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‘Shadow of the Colossus’ and the Art of Ma

Emptiness is not the harrowing concept we think it to be. The modern world might suggest that “being without” is a detriment to fulfilled living, but many see this sentiment as one that promotes unnecessary clutter. In Japan, where the concept of ma (間) flourishes in all aspects of life, it is a cultural understanding that less is more. Ma, when roughly translated, can mean “gap”, “pause”, or “the space between.” It’s a companion to mindfulness, one that disavows growth through both the material and a saturation of thought. In 2005, designer Fumito Ueda and his studio Team Ico brought us “Shadow of the Colossus,” a game that built its very foundations upon the concept of Ma. It continues to stand the test of time with its “design by subtraction”, as Ueda refers to it, a method of creation that is often overlooked by developers to a fault.

From the game’s opening, “Colossus” refuses to bombard the player with exposition, and continuously withholds itself from convoluting the narrative with unnecessary dialogue. There is nothing spoken as the game’s main character Wander makes his great journey to the Forbidden Lands to resurrect a girl by the name of Mono, who had previously been sacrificed because of her “cursed fate.” After showing Wander travel beyond treacherous cliffside passages, lavish forests and other murky terrains, we hear the voice of Lord Emon, a spiritual leader from Wander’s home. He quickly explains that the Forbidden Lands are an archaic place not fully understood by human beings, where legend suggests that the dead can be brought back to life. And, as its name suggests, Lord Emon concludes his brief monologue by stating that entering the Forbidden Lands is strictly prohibited.

The player is not told why the lands they enter are forbidden, nor why Wander is willing to go to such great lengths to reclaim the life of the woman he carries. It’s also never explained why her fate was considered cursed. When Wander places Mono on a stone slab within the mammoth structural improbability known as the Shrine of Worship, he bargains with the entity Dormin for the girl’s life. When told that killing sixteen colossi is the only way for Mono to regain her life and that it will exact upon Wander a deathly price, he simply states that “it doesn’t matter.” It’s these narrative beats that lend credence to the implementation of ma. What little we’re told becomes a form within a sprawling formless canvas, the emptiness of which only highlights what little there is to know. The narrative components are weaved not by what is said, but rather by what isn’t.

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Ma is not just mastery of what little there is to see and hear, it’s also a mastery of negative spaces. In an interview with Roger Ebert, co-founder of Studio Ghibli Hayao Miyazaki discussed the superlative nature of allowing concepts to breathe. After clapping his hands several times, Miyazaki said, “The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.” In Miyazaki’s films, we’re often treated to moments where characters are doing nothing. Be it enjoying the steady coalescence of rain pouring into the ocean or the cackle of a fire, it’s these moments of negative space that lend power to the story’s greater developments, something “Colossus” absolutely thrives upon.

Ueda’s masterful understanding of this concept shines not only through the game’s narrative but also through the manner in which the player plays. In a game where you’re tasked with killing sixteen primordial beings harboring the essence of an imprisoned entity, some of which are ridiculously large, it can seem easy to consider its main objective as gratuitous to some degree, but it’s in the moments between the player’s encounters with the colossi that negate all manner of gratuity.

There’s not a single place within the Forbidden Lands that is inaccessible for exploration. Although some can be intimidatingly large, the sixteen colossi you come across take up a surprisingly low percentage of the vast expanses within the Forbidden Lands. This was no accident. Ueda wanted to give players a space to contemplate their actions and their potential ramifications, one that promotes introspection while simultaneously offering insight to the remnants of the forgotten age littered throughout those forlorn vistas.

Through decrepit plateaus dressed in yellowed grass to slate-filled wastes drowning in sand, areas, and monuments exist within Colossus” that bears no significance to the game’s events or outcome. They simply are. Along the southern border of the game’s map lies a winding path etched along a cliff face. This path leads you to a gorgeous beach that curves beneath the natural stone archway that led you there, and its purpose is entirely inconsequential. A great many areas like this exist off the beaten path within “Colossus,” some of which host unnatural stone formations. Why they exist is something for the player to decide.

Noh (能) theatre is considered the supreme expression of ma in Japanese culture, one that is heavily structured through song and dance to express stories derived from myth and literature. Acts occur within large open spaces to highlight present characters, whose movements are generally slow-paced and precise. There are moments within Noh where silence prevails over all else, allowing a gestation of conceptual revelation to occur within the audience. “Colossus” proves no different in its own sound design, where music occurs only through an encounter with a colossus, the exception made for both the beginning and end of the game. Silence permeates the Forbidden Wastes, but this is by no means a deterrent for immersion.

Players that take time to explore the game’s barren locations will come across an unyielding orchestra of sounds relative to the biome they’ve set foot in. Ancient winds profess indifference as they bypass a hollowed cavern, overthrown by the mirthful resonance of the pocket forest surrounding the ancient temple beneath the cavern’s open ceiling. In the absence of orchestral themes, “Colossus” invites players to become present in moments that are self-acquired, tethering their experience to the emptiness that gives definition to the game’s more bombastic moments.

Against the imposing nothingness that shrouds every crevasse within the Forbidden Lands, nothing stirs the player’s adrenaline like the emergence of a new colossus. Its mere existence is a counterpoint to the established surroundings afforded to the player, which makes every encounter near unforgettable. This is ma in its purest form, denoting the prevalence of absence to induce meaning from nothing. Much like sumi-e (墨絵風) brush painting, where large areas are intentionally left unpainted to emphasize the subject, “Colossus” rock laden giants serve as powerful brushstrokes in a beautiful void.

While I don’t condemn the superfluous designs of other titles and their ceaseless barrage of “Woah! Look here! Do this! Get this! Hurry! Look at these sick visuals, bruh! Kill that! Collect these! Win, win, WIN!” I don’t think we’re given enough contemplative moments like the ones provided by “Colossus.” When you slay a colossus, you’re not treated with experience points or a ridiculous prompt that says, “Hell yeah, dude. Good job.” You’re immediately given a somber cinematic of the creature’s death as it plummets to the ground, a creature that, up until your arrival, was simply minding its own business. The player’s “victory” is an ambiguous one, succeeded by a reemergence into that quiet acquiescence of questionable purpose. It’s in the shameful wake of killing another creature that ma takes hold, admonishing the player’s actions by allowing them to do it themselves.

Fumito Ueda did not simply give us a masterful title embedded with striking philosophical quandaries. He and his team handed us a way to step outside ourselves, to draw distinctions between what we perceive to hold value in a world that perhaps places too much value where it shouldn’t.

Where other titles try to suffocate us with purpose, “Colossus” begs players to take a step back and breathe. In no time at all, it becomes apparent that it’s not simply a game, but a state of mind.

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