The gaming industry is slowly unshackling itself from the crusade to label video games as mind-numbing agents promoting sex and violence. The stigmatic reception has been greatly hindered, and the burden of responsible gaming finally settling into the laps of adults. A more positive light is beginning to shine in the wake, allowing new voices to come forward and present gaming’s overlooked merits in both a therapeutic and psychological capacity. As someone who was once debilitated by a severe panic disorder, I’d like to lend my voice to share my experience with Shadow of the Colossus, a game released in 2005 by developers Team Ico, recently re-released this year as a remake by developer Bluepoint Games.
When it first came out, SotC was dubbed an instant landmark in the gaming industry. I’ve praised its worth to many people ever since its release, and when tasked with explaining its greatness, my hesitance to get personal feels as though it cost the game some of its magic. “It’s great because I have crippling anxiety” was never going to come about naturally in a conversation with acquaintances or co-workers, least of all when I thought addressing my problems only made them more real, a common error amongst those overpowered by their anxiety. I’m hoping my catharsis here can help readers find some comfort of their own.
In an article published earlier this year by Frontiers in Psychiatry, catalogued by the National Centre for Biotechnology, studies showed that video games can induce cognitive distraction, negating the effects of anxiety as well as nausea in patients undergoing chemotherapy. The problem with these studies, in my research, is that there simply aren’t enough of them. As of right now, there are limited sets of terminology for video games or gameplay to be found in medical or psychiatric literature. For a medium that has already proven itself as a positive influence on those suffering from the likes of depression, PTSD, and ADD, it’s strange to think that we’re still at a premature phase of properly implementing games on a therapeutic level.
I consider SotC a kind of therapy. Forget the belligerence of blinding HUDs. Forget the droll taxation of time in thoughtless side quests. Forget the rush of the modern gaming grind. You won’t find that here. What awaits you in SotC is a pure minimalist escape, backed by a compelling story of such emotional gravitas you won’t believe it’s done with dialogue so sparse.
You play as Wander, a young man trying to resurrect a deceased girl named Mono. After stealing the ancient sword of your people, you set out to find The Forbidden Lands, an expanse of shattered open plains devoid of human life. A shadow entity named Dormin awaits you there, demanding the lives of sixteen Colossi in order to provide Mono with life, once more. You place her on an altar within the eroded halls of the Shrine of Worship and set out with your horse, named Agro, to complete your task. From the moment you step beyond the boundaries of the temple, there is no place within the Forbidden Lands that is inaccessible to you. This is where the therapeutic aspect of the game thrives.
With no time limitations, the defeat of each Colossi occurs entirely at the player’s leisure. I can’t count the amount of play sessions I’ve had with this game where I decided to leave those hulking creatures alone, choosing instead to roam the diverse landscapes and immerse myself in their tranquility. The only enemies you encounter in the game are the Colossi themselves, which marks a total of sixteen. Although their sizes range from small-but-ferocious to oh-my-god-how-does-this-exist, the areas you’re given to explore in between encounters are immensely vast. While that may sound almost too barren, it’s worth noting that each of those areas were handcrafted to display a visual complexity that goes beyond the standard of most AAA games, even titles that are made today. The upgraded graphics of the Bluepoint Games remake only heightens what was already a visual masterpiece in 2005, making my own excursions into the Forbidden Lands more visceral than they’ve ever been.
Tantalising lore aside, SotC’s painstaking creation of natural locations evokes as much calming effects as those of the unnatural, their grandeur and complexity an immediate distraction from my own anxiety. I know it’s easy to say, “Hey bud, why not just, you know, go outside and do some hiking in the real world?” but there are barriers of the physical, mental, and geographical that may hinder a person’s capability to leave their own home. I live in a rural section of Ireland, surrounded by a range of inviting mountains akin to something you’d see in Lord of the Rings, yet there have been plenty of times where I found myself incapable of stepping beyond my front door, even for something as monotonous as going to the shop. I’m a very active person who loves being outside, so one can imagine how debilitating something like that must be. But during those times when I found myself at the mercy of a heart throttling panic, I could rely on the structural certainty of SotC to help me hone in on whatever had triggered my panic attack and eventually destroy it.
