The Art of Shadow


In my document 'The Art of Ico' I discuss how Ico worked with the gaming medium to communicate its story. This document is intended to carry on that analysis by looking at how SotC handles its story in comparison to Ico. The reason that this is a follow up and is based around a comparison to Ico rather than being a standalone analysis is that the more interesting aspect of SotC, from this kind of perspective, is how it was done differently from Ico. Ico was a very unusual game, whereas SotC follows a more standard approach to the presentation of the story, though still attempting to maintain the same degree of artistry.
Since SotC bears more resemblance to 'normal' games it tends to appear as a normal game that simply has a very artistic design to it. It may seem as though the developers this time simply applied their trademark style to a far more ordinary game than Ico. However, while SotC does follow the design principles of normal games to a greater degree than Ico, this does not mean that there was any less 'artistic' intent behind those design choices than there was behind Ico's. In comparing SotC to Ico rather than to normal games we can highlight what the developers did differently this time, how it differs from their previous game rather than from games in general, and attempt to determine what they were trying to achieve this time around.

The differences between Ico and SotC can be generalised to this: Ico tells a single story and attempts to draw the player into a particular role in that story, whereas SotC tells multiple connected stories and puts the player in the position of an observer following one thread, but never really taking part in the same way as Ico. The single story that Ico tells is the story of Ico and Yorda, specifically their escape from the Fortress, and the role the player takes is that of Ico, that of the hero of the fairytale. The main stories of SotC are that of Wander and Dormin, with the Colossi, the Forbidden Land and Emon's people coming into it as well, and the player's role is an observer of Wander's story.
Of course there are background stories in Ico as well, that of the Queen and the Fortress, and even of Yorda, since we never really find out who she is. The difference is that these stories are actually in the background; the events of Ico suggest that we have witnessed the final chapter of a much larger story which will go untold. Who the Queen was, who built the Fortress and why, what happened in the past to leave it deserted save the Spirits, questions that will never be answered as they are irrelevant. The only concern of the game is Ico and Yorda's journey together, and the only things which we are told are things which pertain directly to it. On the other hand, in SotC we learn more about the background of the world. We learn some of Dormin's past, we learn something of the purpose of the Colossi and the Shrine of Worship, we learn about a link between the people who sealed Dormin and Emon's people, we even learn something of the events just prior to the start of the game, something which was not the case in Ico.
SotC is not exactly forthcoming with all the details of course, for instance we never even find out who Mono is, but had SotC maintained Ico's style, we would likely have learned nothing of Dormin's past or of who inhabited the Forbidden Land, much like we learned nothing of the Queen or the Fortress. While it maintains a similar silence to Ico on some topics, it is undoubtedly more interested in the overall story than its predecessor. Of course, while these other threads may not be directly relevant to Wander's story, they are relevant to what the game is trying to achieve, so the game has not included extraneous plot explanation for the sake of a fuller story, rather these elements make as much sense in this context and Ico's complete silence makes sense in its context.

To stop alluding to what the game is trying to achieve and actually look at it directly I will start the analysis proper. Given the focus of my original Art document, the most pertinent place to start a comparison is how the game uses the fact that it is a game to communicate the story. Ico did its best to work the player into Ico's shoes, so that the player would feel what the character would feel, and build a similar bond with Yorda. This talk of only being an observer and having apparently unnecessary story detail in SotC appears to suggest that this critical element is absent in SotC. It is true that SotC does not use the medium in the same way that Ico did, but it does use it to some effect. As with my Ico document I will start at the bottom and work my way up, so the first thing is to compare how the games actually physically differ in the manner in which the player interacts with the events of the story.


