If I were to try breaking down why Shadow of the Colossus is a masterpiece, I’d be here for years. Normally I say that hyperbolically, but it’s quite literal this time! There are dozens, hundreds of reasons as to why this is considered by many to be the best game of all time.
Today, I’m going to break down just one of them. A highly crucial one: the main character, Wander.
In terms of personality, Wander isn’t much. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that he’s hardly anything! We can tell that he’s loyal to those he loves, such as Mono and Agro, while rebellious towards the rules and his people’s leaders. He’s courageous, kind, and incredibly gullible. For a mostly silent protagonist, he does have more personality than most. But that’s still not saying much.
But in terms of the four building blocks of a character? He is masterfully written! He is the perfect protagonist for a game like Shadow of the Colossus!
The Wound and the Want: Mono
Wander’s Wound and Want are both brain-dead simple. Out of all four blocks, they are easily the least deep or complimented. In fact, out of everything in the game, this is just about the only thing that is clear.
At some point before the game’s beginning, the love of Wander’s life, Mono, mysteriously died. Having heard the legends of the Forbidden Land and Dormin, a god that can apparently grant any wish, Wander steals a magic sword, mounts his horse Agro, and travels to the Forbidden Land with Mono’s body in tow. His goal: get the strange god to resurrect the one he loves. He wants to be with the one he loves again.
Honestly, this is far from the most interesting thing about Wander. But it is important nonetheless. Without the Wound or Want, neither the Lie nor the Need would work as well as they do.
Speaking of which!
The Lie: He Who Restores Life
Desperation, when you think about it, is a terrifying emotion. Sure, it heightens your awareness and boosts your physical abilities. But it lessens your ability to think, which can lead to poor decision making.
In Wander’s case, his desperation led him to make the worst decision of all: trusting in Dormin.
He believes that, so long as he kills the sixteen Colossi, Dormin will grant his wish. What he doesn’t realize is that things aren’t that simple. Dormin is the devil. And a deal with the devil always comes with a caveat.
This is what I find so interesting about Wander. His lie isn’t caused by some trauma or his childhood, as with many other characters. It is born out of pure, unbridled desperation. He wants to see Mono again so desperately that he doesn’t bother thinking about the consequences.
This may be the most realistic Lie I’ve seen out of any character I’ve discussed thus far. Not everyone watches their friends or family get slaughtered, but we’ve all experienced, or will experience, the loss of someone close to us. We’ve all likely done something stupid in the throws of our grief. In that way, Wander is more human than anyone I’ve talked about!
Which makes the next part all the more tragic.
The Need: Blind to the Truth
Given the previous three blocks, Wander’s need should be clear. Wander’s Want is something that he can never have, even if he does fulfill his bargain with Dormin. So he only has one choice, if he wants to avoid his terrible fate: clear his head, think about the consequences of his actions, and move on.
But… well… I don’t think what happens next is much of a secret.
If you’ve played Shadow of the Colossus, then you’re well familiar with how Wander’s story ends. After thoughtlessly slaughtering all sixteen Colossi, he is possessed by Dormin and sealed away by his people. Dormin does keep his word and resurrects Mono, but it doesn’t matter to Wander, who has been reduced to a horned baby.
This is another fascinating aspect of Wander’s character: he never achieves his Need. He falls deep into the throws of his lie and loses everything. His character arc isn’t about conquering the lie and becoming a stronger person. It’s all about falling into the lie.
Wander’s is not a traditional positive character arc. It’s a negative arc!
Here’s where the game goes from clever to genius! See, while Wander doesn’t spend any time thinking about what he’s doing, there is someone doing that for him: the player.
As the player proceeds through the game, it’s highly likely that they’ll pick up on a few things. Primarily: the Colossi don’t attack unless you attack them. Most of them are passive by nature. Hell, Colossus #13 won’t attack you at all!
Things like this get the player thinking. Am I doing the right thing? Can Dormin be trusted? Is all this effort even worth it?
This creates a beautifully tragic disconnect between player and character. We as the player fulfill the need that could save Wander by taking the time to think. Unfortunately, Wander himself can never do the same. We can’t help our avatar through his struggles beyond helping him slaughter seemingly innocent monsters.
We the player lead Wander to his death. He the character sealed his own fate and we deliver him to it. And the most heart-breaking part is: we didn’t even know we were doing it until we were too late to stop it.
Few video game characters are written to take advantage of the medium. Most of them are either blank slates used for the sole purpose of giving the player someone to play as. Others are written the same way that a character in a film or novel would be written.
This is what makes Wander so special. His story is almost wordlessly told purely through the gameplay and the player themselves! It’s a tragedy that directly envelops the player, whether they know it or not!
This is the way to write a video game character! It is significantly harder than writing a traditional character. But when it’s done right, it is so incredibly effective that it becomes impossible to forget!