LOVE AFTER DEATH: VIOLENCE AND TRANSGRESSION IN SHADOW
The study of Shadow’s construction of love and affection is marked by the simultaneity of its gameplay and narrative. In other words, it is by playing the game that we discover more information about the story, the world, the characters, and the quest. Therefore, to analyze love in Shadow, I first focus on the experience it aims to construct and the meanings it aims to communicate through playing the game. To do that, as mentioned in the previous section, I refer to a study of its content, its organization through its patterned progression, and the construction of affective attention through the game mechanics. For clarity and feasibility, this account of Shadow studies the game focusing on the separated patterns it presents of exploration and confrontation—their relation and repetition. Once this structure is analyzed, I discuss the phases combined and how its mechanics tell a story and propose an ethical experience. Thus, I begin with a ludological approach that focuses on the mechanics of the game design and, second, how and what is the story that is subtracted from them (Perez-Latorre 2012).
The Structural Pattern of Shadow
Every quest to defeat a new colossus is organized in two interconnected phases: first, the exploration of the Ancient Lands and, second, the battle against the colossus. Both are part of every encounter, but for clarity I propose a chronological study of the experience they propose.
Exploring the Land of Obsession
Exploration in Shadow is a necessary part of the mission for the resurrection of Mono. It leads to the battles and defeat of the colossi and finding the colossi constitutes part of the puzzle. To solve it the player is aided by the information from the Head-up Display (HUD)—textual information that forms part of the player’s interface. Through this display the player is informed about her/his strength, stamina, weapon, and health. This is the only information communicated to the player.
This scarcity of information was defined by the director of the game, Ueda, as “subtractive design,” and it aims to maintain a mimetic relation between the game and its representation of reality (Sony 2006). HUD’s are an artificial tool to facilitate gameplay, but they are not available in our world outside the game. Thus, Ueda aims to keep the visual display to a minimum, focusing the player on the straightforwardness of the quest, eliciting Wander’s obsession.
Added to the limited resources, Shadow proposes a deserted world that emphasizes the loneliness and isolation of the player. There is nothing else to do in the Ancient Lands except for riding and finding the next colossus. Consequently, Shadow lacks any secondary missions, side quests, or the presence of Non-Playable Characters (NPC’s). This design choice has an effect that connects mechanics and narrative. As the Ancient Lands are deserted of any living creatures to interact with, the feeling of isolation increases. Moreover, it stirs Wander to kill the colossi to revive his lover as soon as possible. This obsession and rush are aided by constant revisiting of the shrine where Mono’s body rests. The feeling of repetition is therefore maintained and stressed throughout the whole gameplay. The spatial center is constantly revisited while time starts all over again in a cyclical structure as the body of our lover becomes the core of our world, our journey, our obsession.
Consequently, Mono’s presence reinforces the emptiness of the land— the lack of choices in our cyclical experience—to stress the fixation of Wander on his mission. Every time we succeed, we are transported back in front of Mono as Dormin, the uncanny spiritual force that aids us, tells us about our next foe and how to defeat it. Thus, as Perez-Latorre (2012) argues, the space (and I will add time) of Shadow is of obsession beyond solitude (286). In a land of wide expanses, in a game that allows us to travel wherever we want from the start and to disengage from combat anytime, the avatar—and through him the player—only seeks one thing: the next colossus.
So then, what do we do during these long and empty rides? There is only one thing to do: to lead our horse to the next battle and to think. We attend to our doubts and internal struggles; this is the only moment that we are allowed to respond reflectively to the story. As Ciccoricco (2007) argues, “the player not only inherits the task of [Wander] but also (potentially and ideally) the psychological baggage that his ordeal entails.” This does not imply that both player and Wander are in psychological harmony as we cannot know if Wander is himself questioning his quest and actions.
Thus, by giving time for self-reflection, Shadow increases the players uncertainty about the morality of her/his acts and the disruption and destruction of an alienating world that constantly rejects you. This intense moral interrogation contrasts with the resolution of Wander who straightforwardly commits to his only objective: to satisfy his loss and to alleviate his pain (Suttner 2015). Only by killing can you progress, and every time you are haunted by the guilt of murder you are placed in front of your lover. There is no room for questioning your quest. There is only haste. Love is our justification, our reason to kill, to destroy and to risk the whole world to cease the horrible pain we suffer from losing the only thing that keeps us alive. Love in Shadow is our only solid foundation. The ontological and bedrock sustaining our existence. Without it we are nothing. And so, we will blindly sacrifice everything to get it back.
Here, however, arises a dichotomy, a tension between player and avatar caused by the closed ethic game design. We know Wander wants to destroy the colossi, but the player may choose to stop this transgression, to reconcile with nature and its flow instead of interrupting it. Nevertheless, s/he will then be trapped in a land of isolation and obsession. In fact, if the player decides to cross the bridge and leave the Ancient Lands, a gale will fix him in the spot not allowing him to advance. Therefore, regardless of the player’s decision to perform the EBT or not there are no options left to advance in the game. Once in the Ancient Lands, all you need to care about is how to kill the colossi.
