The other day, my friend Jonny downloaded the PS4 version of Shadow of the Colossus, a widely praised remake of the PS2 original which I had played for the first time last year. He was taken pretty quickly with the visual improvements made to the game – the first message I received was him commenting on how impressive the graphics looked this time around. I was much the same when I first booted up the game – those wide open vistas providing an immense sense of the grandeur and loneliness as you explored. But then, I found myself having to ask him that important question, one that I feel many players will need to confront at some point in their Shadow of the Colossus journey – how was he finding the controls? It was easily my biggest frustration with the game, one that never really subsided as I journeyed – climbing around the various colossi was difficult, sure, but even things like travelling in a straight line on my horse felt like a challenge. I had been so infuriated with them that I’d even found myself googling ‘Shadow of the Colossus controls’ to see if others had felt the same way – needless to say, I was not alone. They really felt like the aspect that was most inhibiting my enjoyment of the game. It seems Jonny feels the same way. His response to my question: the controls are a bit dodge. It was interesting to me then, considering smooth controls are often viewed as a necessity in video games, that when I looked it up online, I saw quite a few people defending them – often claiming that they were a part of the ‘artistic vision’ of the game. The difficulty with the controls, many said, was a reflection of the difficulty of the tasks ahead of you. This idea, that the creator’s artistic vision could take precedence over general ease of play, was certainly an interesting one to me, and so I found myself sitting down with Jonny to share our thoughts on the role of the creator in making games, when their vision is important, and also the times when their vision has ended up hurting the audience’s experience with their product.
Kojima, predictably, was the first name that got brought up in our conversation – he is after all perhaps the most famous ‘auteur’ in the video game industry, having headed the Metal Gear series since its inception, often under the banner ‘A Hideo Kojima Game’. His games have garnered him a massive following of adoring fans eager to consume anything he puts out – Kojima’s titles are famous for being wildly outlandish, incorporating a number of disparate ideas, and often playing with their audiences in ways not often seen in gaming. The Metal Gear series often plays around with the fourth wall, the Mantis fight being one that is renowned in the gaming community for how the character messes with the player – reading their memory card, making gamers change their controller ports, the list goes on and on. Kojima’s auteurship over his series is now legendary – to the point where many refuse to even contemplate the idea of playing a Metal Gear game without the big man at the helm. There are times when his idiosyncrasies have put people off his releases however. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is known for featuring incredibly long cutscenes – one clocking in at over an hour – which have led to some calling the director self-indulgent. Many of those comments intensified in the lead up to his first release away from Konami – Death Stranding. Pre-release trailers were vague at best, downright confusing at worst, and footage of the gameplay seemed to suggest it was, as some called it, a ‘walking simulator’. The laundry-list of Hollywood figures appearing in the game only fuelled claims that Kojima was more interested in creating movies than games. I picked Death Stranding up a few months after release, and found it really rather interesting – a curious piece of work exploring human connections through both its story and its mechanics. Sure, there are flaws – there’s a clear habit of giving everyday items new, meaningful names, leading to what I like to call ‘jargon bloat’ – but there are glimmers of brilliance shining through. I get the feeling that what was really required here wasn’t so much a shift in direction, but rather an editor to help Kojima refine and hone his ideas. This could also help with the pacing issues that abound in Kojima’s releases – Jonny, a self-pronounced fan of Metal Gear even says that Metal Gear Solid 4‘s pacing was ‘terrible’. Having somebody else there to help the director organise their vision might have helped in these situations.
Coming back to Shadow of the Colossus, I wanted to think about how important it is to maintain the creator’s vision, even if it comes at the price of playability. Fumito Ueda is another so-called ‘auteur’ in the gaming industry, his two PlayStation 2 titles, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus being met with widespread acclaim for their vision. It’s interesting to note the changing views on his work over the years – Shadow of the Colossus can at times be a nightmare to control, yet is viewed as a masterpiece (the original and the remake both sit at a 91 on Metacritic), while The Last Guardian is viewed as a solid title with lofty ambition inhibited by its companion and some difficult to wrangle AI. What’s fascinating here is how somewhat similar issues have resulted in such different reception. One of the key differences would be that the controls in Shadow of the Colossus appear to be unwieldy by design, while the AI of The Last Guardian is a result of aspirations surpassing technical ability. The intentionality of that Shadow control scheme seems to be its saving grace in the eyes of many fans, something unfortunately missing from The Last Guardian’s issues. I then have to wonder, should awkward controls be given a pass as long as we can excuse them with this idea of ‘artistic vision’? I’ve talked before on this blog about video games and their continuing bid for legitimacy as an art form, and other art forms often aim to challenge their audience. There are plenty of films out there which garner reputations as ‘difficult-to-watch masterpieces’, books which play with form and structure, music which can be downright abrasive. Why then, do I feel this way about games? Why do I expect games to be more accessible to me, when I don’t always demand the same from other forms of media? And if we shift our way of thinking about video games, would we then need to reconsider our views of games like The Last Guardian, which offer a more ‘flawed’ experience?
I was listening to a podcast earlier this year – Kinda Funny Games’ PS I Love You XOXO – and they were discussing Returnal, a notoriously difficult game released earlier this year, exclusively on PlayStation 5. The game was adored by many upon release, with many praising its high level of difficulty, but others decried its lack of now-common quality-of-life features. Jonny and I discussed this as well, and we were never able to come to a clear conclusion about how we felt. This was the dilemma: the lack of quality-of-life features such as checkpoints meant that a number of people were put off from playing the game, or, in the case of busy parents, felt that they didn’t have the time to commit to playing enough of the game in one sitting. These QOL features were apparently not present because the developers felt that they diluted their vision for the experience, resulting in the hard-as-nails experience that hit shelves earlier this year. Jonny posed that the developers shouldn’t be required to include these features if they interfered with their vision, while I felt that it was an example of creators trying to retain too much control over how their audience interacted with the art they had created – surely they could include these features as optional content people could turn on if they so required? We never quite saw eye-to-eye on the issue, but I can’t say that I completely disagreed with him either – a clear vision is often necessary when trying to create art, and while asking audiences for feedback can sometimes prove fruitful, it could also lead to a classic case of too many cooks in the kitchen.
That brings us to the necessity of both the director and their vision. Despite video games’ collaborative development process, directors such as Hidetaka Miyazaki are still viewed as key to their projects’ success. Taking a look at the Souls series, for example, Dark Souls and Dark Souls III are often seen as masterpieces created under Miyazaki’s watchful eye, while Dark Souls II is somewhat of a black sheep of the family, criticised for never feeling ‘quite right’ by many fans. The general consensus is that the creator, with their vision for their franchise, understands it in a way that no-one else can match, leaving other games in the series feeling like (mind the pun) soulless emulations of the ‘key’ releases. Looking at some critically panned releases over the last few years – Anthem, for example – we can see again just how much a clear vision can benefit a project. Bioware’s live service title is clearly lacking a cohesive identity, instead feeling like it’s been cobbled together at a boardroom brainstorming meeting. After reading about the issues plaguing Anthem‘s development, I’m not convinced that having a clearer vision would’ve resolved all of its issues, but it would most likely have helped them know what exactly they were working towards.
As video games continue to move forward as an art form and begin to tackle increasingly complex themes, it’s likely we’re going to run up against other titles such as Shadow of the Colossus, where choice made in the development process mean that the final product can sometimes be a challenge to play and enjoy, and honestly, I’m still not sure how I feel about that. It’s certainly an interesting topic to think about, one that has no easy answers, but I think it’s one that we will need to continue to talk about in the coming years.