Video games save lives and a few months ago we looked at the first two entries on a list of games that have personally saved mine. Today we will look at the third and final title in this series, and how exactly it helped me through crisis. Today it’s Fumito Ueda and Team ICO’s Shadow Of The Colossus. First though, I need to tell you a story that goes back over a decade ago.
In 1997, if you had told me that I would be the first to leave my old band, I would have fallen over laughing at you. How could you know about the oaths I had sworn in my head? This group was about a lifetime of allegiance. It was a duty born to ensure the survival of something I had helped to create. The band needed four good men, and I never pegged myself as THE deserter. I also never suspected I would walk away from that duty early: Who could have known that I was the Ides of March? I was. So the end came.
It’s August 23rd, 2005; I am on stage for the last time as a member of the group. I picked the day of our eight-year anniversary to leave. When you separate from people, nothing makes any sense. I did feel a very clear sense of acrimony. A distinct betrayal. My musical ideas within the band had started going unheard, and the conversations stopped including me. I began as this group’s front man, and I still sang, but only just barely. The quartet we had felt like a trio, with me relegated to what was essentially tambourine duty. I couldn’t help but feel abandoned by these people around whom I had built my life.
My role in those final months can be likened to that of a sickly dog. Quite literally, I limped into a corner and died a slow mute death.
In this our final show, before our last song had even ended, I turned off my equipment and jumped off the stage. I watched the end of the performance instead of participating in it. I was done. The night ended with few tears, I felt almost nothing, and said even less.
The problems with the band of course had two sides. It wasn’t their fault, and I was in no way blameless. I had been miserable company for most of the time I had lived in Austin with them, and I was not around when I needed to be around. I was homesick… mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. I worked three jobs and never left my house.
I was not living for myself; I was living for them. I knew these men would always be my family, so I got out.
There was one caveat for which I had not prepared. With the group, I had felt like my own heroes. I was Marty Mcfly saving Doc Brown from the Libyans. Batman telling Commissioner Gordon, “You don’t have to thank me”. I was invincible, worthwhile, and important. Now at best, I was just some guy with a funny walk who had once been a part of something bigger. I was a nothing, a has-been at age 26.
Listen: The Opened Way
I left Austin, but coming back home did very little to ease my mind. I had just experienced the biggest breakup of my entire life. I had whittled away a good portion of my twenties, damaged my hearing, and compromised my own sanity for something I was no longer a part of. I was completely heartbroken, and heartbroken people are usually vampiric insomniacs who actively diminish the value of a daily shower. I lived in my bedroom, playing Street Fighter 2 and only went out when I wanted to see Batman Begins… which I saw some twenty times in theaters. I was not on earth; I was floating in a haze! Then the walking began.
Walking became everything to me. I circled neighborhoods and paced in front of convenience stores. All this mobilized meandering held such value – as long as I was walking, I was in control. This is also, might I add, when interventions needed to happen. In short, I needed therapy.
I had been in therapy before when I was about ten years old. This one morning, between breakfast and Nintendo, I wanted to die. Then, overnight, I became afraid of everything and everyone. Therapy, if you haven’t experienced it, can be a completely alienating experience in the wrong hands, or it can be permanently, positively transformative when administered by a skilled practitioner. Your therapist is someone who wants to take that sick bullet for you, bending and curving the wind to scatter the remnants deflecting the shrapnel. It comes at a cost, though – they WANT answers, and they WANT action. The truth, however, is that the answers they seek can be vicious, uncomfortable, and downright mentally excruciating to produce.
My therapist, in case you’re wondering, saved my life and I will always love him for it.
Listen: Idol Collapse
Back to the present… this walking I’m doing desperately needs attention. While I never thought that I would find myself back in the position of needing therapy again, here I am. Unbeknownst to me, Shadow Of The Colossus would be both my intervention, and my therapy.
