Game Changers: Shadow Of The Colossus
Developer: Team Ico Publisher: Sony Released: 2005 System: PS2
Recently remade and remastered, Team Ico’s extraordinary PS2 release was one of the most impactful 3D adventures of the modern era. We take a look at how it all came about
THE TECHNICAL CHALLENGES OF SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS WERE NUMEROUS AND REALLY QUITE SPECIFIC TO THE UNIQUE FEATURES THE EXPERIENCE FINALLY OFFERED
This monumental game was a massive leap forward for game design, narrative style and structure. We reflect on the impact this giant of gaming history brought about
We Tend To spend a lot of time reflecting on and praising the spectacle of Shadow Of The Colossus as well as its narrative, design and thematic choices, but perhaps we ought to consider the technical challenges and advancements it made too. When Fumito Ueda looked to follow up on Ico, he wasn’t interested in making a direct sequel or repeating what he had done before. He looked to push the PS2 harder and create something that, for all of its scale and fantasy, was rooted in realism and maintained the illusion as much as possible. The mechanics and animations of the game needed to complement the immersion of the world as much as possible, and that wasn’t easy.
The task was made all the more demanding (and the results all the more remarkable) with a team of just 35 artists and programmers working on Shadow Of The Colossus. This was a lot more people than worked on Ico, we should mention, but still a rather small team by modern standards. Given the scale of the game world, not to mention the scale of the colossi, it’s really quite incredible how much it managed to achieve with so limited a team, albeit with plenty of development time between projects to make it all happen.
The technical challenges of Shadow Of The Colossus were numerous and really quite specific to the unique features the experience finally offered. Take, for example, what the team called organic collision deformation.
This was essentially a cover-all term for how Wander interacted with the colossi: how he was able to grab onto them, climb them in a dynamic way and also walk on them when the body part he’s standing on is in a more or less horizontal position. When you think about it, that really is quite a remarkable element to the game, as each boss is supposed to be its own level in some ways. They are dynamic platforms that move and react, but that also needed to open up possibilities for Wander to navigate them even more. We had really never seen anything quite like that before, so Team Ico had to come up with its own technical solutions for that to work, and we have to say it absolutely nailed it. The way you solve the puzzle of the colossi is a major part of the Shadow Of The Colossus experience, and the reality of these creatures is greatly enhanced by the physics of how you climb them.
The second challenge was identified as player dynamics and reactions, which was how Wander, once on a colossus, would react to being on them and behave in unison with their movements or actions. These moving levels are obviously trying to shake him off, they might be flying through the air and making sharp turns. To what degree should he be flung around by these movements? When does gravity work in his favour and when does it work against him? The introduction of the stamina bar and how it recharged when Wander is able to stand without aid added to the tension and risk/reward mechanics that these questions ultimately created. As he grabs fur he can be swung around, and he needs to naturally find his balance before progressing. It’s the intuitiveness of what Team Ico created in these moments that helps to make the colossi more believable.
one of the more commonly complimented smaller elements of the game was the movement and animation of Agro, Wanders horse and faithful companion. Agro was unlike anything most of us had ever experienced
from a companion animal in a videogame before, with a sense of her own agency. You don’t control Agro; you can only encourage and guide her. An extension of this was what Team Ico called motion blending, which covered the way both Agro and the colossi turned in a fluid and naturalistic way. This, combined with posture control, which was the fourth major pillar of Shadow Of The Colossus’ biggest design challenges, meant that both Agro and the colossi stood on slopes, turned, ran and generally moved in a way that didn’t break the illusion of the world.
All of these challenges were overcome to allow the majesty and spectacle of Shadow Of The Colossus to wow us unimpeded. Thanks to these technical achievements the incredible concept of having a game with only boss battles, where the giant adversaries were themselves the levels you had to overcome, in a desolate world that still managed to convey so much backstory and create so much intrigue, was accomplished. It should go without saying that open-world game design, emergent storytelling and boss-battle design have been massively influenced by what Team Ico and Fumito Ueda achieved with this stunning game. even with all of the power and advancements of the last two generations, little can match Shadow Of The Colossus on its own terms, which was made all the more clear by the recent remake for PS4. For a game that tells you so little, it manages to convey so much and draw you into a deeply emotional and morally challenging experience. There is really nothing else quite like it in gaming, but we have no doubt that it will continue to inspire creators for years to come with how it executed its ideas so well.