If you have read our previous blog posts, you know by now that Jonathan and I talk a LOT about the importance of storytelling and detailed worlds in games. Insert Bioware fangirl writing here. (Ooh, decision-making! So fancy!)
Between the two of us, we have talked about elaborate story and decision based games so much that, if you didn’t know us better, you may have thought we were being paid to advertise for them. I can promise you, that is not the case – we’re just suckers for good character development. However, these aren’t the only kinds of stories that hold a monumental amount of emotional resonance and impressive gameplay. Personally, as much as I adore games with intricate worlds, I actually find loosely plotted games, in many cases, far more poignant, heartbreaking, and beautiful.
Traditional story-based games are focused on making sure that players understand all the plot details needed at the moment the designers so choose. Because of this, they are also notorious for holding the player’s hand a little too much with tutorials and puzzles. Loosely told or abstract storytelling in games, on the other hand, is known for refusing to hold the player’s hand, sometimes to an even punishing degree. These games focus far more on the gameplay itself and the art style of the game. By minimizing the amount of cut-scenes and direct information the player is given, they allow players to come up with their own theories of what the game is actually about.
Games like Dark Souls, Limbo, Bioshock, Journey, and the entire Trico trilogy give you very little information directly, instead forcing you to gather whatever information you can from the environment and piece it together in some form of coherent fashion. There are dozens of message boards dedicated specifically to dissecting video games just like these. Some YouTubers, such as Michael Samuels, or VaatiVidya to his fans, have even made a career for themselves by becoming – I kid you not – video game scholars whose sole goal is to dissect every single detail in open interpretation games in order to pull out the much more vivid, albeit theorized story hidden within. This, in a way, can also apply to the Legend of Zelda timeline, which is still up for debate to this day, especially with the release of the (wildly innacurate timeline in the) Hyrule Hystoria. (A personal opinion, but I will defend it to my dying breath…)
The two greatest examples of “open to interpretation” games that I have close and personal relationships with are Limbo and Shadow of the Colossus. Both have vastly different play styles, but the biggest common denominator that gives their stories power is the fact that, with the exception of a few cut scenes interspersed throughout, the games force you to hunt down clues to put together the puzzle that makes up their plot.
And as always, SPOILER WARNING: I will be spoiling the crap out of Limbo and Shadow of the Colossus. If you didn’t want spoilers on these two titles, please stop reading now. Then again, Limbo has been out for 7 years now and Shadow of the Colossus for 12, so I doubt that the moments I mention will be news to most of you.
Let’s start with Limbo. At face value, Limbo is an all black-and-white 2D puzzle platformer that follows a young boy who awakens in the middle of a vast forest with no way to move but forward. The title screen shows a tattered treehouse and throughout the game, you encounter a large spider, small white parasites that stick to your head and temporarily control the direction of your movement, and other children who are lost in the middle of this odd place too. The world of Limbo is a forest leading into a lost-boys like fort leading into a field of gears and tablesaws ten times bigger than you powering an unknown machine. We also get the occasional glimpse of corpses of children who have previously succumbed to this world’s traps and monsters. Some have even killed themselves and their bodies can be seen hanging from trees. There’s also a recurring scene of a little girl in a slightly brighter lit meadow, sometimes ending with her disappearance, you being forced away from her, or the screen just fading to black.
All of this on its own makes for a very confusing first-time playthrough, and the creators of the game aren’t exactly helping the situation. Like many game creators, the things they wanted left a secret stayed that way and, with the exception of stating that the little girl the boy reaches in the end is his sister, that’s all they have confirmed. Literally everything else in the game is left up to the player’s own speculation. The only other clue that people have been given directly by the developers is in the marketing materials for the game.
“Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo…”
Now, if you are at all familiar with mythology, Dante’s Inferno, or some sects of modern Christianity, you can probably take a guess as to where the action takes place. If not, let me break a few things down for you that, at this point, are pretty commonly accepted about the game.
Limbo (the place), according to many religions texts, is the circle of hell that souls are led to after death who have neither earned themselves damnation nor gained absolution. Often times, these poor unfortunate souls end up falling into one of two categories: They were people who couldn’t quite be admitted to heaven but were essentially put in Limbo as a holding area until their souls could receive redemption. The other option is that the souls are of those too young to understand religion and make their own decisions, such as infants and children.
