There isn’t much to do in The Forbidden Lands. There are no NPCs to talk to, no side quests to complete, no collectible baubles or doodads to run around and accumulate. One can find a handful of lizards to hunt and some fruit to forage for here and there for slight statistical bonuses, but for the most part it’s rolling plains and towering cliffs as far as the eye can see. Most of the time, there isn’t even background music. The Forbidden Lands are an expansive vista of emptiness, a zen garden of sorts. Until the player blunders in and disturbs the tranquil setting, there’s no hint of violence at all.
In many ways, Shadow of the Colossus set the tone for the modern idea of wide-open sandbox games, despite bearing almost none of the hallmarks of the genre. Future games and series such as Assassin’s Creed or Watch Dogs would ape the expansive world of The Forbidden Lands, but rush to pack that world with content. Every inch of space was to be flooded with items to collect, characters to give you new quests, or a store at which you can buy useless trinkets for that mansion you never visit. If they can’t fill a space with something substantial, then they just drop a random NPC there who will shout one of a dozen pre-scripted lines at you as you walk past. It is as if the games themselves are worried the player might get bored and wander off if they aren’t constantly distracted by shiny baubles. By crowding their worlds with all this noise and nonsense, these games forget what really made Shadow of the Colossus’ world so wonderful and unique: its emptiness.
Colossus contains only sixteen enemies for the player to take on. Given this, it would be perfectly reasonable for the developers to simply drop the player in a central hub and present “spokes” that lead to a single colossus and its unique environment. They could have even gone so far as to give the player a Mega Man-esque boss selection wheel which dropped them directly into that foe’s stage. If Shadow of the Colossus was simply a game about slaying the titular titanic terrors, this would be the most obvious method of moving the player from level to level, but the game defies that simplicity. The Forbidden Lands are as much a part of the experience as they are a set of pathways leading you to your foes. Those long, quiet rides from the Shrine of Worship to your next opponent are as powerful and important as the battles themselves. As much as the game is about engaging in battle with gigantic monsters, it is equally about inhabiting a particular space.
The environments of The Forbidden Lands tend to be vast, with geographical features few and far between. There is very little to take the player’s attention away from their main task of slaying the colossi. These are not the crowded streets of Rome, full of beggars and merchants, men and women pleading for the players help with menial tasks and guards shouting at them, warning them not to ride their horse so fast. While these features work to represent crowded worlds and populous cities, telling the player they exist in a society far bigger than themselves and their goals, it would be a poor fit for the personal and spiritual journey of Shadow of the Colossus. Instead, they are simply asked to take in the grandeur and majesty of the grand vistas laid out before them. The land is carefully crafted to ensure there are never any obstacles or obstructions to obscure the player’s vision, and one could take a snapshot of nearly any frame of gameplay and get a desktop-worthy wallpaper. When riding on Aggro, the player’s trusty steed, the camera pulls out as you accelerate, pushing Wander and his horse down into one of the bottom corners of the screen. This angle is partly a mechanical feature, letting the player better see ahead and therefore more easily navigate the terrain, but it is also an implicit suggestion to the viewer. As the camera shifts its focus from the character to the space, so too does the player shift theirs. Even the HUD will disappear whenever it’s not strictly necessary, and quest or map markers are replaced by the much more diegetic guiding light emitted from Wander’s sword. Shadow of the Colossus makes a conscious effort to invite the player to fully invest themselves in, experience, and exist within its world. The Forbidden Lands is not a place to do things, it’s a place to simply be. The lack of distractions allows the player to build a relationship with the geography itself, to become comfortable in it and care for its wellbeing. It also helps the player grow close to Aggro, their only companion in the void, making their grief and guilt all the more powerful when they become the indirect cause of Aggro’s death.
The player will spend a fair amount of time riding across the nigh-endless plains, with only the wind and the constant pattering of Aggro’s hooves to be heard. On occasion, they will come across a narrow path, or a copse of trees that force them to slow their pace. It’s these moments that really reinforce the idea that Wander and Aggro are engaged in an epic adventure. These quiet, solemn moments of slowly picking one’s way through the trees, as sunbeams shine down at the ground, suggest a certain level of reflection and thought. It’s common in many games to slow the player down in order to allow them to better digest a deluge of information. Think of the myriad walking scenes in Assassin’s Creed, where the player is given an exposition dump while following a friendly NPC, or how Hotline Miami slows the player to walking speed at the end of a level to force them to look over the carnage they caused. Shadow of the Colossus dispenses little to no information during these sequences; they are meant for the player to have a period of quiet and reflection, to consider their actions both past and future and to appreciate the world they are visiting. In this silence, the player is meant to find meaning and project it onto the game. While it is increasingly common to provide players with endless text and content in the form of audio logs, codex entries, books and supplementary materials, Shadow of the Colossus provides little, asking the player to find their own answers.
There are games that carry Shadow of the Colossus’ minimalist torch. Journey consists almost entirely of negative space, providing the player with no text, and very little explanation or lore to light their path through the desert. What story is given gets told in an abstract, stylized format that leaves it open to player interpretation. The result is that Journey ends up being about whatever the individual needs it to be about, mirroring the traditional Hero’s Journey in the simplest and most abstract way. I have played through Journey several times in the years since its release, and each time I find an entirely new perspective on it, and have interpreted the game differently depending on my current situation and emotional state. The main difference lies in Journey’s linearity. Shadow of the Colossus has the player traverse the same environments multiple times to reach their destination. This repetition breeds a sense of familiarity. The Forbidden Lands become comfortable, not a place you go to, but a place you return to. The desert of Journey is entirely linear, each environment appearing only once per playthrough. This world can be beautiful and engaging, but it is only there for the player to pass through on the way to their goal. Where Journey uses its negative space to entice the player forward to the next chapter, Shadow of the Colossus uses it to ask the player to stop and appreciate where they are.
Is the protagonist, Wander, a heroic figure, bravely facing off against impossible odds to bring life back to the one he loves? Is he a reckless child, meddling with forces he doesn’t comprehend for selfish purposes? Are those soldiers chasing after him agents of an oppressive state or religion, unjustly charging Wander with crimes of blasphemy? Or are they courageous and just lawmen chasing after what they see as a murderer who ran away with the body of his victim? All stories are open to be viewed in different ways, but SotC especially invites interpretation, reflection and projection from the player in order to fill in the various ambiguities. In refusing to answer any of the many questions it asks, it acts as a mirror in the mind of the player. Ultimately, it is Shadow of the Colossus’ emptiness that makes it so memorable. This is a game remembered not for what it did, but for what it didn’t do. SotC steps back and lets the player find agency within its world, and with that agency comes a sense of closeness and belonging in the game space that is so rarely experienced.