Shadow of the Colossus Is a Trans Narrative
I love Shadow of the Colossus. It taps into something primordial in me that I find difficult to describe. From the time I was a kid until now, I have felt an affinity with monsters and the monstrous. The pantheon of Toho’s gargantuan beasts, the kaiju of Pacific Rim, the stop-motion creatures of Ray Harryhausen, they all carried the burdens of a young kid who often felt very much like a misunderstood or incomprehensible monster. These towering creatures were magical in their raw physicality, but made so much more important by the meaning they had attached to them by filmmakers and audiences alike.
When I saw that a game about interacting with colossi like the ones I had grown attached to in my childhood, I leapt at the chance. From that point onward, I played Shadow of the Colossus on an almost yearly basis. The evolving experience of those recurring replays led me to one conclusion: Shadow of the Colossus is a narrative about the transgender experience – or at least it is to me.
PART 1 - THE GIANT'S TEXT
Before diving into the many interpretations of Shadow of the Colossus and what it has meant to the millions of people who have explored its beautifully desolate landscapes and done battle with its behemoths, we need to know what it is.
Shadow of the Colossus is a third-person action-adventure game created by Fumito Ueda and the development studio Team Ico in 2005. Ueda and his team were hot off of creating Ico, one of the landmark games of the early 2000s that popularized the minimalist aesthetic that many developers have emulated in the years since. Only a handful of years after Ico, the team revealed Shadow of the Colossus as their follow-up project.
Shadow of the Colossus took the minimalist aesthetic and puzzle-solving of Ico and translated it into a Legend of Zelda-esque adventure. It featured a sweeping open world to explore that bucked many of the conventions of the time. Instead of having enemies populating the landscape and NPCs to give additional context and direction – there was nothing. The world existed to be explored and experienced rather than fought against. Majestic and imposing ruins dotted the mysteriously abandoned countryside without explanation, the structures having long ago been left behind by whoever had once lived in the now forbidden lands.
Fumito Ueda and his team cut all of the fat from the adventure genre and opted to focus on storytelling in an interactive context. That focus put a lot of emphasis on the handful of cutscenes that inform the narrative, the experience of journeying out into the world, and the encounters with the colossi themselves.
Back in mid-2000s, the conventional wisdom surrounding cutscenes was that they existed as a necessary evil, taking control away from the player to move the story forward in a more controlled and linear fashion. Some critics took this as proof that games could not tell compelling stories in their own right; that the medium could not stand on its own. This was during the days when the “are video games art?” debate was still in full swing. Shadow of the Colossus attempted to subvert the problem of cutscenes by giving the player control of the camera witnessing the cutscenes themselves. Players were able to pan the shot around and zoom in to maintain the element of interactivity, while still receiving the linear context of the game.
Continuity serves as one of the major elements in Shadow of the Colossus. How the game seamlessly connects the opening cutscene, the main menu, and the introductory sequence that plays when beginning a new game clearly demonstrates the commitment Team Ico had to making everything connect. Not only that, but all of these scenes play out entirely via in-game graphics, which was relatively uncommon on the PlayStation 2’s hardware. There was something magical about the presentation of these bits of story. No one else had made anything like it – they still haven’t really.
It is through these scenes that Shadow of the Colossus conveys the bones of its story. The protagonist never receives a name within the western release of the game, but the Japanese release dubbed him Wander. Shadow of the Colossus begins with Wander journeying with his trusty steed Agro to the ends of the earth, to a forbidden land where the stories of his people whisper a being resides who can do anything, even bring back the souls of the dead. As he travels on horseback, Wander carries a woman swaddled in her death shroud. Like Wander, the she never receives a name in-game, but the Japanese version identifies her as Mono. Wander reaches the forbidden land, crossing its threshold, a massive bridge spanning an even larger desert. After an interlude in which the game’s main menu appears, Wander and Agro enter the crumbling ruins of a colossal shrine.
In the heart of the gargantuan structure, Wander presents the body of Mono on a stone slab and encounters Dormin, an ancient entity that speaks to him in a chorus of disconcerting voices. At this point we learn that not only did Wander bring the body of Mono, but he also possesses a sacred blade that he stole from his people. The presence of the sword prompts Dormin to extend a deal: If Wander can kill the sixteen colossi that are the incarnations of the shrine’s statues, it will bring Mono back from the realm of the dead – though the cost to Wander, it warns, might be grave indeed.
