There’s a belief in videogames that the newest technology is always better than anything we had in the past. This is common enough in our society at large, particularly when it comes to Silicon Valley-mandated innovation for innovation’s sake, but in games it’s a system of thinking that manifests clearly and belligerently in a blind pursuit of the highest possible fidelity at all times—in the bewildering faith, held by mainstream audiences and creators alike, that a medium’s accomplishments can be directly correlated to polygon counts and pixel density.
Originally released in 2005 for the PlayStation 2, the original, Team Ico-developed Shadow of the Colossus is (not was) a strikingly beautiful game. As a young man, who audiences only know is named Wander from Japanese title Wander and the Colossus, the player brings the lifeless body of a woman to a stone temple hidden within a remote, deserted wilderness. Laying her on a slab, he hears the basso profundo voice of some extraphysical deity ring out. Kill the beastly colossi that inhabit this land, it says, and the woman will be returned to life. Picking his way across a vast, purgatorial landscape of wide grassy fields, inky black lakes, and the shattered skeletons of ancient monuments, now crumbling back into the ground, Wander obeys. He hunts down each of the towering creatures, scaling their bodies like a vicious fire ant climbing and attacking a bare leg, and murders the colossi until none are left. Restrained in mood, the sadness of the giants’ deaths cued only by the majesty of their grand forms, the quiet that settles after their thundering limbs have stilled, and the shadowy ghosts they leave behind in the temple, the story assumes the tone of an apocalyptic funeral procession the player has no choice but to guide on its way.
In the latest version of Colossus, remade by Bluepoint Games for the PlayStation 4, all of this remains intact. Though the lands Wander travels are more lush than they once were, most noticeably in meadows now covered in a healthier green than the irradiated yellow of their predecessor, an overwhelming pall of loss, prior and impending, still hangs over the remake. Some small shred of the world’s mystery has vanished as blurred surfaces are replaced with the fine detail of rough rock surfaces and individual blades of grass, but not enough to undo the delicate mood established by Team Ico in the original game. That the remake works so well is a point that’s sure to be contentious—and rightfully so.
The 2018 version of Colossus is gorgeous. But it’s gorgeous in a way that’s just different enough from its source material’s vision that its very existence seems a kind of provocation. Is the 2005 game lost when presented through the lens of modern, temporarily cutting-edge technology? A less beloved game—one made with less grace and confidence than Colossus—could raise the same questions, but never to the same level. Here is a work of art that’s been deemed not good enough in its original form, only to be exhumed and made up into something more palatable for contemporary audiences. The basic idea is that there’s something deficient about what came before—some flaw in how the older version looked or controlled or sounded that required restoration. No wonder the remake will always feel at least a little bit sacrilegious.
And yet, play nü-Colossus and it’s hard to stay so precious. Exploring Shadow of the Colossus near its 2005 release was like stepping into another world, cliché as that may sound. Its monsters were awe-inspiring and its landscapes haunted by the spectre of an unrecorded, bygone era. Returning to it now, brain calloused by more than a decade of technological improvement, it’s hard to feel quite the same way. The colossi are not what they once were. They’re the ghosts of ghosts, some of their force stolen away by the unreasonable demands of a cruel, overly quick march toward the latest and greatest in pop art spectacle. This is unfortunate, of course, and speaks to some sick consumerist need for more that’s wormed its way into the very fabric of videogames themselves, but it’s also impossible to deny.
Following this, it would be unfair to dismiss just how much raw power and otherworldly wonder is recaptured (or recreated) in the first encounter with each new colossus. Rendered with greater detail, the long fur hanging off the creatures’ leathery skin and the scabrous stone that serves as scales or armour becomes part of a living thing once more. The player is shocked by the new visuals into seeing these demigods as vital again simply because the comparison between what they were and what they are now exists. In 2005, it’s important to remember, the colossi were state-of-the-art, too. Allowing them to once again fill a screen with their presence so totally gives them back some of the essence that our too-fast technological advancement has at least partially sapped.
This, more than anything else, seems like a good reason for this new version to exist, even if it doesn’t, by any means, negate the original. If the sign of a good remake is its ability to identify the heart of its source, then the PlayStation 4 Colossus is an enormous success. Everything about it is an amplified take on what existed before. It sounds kind of crass in these terms, especially given the gauzy dream textures of the original, but the monsters are now more monstrous, the barrenness of the wilderness more fully barren than before, and, god forgive me, the tragedy more tragic than it was.
The original Shadow of the Colossus still exists, meaning it can never be replaced outright. This new version, then, is simply an alternative—a freak funhouse mirror that enhances rather than distorts what it reflects. If appreciating it so much sounds like a guilty sort of pleasure, it should. Why, exactly, videogames have made a project as apparently superfluous as a 13 year-old game’s “update” necessary is a question that ought to inspire a bit of soul-searching. It suggests something rotten regarding technological preservation and the incredibly short, Doberman-docked tail of artistic legacy in this space. But, given the reality of what we have, the alternative—in this scenario at least—could be a whole lot worse.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at GQ, The A.V. Club, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Bullet Points Monthly, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.