Game Music

Soundtrack of the Month 09/2009: The Shadow of the Colossus

September 2, 2009 | | 4 Comments Share thison Facebook Soundtrack of the Month 09/2009: The Shadow of the Colossuson Twitter

Well, it’s all downhill from here because, for September’s SOTM, I am picking Koh Otani’s masterpiece, The Shadow of the Colossus, and we all know nothing can beat it. I tried to convince Jayson that we should allow a separate category for this particular entry entitled “BEST SOUNDTRACK EVER THAT’LL MAKE YOUR HEAD ASPLODE, LEAVE YOU IN TEARS, AND HAVE YOU CLIMBING GIGANTIC COLOSSI TO SAVE A GIRL WHO MIGHT BE DEAD BUT WE’RE NOT SURE AND SHE MIGHT BE YOUR WIFE OR YOUR SISTER YOU DON’T KNOW BUT WHO CARES ANYWAY BECAUSE THIS GAME IS SO FREAKING GOOD ZOMG.” He felt it might be a little wordy. I disagree.

But, enough of the hyperbole. Let’s dive into this bag of goodies and examine why this soundtrack deserves a seat beside the top two or three soundtracks of any game and/or film. Yes, I included film, too. I also think it only fair that even though this game/soundtrack is nearly four years old, that I give the obligatory “spoiler warning” as not to reveal key plot points for those who haven’t played the game. (Note: If you haven’t yet played the game, I don’t know what you may think could be more important, but you best stop reading this and play it immediately. Then come back and read this.) Onward, ho!

Admittedly, I knew nothing about this game when I bought it and the opening is all it took for me to know that this was something very different from anything I had experienced on a console. Who is that girl? Is she dead? Who is that guy? Where is this beautiful land? Is it Earth? Otani seems to both answer and ask these questions simultaneously with his first offering, “Prologue.” Using the choir, divided strings reminiscent of late Romantic-era tone poems, and Eastern-styled sounds, he draws an immediate and visceral response and balances these potentially huge emotions with an equally sized and paced orchestra.

After a few minutes of the opening cinematic, it is now up to you (Wander is the character’s name) to begin your journey. Dormin, a powerful spiritual entity, has made a bargain with Wander. The player/Wander must defeat sixteen colossi (taking their life-source) to “restore” the life of Mono.  He’s armed with his ancient sword and Wander’s horse, Agro, is his only companion (and still holds some of the most amazing animations in a game).

All of the battles in this game feature two musical themes: one for the preparation of the colossus attack, and the other for once you have climbed onto the colossus itself. Otani masterfully blends the two themes even though they usually have two distinctly different sensibilities. The first theme is immediately replaced by the second once the player has mounted the creature. This is done seamlessly by the engagement of the player. Otani wrote two themes that not only had to match each other in drama and context, but two that could be interrupted whenever the player succeeded in progressing the encounter or, subsequently, faltering.

The famous track, “The Opened Way,” is the theme most commonly associated with The Shadow of the Colossus. Thankfully, you needn’t go any further than the first encounter to experience it. This first battle – though hardly epic in comparison to the other more complex and destructive battles found later – creates such a surge of energy and poetry that it carries the player through the story. Once the colossus is defeated, Wander receives its life force. The colossus dies a sad death as it bleeds black blood. “The End of the Battle” sings softly with delicate strings telling the player that this is not a glorious victory. You are one step closer to giving life back to Mono – the purpose of your quest – so why isn’t Otani rewarding us with a triumphant anthem? Perhaps, as the music so delicately suggests with clashes between the cello and violin, there might be something else afoot…

There are barely any words spoken in the whole game. When they are spoken, they are very short and direct sentences in a fictitious language; almost a music of its own. Additionally, there is no main musical theme for The Shadow of the Colossus; no repeating/changing motif save for the “The End of the Battle” (which takes place as an in-game cutscene). All of these seemingly non-specific ingredients combine to a single cohesive unit that is put together not on the screen, but in the player’s mind. It is a living poem that he must interpret for himself. Every time a book is made into a film, legions of nerds come out of the woodwork crying, “The book was better!” My best friend and Senior Acquisitions Editor of Penguin Books believes – like many others – that there is simply no competition to the immediate emotional responses one’s own imagination can give to him/herself. Through the use of its gameplay elements – particularly its soundtrack (also, virtually no HUD in the game), The Shadow of the Colossus creates this world in your own mind. It is left up to you to fill in the blanks. Not one of these decisions could possibly be wrong because they are made by you and for you to fit the idea that you want. And, guess what? Otani’s score makes you believe – nay – makes you know that what you believe is the “true” interpretation.

After the final colossus is defeated, the player learns that he has been fooled as Dormin has tricked Wander into freeing his own essence. Under attack by Lord Emon (a character not introduced until after the twelfth colossus is defeated), Dormin’s now freed essence consumes Wander to create a new colossus. In “The Final Battle,” Otani gives us more of the same pleading beauty his other themes possess (similar musical ideas and intervallic relationships, as well), only this time he adds a greater sense of struggle as the player – now being inhabited by the essence of Dormin – must battle men who have only sought to stop the young man from fulfilling the manipulative Dormin’s prophecy.

I have mentioned in previous reviews that there are some games that do not afford the player the experience of “living” the drama because they either lack the music, the gameplay intensity, or the focus (or any combination of these elements). This is not so here. The Shadow of the Colossus may be the most incredible balance of pacing, action, and music (and therefore, drama), and Mr. Otani waves his baton with a humble yet fervent hand.  Combining the best of the organic sensibilities of Eastern music with the best of the grace and power of Western music, The Shadow of the Colossus is a rare, perfect marriage of beauty, strength, and elegance weaved into a digitized poem. Kow Otani owns this score and all the lore that germinates both on the screen and in players’ hearts and minds. The games-as-art debate is one that cannot be had without the mentioning of this game/soundtrack and still draws the same emotion years after its release.

The album is still available at CD Japan and Play Asia.

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