Shadow of the Colossus and the Sublime

by Sam Z.

The history of the saxophone, I feel, illustrates nicely the problem video games have with artistic tradition. Invented in 1846, the classical (i.e., for the playing of classical music) saxophone missed out on the development and exploration of the different movements that came before the nineteenth century. There is no authentic or contemporary Baroque sax music; Handel probably would have loved it for some of his pieces; Beethoven, tragically, died almost twenty years before it was created. But the saxophone was present for the more modern movements, even if it wasn’t really until the twentieth century that it received full orchestral acceptance. And then we have the sax’s place in jazz – a genre of music so different from what came before that, for the most part, it’s successfully managed to refuse any kind of absorption into what we call classical music. Here, then, is a hybrid instrument: it’s made of brass, like the trombone or the trumpet, though it lifts its fingering from the woodwinds. And yet, no one would accuse it of simply being merely a chimera of the two families – for what instrument from the brass or the woodwind family could hope to imitate that sound?

Video games, conceptually, are in the same situation. They appeared on the scene close to thirty years ago, they blend certain characteristics or mechanics of previous media while nevertheless remaining sui generis, and they are in the uncomfortable situation of having missed out on much of the development of artistic trends – having appeared during the modern (or postmodern) dissolution of tradition, along with the celebration of said dissolution. While we can hope that the medium will follow a similar trajectory as the saxophone, there’s no absolute guarantee. And while there’s no organic link to the past, there is still the possibility that they can recapitulate a more antique form or theme, in essence making it new by bringing back the old – video games weren’t around during Chaucer’s, Dante’s, and Boccaccio’s establishment of vernacular Italian poetry, and yet I can’t but see a similarity between their situation and ours, in the former’s attempts to establish the artistic legitimacy of their respective languages against the more respectable Latin.

And so I feel it’s important to recognize when a game is able to insert itself into the discussion of an idea, or a concept, without appearing artificial. I’m not talking about games that steal a name or an idea, hoping to piggyback a prior intellectual momentum (e.g., Dante’s Inferno) Rather, it’s important to recognize games that manage to adopt older concepts and play with them in a modern context. It’s not like rewriting a Mozart minuet for the saxophone; it’s like taking Classical ideas, styles, and approaches towards composition and writing a new piece. So: Shadow of the Colossus and the concept of sublimity, hereafter referred to as the Sublime – but only once some groundwork has been laid.

The first examination of the Sublime is a book of literary criticism written in the early part of the first millennium AD: Longinus’ On the Sublime (Περὶ ὕψους, Peri Hupsous). Originally written in ancient Greek, it served as one of those seminal texts of criticism – not quite at the same level as Aristotle’s Poetics, but certainly in the same neighborhood. His definition of the Sublime is fairly straightforward: “elevated language,” that is, language used to give the reader a shock up his spinal column. Language that moves the reader without striking false or bathos. In contrast to rhetoric (i.e., public speeches that have an effective point), “The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport . . . Sublimity flashing forth at the right moment scatters everything before it like a thunderbolt, and at once displays the power of the orator in all its plenitude.”

His examples – and I’ll be mostly citing examples to illustrate these points, as I feel the Sublime is one of those ideas which is best shown, and not told – of the Sublime are from the Ancient Greek classics: Homer mostly, though Sappho, Euripides, and other Classical writers are invoked. Here’s one of his examples from book twenty of The Iliad, where the Greek Pantheon is picks sides during the siege of Troy and fight their ilk:

Far round wide heaven and Olympus echoed his clarion of thunder;
And Hades, king of the realm of shadows, quaked thereunder.
And he sprang from his throne, and he cried aloud in the dread of his heart
Lest o’er him earth-shaker Poseidon should cleave the ground apart,
And revealed to Immortals and mortals should stand those awful abodes,
Those mansions ghastly and grim, abhorred of the very Gods.

Longinus notes this passage as Sublime because of “how the earth is torn from its foundations, Tartarus itself is laid bare, the whole world is upturned and parted asunder, and all things together – heaven and hell, things mortal and things immortal – share in the conflict and the perils of that battle!” To give a, perhaps, more familiar example, he cites the opening to the Bible as another example of the Sublime:

Similarly, the legislator of the Jews, [i.e. Moses] no ordinary man, having formed and expressed a worthy conception of the might of the Godhead, writes at the very beginning of his Laws, ‘God said’ – what? ‘Let there be light, and there was light; let there be land, and there was land’”

However, the Sublime is not simply the style appropriate to stories of deities, legends, or anything with a particularly impressive scope. He cites a love poem by Sappho as another example of the sublime: “Uniting contradictions, she is, at one and the same time, hot and cold, in her senses and out of her mind, for she is either terrified or at the point of death. The effect desired is that not one passion only should be seen in her, but a concourse of the passions.”

To loosely summarize: The Sublime, for Longinus, goes beyond the utilitarian ends of writing – it is not rhetoric, which can be used to persuade, or educate, or what have you. It goes beyond and above these uses to lift the reader into some numinous realm: “For, as if instinctively, our soul is uplifted by the true sublime; it takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard.” It is difficult to properly make any natural-sounding definition of Longinus’ idea, unless we give a rougher translation of peri hupsous: on that which is highest.