Thus begins Wander’s quest to destroy the colossi and resurrect Mono. Each colossus takes on a vastly different form and provides a unique encounter for the player. While Shadow of the Colossus is ostensibly an action-adventure game, it integrates the puzzle elements that made Ico so successful into the fights against the colossi. Each encounter becomes a puzzle to be solved using Wander’s small arsenal of tools and whatever happens to be present in the environment or on the colossus itself. However, once the player knows what they are doing, the strategy to defeat the colossus requires to execute.
This leads us to one of the main sources of criticism leveled against Shadow of the Colossus: The difficulty of the controls. The camera can prove tricky to manipulate during hairy action segments due to the AI controls that were created to try and present the most cinematic angles during gameplay. The camera issues are compounded by the implementation of Agro’s horse AI. Most of the time, Agro controls fantastically after becoming accustomed to the beast’s limited amount of free-will. Players can allow the trusty companion to wend his own way through forests or rocky bridges. However, certain colossi necessitate using Agro in combat and this can lead to problems where Agro’s AI doesn’t quite control well enough to keep running away from colossi or overcompensates on turns, causing the player to veer wildly around the battlefield or come to a complete standstill in the path of an angry giant.
Those valid criticisms aside, Shadow of the Colossus uses these colossi and the journey Wander undergoes with each of them to great effect. In 2005, there weren’t a ton of games that played with the framework of a Legend of Zelda game to present such an ambiguous tale open to interpretation. Each colossus possesses a different character, much like the kaiju mentioned earlier. Some exist as angry or territorial entities all too happy to rip Wander apart. Others simply mind their own business, leading Wander to provoke them or mercilessly hunt them down. Regardless of the experience, however, each colossi receives a slow-motion death sequence followed quickly by Wander being speared by dark energy that causes him to pass out and awaken in the central shrine
About midway through the game, we learn in a cutscene that a force of warriors has been sent in pursuit of Wander. This group is led by Lord Emon, a character who briefly narrates some backstory about the forbidden land at the beginning of the game. It is around this point that players should also begin picking up that Wander does not look well. With each colossus slain, his body changes a little more. His skin takes on an ashen pallor, his eyes inch toward milky white, and horns begin sprouting from his head. This transformation is accompanied by increases to health and stamina, allowing Wander to take more damage and hang onto his giant adversaries for longer periods of time.
Each colossi slain stands out as an invitation to engage in some self-reflection. Is killing the colossi the right thing to do? Are the changes to Wander’s body an indication of some sort of corruption? What does all of this mean? Because Shadow of the Colossus doesn’t feature any other enemies and simply tasks the player with navigating to the battlefield for each colossus encounter, plenty of time is made available to contemplate the questions that the game very intentionally raises.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that composer Kow Otani’s work in Shadow of the Colossus produced one of the finest video game soundtracks of all-time. The mysterious tones from the very beginning of the game give way to a wind-filled silence when the player begins to traverse the world. This absence of music makes it that much more moving when the lilting tones of awe and danger begin with each colossus discovered. That initial music gives way to sweeping orchestral beats that elevate each battle into the stuff of legends. Right at the apex of each fight, as Wander lands the killing blow, the music suddenly halts for a moment of silence before a somber liturgy sounds. It hammers home that each of these deaths represents the loss of something unique; whether the creature was peaceful or terrible becomes irrelevant.
There are small things to do in the world outside of killing colossi. Players can find all of the prayer shrines that were used as save points in the original. There’s also a way to increase Wander’s health bar and stamina meter by finding special fruits and consuming the white tails of special salamanders scattered throughout the land. Outside of that, experimenting with the mechanics yields a number of interesting activities from horse surfing to holding onto birds and flying. One of the more interesting secrets involves increasing stamina to the point that Wander can successfully scale the central shrine’s tower and enter the secret garden that appears during the game’s epilogue. However, these activities are so subtle and well-hidden that most players won’t find all of them on their first playthrough or even realize they exist unless they are using a guide.