Children. Huh. And the only other people we see in Limbo (the game) are also children. Interesting…
Because of this pretty clear piece of evidence, it is commonly assumed and accepted that the little boy, girl, and all the other children in the game Limbo are dead and are in the circle of hell known as “Limbo of the Infants”. And since all of the characters in the game are dead, many of the theories about the game have to do with trying to piece together how the siblings died in the first place.
Since the treehouse appears both on the main menu screen and during the very last moment of the game when the brother and sister reunite, many believe that the two of them fell from the treehouse they used to play in. Others believe that, due to the machinations that take over the second half of the game and the amount of times that the brother crashes through glass, the two of them died in a car crash. However, while either of these may in fact be the reason the siblings are there, I don’t believe that how they died is what the game is actually about. When I first played the game, I didn’t realize that my theory was not only commonly accepted by others, but in comparison, is considered one of the darkest theories about Limbo that exists.
In my mind, this story directly parallelled with the Sisyphean tasks present in Greek mythology. Essentially, there was a man named Sisyphus who, according to myths, was trapped in hell and tasked with pushing an extremely large boulder up a steep hill. For eternity. No matter how many times he tried to complete the task, right as he reached the top, his strength would always fade and every time, the boulder would roll back down to the bottom. His mind was broken, his muscles were in agony and weary, but his will just barely hung on – just enough to keep on pushing the boulder back up, only for it to roll back down.
This game, likewise, runs in a loop. As the advertising tagline states, the boy’s main goal is to find his sister. Along the way, time and time again, the boy dies in extremely graphic and gruesome ways, only to end up back in limbo (the place). There are multiple instances where the boy runs into his sister and just as he is about to reach her, in some way, shape, or form, she is taken away. Even at the end screen, when it finally seems as though the two have been reunited, you (as the boy) never actually make contact with her and the screen turns to black.
Another thing to note is that the game runs an auto-save feature that always puts you back where you last started, should you die. This makes going back and finishing puzzles trial-by-death style much simpler. However, when you beat the game and hit start again, you end up back at the beginning – meaning where you started the entire game. Much like the stories of the Sisyphean tasks, the boy, no matter how much he longs to see his sister, no matter how close he gets to her and what challenges he faces, he will never be able to reach her.
The first time I finished the game and hit replay only to find that, despite all my efforts, the agony the boy had gone through and the hours I had given, nothing had progressed, I burst into tears. I don’t use that expression lightly and I’m not exaggerating. As soon as the final moment faded to black, the game returned me to the same spot where the brother and sister had just been together. Now, though, it was once again unoccupied, just like before when I had opened the menu screen. I had a moment of chest-heaving and honestly quite embarrassing tears. But because of the conclusions I had naturally jumped to as I played, the boy’s tragic ending resonated so much more powerfully for me than most other games had. For me, being a lover of Greek Mythology, being terrified of being trapped like Sisyphus had, and loving kids as much as I do, the game made an impact on me that has stuck with me to this day. No matter how well a story is written, the terrors that will always strike people the deepest are the monsters they create for themselves.
The other open interpretation game that I have the immense pleasure to talk to you about is my favorite game of all time, Shadow of the Colossus (referred to as SoTC from here on out). Just taking the game at face value, SoTC, originally released for the PS2 then re-released for the PS3, is an action-adventure game that follows a young man named Wander. Wander travels from far away to The Forbidden Land and asks an entity only known as The Dormin to bring a dead girl he has with him back to life. According to Wander, the woman, Mono, had a “cursed fate”. The Dormin explains that, in order to bring her back, his power must be unlocked by destroying 16 stone statues. These reside in The Dormin’s Temple that currently hold his power sealed. The statues cannot be broken by hand, but they each represent one of the many colossi that live in the Forbidden Land. Defeat the colossus, the statue breaks.
If you weren’t really paying attention to the rest of the game, the opening cut-scene dialogue would probably be where you gleaned most of the plot from and the rest would seem…well, straightforward. Point glowing sword, go in direction of glowing sword, stab monster with glowing sword, repeat.
However, with the way the game is built, a much bigger story comes to light, if you only know where to look. Now, Limbo, unlike this game, is much shorter, has no dialogue, and gives the player a set line they need to follow in order to complete the story. These constraints make theories a little easier to parse out because there are fewer events, keeping everything tied up into a slightly neater package. SoTC, on the other hand, gives the player a huge world to explore, and with each person coming into the game with their own preferences, tendencies, and experiences, there are dozens of theories that people can get behind. Then again, because there are so many questions left unanswered by the game, there is very little that the entire gaming community actually agrees upon.