Ico & Shadow

The task of putting the player in the protagonist's shoes is largely one of minimizing the divergence between the player's and the character's respective knowledge of the game world and the events which unfold within. Ico's way of dealing with this is to set the game in what I call a 'bubble'; a world which is isolated from the fictional world at large, and is restricted to that which is actually necessary for the game. The character knows nothing about what is in the bubble when he enters, and neither does the player, so both learn together and should see everything in generally the same way. However Ico sees and interprets things, that is also how the player sees and interprets them. SotC is set in a similar bubble: the Forbidden Land. The difference is that SotC allows in a number of elements which create differences in how the player and Wander perceive and understand the world and events of the story.
The first change is that Wander knows something about the Forbidden Land and about Dormin. This is fairly obvious even from the game's intro, as Wander is intentionally travelling to the Forbidden Land; Ico's complete ignorance of the Fortress was facilitated by him being brought there by others. There is no guarantee that Wander knows anything factual about the Forbidden Land at this point, but even hearsay will colour his perception of it, and as it turns out what he heard was correct. While it is his first time seeing it in person just as it is the player's, we are sitting back in wonder at the epic view provided by the entrance to the Forbidden Land, whereas Wander is more concerned with his mission than with taking in any scenery. This difference is particularly highlighted by his first conversation with Dormin. He goes in knowing about Dormin and knowing what it can do, with a specific purpose in mind. In Ico the protagonists wonder and apprehension on seeing Yorda echoes what the player is feeling, but SotC puts us firmly in the passenger seat as Wander proceeds to say things which are just as much news to us as the things Dormin says. While we are given control at this point, there is no doubt that we are merely watching something play out. We cannot be in Wander's shoes, because his extra knowledge of the world and sense of intention which we do not share means that we cannot share his thoughts or impressions of the environment he is in.
A similar change is that elements from the outside world are brought into the bubble. The bubble will only assist in aligning the player's and the protagonist's views of the world if it is intact; obviously if we start bringing in elements from the outside world the fact that the character knows the outside world even better than they know the bubble, where the player doesn't know it at all, will push the two viewpoints even further apart. This is similar to the above in that it relates to the character's knowledge, but different in that Wander knowing more about the Forbidden Land merely causes differences in how it is perceived, we are both still looking at the same thing. On the other hand, if we bring the outside world into the equation, not only are we up against a far greater body of knowledge and understanding on the protagonist's side, it is also knowledge about something we have never even seen. In Ico Ico himself is the only outside element, so the outside world is completely irrelevant, we can guess vaguely what it might be like, but it really has no bearing on the story presented to us. The same is more or less true in SotC until Emon and his men arrive, at which point we find out that there are events relevant to the story from before the beginning of the game, other people who know at least as much about the Forbidden Land, etc. Emon even gives a suggestion of what Dormin and the Spirits are; 'he is possessed by the dead'. While this is still a far cry from the more detailed narratives of most games, it is a significant change. In Ico we start with a blank slate, so the player and Ico can be the same person in some sense. In SotC, not only does Wander know things we don't, but the world outside and his past come into play, defining him as a distinct and separate person from the player, who merely observes.

Thus far we have only covered the more tangible aspects of aligning the player and the protagonist, based mostly around what knowledge of the environment each has. A more abstract element is the emotional consonance between them, in the context of a quest-driven story such as this, this is essentially having the player share the protagonist's motivation on an emotional level as well as on a logical one. How Ico achieves this is one of the main focuses of my original Art document, it will suffice here to go over it in brief. The alignment of the protagonist's and the player's understanding of the environment they find themselves in is used to portray Yorda such that she appears the same to both. Neither Ico nor the player know who, or exactly what, she is, neither has any more reason to want to help her than the other. Ico's motivation is simply that it is in his nature to do the right thing, but rather than have the player dragged along by his altruism, the point of the game is to have the player to feel the same way about Yorda. The game wants everything which affects Ico and makes him want to help her affect the player as well so that they share this motivation on an emotional level, so that the player genuinely wants to help her in the same way that the protagonist does. SotC, to put it simply, does not do this.
Wander's motivation for coming to the Forbidden Land, and for slaying the Colossi once there, is bringing Mono back to life. We are only told this through dialogue as, far from sharing this motivation, we don't even know who she is. We get the vague idea, someone he cares about, killed due to having a 'cursed fate', but nothing more, not even enough really to empathise with Wander properly. Sister? Lover? Someone he loved from a distance? Killed unjustly or not? We get the general idea of his motivation, but the specifics are withheld, so we can't even fully understand how he feels, let alone feel the same way. Ico isn't exactly forthcoming with details on Yorda's background either, but Yorda's character is portrayed through her appearance and her behaviour, through impressions rather than exposition. Mono, being dead, doesn't offer much in this regard. Due to this, the link between the player and the protagonist that Ico had is completely absent in SotC. Given that this link was one of the strongest aspects of Ico it initially seems that SotC has lost something its predecessor had, but the point of this document is to highlight changes like these and to determine why they were made. A significant point in this context is that given SotC's propensity for filling in background details in the story, the lack of any background on who Mono is or what her relationship with Wander was stands out.



