Shadows of Colossus

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I came across this article on Kotaku, a popular Gaming Blog, regarding an intriguing bit of product placement in the new Adam Sandler flick, Reign Over Me.

Reign, a comedy drama directed by Mike Binder, stars Adam Sandler as Charlie, a New Yorker who has disconnected from reality in the wake of a massive personal tragedy. One evening, as he plows his motorized scooter through the canyons of Manhattan, he runs across his old college roommate Alan (played by Don Cheadle). Or more to the point, Alan flags down Charlie, who is so withdrawn from reality, he doesn’t recall ever knowing him. The film then follows the two men as they rediscover their friendship.

Don’t worry, I haven’t divulged any plot spoilers in that synopsis. How could I? I haven’t even seen the film. All of those background details were plucked straight from the film’s trailer.

Before I continue, I do feel the need to drop one major spoiler that is integral to the rest of my post. I came across this info in the media coverage tied to the film, so in fairness, this is out there in the public domain but if you don’t want to be spoiled, do not read any further.

The trailer alludes to a plane crash that killed Charlie’s wife and three daughters. That’s the impetus for his withdrawal. What they don’t reveal is that Charlie’s family was aboard one of the planes that were flown into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. That’s a pretty heavy back story and it immediately lends the tale a tangible sense of sadness. Hell, I got sad just watching the trailer knowing full well what ailment has befallen Charlie. This is a different Sandler than we’ve seen before.

That’s where the Kotaku article comes in. Apparently, through the course of their bonding, Alan discovers Charlie is obsessed with video games. In several scenes, he can be seen playing his PS2 on a massive wall mounted high-def TV. In the early development phase, Binder’s screenplay called for a generic arcade-style first person shooter as a means to visually depict Charlie blasting away his demons.

As the film began to develop, one of Binder’s associates offered up a suggestion. He felt that the 2005 PS2 game, Shadow of the Colossus, would make a great thematic fit for the internal struggle Charlie was waging. Having personally played the game (I’ve declared it one of my Top 5 Favorite Console Games of All Time), I have to agree. Knowing the tragedy Charlie copes with, this title adds greatly to Reign’s subtext.

As I wrote last year, Shadow of the Colossus can be summed up in two words – boss fights – those end level battle royales that often charge a player with taking down some hulking behemoth in order to gain a power-up or open passage to the next world. Shadow of the Colossus takes that staple of gaming, some might argue a tired and worn cliché, and makes something wholly unique, haunting and beautiful.

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Colossus opens on a young knight with no name, pulling a horse through a lonely, desolate land. Draped over the horse is the lifeless body of a young woman. Using drab, muted graphics and a viewpoint that stretches for hundreds of miles of digital landscape, the player feels completely lost in an alien landscape. The knight comes upon a massive castle, that seeming bursts from the Earth, its sharp precipice pointing accusingly towards the sky. The knight enters this edifice and makes his way to a sanctuary. There he places the woman’s body on an altar and is soon startled by a great, booming voice from the heavens. The voice tells the knight that within this cursed land, there are 13 great colossi that guard various areas. If he can hunt them down and kill each beast, then new life will be granted to this woman. Grabbing a small sword, the knight heads off on horseback to hunt each of these golems.

And that’s where the game begins. The player moves his avatar through this world, seeking out each colossus. While there is a fair bit of platforming required to find each colossus (think Tomb Raider or Prince of Persia) – the meat of the game lies in the battles with these creatures. These are epic throw downs with each colossus taking a different form and requiring the player to think through the right way to tackle the creatures. Some of them are multiple stories tall and all boast a weak point that must be reached, leading the player to grab onto the creature and clamber over it’s body, while it desperately struggles to shake you off. The battles are intense and very puzzle oriented –playing out like those satisfying boss fights from The Legend of Zelda series.

When you finally do bring one of the creatures down, the player feels this amazing sense of accomplishment, as every skill is exercised and tested. Button mashing doesn’t work here. Each boss takes a well-orchestrated plan.

Buoyed by stellar production values, especially amazing sound design, the game does a great job of imparting an emotional attachment to these majestic creatures. Each one is so awe-inspiring, some appear as gentle giants, that when you do take one down and it crashes to the Earth in pained slow motion, you can’t help but feel a tinge of guilt.

It’s in that description where one spies the kinship that exists between the game and the movie. Colossus follows a lone knight fighting towering beasts in a bid to resurrect his loved one. And (Massive Spoiler Alert) – the game culminates in the hero sacrificing his life to breathe new life to his fair maiden. Additionally, there is the imagery of these beasts crashing to Earth. The game treats each ‘victory’ as a staggering defeat. It makes such an indelible, emotional connection with the player that you can’t help but feel regret each time you take down one of these magnificent beasts.

While I have yet to see Reign Over Me, the theme intrigues me. The reviews have been on the upside of mixed and those that like it seem to really like it.  Apparently, Sandler starts off playing a riff on one of his trademark ‘lost boys’ and ends up applying some deep shading to the performance. The Kotaku article suggests that Sandler was immediately swayed by the suggestion to include Colossus in the finished product. I like that. He really gets it and it was a solid decision.

If this were a clear cut case of blatant product placement, I’d have issues. But Colossus, though a critic’s darling, was a marginal retail hit with a modest cult following. It’s been tossed out there often as the poster child for the “Videogames as Art” debate – so in that regard, it has received some positive press of late, but this is no Halo-esque juggernaut. It’s just a beautiful piece of visual poetry that happens to share shelf space with Def Jam Icon.  Its appearance in this film serves the narrative and is clearly not a corporate bid to squeeze a few more bucks from the consumer.

Non-gamers may not pick it up but for those who know the game – or better yet, have benefited from a play through – the choice is genius and helps underscore the sadness of Charlie’s plight.

I’ll say this much, until I read that Kotaku article, this film was barely a blip on my radar screen. Now it’s one of my most anticipated films to see.