One thing that is important to note is that SoTC is part of a series created by Team ICO. The first game to come out in the series, Ico, tells the story of the titled young boy born with horns who is trapped inside a castle. He meets a girl there with mysterious powers and together, they attempt to make their escape. The second game to come out was SoTC, and after nine years of waiting, the third game in the series, The Last Guardian, was released. The Last Guardian follows a boy and an oddly cat-like griffon and the two escape a place they are trapped in called The Nest. Gameplay wise, The Last Guardian is basically a mash-up of the best elements of the first two games. Plot wise, it is confirmed that SoTC is a prequel to Ico. But otherwise…
Nothing else is confirmed. Fumito Ueda, the mastermind behind all of the Team ICO games, is notorious for creating these games with minimal dialogue, fictional languages, and “spiritually successing” stories, as he calls them, with the sole intent of never giving the players hints and letting them draw their own conclusions. He wants people to create their own version of what stories his games may tell. While this has driven many a mainstream gamer insane, these elements are exactly what earned them notoriety and cult classic status with a following to go with it. There are tons of websites that have been created specifically to delve into the deepest-hidden corners of SoTC, and some message board threads that have gone for several hundred pages. No, I am not kidding. When intense gamers get their claws on a beauty like this, there’s no way to make them back down.
And it makes sense. The world Ueda’s team created leaves a LOT to be explored and questioned. First off, The Forbidden Land lacks any other monsters aside from the 16 originally mentioned colossi (which seems to break every known rule of typical video games) and the only creatures you meet along the way are the horse you brought with you and some scatterings of birds and salamanders. Yet there are many places where water is very clearly flowing into waterfalls. Food in the form of fruit hanging from trees and those delicious and nutritious salamanders are pretty readily available…So why don’t more creatures live there? What about people?
Then, thinking about the broader scope of the world, The Forbidden Land breaks down into forested areas, expansive deserts, geyser-filled drylands, hidden cities, broken-down coliseums, the temple at the heart of the country (?), and altars scattered across the landscape. Very clearly, many of the structures that are now destroyed or decaying that litter the landscape were manmade. Some of the colossi even appear to be more architecture than colossus as far as make-up. So if the colossi were manmade, were they made specifically to hold The Dormin’s power or did they exist long before? Who used to live here that created all this? Did they leave or did they die? And think about that name – if it appears like so many people used to live here, why was the land forbidden in the first place?
And lastly, that entity you speak to – The Dormin – what is his/her/their deal? The character is voice acted by both a male and female voice actor whose words overlap and reverberate on top of one another. Until the end of the game, The Dormin has no physical form, and when they do assume a form by taking over Wander’s body…
Like I said, there’s a lot that’s left open to interpretation. Coders and hardcore fans have spent countless hours hunting down every hidden corner of the landscape and finding any secrets that could be tucked away, so after 12 plus years since the game’s release, there isn’t much left to find that hasn’t already been discovered by someone else. But in the end, even if you find every last item and discover every piece of the world, on and off the map, without your own theories to guide you, games like this have no point. The thing that truly gives these games meaning is breathing your own life into them with your logic and imagination at your side.
While I will not claim my theory about this game is the one true theory, and while I’m also sure I’m not the only one who has thought of all this before, here’s personally what I believe about it…
The Dormin is a God that is the embodiment of duality; both male and female, light and darkness, life and death. Whenever they speak, their voice is both masculine and feminine simultaneously. The sword leading you to the colossi, powered by The Dormin, directs you using beams of light, yet whenever The Dormin’s power is released from a colossus, dark streaks of shadows consume the main character. In order for The Dormin to grant Mono life, Wander’s life is slowly taken away in the process until he ends up dying. And when The Dormin is destroyed by the priests in their temple, Wander is reborn, albeit cursed.
(Right now, don’t question me on that one. My thoughts on the horns delve into territory in the other games about the horn theory and the timeline and we don’t have enough time for that right now).
Wander and the priests who come to the Forbidden Land share something key in common: The symbols on their clothes are not only almost identical, but they also reflect the weak sigils that appear on each colossus, showing where to insert the ever-reliable glowing sword. Symbols like these are also pretty prominently displayed on pieces of architecture and the altars scattered throughout The Forbidden Land.
