An obvious trait of a hero is that he or she battles monsters, but how do we know if the monsters are monsters in the first place? Shadow of the Colossus challenges us in this question not through dialogue but through imagery.
If any of you have not finished this masterpiece yet, go ahead and beat it before you read this. If you do not wish to have the ending ruined, I will have another post up for you to read instead.
For some background, the game is about a young man named Wander who takes the body of his lover, Mono, to a forbidden land where is it rumored a being exists with the power to raise the dead to life. This being does not have a body, only a disembodied voice. It says that such a power is difficult to obtain, but if Wander uses his sword of light to find and kill the 16 Colossi which wander this land, it might be possible to bring her back.
It is no surprise to many gamers that Dormin does not have good motivations. Usually spooky voices that tell you to kill a certain group of beings in order to “revive” your lover are not good voices. Yet Wander, the main character, carries out this quest to slay the Colossi in a world that is isolated and almost completely empty. And the Colossi themselves are utterly majestic. Their beauty needs to be experienced while playing the game. Some are aggressive towards you, others simply wander the landscape peacefully. And each and every time you slay one of these monuments of life, the game plays a haunting mournful song that I shall provide down below for context.
With each victory, your character looks more and more sickly and dark. When he finally slays the last one and returns to the Dormin’s sanctuary, he is confronted by a character known as Lord Emon. Lord Emon calls out Wander for collaborating with this dark being and attempts to kill him. Then the Dormin possess Wander and turn him into a Colossi. Lord Emon grabs Wander’s sword of light and plunges it into the stone where Mono rests. It turns into a whirlwind which takes away the Dormin’s power. Wander struggles against the wind, but it is fruitless and he is swallowed up by it. Then in the credits, Mono is brought back to life and she travels through the Sanctuary until she finds a baby boy who looks a lot like Wander.
I cut out a lot of details for time’s sake, as it is difficult to do this story justice. However, we can draw one interesting question from all this, was Wander a hero? Traditionally speaking, he was. He did whatever it took to revive the “princess” his one true love. Yet his efforts seemed largely fruitless. It was the cleansing of both himself and the Dormin which ultimately brought back Mono to this world. And he destroyed several majestic beings in his quest which helped keep the darkness of the Dormin contained.
This is where we must make a clarification between brave actions and heroic actions. To act bravely is simply to stand up when you are afraid. However bravery can be used by both good and evil. Bravery can drive us to help others or it can drive us to harm others. A heroic action is a brave action which is performed for good and for the right reason. Yet, even in this story, we can see how that line can be difficult to define. None of us would blame someone for doing whatever it took to protect someone they love. Yet that same drive to protect and save can drive us in foolish and damaging directions and it can blind us to the greater effects of our actions. It can also be twisted by others for ill means. Think for example of the southern elites before the Civil War who used poor whites’ desire to protect their families to create a narrative that if black people were set free they would slaughter whites everywhere. This fear was one of many factors that led to a deep hatred of whites against blacks.
However, Shadow of the Colossus also ends on a positive note. For I believe it says despite all the horrors and bad things that come from poorly thought out decisions, there is still room for redemption. Even Emon says, “Poor ungodly soul… Now, no man shall ever trespass upon this place again. Should you be alive… If it’s even possible to continue to exist in these sealed lands…one day, perhaps you will make atonement for what you’ve done.” Even from questionable actions, good can arise as well as the chance for something beautiful arising from everything wrong we humans pour into our world.
Evil is nothing more than rotten good, and because of that very fact, good remains stronger, not within ourselves but within someone higher than ourselves.
I call that someone God.