As Wander nears the end of his journey, he and Agro go to confront the final colossus, but the trusty steed sacrifices itself to save its master from a crumbling bridge. Alone and in shock, Wander goes on to confront the final colossus. After a grueling battle and once more finding his body pierced with lances of black energy, we see that Lord Emon and his warriors have arrived at the shrine. They confront Wander, now a shambling husk of his former self. In his desperation to reach Mono, he tries to push through the soldiers, only to be greeted with a barrage of crossbow bolts and a sword through the chest. At this point, Dormin, unshackled by the destruction of all the idols lining the temple, possesses Wander’s body turning him into a shadowy colossus. What follows is a somewhat clumsy gameplay segment where the player controls one of the unwieldy beasts as the human characters scramble to seal the temple before Dormin can fully escape. After a short time, the desperate humans complete the magic ritual, sucking Wander and the reborn god into a shimmering pool of water. As Lord Emon and his troops flee, the towering bridge connecting the forbidden land to the outside world collapses behind them.
As the situation in the central shrine settles, Mono opens her eyes.
She takes her first tentative steps and finds herself drawn toward the sealing pool. As she walks toward the pool, Agro limps into the shrine, nuzzling her in familiarity. Upon reaching the pool, we see the water has all dried up and inside there remains no sign of Dormin or Wander. Instead, a small child with horns gurgles up at the now living woman. The three of them make their way up the central shrine’s spiral stair and emerge into the secret garden on the top of the shrine. There, she comes face to face with a fawn, the first and only of these animals we see in the entire game.
If that seems like a strange ending, it is. I know that it left me stumped for a long time trying to figure out what it meant. I understood the series of events on a basic level, but what did the story mean? What was the deal with this baby? And the fawn? I didn’t have all of the answers, but the lack of having answers might just be why Shadow of the Colossus has stuck in my head for over a decade. My mind mulls it over with every replay; and the answers I find in the work change along with me.
That’s how I found myself in recent playthroughs reading Shadow of the Colossus as a narrative about the transgender experience. Before we talk about that, we need to talk about how other people have interpreted Shadow of the Colossus. For such a seemingly simple (if a little weird) story, people have understood it in a number of really interesting ways.
PART 2 - READING SHADOWS
There are many ways of reading media. In fact, that’s one of the things that makes art so great – it can mean many things to many people. The way people respond to and think about stories can make profound differences in individual lives or shape entire nations. How people have understood Shadow of the Colossus has evolved over time and, while it hasn’t changed the fate of nations (yet), it has certainly had an effect on game development and a sizeable number of the people who played it. From romance to a representation of grief to something akin to a religious experience, how people have thought about Shadow of the Colossus over time stands out as a fascinating journey all its own.
The romantic reading of Shadow of the Colossus began before the game even released. The studio’s previous game, Ico, had received next to no marketing making its rise to prominence as a cult hit on word of mouth alone a surprise to Sony. The company would not repeat its mistake. The campaign they launched for Shadow of the Colossus was massive, strange, and eye-catching. In other words, it was perfectly suited to the spectacle of the game itself.
An incredibly impressive and successful viral marketing push (worthy of a deep dive all its own) created multiple fake stories about the remains of ancient beings found scattered across the planet. However, to appeal to the mainstream gaming demographic, Shadow of the Colossus’ marketing team came up with two taglines. The first can be found on the back of the North American PlayStation 2 copy of the game itself, “Some mountains are scaled. Others are slain.” The other left a lasting impression in a massive series of print advertisements that spanned multiple pages and culminated in a huge foldout of the game’s sword-wielding colossus. The first panel read, “how far will you go for love?” a sentiment reflected on the back of both the North American and European releases which talk about Wander being motivated by love. The impression those lines left in the minds of the game’s audience ran deep.
Between those two taglines, players went into Shadow of the Colossus with the expectation that it would be the epic fable of a young man slaying giants and saving the woman he loved. On a certain level, it’s not difficult to understand how someone could read Shadow of the Colossus that way. It displays many of the elements present in the classic stories of knights, damsels, and monsters. A young man with a magic sword traveling to a dangerous land to slay giants and save his lady-love certainly seems to fit in with the long history of human storytelling from Gilgamesh to Journey to the West to Le Morte d’Arthur.
This reading, while easy to see if one squints at Shadow of the Colossus and tries their hardest, is wrong – or at the very least didn’t resonate with terribly many people. While doing some digging for this piece, I came across people who loved the tagline, but also didn’t feel as if it was really representative of Shadow of the Colossus. The back of the PlayStation 2 game’s box tells players that it’s a game about “undying love,” but if that’s the case, this is a story in which the two characters supposedly in love never speak to one another. With that interpretation in mind, Shadow of the Colossus could just as easily be a story about obsession since we only ever see one side of this love.
