Wander as a Tragic Hero

[I think a preface of sorts is merited. First, this is obviously spoiler-tastic and the writing assumes you are familiar with the plot of SotC. I would highly recommend playing the game if possible, although there is always Wikipedia if you’re desperate. Furthermore, writing in this way brings new issues to light with regard to the association between “avatar” and “player”, as I so eloquently mention below. For the record when I use the word Wander or “avatar” I am generally referring to the in-game character, while the word “player” refers to the person playing the game. I used “protagonist” as a neutral word to indicate both at the same time. This topic does deserve further writing, but that’s enough for today.]

Aristotle’s definition has long been accepted as the rational lens through which to view effective tragedies. Through its player agency and recognition, Shadow of the Colossus, along with Ico, directed by Fumito Ueda, fulfills the qualities of reversal, recognition, tragic character, action and catharsis required for an Aristotelian tragedy.

The tragic action within Shadow of the Colossus is centered on the killing of the colossi and the consequences therein. The colossi, themselves, are largely innocent in nature. The vast majority of them are passive unless the protagonist provokes them, and none actively seek Wander beyond a limited territory. As Aristotle described tragic action is a “terrible deed”, implying murder, committed in ignorance of true conditions, to be discovered in recognition later. Wander, and the player, single-handedly butcher each colossus to try and resurrect Mono. It is learned later that the protagonist was “only being used” by the Dormin. The sixteen colossi sealed Dormin away and protagonist, in destroying the seal, systematically released an unspeakable evil upon the world. Furthermore, Wander’s actions clearly imply his impending doom to the player, as both audience and involved party, from the very first colossus killing. Upon slaying each colossi, noxious black gas is absorbed into Wander’s body, which slowly deteriorates his body. Wander is killing himself for Mono, unaware of the true consequences of his actions.

One of the prime requirements for a tragedy is the appropriate “tragic hero”. This is defined by Aristotle as “a man of much glory and good fortune who is not [too] superior in excellence and uprightness and yet does not come into misfortune because of baseness and rascality but through some inadequacy or personal fault”. While Wander’s complete background is never fully explained, he stole the “ancient sword” for the sole purpose of trying to bring Mono back to life, and his selfless actions elevate him to a level of “uprightness”. The personal fault of Wander is a rather rocky territory. There is currently very little academic understanding as to how the characteristics of the “avatar” and the “player” relate. According to the story, Wander’s endless devotion, or love, to Mono is what eventually brings about his “sin”. To complete his quest he has stolen the “Ancient Sword” and entered the forbidden land. Even when told that the price for his actions “may be heavy indeed”, the protagonist’s only response is “It doesn’t matter”. Adding onto that is the added will of the “player” for the story to progress. The only way for that to happen is for the colossi to fall. So not only is the “avatar” of Wander condemned by his own personal desire to see Mono alive, but he is also destroyed by the inexorable urging of the “player” for Wander to continue in his quest. Neither of these things is due to “baseness or rascality” but are rather associated both as a personal fault, to desire Mono’s life beyond reason, and inadequacy, an inability to control his own fate, that responsibility being left up to the player. In this manner, Wander is doubly cursed.

The conclusive sections of Shadow of the Colossus are what bring together the strands of tragedy. It is revealed to the “avatar” that he has was “only being used” by Dormin. In this way, Wander undergoes both a reversal and a recognition of his previous actions. It becomes entirely clear, even to the player, that killing the colossi had dire consequences beyond just Wander, despite his good intentions. In this way, the player is made to feel pity and fear for Wander. Wander is completely overwhelmed by the darkness he has absorbed upon defeating the final colossus. The Ancient Sword is cast from his grip and his forehead now displays a pair of demonic horns. Having been returned by Dormin to the Temple of Worship where Mono’s body lies, Wander struggles to reach Mono. The Lord Emon enters the temple, escorted by soldiers, explains to the deformed Wander, what exactly he has done. Before Wander can reach the altar, the soldiers shoot him in the leg, and stab him in the chest to “put him out of his misery”. Dormin possesses Wander’s body and Lord Emon seals Dormin into a pool by using the Ancient Sword. At this moment both the player’s and Wander’s interests collide, as the player is given control of Wander as he is being sucked into the pool. The only goal they can try to reach is Mono, even as raging winds tear them back to the pool, to be sealed away. However, Wander can never reach Mono’s altar. When he is reincarnated as a child with horns, and Mono awakes, there is clearly a potential that Wander can “one day, perhaps you will make atonement for what you’ve done”. In this way, Lord Emon addresses both Wander for having nearly doomed the world, and the player for driving him to those actions. Wander experiences a purging of his emotions by reverting to an innocent child form, while the player is given the chance to atone for what they’ve done.

The story is continued in some way with Ico where Ico, a boy with horns, overthrows the evil Queen to save Yorda, and in the process loses the horns that mark him as an outcast. While for Ico this means a possible reintegration with society, for the player the loss of the horns means even more. Having cursed Wander in a different game, the same player makes amends by redeeming themselves through Ico, again creating a catharsis effect.

The poignant tragedy of Shadow of the Colossus creates a resounding statement about the power of desire. Wander does return the soul of Mono from the dead, although at the cost of eternal condemnation, and it is always possible to atone for wrongs committed, no matter how late it may seem.

(Aaaand a final comment outside the context of a paper. Both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are extremely powerful games. The emotion I felt upon seeing Ico redeemed in context of Wander’s fall from grace was absolutely preposterous. Do play these games. Please.)


Aristotle, and Preston H. Epps. The Poetics of Aristotle;. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1942. Print.


~ by prolixpostoffice on January 26, 2011.

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