The Aesthetic of Movement

by


Shadow of the Colossus is a game that excelled in its simplicity. Only last week did I finally complete the game, and I could say that I never expected the experience that it provided and the knowledge that it imparted upon me. What I felt was the culmination of simple, pure elemental implementation, but there’s one part that brought all of this together into one, magnificent whole, and something that’s sorely under-appreciated.

When you think Shadow of the Colossus, I’m sure the first things that crawl from the depths of your minds are white knuckle boss battles and vast mysterious lands, and you couldn’t be further from the truth. The game itself provides and unforgettable experience, but after almost a year between buying it and finishing it, I have always wondered what made it the subject of the long impassioned rants that I’ve bombarded my friends with.

Something was shining through from the moment I began to explore the Forbidden Land and traversed my first piece of hazardous landscape, and that was the way in which things moved. Pulling ourselves back to the present, it’s almost impossible to identify a game in which the character doesn’t move like a mechanised puppet, fastened to the controller and restricting the player’s ability to interact with the world that the developer has strived to so believably render. You could rationalise this by stating that it would be to the detriment of the gameplay if done otherwise, but I think this mentality is being used as a cover for formulaic game design.

In Shadow of the Colossus, the character moves like a human would. Wander trips, he stumbles, leaps, lurches and rolls both in accordance to his own actions and those of the environment surrounding him, and this adds unprecedented depth to the players interaction and lending subtle suggestion toward his person and character. Wander is just a boy, desperate to bring his loved one back to life, so he steals away into the wilderness without training, driven only by desperation. Whether or not this is how everyone will view him is completely open to discussion, but cleverly brought about through such subtlety, suggesting that gameplay can have a powerful impact upon subtext.

Although it is often bemoaned by fans that Shadow of the Colossus featured cutscenes in contrast to its predecessor Ico, there are so many small, yet emotionally gripping moments within the game that take advantage of the fact that the player is in control. I daren’t divulge these key moments without warning, but generally speaking a complete control over Wander’s actions sort of discards the game context and suspends the player’s disbelief. Take a game like God of War for instance. If you want Kratos to run up that monster’s arm, you just hit square triangle circle, whereas here it’s only you, locked it a battle of chance and strategy as you clamber slowly up the Colossi’s mane, struggling for finger-holds in amongst the fur and stone. *SPOILER* During the endgame sequence there was a moment in which Wander is dragged towards his inevitably death as the player is forced to take control of the struggling man – jumping forward and hopelessly trying to grab handholds as he is drawn towards the enchanted pool; the player in control throughout the entire gut wrenching experience. *END SPOILERS*.I clearly remember the first time I engaged a colossi, and the sheer terror and excitement it brewed within me; never before had I had such a connection with the character’s action. Considering the depth of both immersion and emotion that this feature adds within the experience, I’m astounded that it hasn’t been more extensively experimented with, however one developer dared to take a risk on such endeavours, who would have thought it would have been EA.

Mirrors Edge was a daring piece of work that aspired to put the player into the shoes of a courier traceur named Faith as she traverses a metropolitan terrain with grace and ease; the first person adding depth to the player’s immersion, and it was great. Discounting the terrible enemy encounters, the game had created a spiritual relationship with Shadow, in a sense, as it too embraced the essence of movement and control and took it in its own direction. Conversely, Mirrors Edge lacked substance. Although it was an excellent piece of gameplay design, it almost felt squandered on such a bland setting; one that effectively limited the potential of the gameplay itself.

Entertain the thought, if you will of a hybrid of both styles. Shadow excelled in creating an intense connection with the player with its human analogous movements and reactions, whilst Mirrors Edge provided the first person perspective, complimentary to full body model interaction with the environment. Whilst setting Shadow of the Colossus in first person would be at best hazardous, the model provides an excellent base for exploring player/ environment interaction. Say for instance that Mirrors Edge was set in a more natural environment; the player traversing intricate terrain and stalking foes with agility, yet always knowing that they may stumble, trip or fall. The potential is seemingly endless, and almost completely unexplored as game design trends tend to favour features that will placate their audience instead of challenging and allowing them to accept a broader range of concepts.

The aesthetic of movement it really something that is at best, underdeveloped in games, and I’m sure that this has animators screaming for change. Fumito Ueda, creative director from Shadow of the Colossus was an impassioned animator; a sound reflection on his resulting work, but I’m not convinced that this is solely the influence of one infatuated with movement. Gameplay needs to evolve in equal measures, and not just as an act of accommodation. The addition of more intimate player/ environment interaction calls for an integral gameplay revision, one that wouldn’t be as simple as adding tried and tested new features, but would be potentially more rewarding. Maybe this has been met with hesitation because developers feel that they’d have to draw compromises and take extraordinary risks to meet these standards, but could they be achieved, amazing new heights in gameplay and narrative potential could be reached.

Miles Newton – Once again I’ve been shackled to the MACHINE. Expect shorter entries until my next break.

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