Given how little that particular take seems to resonate with players, I think it’s safe to say that a better, deeper reading of Shadow of the Colossus exists. One of the more popular takes on the action-adventure title interprets Shadow of the Colossus as being about grieving. Reviewers and players alike come to this conclusion. “What was – and is – most impactful about Shadow of the Colossus is its sense of scale: the immensity not only of its dramatic ruins and the sad, beautiful colossi, but of the task at hand, and its themes of death, faith, longing and the destructive selfishness of grief,” writes Keza MacDonald in The Guardian’s review of the 2018 remake.
In this reading, Shadow of the Colossus is about wanting something that’s forever beyond our reach. Breaking taboos in the pursuit of that impossible goal is not heroic in this context. Instead, Wander becomes a pitiable creature on a doomed quest. With each colossi slain, Wander descends deeper into grief while in pursuit of catharsis, but destroys something irreplaceable for his own selfish ends with every action he takes. It costs him his health, his best friend, and ultimately his life. His journey culminates in the resurrection of Dormin, a being who Lord Emon implies could wreak havoc across the world. Wander’s toxic approach to grieving endangers everyone around him.
Looking at the game in this light, it begins to make more sense. During Dormin’s first conversation with Wander, the entity explains that the desperate man will have to pay a price on top of completing his seemingly impossible quest. Wander’s response takes on a more fatalistic connotation when read in the context of grief.
“It doesn’t matter.”
If you’ve ever been in the depths of despair, that state of mind in which it truly doesn’t matter whether or not something unspeakably awful happens, those words ring true. Instead of the plucky determination of a heroic adventurer, it becomes a cry for help – and Dormin eagerly leaps at the opportunity to take advantage of it. Far from being a powerful mindset, it opens up those in the midst of grief to all kinds of unscrupulous abuse. The manipulation of “Would you kindly” in BioShock blew many minds in 2007, but perhaps we should be more impressed with the subtle machinations of Dormin to maneuver a grief-struck young man into becoming the means for its resurrection.
We as players are naturally predisposed to view games from the perspective of the protagonist. Whether they are doing something good or bad, we tend to root for them and want to see them achieve their goals. With this reading, while the player might never have the realization that Wander, and by extension us, have been manipulated into doing something that runs counter to Wander’s goal (i.e. freeing a powerful god and potentially dooming the world), the story of each fight and the deaths of each colossus reinforce the feeling that something is wrong. For all of their destructive power or intimidating size, we find ourselves caring for these gigantic beasts. The player often ends each battle on a colossi’s head, having gotten there by inflicting pain upon the creature, staring into their strangely innocent and curious eyes as their blade plunges into the massive body over and over again.
The refusal to deal with the consequences of death, the refusal to properly grieve and move on, it is a choice that ultimately deadens Wander’s heart to the suffering he inflicts. But Shadow of the Colossus makes no moral judgement on this – instead it leaves it up to the player to contemplate the actions being taken by Wander on the long rides that separate each colossus from the central shrine.
In an interview with Simon Parkin for The New Yorker, Fumito Ueda said something about the evolution of his aesthetic sensibilities that struck me, “When I got to university, there was a layer of culture shock that hit me. I began to learn about modern and abstract art. Until that time my drawings were more realistic in style. Then I was opened up to abstract images. I was encountering things I’ve never paid attention to or recognized before. I liked that, behind those abstract images, there was always an idea. That set me thinking about art in terms of ideas, rather than depictions.” The entire interview with Parkin presents a fascinating look into the life of one of the game industry’s most talented directors and I highly recommend it. While Ueda here was referring specifically to the visual style that would later go on to inform the look of his games, there’s something in it that rings true to what compels people to return to Shadow of the Colossus again and again.
The surface-level simplicity of Shadow of the Colossus gives way to deep and profound possibilities. It can be read as a story about love, a tale of grief, or perhaps turned into a different text altogether, something that approaches the realm of religion. “In Shadow of the Colossus all you can do is stare at a ruined shrine in the middle of a desert, and wonder what it’s for,” wrote Craig Owens for Eurogamer back in 2013. Owen’s piece stands as an impressive work (that you should definitely read in its entirety) telling the story of a group of players who eschewed the explicit narrative of Shadow of the Colossus and sought to discover more about the world, creating their own tale in the process.
