why he refused to budge on this issue.
Ebert’s basic beef is this — video games are, true to their name, games, in the same category as chess, football, and hopscotch. And games, no matter how well-designed or how elegant the rules are, are not art on his account. You can win a game, Ebert says, but you cannot win art.
Video games, however, are more than just a test of skill. They do include those types of cognitive or reflex-based challenges that Ebert seems to conceptualize as the sum total of what it is to be a “game.” The player usually has to jump onto a platform or solve the puzzle or push the right button at the right time. But video games can and do marry this aspect of the experience with the traditional elements of cinema and other forms of visual art. There’s storytelling, aesthetics, music and sound design, and host of other artistic choices that go into video games that make them more than just gussied-up versions of solitaire.
Despite that, there’s a grain of truth to Ebert’s criticism, because that “test of skill” element of a video game does, in fact, make it harder for a given game to reach the level of “great art.” It adds yet another dimension upon which a game must be great in order to be peerless by acclamation at the level of a Citizen Kane or The Great Gatsby.
After all, creating a great novel is no small feat, requiring virtuosity in language, in storytelling, and in developing memorable, well-rounded characters, among other vital elements. Creating a great film can prove even more challenging, because it requires most of those same elements, but also needs to succeed in its visuals, in its performances, in its score, and a number of other areas of presentation that are unique to cinema. But video games have to go a step further. They have to take all of those same elements from literature and film and also deliver a satisfying test of skill that, ideally, melds with the other parts of the work in a natural, immersive way.3
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But even if a video game manages to include a test of skill that matches its creativity and artistry in other areas, there’s still another obstacle to overcome. The “game” portion of a video game, the element that tests your reflexes and puzzle-solving abilities, adds yet another level of subjectivity to the experience, making the sort of veneration Ebert speaks of all the more difficult to achieve.
Subjectivity, of course, is an issue for art of all stripes. How immersed someone is in the history of film, or music, or abstract art will greatly affect how they receive a particular work or even an entire genre. But just as the interactive aspect of gaming gives artists in the industry another avenue in which they can make an experience feel affecting and real in ways unmatched by other mediums, it also creates another space between creator and consumer where the ideas and the impact of the work can be lost in translation.
This all warrants a confession — I’m not very good at video games. Despite having played them since before I could read, my aptitude for them has never quite matched my enthusiasm, and the learning curve has always been a bit steeper for me than for my peers. The consequence is that, despite the interesting mechanics and creative challenges Ueda and his team crafted for Shadow of the Colossus, my own ineptitude hindered my ability to truly appreciate and experience the game as fully as intended.
Which is to say that I felt a sense of relief, not shame, when I finally felled some challenging monster whose weaknesses I’d divined, but through my own lack of skill, been unable to conquer despite hours of attempts. It’s harder to appreciate the ancient aesthetic of the game’s setting or the self-reflective isolation of the long journeys between boss fights when I found myself simply frustrated at getting lost along the way. Different players come to these games with vastly different levels of skill, and that means there’s one more dimension where their experiences may differ markedly. That makes it harder for creators to account for and can separate the player from the world of the game.
The best video games, like the best films, can make you forget that you’re not genuinely a part of the story. At their peak, such experiences become truly immersive. The effect is difficult to sustain in any medium. But as Ebert warned, it’s even more difficult when it’s not solely dependent on what the author offers, but also on what the player brings to the experience.
That difficulty is magnified in the face of simple problems with things like the mechanics of the game that can stymie immersion. The frustrations of wonky controls or issues with the camera occasionally emerge in Shadow of the Colossus and hinder its ability to create a seamless experience. Some games build that potential frustration with the tests of skill into the thematic richness of the work — Braid certainly achieves this — but it’s tough to do well.
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At the same time, the autonomy and interactivity granted to the player creates another unique hurdle for video games. Sometimes the player can foresee where a story is headed, but is effectively powerless to change the outcome. This is a notable, but less salient concern for film, because with a movie, the viewer is simply along for the ride regardless of whether they may guess the ending. For a video game, on the other hand, the player has at least the illusion of choice. And as a result, the player’s inability to avoid a particular fate or work around some given plot point exposes the artificiality of the exercise in a way that movies and T.V. shows don’t have to contend with.
This arose for me about halfway through Shadow of the Colossus, when I predicted the contours of the game’s big reveal, if not the exact details, and my experience was altered accordingly.4 Now, spoilers are as much5 an issue in film as they are in video games, but for a game like Shadow of the Colossus, knowing, or at least suspecting the twist, presents a greater threat to that effort to lure you in, because of how games work.