What is the effect of all the changes made compared to Ico? To make the player an observer. We do not know what Wander knows, think what he is thinking, feel what he is feeling. While we do control him in the game, in reality we are merely watching his actions, we do not feel compelled to undertake this task as we are not made to share his motivation, our only goal is the advancement of the story. This is a large contributor to SotC seeming more like a 'normal' game than Ico. Most games give some detail as to the motivation of the character we control but we are similarly unaffected by it, and just as in SotC we play advance the story, not because we have a personal interest in the protagonist's objective. Put in contrast to Ico however, it seems that this change has some purpose. Completely contrary to Ico, Wander's motivation is actually obscured as much as possible. This forces us to see his actions from an external perspective, that of a neutral observer, despite the fact that we take his role to some degree in the game. The game wants us to see Wander's actions as objectively as possible, without being coloured by having some insight on his mindset. Does this mean though that SotC is missing this critical element of emotional involvement that made Ico so special? More likely it has been shifted to a different place, to serve the purposes of this new design.

To find an emotional bond to a character similar to that in Ico, the obvious place to look is Agro. The player will never share Wander's bond with Agro as he is one of the 'external elements' Wander brought into the 'bubble', however due to the fact that he is with you for the entire journey, save some Colossus battles, some kind of bond will be built. In creating an animal so focused on realistic recreation of the real thing (as compared to most games at least) they not only sought to keep the illusion of the game intact, but also to achieve what they did with Yorda: Give the player a believable 'sidekick' that is genuinely helpful and they will grow attached to it. The difference between Yorda and Agro, aside from the fact that a player will likely not grow as attached to an animal as they will a beautiful girl, is that Agro is far from being the focus of the game. The bond in Ico is the end towards which every element of the game strives, which is what makes it such a strong effect. In contrast, the bond is SotC is merely a means to a different end.
The true end of SotC is highlighted by another difference between SotC and Ico. One of the aspects of the bond in Ico that I go into is the 'test' which is put before the player towards the end of the game. The player is put in a situation where the bond with Yorda is put in opposition with more traditional gaming sense, and forced to make a split-second decision. The point is that we are supposed to feel what Ico feels and do what he would do. SotC has a very similar scene at a bridge. The key difference is that the player has no choice here. Agro 'dies' saving Wander in this scene, and there is nothing the player can do about it. Wander's actions cause these events, and the player is bound to carry them out in order to advance the story and to accept the consequences. This, like the bridge in Ico and its final cutscene, is the bond with a character being used for emotional effect. This effect ties into a pattern which permeates SotC, and reveals what SotC was trying to do differently to Ico.



The pattern which is present and which this emotional bond ties in to is an increasing dubiousness surrounding Wander's actions. Unlike Ico, in which the protagonist does what is unquestionably the right thing with no adverse consequences, in this case Wander attends to his quest with just as little regard for what might happen, but SotC hides the motivation from us so that we judge Wander on his actions alone, not on the reasoning behind them. Since we share the motivation in Ico we are similarly blinded to the possible consequences of what we are doing, but this does not matter in Ico as it is a sort of fairy tale, with simple concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, and we play the good guy. SotC has a more complex story with more shades of grey, and the story seems to have been presented to us with the intention of forcing us to see these shades.
The use of Agro is in this context is quite simple but quite effective. Agro 'dies' at the bridge as a direct result of Wander's obsession with completing his journey, one of a few costs exacted throughout the story. Wander is, of course, upset at losing Agro, and if the bond has been built with the player they should also be saddened. The difference is that Wander pushes on due to the same drive which has been keeping him going all along. The player, as I have gone through in detail, does not share this same drive, so they will be more taken aback by losing Agro. While Wander may continue on with just a brief pause, the intention seems to be that the player will be left with a particularly poignant reminder of the consequences of his actions. As Wander moves towards the end of his journey, the player is questioning more than ever whether it should have even started. The melancholic tone is juxtaposed with the impressive lead up to the most epic battle of the game, an emotional contradiction which surrounds the Colossi from the beginning.

