Conflicting views

At each video game’s core is a conflict. Whether it’s the simple task of rescuing a princess from certain doom, or manipulating blocks into groups to clear screens, these conflicts and the methods of resolution are the game. And the methods developers use to resolve conflict ultimately becomes the whole deal.

Shadow of the Colossus and its conflicting forces — Wanda (the male character’s admittedly un-male name) and the Colossus, a group of 16 malevolent giants — are framed against each other in artful battle. The game’s premise is simple: A woman Wanda loves has fallen and the only way to resurrect her is by killing giant creatures hanging around at the end of the world. Simple enough.

Equally simple is the game’s structure. The hunt for the Colossus forces is reductive, though simply calling the game minimalist might sound less slighting. Its formula: Begin at a temple, ride your horse, follow the sunlight reflected on your sword and find the Colossus.

Upon meeting each titan, the situation gets more complicated.

As the game shifts to letterboxed cinematics, an aged behemoth ends his slumber and crackles to life. He and his odious brethren’s immense, hulking forms dwarf Wanda and his horse; there are tricks, puzzles and adventures.

A different score sweeps in with each Colossus member, a musical rallying cry to an exaggerated battle between David and Goliath. Wanda climbs through a giant’s great tufts of hair, skittering up its armor, clinging for dear life while the monstrosity feverishly swings at the air, trying to shake both the young hero’s resolve and his grip. Illuminated weak points on the beast are targets for Wanda’s sword.

In a game where the journey to each misshapen foe is pastoral, lush and peaceful, the juxtaposition of violence and the giants’ desperate thrashing is fitting. They become battleground landscapes all their own. Sure, there’s vivid imagery, but the interaction here is minimal, the story is sparse and the formula is redundant. Thrills in Colossus come from the giants themselves; when they aren’t interesting, neither is the play.

Contrary to the lush battlefields of Colossus are the cartoonish characters of Battalion Wars for the Nintendo GameCube. The conflict here is not man versus beast, but military empire versus military empire. So why would a new military game have anything noteworthy to add to the concept of conflict? They’re a dime a dozen — games like Call of Duty, Brothers in Arms, Battlefield and Medal of Honor all offer rather interchangeable experiences with varying levels of polish.

The obvious difference is one of perspective: Battalion Wars is not an FPS (first-person shooter). Its character design and bright colors paint the realities of war in the vivid hues of Saturday morning cartoons. Even the character you control bounces with an almost naive skip when he runs. As a field officer, you have a merry group of soldiers bouncing after you through war zones, obeying your commands and essentially dying with smiles on their faces. Here, there’s nothing ghastly about death.

As gentle as the presentation is in Battalion Wars, there’s substance in the conflict. Two sides, your Western Frontier and the neighboring Tundran army, are embroiled in a cold war until the Tundrans finally break and attack. The two factions fight, decimating each other’s forces until a third side, the Xylvanians, arrives to crush the others. It’s not pretty, but the game’s soft art direction lessens an otherwise powerful storyline.

The fight for resources, position, land, money: War is hell, but not in Battalion Wars. The art direction of Shadow of the Colossus enhances, deepens and roots players in its realism. Giants aren’t as convincing as adventures when they’re cel shaded. Similarly, war loses impact when bloodshed lacks realism. The way conflict is presented visually is as much a part of the game as the game itself.

L.M. Smith is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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