Storytelling, Colossi, and Madame Bovary

WARNING: The following content may or may not include spoilers for the Playstation 2 game Shadow of the Colossus and the novel Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Read at your own discretion.

When Shadow of Colossus first came out, a friend and I happened upon it because it was being demo-ed in a store. We had no idea what it was about or what you were supposed to do or any of the button workings but we found it extremely hilarious to watch the main character stumble and flounder when he walked off a small height. And, sadly enough, that's probably the main reason my friend ended up buying it.

At the beginning, my friend and I had some doubts about the game. I heard similar grumbles from reviews and other people. For the usual RPG player, Colossus was a shock to the system. Accustomed to large environments teeming with monsters just loitering around to attack the main character, my nerves buzzed with suspicion with the very lack of enemies. Really, the only other living thing besides the characters that are apparent in the beginning and the colossi themselves are a handful of deer, birds, lizards, and a bird of prey or two. Other things that were noticeably absent: an ever-playing soundtrack, fancy weapons/outfits, a leveling system for strength or life, numerous side quests to distract you (although there are a couple you can seek out if you wish), and civilization. We'll come back to these points a little later.

Perhaps the most apparently different aspect of this game is the way it portrays the plot. Absolutely no background is given and there is no obvious motivation for the main character's actions; players are even left to wonder what the main character's name is (reading through the game material, you'll find his name is Wander). But you know the name of his horse. Yet despite all of this, by the end of the game, one will come to find that they are very attached to these characters whom he/she knows nearly nothing about. So what does Shadow of Colossus have anything to do with Madame Bovary?

Surprisingly, a lot.

If one has read and/or analyzed Madame Bovary, it is helpful, though not necessary. If you have read the novel, then you may also know that it was written in a way that is termed as "free indirect discourse." What does that mean? Well, it's hard to explain and would require a large, tedious explanation. I would suggest looking it up in Mimesis by Erich Auerbach because he can explain it much better than I can. To sum up a few points, it means that the narrator hardly plays any role in the story, making no judgments and allows the characters and readers to make up their own minds about events and people. So it is in Madame Bovary and so it seems to be as well in Shadow of Colossus.

The storytelling technique used by Flaubert and in Colossus is rather similar. For one, not every character is given their own story. By this, I mean more than just the backgrounds of the characters. I mean that there is no sub-plots. There is only the one, main thread line. Judgment and justice are, for the most part, absent, allowing players and readers to make their own judgments on whether actions are good or bad. The setting are both remote and closed off. Colossus takes place entirely in a closed (though admittedly expansive) area and Madame Bovary in a small country village in France.

A lot of RPGs, if not all, deal on large scales. More often than not, the plot line ends up dealing with having to save the world. Following those same lines, Colossus also does not bother at all with the world outside its closed area. Likewise, even though Madame Bovary takes place shortly after the French Revolution, anything that was produced from the time era hardly makes any difference in plot or setting. In the end of all of this, characters are seen as simply people, and not just characters. In the case of Colossus, his realistic reactions and movements help this view, rather than his thoughts or words. The absence of many main-stay characteristics of RPGs that I mentioned before also help reinforce the fact that this isn't just some sort of every-day fantasy.

Although there is perhaps much that is different in Shadow of Colossus and Madame Bovary in comparison to the conventional RPG or novel and can be a point of complaint, they really are more a point of compliment. Where plot may lack (its degree of lack is arguable), technique makes up. They are both a breath of fresh air in their own rights. I highly recommend both Shadow of Colossus and Madame Bovary.

Neither my friend, nor I, ever regretted buying Shadow of Colossus.