These players formed theories and beliefs about how they might be able to discover a secret seventeenth colossus. They gathered together and wrote hundreds of pages worth of notes talking about their various interpretations of the sparse world lore and the possible implications. They spent hours running against walls and utilizing glitches to catapult themselves into otherwise unreachable areas. They lovingly explored and catalogued the bits of nature Team Ico hid away from the most likely routes to the sixteen official colossi. And when the emulated version of Shadow of the Colossus revealed that many of the old theories and beliefs weren’t true, players began exploring to see what could be found using the newly discovered glitches in the emulation.
Over time, people began giving up on finding secrets that they were meant to find and shifted their interest into uncovering what might have been. The cut content from Shadow of the Colossus is legendary, as the full roster of colossi was once a whopping forty-eight instead of sixteen. However, what has become important to these people isn’t so much whether or not something actually exists buried in the game’s code. A Shadow of the Colossus hacker named Nomad gave this quote to Owen in 2013, “It was the search that was the thing. I like to say it's like a Rorschach test, people imprint whatever hopes and beliefs they have onto the vast empty landscapes and see secrets that aren't there - they just hope they are." It feels profound and central to what Shadow of the Colossus means and why it matters to people. It can be as small as a children’s fairytale or as large and important as a quest for the meaning of life itself.
Shadow of the Colossus
Is a Trans Narrative
There exists a strain of thought when it comes to art that holds authorial intent supreme. Stories mean what their creators intended and reading anything else into the work stands as an act of baseless narcissism. That conception of art’s meaning held sway for a long time until academics began questioning it. After all, what happens when the creators aren’t around anymore to discuss their intent? Who can claim to know the mind of Homer or the unknown storytellers behind the Epic of Gilgamesh?
Those questions eventually evolved into Roland Barthes’ influential 1967 literary essay The Death of the Author. In it, Barthes argues that assigning works of literature a single meaning linked with authorial intent represents a misunderstanding of art. Instead, the meaning derived from art resides in the interaction between the work and its audience. “Every text is written in the here and now,” wrote Barthes. Furthermore, he argued that knowing true authorial intent presents an impossibility. We cannot truly know the mind of even those closest to us, let alone creators who have lived across in different times and spaces. To try and elaborate on authorial intent, in fact, becomes an act of interpretation itself. Thus, the only meaningful interpretation that can be made exists between an audience and the text.
Of course, Barthes’ theory has been built upon and criticized over time, but it presents a framework that supports the multifaceted interpretations of Shadow of the Colossus. I know, however, that many people balk at the ideas put forward in The Death of the Author. That makes it worth looking into creative director and writer Fumito Ueda’s ideas about the artistic work he created with the rest of Team Ico.
At the 2017 Nordic Game Conference David Polfeldt, the managing director of Tom Clancy’s The Division, and Fumito Ueda held a discussion about game design. When the conversation turned toward whether Ueda’s games were intentionally designed to be somewhat inscrutable, Ueda offered an explanation:
Fumito Ueda has nothing for those coming to him in search of authorial intent. Instead, he encourages players who love his games to search for their own meaning, their own answers to the questions posed in the work. In other words, create the meaning in Shadow of the Colossus for yourself; write the text in the here and now.
Here, finally, is why Shadow of the Colossus exists as a trans narrative.
Ueda: For me, it's not important to tell the details of the story. In Japan, there is a poet expression called a haiku [where] you don't explain some things in detail and let the receivers understand or use their imagination with what is presented.
That lets the receivers make their own story from their imagination, and I think this is also a good style of expression for video games - at this moment. In the future, someone may discover there's another way to do narrative and tell stories through gaming, but at this moment I think this is a great way to tell stories.
Polfeldt: It certainly works well for me. In your games there are a lot of question marks, so they live with me longer. It makes me think about them in a different way.
Ueda: That's good to hear because I intentionally do that. In some movies the story is so complete, there isn't any ending you can guess because it's already done. That type of movie doesn't leave a long-lasting impression.
My understanding of Shadow of the Colossus has grown along with me over the years. It always seemed to resonate with me in the way that towering kaiju like Godzilla always had. I never really examined why monsters resonated with me so much until I started unpacking the things I had repressed for most of my life.
I’m a transgender woman, but as a kid I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t have anyone around me to explain what being trans was – I learned about trans people from daytime television where trans men and women were put on display as sexualized “surprises” or punchlines on programs like Maury or The Jerry Springer Show. It hammered home that the things I wanted for myself were impossible, and even if they were magically put within my grasp, I would become someone who was somehow lesser than my peers. I was, to my extremely flawed understanding, a monster.