How on earth did Shadow Of The Colossus make me feel safe, how did it save my life (are you still there)? The simple and most obvious answer would be the space and silence it afforded me, much like the other games on this list. There is one major difference between those experiences and Shadow; this time you’re not alone. Shadow is a game of lengthy clinical examination: long stretches of probing one-on-one analysis via your horse Agro. On the many trips, the rides to each of the 16 Colossus battles, I was given jarringly pointed and sobering assignments. I cried a LOT, through a good 90% of the game even. I don’t mean tear up, I mean sobbed. It was nothing short of physical. The other ten percent of Team ICO’s sessions revolved around actually battling its Colossus.
This video game, this inanimate plastic object, knew I had just lost the love of my life. It saw me pounding her chest, actively searching for a way to revive her slowly festering corpse. Even after the fiasco, the end of my involvement in my band… I still wanted to be part of it. I still wanted it back. The fear of letting go requires facing the actual fear, and Shadow Of The Colossus held my arms and legs restrained, my gaze forcibly narrowed and jammed down the fish eye of my assailant in the form of those Colossi. In order to reach that point, however, you guessed it… there must first be some time spent riding around in the dark.
So mounting Agro meant I had to first seek out these creatures, working through my problems as I rode to their lairs. Then I had to go close-quarters with the actual beast in their second, more leviathan-like form: The colossus.
For game software to competently masquerade as a therapist, it has to be many things. Foremost, it has to be breathing. Shadow inhales, exhales, coughs and has its own history of questionable and reprehensible choices. It is one of the few games that I consider to be a living being. Shadow is also no fan of hoarding, and it sees no value whatsoever in the collecting of aged and piling newspapers. This title is one of focused ambition, and successfully steers you away from your desire to acquire useless baubles as is customary in most video games. No plunder, no dawdle, no distraction. Here you are tasked with very specific things and its single goal is a straightforward one: best the entities paralyzing you.
If Shadow Of The Colossus is actually human, then by definition so are the few characters that inhabit its world. If you have not played the game: there are a few spoilers ahead, begin reading again at “Lastly“. It all begins and ends with Agro, your horse. He’s your therapist and thankfully, a competent one. All your trials are cataloged, examined, and medicated by Agro’s prescription pad; he is always there. This poor horse takes you from sand dunes to the hinterlands, never wavering, never tiring. I grew so attached to the horse that I tried to minimize my attempts to make him run faster. When my character would dismount, I would always gently pat his mane (which the game allows you to do), never wanting him to feel that I was someone who could not be trusted. If he felt it, I felt it: his bruises, his exhaustion… all of it.
When Agro dies in a final act of loyalty to you, it was too much. I stopped playing for days. The bond was such that when death came for Agro, it was the first time I ever actually mourned a video game avatar, and his death signifies Shadow’s last and painfully capitalized push to make you finally go it alone.
Listen: The Sunlit Earth
Lastly, the game’s soundtrack as scored by composer Kow Otani builds upon game director Fumito Ueda’s garishly dotted landscapes with contrasting cycles of panoramic silence and broken verses intoning fear, mourning and helpless paralysis. Otani’s instrument is one of the game’s most essential mechanisms. His work here is a profoundly emotive and densely passionate set of pieces, without which Shadow might have failed to translate the onslaught and weight of its slow and piecemeal collapse. While Ueda’s scenes have been carefully orchestrated and expertly blocked, they still require Otani’s guidance to make them traversable, unscrambled and enduring. Without his material, it is quite likely that my therapy would have failed. Tackling problems with only the vision and limited black and white perspective of Ueda would have been a single pronged approach that would have failed to understand the full prognosis and broad spectrum of my troubles, which Otani was more than capable of translating.
Listen: The Final Battle
When I finally reached the end of the game, I just felt better… enough even, to start moving around before sundown. The lift Shadow provided was a genuine one, wholly altering the course of my descent, creating a viable, steady path forward. It’s likely your experience will differ from mine, meaning substantially more or less to each player. Regardless, Shadow Of The Colossus will still be something I am certain you will feel the need to talk about some 40 years from now.