What if, before the end of the game, you take the intended point that slaying these monsters is wrong? What are you supposed to do? If you’re not seduced by Jordan Belfort’s lavish lifestyle, then Scorsese’s effort in Wolf of Wall Street may have less of an impact on you, but it doesn’t affect the experience so severely, because you can still appreciate the story as an observer. Or to use Ebert’s own example, Shakespeare can tell us from the opening stanza that Romeo and Juliet are destined for tragedy, but we are passengers in their story, unable to take the wheel and steer the star-crossed lovers to greener pastures, and that is as it has been for centuries. The kind of player control available in video games represents a radical shift in that equation.
In a work like Shadow of the Colossus, it means that even if the player can suss out the reveal ahead of time and embrace the vaunted themes of losing oneself piece by piece even in service of noble aims, the only options are to keep going anyway or simply quit. Either choice serves as a reminder that you’re just playing a game.
Chances are you’re not going to stop playing despite the thematic implications of continuing with the quest. Perhaps playing through the remainder of Shadow of the Colossus with the knowledge of where it’s heading (or at least a good guess) is not dramatically different than reading the rest of Romeo and Juliet despite knowing that it ends in tragedy. In both instances, you’re simply fulfilling the demands of the work, albeit more actively in one case than in the other. But in the case of Shadow of the Colossus, that knowledge, and the lack of real choice in the game, creates a distance between the gamer and the game, something that is supposed to be the antithesis of what makes video games unique as an art form. It’s a difficulty that plays right into Ebert’s hands.
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Nevertheless, I wanted to be moved by Shadow of the Colossus. I wanted to feel the weight of its reveals and its themes. But I also wanted to simply beat the damn thing.
That’s a far shallower reason to go on, regardless of any attendant fears that you’re aiding and abetting something “evil,” than the in-game rationale of saving a dead loved one. I wanted to master the test of skill that Ebert was so worried about, to jump through the right hoops, find the right places, beat the right baddies. Maybe that desire dovetails well enough with the character’s in-universe determination, despite the signs that he’s succumbing to a curse, because he too wants to achieve his goal. But the fact that I have a choice, that I realize what’s happening and persist in trying, not to save someone’s life but because I just want to get to the end of the game, muddies the waters.
Because it still amounts to a divide between the player and the story being told. At some point, whether it’s because of setbacks that come from my own limitations as a player, or the knowledge that sets my real motivations for continuing this quest apart from those of my avatar, the impact of the game, of the experience, is blunted.
That is the double-edged sword of telling stories in this medium. The interactivity of video games allows designers like Ueda to create experiences that are more visceral, more personal, and more immersive than can be offered by any other art form. But it also provides one more way in which there can be a disconnect between author and audience, and between how the work is intended and how it’s received.
Roger Ebert saw that obstacle as insurmountable, as a difficulty that would forever prevent video games from reaching the heights of films or novels or other great works of art. I don’t agree, and I don’t condone his myopia, but after experiencing both the peaks of the medium and its inherent difficulties in Shadow of the Colossus, I at least better understand his perspective.
Shadow of the Colossus represents the height of gaming as an art form. More than most works in the medium, it uses the implements in the cinematic toolbox to create its meaning, to make the player a part of the choices their character makes and of the larger story being told. But at the same time, it also represents the greater difficulties that come with gaming’s greater possibilities.
Making the player a part of the proceedings can create a form of immersion unmatched by any other art form, but that interactivity, and the puzzles and quests that make it a game and not merely a story, can also serve as a reminder of artifice, of separation, and of subjective experience. Great auteurs can still use these things to artistic ends, but they present one more challenge for video games when trying to match the greatness of their artistic brethren.
As I said, Ebert is himself a giant. He is not apt to unleash the same sort of evil that Shadow of the Colossus’s disembodied voice implores you to assist in freeing. But his ideas, the fault lines between mediums that he exposes, even if he cannot fully grasp them, are not as easily overcome as the lumbering creatures who lurk in the beautiful recesses of the game’s landscape. Video games are art. They can even be great art. But the challenge is steeper and more difficult than we, the champions of the medium’s artistic possibilities, are often willing to admit.
- In fact, I would argue that Inglorious Basterds is, at its core, about the power of cinema to do this type of thing, change our sympathies in a way that Ebert, I think, would appreciate.↵
- And, what’s more, I think it’s outright foolish to declare an entire medium lacking when, as Ebert did, you refuse to actually engage with it.↵
- Which is not to say that to truly be “great art,” a work need be great in every respect or must be wholly lacking in flaws. (An issue I’ve examined in the context of The Simpsons and whether it’s enough to just be really funny.) But it would be strange, to say the least, to have a video game that soared in all the areas in which video games overlap with films, but which was middling in terms of the skill-based challenges it offered to the player, and still consider it “great.” If a video game is superb at everything except being a game, it’s hard to call it a success, creatively or artistically.↵
- These are the pitfalls of coming to a game a decade after its release having picked up through cultural osmosis that there’s some sort of important reveal at the end.↵
- Or as little, depending on your view.↵