Like Adam, I'm going to squeeze in some more posts before Our Lord and Master Ta-Nehisi returns to his kingdom.
Has anyone else noticed that if there's an emphasis on blood-n-guts action, lots of 'splosions or some other supposedly déclassé element in a movie, some film critic somewhere will be using the phrase "video game" as a pejorative adjective? It's been a trend that's been on the rise as video-game imagery and source material starts to permeate other like movies, TV and books. Some of the suppositions that these critics are operating from are true, though. Lots of big-budget video games are designed to deliver an arc of brutal empowerment. Whether it's powers , weapons or martial arts moves, you start off with a skill set that grows more prodigious over time and the ability to handle more and bigger enemies comes with an increasing level of spectacle. Whether or not the spectacle is empty depends on how other aspects of the game are executed. One game that managed to subvert the "bigger and more bad-ass model" and mold something deeper was the Playstation 2 game Shadow of the Colossus.
The game's the work of Fumito Ueda, an artist/designer who led the team responsible for another Playstation 2 classic called Ico. Like that game, Colossus takes place in something of a haunted storybook setting. You start off playing as a young man who solemnly carries a dead young lady into a temple. In this temple, a disembodied voice says that the girl may be brought back to life if our hero kills the 16 colossi dispersed throughout the desolate landscape. Beautifully designed and animated, the Colossi could be the lovechildren of Ray Harryhausen and Maurice Sendak. These creatures stand as tall as skyscrapers and some fly or burrow through the ground with frightening power. They're quite scary, and with good reason.
SotC got a lot of accolades for its simple gameplay design when it came out five years ago. Minimalism informs every aspect of the game. You didn't need to memorize complicated combinations of button presses, and instead of mowing your way through hordes of cannon fodder, players wandered through the world on horseback looking for their overgrown prey. It took the trope of the Boss Battle and made it the central focus of the game. But, to me, the reason it stands out as such an amazing work is because it takes you on a psychologically meaningful journey.
Part of Colossus' symbolic power comes from externalizing the coming-of-age process. The nameless hero of the game appears to be only a little older than a teenager yet the impetus for his actions is the loss of a loved one. The extreme measures he goes to--journey to a far-off-land, doing battle with giant creatures--points to an inability to cope.
Likewise, all these monsters could be read to symbolize the parts of our own natures that remain mysterious to us. They shamble along, subsisting in remote pockets of the world until we come upon them and grapple them into submission. The puzzle-like nature of the combat--hanging on while some giant beast tries to shake you off and searching for weak points to attack--makes for a nice allegory for dealing with emotional baggage. You're going to fall and you might have to hide or run to recoup your strength, but, if you want to go on with your life, you're going to have to take that sucker down. Yet, feelings of triumph are elusive in Shadow of the Colossus. What you do feel is loneliness as you stalk through the arid plains; guilt as some of the Colossi howl in pain and shame as they slump to the ground. This is rough work.
Shadow of the Colossus shows how spectacle doesn't need to be an end unto itself. The visual feasts create an allegory that stands apart from the narrative. The game seems to asking big existential questions about how to carry loss and honor love. If a body doesn't figure out how do those things, you might just be breeding some scary monsters of your own in your head. You'll be the only one that's able to put them to rest.