So I finally played the 2005 PlayStation 2 game "Shadow of the Colossus", Fumito Ueda's second game as director. I completed the main game on the normal difficulty setting, so I have seen all of the story elements. There is still a harder difficulty level available, and extra challenges I could do to gain some extra weapons if I wanted them, but I am not compelled to do more at the moment. It is one of the most satisfying game experiences that I have ever had - I would put it up there with "Devil May Cry 3", "Katamari Damacy", "No More Heroes", or any of the Mario games. "Shadow of the Colossus" is much better at emotionally involving you in the game than most of those other games. The only other game that has ever gotten me that emotionally involved was Fumito Ueda's first game "Ico".
I played "Ico" over the course of two weekends in 2002. I didn't own it, I played a friend's copy because he was insistent that we play it. For something that I played years ago, the game's visuals and design stick in my head. "Ico" has no on-screen status indicators of any kind and very simple controls. Parts of the game that are in bright sunlight get washed-out for a moment, especially when you are moving from a dark area to a light area. The visuals are similar to things that happen when shooting movies on film and other things similar to the human eye's reaction to light, but also have some of their own touches that make it unique. The only thing that takes you out of the game environment at all is that there are stone benches strewn about the game that if you sit on, take you to a 'Save Game' screen. Most of the game is very simple. You have a guy with a stick, and you have to lead someone to safety that can't jump, climb, or wield a stick. You have to ward off enemies, pull your companion onto ledges that they can't climb but you can, and solve environmental puzzles that allow you to proceed forward. Other than the occasional groups of enemies, the landscape is otherwise empty. There are old, crumbling buildings, trees, grass in a few places, but no animals to speak of. There is very little dialogue between the characters, and nearly all of the storytelling in the game is done visually. What dialogue you do hear is done in a language made up just for the game which results in you hearing the emotional tone of the dialogue mixed with the body language without really needing to know exactly what is said.
"Shadow of the Colossus" has some of the same elements as "Ico" - similar landscape although populated with a small number of animals, dialogue in the same made-up language, film-inspired visuals, one companion with you most of the time (but this time it's a horse), a standard visual landmark as a save point, and a simple goal. You must defeat 16 gigantic opponents with a sword and a bow. Where "Ico" is a deconstruction of a platform game into simple elements, "Shadow of the Colossus" is a deconstruction of an action game into simple elements. Instead of giving you hordes of intermediate enemies and new weapons to collect that allow you to proceed to the next area like "Metroid" or "God of War" might do, "Shadow" is only about the boss characters. What is so masterful about these games is that they are short, intense experiences that deliver most of what we like about gaming. By stripping away a lot of the ancillary elements, it gives the game designers comfortable room to insert a story worth telling. Amazingly enough, most of the elements of the stories are pared down to a minimum and improve it as well. Since not everything is explicitly told to you as the player, it gets you to interpret the experiences based on your own ability to interpret the characters presented, and you tend to see the story how you want to. This is key to these games' ability to tap into the emotional response of the player.
On a technical note, the visuals of "Shadow of the Colossus" hold up well by current standards, if only for a PS2 game. It has support for both progressive scan and 16:9 widescreen. Playing the game in progressive scan seemed to reduce the amount of noticeable texture pop-in. The game increases the level of detail of textures as you approach them, and it seems more overstated in the standard-def presentation.
I finished "Shadow" two weekends ago, and dove straight into the 2004 Capcom samurai-vs-demons-plus-time-travel-and-Paris action game "Onimusha 3". "Onimusha 3" feels like a popcorn flick by comparison to "Shadow" feeling like an art film. Sure, "Onimusha 3" has Jean Reno in it (who only does his own French dialogue but not his own English dialogue...disappointing) and lots of dialogue, and brighter colors, but it feels canned and corny. (A can of corn?) The action is good, the puzzles are interesting, but after playing "Shadow" it's both good and bad because it's exactly what we expect from games, instead of trying to be more. The only thing that made me laugh so far is a gag involving a panda costume (not that that sort of game is supposed to be funny).
So, as far as that stodgy film critic that says that games can't be art goes, I would say that most games are not art. As long as he's willing to admit that the film version of say, "Wild, Wild, West" is not art, and we can agree that "Marvel vs
Capcom 2" is not art, maybe he should consider the possibility that Fumito Ueda does, in fact, create art. MvC2 isn't really art in the way checkers isn't really art. It is a game, in the strictest sense, built for competition with a concrete set of rules, and only really meaningful with two human opponents. That's not to say that watching experts play it won't yield some transcendent moments where their mastery of the game evokes some emotional response, but that has more to do with the player than the game. "Wild, Wild, West" conveys a story, but its execution is so distracting from the progress of the story that the only thing that the movie seems to do is to try and make you keep watching it until it's over. If there was any moral or issue embedded in the plot, or any emotional response that occurred, it would be more likely an artifact of the viewer than an intended feature placed there by the director. But in "Ico" and "Shadow of the Colossus", the game has a narrative, and in completing the game the narrative is revealed. Neither game is so much of an open sandbox situation that multiple paths to victory are possible - the story goes exactly as the game director intends, and the games are simple enough that achieving this goal isn't daunting or too frustrating. They're just difficult enough to make you feel like you accomplished something.