Shadowing a Colossus: ‘Prey for the Gods’ and the Forbidden Land of Flattery

Photo credit: No Matter

Today marks exactly a decade since the release of Team ICO and director Fumito Ueda’s Shadow of the Colossus, one of the most persuasive (and, I would argue, definitive) arguments for games-as-art ever produced. Today is also the day I’ve gotten wind of Prey for the Gods, an action-adventure and “labor of love” by developer No Matter, a team of three (yes, three) who were ostensibly pretty convinced.

The trio makes their influence explicit just thirty-four seconds into Prey’s reveal trailer (view below) when an enormous anthropomorph resembling a yeti-fied Valus (the first colossus that Wander encounters in Shadow) crystallizes its bold, imposing profile against the game’s “eternal” whiteout conditions.

The protagonist, diverging from this influence, dresses akin to an escapee from one of the tribes of Horizon: Zero Dawn, and while the game’s fleecy arctic surroundings are mostly its own (I see Journey resemblances, for example), Shadow’s influence becomes more evident as the trailer progresses: the over-the-shoulder perspective as the girl takes aim with bow and arrow at the furry monolith; the arc of light which acts as the bow’s reticle (similar as a visual, at least, to the light from Wander’s sword); and the method with which she scales the creature, using its fur to maintain her grip and perilously/humourously dangle during its slothy fits.

As much of a headrush as this maiden footage is, the comments it has received strike me equally pertinent: there is just as much allusion and reference to Ueda’s masterpiece (joking or otherwise) in the collective response as there is discussion of the actual game being presented. Possibly more.

No Matter has anticipated this, no doubt, and probably wants to remain mum on details at this stage, but I wonder if the relative lack of attention on Prey’s local idiosyncrasies might be a little less than ideal. I’m no less guilty here, myself, but I’ve also held back from blushing so far because, for one, there really isn’t too much insight on offer yet other than the “surviving colossal dangers” bit, and for two, this impression may be by design. Perhaps the developer wants to inspire interest in the game by the same means, and in the same order, as the game was inspired? It’s difficult to say.

I’m always agnostic, leaning towards apprehensive, on homages which are so unapologetic. This is not to say I believe the developer has anything to apologize for; rather, I worry on their (and the game’s) behalf. The worry is twofold: that the game’s Ave Marias will come at the cost, and not benefit, of solidifying an identity; and that making the flattery arrant—however sincere—is automatic entry into a land which, while not “Forbidden”, is marked as such on all the signage. There are no requisites for homage—imitation if we’re being less generous—but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be earned, somehow.

In ‘The Forbidden Lands’ of Shadow of the Colossus, “it is said that if one should wish it, one can bring back the souls of the dead.” For Wander, resurrecting Mono from her bed of sunlit stone among a flight of doves is paid for with his life and the lives of the sixteen (and only) colossi. It’s a directer analogue than perhaps we’d want to admit, though thankfully with stakes a fraction as dramatic; the point is, where resurrection is concerned, so—at some level—is sacrifice.

It’s helpful, also, to remind ourselves that the colossi were actually the prey. The game’s conclusion, in which the player momentarily assumes the role of a (shadow) colossus as it struggles to defend itself from the shaman Lord Emon, and his guards, is a mere punctuation on this truth. Titles which have paid homage to Shadow previously (or, appropriated the colossi battles at least) fail, I think, to realize this: most colossal enemies in action-adventure games suffer gravity far less than these colossi do; often they move with a speed which only lags slightly behind the player’s in order to compensate for the implied advantage of their size, and when this is contradicted for the purposes of imitating/honouring Shadow, it feels like the game’s trees were only taken because they were part of the forest.

Of course, the colossi battles themselves, while innovative and catalyzing for obvious reasons, do not approach being the most meaningful lessons a developer can sew from Team ICO and Ueda. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow appropriated them, and those patches of game played—perhaps appropriately—as if crudely sewn on from an entirely separate quilt; ditto for The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. In addition, neither game came close to capturing Shadow’s elegance or finesse in said arena, and these instances especially make me question the value of the exercise. Twilight Princess was a lesser game (and ironically less memorable) for relaxing so heavily on Ocarina of Time nostalgia, and to my mind the two are identical infractions. It can be done, but it’s rarely done right.

When viewing the Prey for the Gods trailer originally, I misread the title as “Pray for the Gods”, and—perhaps out of familiarity and bias for Shadow—automatically assumed “gods” referred to the colossi and the word “pray” had been used with irony. I found this idea fascinating: a game which pays homage to Shadow of the Colossus by recreating its most iconic element, the colossi, but acknowledges their disadvantage from the start. Narratively, then, taking the game at a reverse.

Under the correct title, though, it’s unclear whom is “prey” and whom isn’t. Whatever the case, whomever is meant to fall, I just want what is brought back to be brought back for a purpose.

Happy Birthday, Shadow of the Colossus!