Of course, I don’t think that about myself anymore, or at least not when I’m happy; dealing with the onset of the body-warping self-perception called dysphoria can occasionally make me relapse into old thought processes. But that affinity for monsters persists. So, when I began allowing myself to explore all of my repressed thoughts and feelings about myself and gender back in 2015, my understanding of Shadow of the Colossus began to undergo a major shift.
My reading of Shadow of the Colossus up until that point painted the game as a tale about processing grief. But as I began the difficult process of transitioning in 2017, I began to see parallels between my experiences and Shadow of the Colossus. I don’t think Fumito Ueda ever thought it might be read through a transgender lens, but it resonates with me in that context all the same.
Transitioning, on some level, consists of breaking your old self down to the foundations. If you transition outside of youth, often you have an entire identity that has consisted of coping mechanisms that allow you to function in society. The things you enjoy, your reactions to social challenges, the way you process emotions, all of these things come into question. In order to discover the person inside who can stand tall and be comfortable in their skin, the difficult journey of transition involves starting over from scratch. Often, disposing
of those mental
You don't begrudge them...
but they have no place in the person you
you can only know if they are genuine
All of this, for me, was accompanied by physical changes. From April of 2018 onward, I began taking hormones. The changes have been amazing and I am happier than I have ever been, but the process is incredibly difficult. It can, at times, feel like you’re on this long journey full of moments where you have to struggle and give up bits of yourself both mentally and physically.
However, every step on that journey is easier than living with the growing sense of helplessness, desperation, and despondency of being a closeted trans woman in denial. That internalized sense of being a monster prevented me from talking about the things I was experiencing and the thoughts I was having. Instead, I tried to rationalize away my feelings and ignore the mounting depression and anxiety. I was still able to function, though there were days where doing anything more than rolling out of bed seemed impossible. But there were signs I was breaking down, signs I desperately wanted to disregard. Closeting myself caused my stress and anxiety to leak out at unimportant things – I remember punching a wall so hard that I put a small hole in it. That scared me, but I didn’t know what else I could do – actually taking hormones and having a body that didn’t feel like a fleshy prison seemed impossible.
Then in early 2018 I learned that my friend Manan had taken his own life. We had seen one another a few months earlier when he had driven across the country to visit me, though we never got to run around the parking lot having a nerf gun battle like we had planned. The toy I was going to use still sits under my bed, unopened. Without going into too much detail, I learned about a handful of events leading up to his death and noticed a parallel. He, too, had refused to talk about what he was going through. It trapped him in a place where there was no escape. Manan wasn’t trans, but his passing made me realize that I was trapping myself. If I did nothing, I would one day take my life, too. In that way, Manan saved my life.
I give you all of this extremely personal context so that you can understand how I can read Shadow of the Colossus in the way I do. I want to be very clear: I can’t speak for all trans folk out there. This interpretation is my own and other trans people out there almost assuredly have their own analysis of the text.
In Shadow of the Colossus, Wander comes to the forbidden land in order to bring a woman, Mono, to life. For all of the strides that trans people have made over the years in the United States, we rarely have the support of our families – I know I don’t. In that sense, much like Wander, we enter a forbidden land when we transition and subvert the old understanding of the gender binary. Whether or not someone tells us explicitly, our society does an effective job policing what is and is not appropriate behavior for men and women and doesn’t even know where to start with fluid or non-binary folk. We become, in a sense, trespassers. Wander agrees to go on a mission that he understands will consume him, but he considers it worthwhile because the woman he has brought with him, the person seemingly beyond his reach, might be given life.
So, Wander sets about the impossible task of destroying the colossi. Each huge beast possesses a different personality and set of limited behaviors. From the nicest to the most ferocious, they each possess a part of Dormin’s power, and Wander must slay them. To me, this reads as the incremental self-destruction that accompanies transition. The examination of the self and the death of those pieces which have no place in the life of a person living authentically, who doesn’t need to hide that they’re trespassing in the forbidden land by being trans. Each fight feels exhilarating, like the liberation of being one step closer to the person you were always meant to be, but each death is nonetheless punctuated by that bittersweet sense of loss as the colossus falls and the vulnerability of Dormin’s power piercing Wander’s exhausted body.