Disruption and Violence
The violent battles between Wander and the colossi are the central climactic encounters necessary to the success of the quest. Their first characteristic is the asymmetry of the fight. While Wander stands as a minuscule figure with scarce resources, the colossi are enormous armed beings, solid as rocks. However, during the first moments of each encounter most of the colossi behave reactively, that is, it is the player who must provoke the fight.
Thus, the only way to succeed is to climb on them, find the colossi’s weak spots and how to reach them to stab the enemy repeatedly until it is killed. The hero must then get into close contact, climb up and down and confront the face of the colossus as he draws its life out. The violence of these encounters stresses the negative consequences of obsessive toxic love. This main mechanic also forces the player to confront and attach her-self/himself physically to the being s/he is murdering. Thus, the heroism of the quest is nuanced by the brutality and violence of the battles. While the player stabs the monster, it tries to throw him off by shaking its head or body, which stresses the condition of the colossi as sentient, suffering beings. There the player acknowledges by himself the only clear characteristic of these monsters: that they suffer.
As we emerge victorious, we witness the collapsing of our foe as black tendrils coming from his corpse reach us and leave us unconscious. This moment of victory is key to understanding how the quest is designed by Ueda. Contrary to epic adventure games, there is no celebration of the killing of our enemy. The music turns to a sad melody Ueda places deliberately to stress the feeling of wrongness and defilement while it mourns the dead creature (Suttner 2015, 83). There is no celebratory music or winning messages, no rewards for our victory, which emphasizes the ambiguity and defilement of our acts (ibid, 35). The player is then deprived of agency and is given it back just to be chased by the dark tendrils that leave the colossus’ body and enter his body no matter how much s/he tries to escape from them. It is, then, by manipulating the conventional rules and mechanics of games that Ueda forces the player to interpret his actions (Sicart 2009, 216).
This mechanic, narratively impactful, works using a concept defined as “futile interactivity” (Fortugno 2009). The term refers to scenes in which the player is given agency with a task that seems accomplishable despite being designed to be mechanically impossible (Fortugno 2009,176). In the case of Shadow “the game uses multiple moments of futile interaction to give the tragedy its emotional power” (ibid, 185). Fortugno’s first example is the moment a colossus is defeated, and the player is given agency back; then, trying to escape from the black tendrils he is, inevitably caught and penetrated by them. The reason behind this design has to do with the way the player would experience the moment. Using futile interactivity designers can create dramatic necessity as they play with the player to believe there is something to do there, a way to dodge the tendrils as this allows the player to take control back. But Shadow uses the player’s agency and its manipulation to increase the sense of entrapment by his quest.
Futile interactivity is a central mechanic in Shadow’s meditation on the medium and what attachment, toxic love, and affection can lead us to. It also relates directly to Wander’s quest and the player involvement and experiencing of it. From the beginning of the quest, the player’s agency is futile, there is no power over Wander’s obsessed love. The capacity to choose and decide on the transgression is an illusion—a deception constructed through the possibilities and limitations of the medium. Furthermore, we are not forced to commit the transgression, we can choose to leave the game, or simply not to progress. But the attraction of the possibility to do something impossible outside the game world and yet forbidden is too captivating. This tension, our futile attempts to escape the temptation of the transgression, the obsession of our avatar and our irreversible fate structures the story and the gameplay synecdochally represented by the black tendrils—a sign of our pollution—as the only reward for our actions.
This aftermath is a moment of reflection, of bewilderment, and insecurity about the meaning and consequences of our quest. Moreover, after each killing our possible victory over death draws near. If in the beginning our quest seemed desperate but heroic, its performance and its close conclusion make us face the once distant possibility of the dimensions and forms of the resurrection of Dormin, a force of violence and mystery that has promised us it can resurrect Mono but at a great loss. Consequently, Shadow is a game that warns about love turning as violence, obsession, and individualism over community. Nevertheless, to better understand how these tensions are represented in Shadow, I now study their narrativ-ization through the videoludic medium and the subsequent EBT engagement it constructs.
Immoral Mechanics of Immoral Quest
Shadow’s main narrative features are discussed and experienced while framed within intertextual debates on moral philosophy. As such, the game uses concepts such as moral dilemma, deontological and conse-quentialist ethics, and the concept of evil to express and engage the main debates of contemporary Japan, debates that are originated and permeate how the game and player define, understand, and experience love.