I mentioned that the use of Agro fits into a pattern which permeates the game; another major element is the Colossi. Just as the lead up to the final battle causes conflicting emotions due to the loss of Agro and the intimidating build up to climax of the story, the deaths of the Colossi provoke a similar emotional dissonance related to what each party should expect. For Wander, the end of each fight is the end of a struggle and a step closer to achieving the goal he so desperately pursues. It should be a positive thing, a relief at the very least. For the player, we too have passed a challenge and advanced in the game. However the scene which plays for each Colossus when it dies it not concerned with either the player or Wander, but rather with the Colossus itself.
Each scene very elaborately presents the death of the Colossus. The intent here is twofold: first, with the Colossus slowly falling and melancholic music playing in the background, is obviously intended to be a sad scene. This emotion is projected to the player in a far more plain fashion than these games are known for, and it is juxtaposed within the player with conflicting emotions brought up by winning a battle and defeating an enemy. The other is that while they player may tend to forget about the battle they have just won, their mind immediately preparing to move on to whatever awaits having successfully passed this 'boss', the game wants us to focus on the Colossus even after it has been defeated. We may see this fight as a task to be completed, and its completion simply as progress, but as the pattern suggests the game wants us to consider and more objective view, to remember that there are consequences to ours actions within the game world, that while we can forget it and move on, within the context of the story ours is not the only perspective which applies. And over time, as each Colossus leaves a beam of light up into the sky after it dies, we are reminded that this has happened over and over, building towards we know not what.
The point of this is not the obvious melancholic atmosphere created as each Colossus dies, the game is not trying to tell us how we are supposed to feel at these moments, as I already mentioned that would run contrary to the very basis of these games. The way both Ico and SotC work is to present us with emotionally affecting content and to allow us to feel about it as we do naturally, without direct prompting, relying on what is present and how we interact with it, rather than this kind of superficial trickery. These scenes are no different. That our natural feeling of triumph and excitement at having won a battle is put against this negative view of the Colossus' death, and that we are reminded that something truly impressive has died at our hand when we are ready to move on a forget about it, these are both simply to create doubt. We doubt what Wander, what we, are doing. And we are not told which view is correct, or even if there is a correct view, merely that there is doubt, something which Ico never had.

This I think is the single other major use of emotion than Agro's 'death' to carry the weight of the story to the player. It is not the only instance of some surprising and subtle attacks on the player's concordance with their avatar's actions though. As you will have noticed by the end of the game, Wander's appearance changes slightly with the defeat of each Colossus, with the end result being him looking quite ragged and not entirely human anymore. While comparing how he looks even a few Colossi before the end and how he looks when he starts out presents a stark contrast, each step in the change is so slight that, without a basis for comparison during the game, you will not notice the change straight away. When exactly you notice is not important, but the fact that the changes initially go unnoticed until you suddenly realise what has happened is.
When you notice the change, because it has gone unnoticed until this point it is as if it has happened all at once, providing something of a surprise and a shock. Once you have realised it it is quite obvious, and you can see how it steadily gets worse, indicating that the quest is having some severe and abnormal detrimental effect on Wander. However, Wander himself never seems to notice. Or, he does, but doesn't react due to not caring. Which of these is the case is not clear, but it does not matter either way, the fact that for one reason or another he never reacts to the change is statement enough. Either way his lack of reaction is due to his apathy towards the consequences of his actions. But, once again, we do not share this motivation, so we are taken aback when we realise that part of the price which Wander must pay directly affects himself, not just the beings he interacts with. This divergence between Wander's and the player's point of view not only contributes to our doubt about what Wander is doing, that he seems to not know or care even that something is happening to him makes us doubt Wander himself as well.
That it is so subtle is what makes it so powerful. If it were presented in an obvious way it would be more of a plot development than anything else, since it does build into the plot, in that Dormin returns to a single body in Wander. But it is never highlighted by the game, it happens over time, and it is up to the player to notice. When we do notice, and realise that it has been happening for some time without us noticing, we realise also that we were as caught up in the big events as much as Wander, failing to notice, just as he does, the effects of what he is doing. An unsettling realisation given the already established questionable nature of his actions, and one which will prompt us to keep a closer eye on and give more consideration to the consequences, and to further wonder what exactly the outcome of his mission will be.