With each slain colossi, Wander’s body changes. It becomes more powerful, but less comprehensible. This can be read as the alienation that many trans people can feel prior to or while in the middle of transitioning. For me, there are moments where being able to present more femininely can translate into extreme dysphoria when people don’t read me correctly as a woman. It’s the awareness of who I am and the effort I have put in and continue to put in to try to push my body into a place where I am happy with it and am recognized as a woman. Failing to hit that standard when all of that effort has gone into the attempt hurts.
Buckle in, buckos, we have reached the matter of that curious ending.
Wander returns to the central shrine one last time, only to encounter Lord Emon and his soldiers who strongly oppose the completion of Wander’s quest. I read this as the outside influences and individuals that try to keep trans people closeted. At this point, I see Wander as the trans person who has realized that they are, in fact, trans, but fears the final steps of transition. That could be coming out to others, a huge hurdle for many trans folk, or a more existential fear about how taking hormones will forever alter the course of their life. The situation escalates and Lord Emon’s soldiers attempt to kill Wander, plunging a sword through his crossbow bolt-riddled body. This oppression, however, does not stop Wander. Instead, Dormin merges with the young warrior and we come to the final crisis point. I can’t help but see the moment where Wander becomes lost in darkness as the point I came to when I realized that I could either die alone or take the final steps to transition. There wasn’t wiggle room for me to exist in a comfortable middle ground. I was going to lose things and people that were important to me, and that was scary but not as chilling as death.
Lord Emon and his retinue flee, leaving a sealing spell behind them as they exit the central shrine. The spell sucks Dormin and Wander into a pool of shimmering water and everything seems to calm down as the bridge outside collapses. This reads as a crossing of the Rubicon for trans people. Wander is, for all intents and purposes, dead. Transition has broken the old coping mechanisms down to the foundations. There is no going back.
And then Mono opens her eyes.
Wander’s entire journey reads as a metaphor for transition. Trans people often find themselves making so many sacrifices to survive, for the simple privilege of being comfortable in our skins. And with his death, Wander gives life to the woman who has been with him the entire time, but always unreachable. Agro, Wander’s former companion steed who fell by the wayside, returns to Mono and together they discover the horned baby. The baby always seemed odd and out of place in my previous readings of Shadow of the Colossus, but now I see it as a sign or rebirth and continuity. Wander is gone, but he continues on through Mono.
After this, Mono, Agro, and the baby make their way to the top of the shrine and find themselves face to face with a fawn. We are meant to understand that fawn as a sign that things are going to be okay. If something as pure and good as that fawn can exist in the forbidden land, Mono will be able to thrive in a similar state.
Everything will be okay, there is a light at the end of this long, dark, and lonely tunnel where that unreachable woman, man, or enby will open their eyes and live.
James Mielke was talking with Sony product manager Mark Valledor back in a 2005 piece for the now defunct 1UP website in the lead-up to Shadow of the Colossus’ release. The two were discussing the remarkable ad campaign for the game, the one that stuck in the heads of those who were around to witness it over a decade ago. “It's a kind of return to innocence isn't it?” Mielke observed. “You've got all these games out there that are about super-realism, how much ammo you can spend getting through a level, or just really nihilistic stuff. Shadow brings it back to somewhere completely different. To be able to experience something like this is really special.”
People keep coming back to Shadow of the Colossus. Year after year, remaster and remake, people can’t get enough of the world Team Ico crafted and the tale they forged. The flexibility of that story, the numerous meanings Shadow of the Colossus takes on, is the secret. It is what allows the film Reign Over Me to use the game as a parallel for a character’s grief and Sony’s marketing department to bill it as one of the greatest romance games of all-time.
There aren’t many games that tell explicitly trans stories. The indie scene has seen a rise in them over the last few years with titles like A Normal Lost Phone and We Know the Devil, but outside of that space trans people remain largely absent from mainstream gaming. It’s no surprise, then, that when I transitioned I began looking more closely at games to find something in which I could see a fragment of myself. The mythic nature of Shadow of the Colossus invited a close reading. The story was like the abstract art that fascinated Ueda in his university days. It unfolded itself to accommodate me in a way no other game really could. Its implications of depth and meaning always felt like the massive creatures, the ongoing struggles, and even Mono herself had more to account for than mainstream interpretations provided.
Shadow of the Colossus is about the struggle of trans people. For me, this works.
Feature originally appeared on www.extra-life.org 06/22/19