However, when Wander arrives in The Forbidden Land, The Dormin laughs in his face for asking to use their power. When Lord Emon arrives, the priest completely forsakes the place and considers The Dormin an unholy being. Keeping all this in mind, here’s where we go forward with my theory:
Hundreds of years ago, people used to live in the Forbidden Land and revered The Dormin as their supreme God. They built altars of worship across the land for those travelling from one side to the other, but the bridge that was built between their temple and the outside world was meant as a means of keeping others out. The religious peoples of the Forbidden Land regularly asked The Dormin to use their power and, after building cities, beautiful structures, and more, the people decided they wanted to create life. The people who lived in The Forbidden Land created the 16 Colossi and told The Dormin the creatures were being created as offerings to them, to honor their legacy. As such, they wanted to build dual versions of the colossi: Solid, dead structures in his temple and living, full embodiments in the world. Once again, the duality of The Dormin coming into play. The Dormin granted this request, breathing life into the colossi as they had requested.
Of course, just like Wander’s request to bring Mono back to life, when the people asked to have these structures brought to life, they didn’t realize what horrible repercussions would come with it. In order to animate the statues, an equal amount of life would have to be sacrificed and thus, hundreds of people were killed. When the colossi finally did come to life after this costly ritual, they all acted independently of their creators, each acting according to their own will. Even if their bodies were created by man, their spirits gave them free will, and thus, they did not bow to the humans who made them. The more peaceful colossi faded away, while others tore apart the cities and structures that the people had worked so hard to create.
The Dormin’s followers were outraged and saw that The Dormin showed no remorse for their actions. These were beings created by both God and Man, bringing both life and death, both stone and flesh, upholding the same duality of their own power. The Dormin didn’t understand how the people were shocked by this and, as an act of rebellion, the priests used their power to seal away The Dormin, hiding the God’s power in the very creatures they had been coerced to create. Then, when the deed was done and The Dormin was sealed away, the former followers all fled, created a new life and religion for themselves outside, and forbade anyone from setting foot in The Dormin’s realm again.
I do think that, despite being horrified by the practices of The Dormin, some sacrificial rituals continued. They were probably used out of sheer superstition to protect themselves from their old god, should they somehow return. Wander, since he is wearing the same religious symbol as the priests, was a priest or minister in training of a sort. Mono was to be sacrificed, and Wander was supposed to be the one to do it, even though he felt she didn’t deserve to die. I don’t think trying to bring her back to life was an act of love, but I do think he felt regret for killing an innocent girl. After killing her, his shame consumed him until he couldn’t stand it and wanted to find a way to undo his actions. Once he found out that a sacred relic, a forsaken god and a map to The Forbidden Land supposedly held the key to reviving the girl he had unjustly slain, he stole the supplies he needed and ran.
So when Wander appears at the temple, asking The Dormin to bring back this girl’s life using the power his very people sealed away, wearing the symbol found on the beings this ancient God helped to create, of course they were going to laugh at the irony. With the next generation, everything has come full circle. And even after being set free at the end of the game, with all of the statues that contained their power destroyed, The Dormin could only physically manifest when using Wander’s body. Both free and a prisoner. Both man and God. Both living and dying.
Now let’s say you don’t agree with me. If you think my theories are completely unfounded or you have other evidence you find more convincing, that’s completely okay. In fact, part of what makes open interpretation games so unique and wonderful is that they are built specifically to make people overthink them. The creators of games like these WANT the players to find meaning in the easter eggs they build in – that’s why they wrote it in the first place. Sometimes writers like the theories just as much as what they actually wrote. Players coming up with insane timelines, origin stories spanning generations, new strings of mythology, and finding ways to make Quantum Mechanics or regeneration work in these worlds creates a writer/consumer interactivity that can’t really be found anywhere else. It’s a truly unique phenomenon.
I hope that, alongside Wyvern, I get the chance to both entertain and cause endless agony to players with plots with as much left for investigation as these two amazing titles. Part of it is because I love the way these stories are told. The other part is because, after playing our games time and time again, I can’t wait to see what stories the players come up with on their own.
-Nerissa Hart, Writing Team Member and Marketing Admin Assistant for Wyvern Interactive
NOTE: The images used in this blog post are not the property or creations of Wyvern Interactive, LLC. These depict characters from other games and companies who own them in their own right. We do not claim any rights over these characters, companies, or their affiliates.