There are other small touches spread throughout the game to reinforce this doubt. That you have to go and find the Colossi, rather than them coming to you, that some will not attack until directly provoked, the way the controls force the player to build up powerful strikes against opponents they are not sure should be killed, but above are the most significant ones. Into all this ties the interaction with the game. This focus on observation, and the greater use of on-screen elements to provoke the player into feeling certain things, suggest that the game does not rely on or use the interactivity in the same way that Ico did. However is every case in which the player's view is put against Wander's view, or in which conflicting emotions are simultaneously generated, one side always comes from the interactivity.
When the Colossi die the feeling of triumph, while it could be felt if the fights were non-interactive, like in a movie, is accentuated by the fact that we are fighting, while the actual non-interactive component, the death scene, provides the conflicting emotion. When we lose Agro, Wander carries on after only a brief reaction, while the player has a different reaction which is prompted implicitly by the bond which itself is created directly through the gameplay. When we doubt Wander's actions, we are not doing so from a distance, able to disassociate ourselves and simply watch, the game forces us to carry out these actions, making our doubts much more pointed.
In short, where Ico tried to use both the interactive and non-interactive elements to further a single goal, the bond, SotC splits them apart. It puts us in the position of a neutral observer of the story, and uses the non-interactive aspects to highlight one point of view or emotion, and the interactive elements to build or reinforce the contrasting ones.


Art of Shadow

So, does SotC 'use the medium' in the way that Ico does, does it class as an artistic game rather than merely artistry within a game? When I originally played it the answer would have been a resounding 'no' from me, however as I said at the beginning of the document, taking the time to look at it in contrast to Ico suggests that a number of design decisions which are similar to those used in 'mainstream' games were not merely making the game more accessible than Ico, but were actually working towards a similarly artistic goal, just using means which are seen more often than Ico's. Given this, I would say that the game is attempting to do something similar, that it is using the fact that you are actively controlling Wander to make the uncertainty about what he is doing more tangible, so that you actually feel it rather than simply being aware that we don't know what the outcome of his actions will be, and that it uses the interactivity to communicate aspects of the story which aren't presented directly in the game.
However, the game does not create anything analogous to the connection with Yorda. There is the connection with Agro, but this is not nearly as deep as Agro is not the focus of the game. Ico builds such a strong connection because everything in the game is geared towards it, which is of course the subject of the original Art document. SotC offers nothing which can match this. What made Ico stand out is that it builds the connection by using the interactivity offered by being a game and nothing else, that while the other elements support it, it is the interaction alone which builds the bond. While SotC does use the interactivity to accentuate what it is getting across, it is merely an addition to non-interactive methods of communicating the story.

So if the question is whether SotC is as big a step in using the medium, rather than simply setting stories within it, as Ico was, I think the answer is still no. However this isn't necessarily a bad thing. In the original Art document I went through all that was done to make the world believable enough to allow the gameplay to form the bond. I think all of this was also necessary, I don't think the same effect could be achieved without all these steps, as any intrusion by the normal 'breaks' or 'seams' in games that Ico was designed to avoid would prevent it. Which means that to achieve that same effect again, you would essentially be making the same game again. It might look different, might contain different elements, but it would be the same game. Similar methods, like the bubble world, and removing any elements which cannot be recreated properly within the game, were brought over from Ico to SotC, still necessary in a much as they are used even to create SotC's lesser effect.
So the final conclusion I reach is that while SotC may not match Ico, it is the logical next step. It does not abandon the fully interactive method of Ico, instead it uses it to a lesser degree, so that it may loosen the constraints on the other aspects of the game enough to tell a different story. And the story itself is not unrelated to Ico - as I have mentioned, it shares a protagonist going to any lengths necessary to save someone else. It's just a different perspective on that story, and one which requires us to take a more observational view so that we can properly appreciate that fairytale heroism does not guarantee a fairytale end.


Written by Crumplecorn
Last updated 25/01/2009


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