When you sink your sword into the skull of the first colossus and end its life, do you feel a tinge of regret? Do you feel sadness, or perhaps empathy, for the great beast you have just felled? And whether or not you do, would you not agree that what you feel for overcoming this foe is intensified by the struggle you faced to climb it, that your satisfaction in attaining victory is enhanced by the trials that preceded its defeat? And if so, you must concede that the triumph you experience is not merely that which you can assign to the task you mastered, but also to the way it was represented.
In the Game Design as Make Believe serial, I discussed Professor Kendall Walton's concept of quasi emotions –states of genuine emotional arousal that are altered in their cognitive nature by the fact that what we are feeling is fictional in origin. For instance, when my wife plays Resident Evil, she reacts with fear to the zombie dogs attacking her – her amygdala is activated, adrenalin flows in her veins – but she does not flee the room or take any other action we would associate with being genuinely afraid. Walton would say she experiences quasi-fear; that it is fictional that she is afraid. This does not mean she is pretending to feel fear, per se – what she experiences is a genuine feeling. But it is fictional that this feeling is fear, since none of my wife's behaviour is consistent with the idea that she is truly terrified of the zombie dog.
In the same post, I also raised the discussion of quasi-emotions in videogames in the context of boss fights. Emotion researcher Paul Ekman refers to fiero as the emotion we feel when we succeed in overcoming adversity (the feeling which causes us to punch the air in victory), but we can use triumph as a more recognisable synonym for this emotion. The question I asked was whether or not we should talk of quasi-triumph when one defeats a boss foe. There is no doubt that the victory occurring is a fictional win – the monster you slay is purely an entity in a fictional videogame world – and that suggests it is fictional triumph (i.e. quasi-triumph) one experiences. A counter argument is that you really did have to master certain motor reflexes and responses in order to achieve victory, and thus it is genuine triumph, with no significant fictional element at the level of the emotion felt.
But what you experience when you slay the first colossus is not merely the triumph of beating the literal motor-skill task involved. If it were, you would feel the same way upon pushing the button atop an equally hard-to-scale giant top that caused it to stop spinning, or if the game simply presented you with a series of reaction and spatial tests that were equivalent to what you had to complete to overcome the monster. Embodying the foe as a beast, a mighty colossus does affect the emotional experience of victory against it. Not only may it elicit quasi-sadness (which the spinning top or the sequence of tests would not), but I will claim that the quasi-triumph is more intense than the triumph associated in mastering the strict task in and of itself. The representational elements of the game directly affect your emotional responses to it, and enhance the feeling of victory. Thus it is quasi-triumph you experience upon slaying the first colossus (accompanied, for many of us, with quasi-sadness), and we must conclude that representation directly affects the gameplay experience.
We hear all too often the phrase "gameplay is everything" but this is misleading. The genuine emotional experiences of play are intensified as a result of the fictional elements of the game – the quasi-emotions of play are enhanced by how the game is represented, and by this I do not simply mean the quality of the graphics. A text adventure uses no graphics, but it still represents its fictional world in a particular way. The experience of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy adventure game would be palpably different were it not based on Douglas Adams books, even if the puzzles were functionally identical. Magnetic Scrolls' Guild of Thieves would have been less enjoyable for me had it been called Kleptomaniac Garden Gnome because the fantasy of being an apprentice thief holds more appeal in my case than that of a compulsive lawn ornament. Gameplay is not everything. Representation is as vital as gameplay.
In the case of Shadow of the Colossus, it is absolutely crucial to the experience of this game that you are a lone swordsman slaying monstrous beasts that dwarf you, and which fight viciously to defend themselves against you. Identical play elements in a different representation would radically alter the way we would relate to the game. Those of us who experience regret upon slaying the first colossus have this specific emotional response because of the representational elements of the game that make it fictional that it is a living beast we have slain, not just an animated mesh of polygons, and this is an intimate part of the play of this game which cannot simply be set aside as gloss or irrelevance. Our empathy is aroused by representational elements of the game, and this directly affects the play of the game.
Yet the more colossi we slay the less we feel the quasi-sadness and the more we feel just the quasi-triumph instead. Perhaps the representation of Shadow of the Colossus gives us a glimpse into what it is like to be a hunter, a soldier or someone else who kills. The more lives you take, the more routine it becomes. And in this respect, as Miguel Sicart has asserted, the play of Shadow of the Colossus is a genuine moral experience, and of a kind quite distinct from other forms of art since you take an ownership over the choices of play (even down to the decision to keep playing) that you cannot take when you watch a movie character perform similar acts. We do not say "he slew the first colossus", we say "I slew the first colossus". True, it is merely fictional that we did so. But the emotions evoked are no less genuine for being quasi-emotions.