A few years back, on a summer morning that promised heat and a longing for sandy shores, I was on my way to work. There was nothing particular on my mind that afternoon, nothing I can remember festering in my thoughts, but halfway across the lengthy bridge tethering my town’s two halves, something in me caught fire. In an instant I went from enjoying the soundtrack of The Red Turtle to feeling like I was about to fall from the Earth. A breath-stealing rush of vertigo forced me to veer into the bridge’s barriers for balance, a futile attempt at stifling the adrenaline pumping my brain with mortal dread. I walked faster, not wanting to draw attention to myself and to get indoors as quickly as possible, the prospect of disguising my situation with a happy face already too much to bear. My breathing was lost to me, and I found myself hugging the bridge’s barrier for dear life. I couldn’t even turn around to go home.
The paralysis felt infinite, until my fight-or-flight response kicked in and pulled me home. It was an excruciating ten minutes of walking, hands glued to the top of my head to help me feel tethered to the ground, repeatedly whispering, “You’re good,” to myself. There was no shame or fear of consequence when I rang work to say I wasn’t coming in. I didn’t care.
After drawing the blinds to put a stop to the sensory onslaught, I turned on my PS3 and worked on my breathing. While SotC was loading up, I could still feel myself being pulled forward into nothing, my heart racing in the dark. Deep breaths came slow and shaky, threatening to leave me at any moment. But then I found myself standing in The Forbidden Lands, observing a stillness of sight and sound that instilled a similar ambience within my own mind. One breath led to another, each becoming more passive until the panic finally subsided. I had control of myself once more, the after-effects of being mentally bludgeoned taking a very noticeable toll on my body. I strolled a beach along the southern border of that forgotten realm until I felt calm enough to get on with what little day I had left.
It might not seem plausible to connect a game that’s described as “empty” or “isolated” with a term like cognitive distraction, but it’s those very words that set a precedent for lateral thinking. The Forbidden Lands are a blank canvas of forlorn vistas and decrepit monuments to a forgotten age, either draped in a coat of tussling foliage or eroded and broken from the harsh winds of a raging desert. There is as much mystery within the Forbidden Lands as there is nothing. That emptiness, and the sights it affords, compel players to ruminate on the buried history of their surroundings. Whether you’re walking the edge of a coastal cliff face or admiring the ambience of a sun-streaked forest, there is almost always an improbable structure of some kind lurking in the distance to remind you that the space you’re occupying was once populated in some fashion. Since the only means of entering the Forbidden Lands is a bridge connected from the Shrine of Worship to the precipice of a plateau halfway across the map, that realisation can be quite sobering.
Fans of Studio Ghibli will appreciate SotC’s implementation of “ma,” (間) a Japanese word that translates roughly to “negative space”, “pause”, or “the moment between.” It’s a concept that flourishes in Japanese culture, a testament to mindfulness and reflective silence. The foundations of SotC are embedded in “ma,” encouraging players to be present in moments where, in a manner of speaking, nothing is happening. For myself, achieving a state of mindfulness was only made easier after a play session, each moment of emptiness lingering in my mind, giving me ample room to store and accept my thoughts for what they were. I like to think of them as bygone carvings in a vine-laden tomb, so imperceptible that they can hardly be said to have existed at all.
I’m certainly not guaranteeing a solution for those suffering from anxiety or any other psychological disability through gaming. I found a momentary reprieve from my mental debilitations, and now I’m asking “Is this a thing we should look into a little more?” Although it isn’t conjecture to me, I know my opinion doesn’t make a game’s worth absolute. I’m encouraging a more thorough approach to the study of video games in a therapeutic capacity. If even a moment of relief can be spared for something like what I described above, I think it becomes worthy of note. Who would say no to one more defense against the imprisonment of self?