The whole experience Shadow proposes is based on turning what a priori seems like a moral dilemma into a complete unethical mission. A moral dilemma is a situation in which the agent is required to do each of two (or more) actions but where s/he cannot do both (McConnell 1986). The agent is therefore condemned to moral failure as none of the options overrides the other. This is not the case of Shadow. Wander’s conundrum is a moral conflict, as one of the options, abandoning his transgression, clearly overrides his obsession over resurrecting his lover. This difference, apparently a merely conceptual issue, is key to comprehending the ethical representation of our quest. There is where other concepts help us understand how Ueda turns a moral dilemma into an evil act.
To do so, Shadow shows how two opposing ethical systems are, in fact, compatible, simultaneous, and related. Deontologically, the transgression breaks the laws of the mortals. It is forbidden to enter the Ancient Lands, and it is forbidden to aid Dormin as well as resurrecting the dead. But if rebelling against these norms was not enough to frame the mission as unethical, Shadow increases the negativity of the quest by warning about its consequences. Not only do we murder peaceful, suffering beings, but we also bring the world to its coming destruction. Our quest turns from a heroic desperation to a selfish obsession. Thus, although we may struggle to justify the unfairness of a world that has killed our young lover, it is in the repetition of our constant violence and murders that the defilement of our quest is stressed. This is done through the combined use of mechanics, aesthetics, and narrative of the gameplay.
I have already mentioned the term subtractive ethic and closed ethical design (Sicart 2009). These concepts are key to understand what Shadow is proposing and how. By constraining the ethical decisions and the moral agency to the game, to the avatar Wander, the player is forced to perform and experience the designed ethical choices of the game. The player can react and reflect on them. The game respects the player as a moral agent, it does not force him to play but he is attracted, engaged on the uncomfortable ethical position that Shadow proposes, acknowledging the moral capacities of the player, which maximises the experience. The exploration of ethical boundaries and the challenge of every category is at the core of Shadow’s philosophical stance through mechanics such as “futile interactivity,” which strips agency out of the player but increases the dramatic and ethical impact of the game. This is achieved through the dichotomous and complex phenomenological relation between player and avatar (Klevjer 2012, 17). This is a symbolic but intangible connection, the avatar being an extension of our agency and body, but one restricted and pre-designed by the developers. In Shadow, this mimetic relation with our avatar, amplified by its subtractive design, is altered through our constant dialogue, questioning, and fluid connections with Wander. In a game that liquefies everything, Shadow asks the player about her/his own control over the game, moral responsibility, and overall agency. Who is being played here?
But there is a last, but central and key interrogation and challenge by Shadow to the player, a question on the ontology and phenomenology of being evil. This is Ueda’s main approach to computer games, a medium not only to tell stories but to create and explore experiences, to wander through our human condition and to test the limits of our own existence. Our quest is part of the debate on the understanding of evil beings and actions. How does doing evil make you feel and what it means to do evil is a central feature of the significance and form of love and affect in the game.
Performing the EBT in Shadow is sanctioned as an immoral selfish act. The killing, the risking of the world and the non-acceptance of the rules established by the community are represented from the beginning as unethical choices. But is Wander an evil character? And if so, how does it feel for the player to be and do evil? In Shadow, Wander is not treated by others, not even those whom he threatens, as an evil being. When Lord Emon finds out about what he has performed he expresses only mercy and pity. Even after Wander, transformed into a demon, tries to kill him, Lord Emon wishes for Wander’s redemption, and even anticipates his part in the future, resolved in the game Ico. This external judgment is also repeatedly manifested throughout the game. Wander is not killing the colossi because he enjoys it, he is not jeopardizing the whole world because he despises its existence, but because he is incapable of detaching himself from his love—to let go and accept her death.
Consequently, Wander is the example of the moral imbecile, of a mind so troubled that he cannot think of anything else but the resurrection of Mono (Scarre 2010). As the mechanics and the structure of the game reinforce that there is no distraction, no time to stop and think. Wander is aware that some fatal consequences will befall after he breaches the boundaries of life and death, but he does not care. However, that he is not portrayed as an evil being does not mean his actions are not evil. Wander is a deeply selfish and obsessed individual who disregards others for his own satisfaction. His individualism leads him towards his egoistic quest.
However, if we are defined by our actions, Wander is not alone in this evil quest. The player is always present from the moment the transgression starts. Shadow uses recurrent indications of the immorality of the quest. In the prologue we are told that the trespassing to the Ancient Lands is forbidden. Then Dormin warns the player about the dangerous consequences of the quest. Mechanically and narratively he stresses the defilement of the quest. Thus, from the beginning Shadow ensures the player will have doubts about the morality of his actions while it does not discourage him from finishing the game. But if moral evil and ethics is central to Shadow what is then their relation to love—the original and ever-present motivation for our quest? To answer this question, it is necessary to look at the cosmos created by ICO Studio both in Shadow and its prequel Ico—a game where love, affection, and friendship become not only its central theme but also its vectorizing mechanic.