A millennium and a half later, we have the late eighteenth-century Englishman Edmund Burke. Better known for his response to the French Revolution (Reflections on the Revolution in France), his earlier work, the Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, is far more salient to our discussion, as it tries to dissect the subject’s features rather than merely provide examples:

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when these causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.

Burke proceeds to list the different attributes of the Sublime: obscurity, the presentation of power, privation (“all general privations are great, because they are all terrible; Vacuity, Darkness, Solitude and Silence”), magnificence, light (despite some exceptions like lightning, “darkness is more productive of sublime ideas than light”), and so on. There are many external similarities between Burke’s examination and Longinus’, such as the emphasis on the synthesis of opposites to produce a greater whole, but the main thrust of the Sublime for Burke is the way in which it approaches a nebulous or tenebrous height, bringing the image or the subject far beyond a disinterested appreciation or immediate perception. As with Longinus, the Sublime brings us to the height of our aesthetic understanding in order to face a vast image that goes beyond our ken.

What distinguishes Burke’s Enquiry from Longinus’ is the fact that he brings in a supplementary contrast to his depiction of the Sublime: the Beautiful, mentioned in the second part of his title. After going through several false starts, he finally asserts the rather unsatisfying conclusion that “we must conclude that beauty is, for the greater part, some quality in bodies, acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses.” These attributes (smallness, smoothness, delicacy, grace, and so on) are, for Burke, feminine aspects in contrast to the Sublime’s more masculine ones, and though I may find the gendered comparisons irrelevant, the contrast itself is nevertheless important: “Nor when they are so softened and blended with each other, or with different colours, is the power of black as black, or of white as white, so strong as when each stands uniform and distinguished.”

So what does all of this have to do with Shadow of the Colossus? Ideally the more obvious similarities between the nature of the colossi and the Sublime are obvious: they are utterly grand beasts, moieties of organic and inorganic material, combinations of natural forms and artificial architecture. Stone legs become pillars and vice-versa. Heads are topped by crowns and balconies of stone. The thirteenth colossus soars like some hot-air balloon, with gas bladders directed by aerofoils. Where their forms are familiar, the complexity and artificiality of the colossi’s particulars serve to differentiate them from their more mundane counterparts; where they appear wholly distinct, their similitude to other analogues serves to render them distantly familiar. The third colossus, the Knight, resembles its archetype in the same way that a statue resembles its original; the thirteenth colossus is immediately unfamiliar to our eyes, but still resembles some feathered serpent, some quetzecoatl. With two exceptions (those two tiny, troublesome colossi), the beasts in Shadow of the Colossus are utterly sublime.

I recognize that my connecting the colossi and the Sublime has something of a de facto tang: you either see it or you don’t. But the presentation of the Sublime is not exactly an argument, quoth Longinus: “Sublimity flashing forth at the right moment scatters everything before it like a thunderbolt, and at once displays the power of the orator in all its plenitude.” This is, however, not to invoke the more fallacious implications of the subjectivity of art – that discussion is for another time.

Again, I bring up Burke because his contrast is useful. However, I would do away with the feminine connotations and denotations of his understanding of the Beautiful, as I find them unnecessarily limiting and, well, a little too eighteen-century as well. The juxtaposition of the Sublime and the, shall we say, Small is nicely encapsulated by this painting:


In turn, this painting is evocative of the viewpoint of the player of Shadow of the Colossus:


Despite the differences in size, In both instances the center of attention is on the main figure – Wander or the Wanderer – while, nevertheless, the Sublime object – the mountains, stationary or otherwise – remains almost overwhelmingly present. Within the game the contrast is absolute: the small is literally set against the large, in that it is Wander’s mission to tear the colossi down. But then the juxtaposition begins to feed upon itself, for what is the Sublime if not a combination of opposites? The actual conflict between Wander and the respective colossi becomes a sublime pattern, which neatly mirrors Wander’s own transformation from protagonist to monster as the beasts are incorporated into his own body at the end of every battle.

As has been noted by others before me, there are many reasons to love this game: the self-conscious minimalism – there are only sixteen enemies to slay; the fairy-tale narrative – the hero seeks to save the girl – and its dark turn; the starkness of both landscape and soundscape; and the genuine pleasure of a the game’s blend of combat and puzzles. But for me, the game’s beauty will lie in its two-pronged design: the way in which the narrative momentum of Wander goes from small to darkly Sublime (along with all the emotional baggage of sorrow and loss), while the colossi are reduced from magnificence to mound. In a word, the design is a juxtaposition comprised of further juxtapositions. Granted, the elements I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph are part and parcel of this design, and do give the whole package its particular flavor. But when the package itself is designed so well, mixing descents and ascents, how can I but call it sublime, or art?

I doubt I’m doing anything dangerous or controversial by pinning that label on the game. Shadow of the Colossus is one of the safe games that we throw down as proof that “games are art.” But the merits of Colossus merely show that the game itself is worthy of being called art. It does not transfer its legitimacy by some arcane process to the rest of the medium. The only legitimate deduction we can make from the existence of Shadow of the Colossus is that video games, as a whole, possess some artistic potential – much as the saxophone did at one point, and all that jazz.