Review written by Andrew Plotkin
Fumito Ueda understands that interactivity serves the goal of complicity, not vice versa. He breaks up long narrative sequences by giving control to the player, even when there's nothing the player can do to change what happens next. (And it is far more effective to try to escape, and fail, than to sit and watch failure.) Even inside the cut scenes, he leaves camera control in the player's hands.
He also sticks firmly to the adventure end of the "action adventure" formula. In SOTC, you have to jump and climb and run and hang on. And it's possible to fail at these challenges. But they are really pacing mechanisms for what you do in the game, which is figure out what to do next. Once you decide what to do, you can generally go ahead and do it.
(I've read some irate comments from people who wanted an action game -- i.e., a game where it's obvious what's required, and what you do is practice the finger-twitchy by failing to do it six or eight hundred times. I realize this is a valid game format, but I'm very very glad that Fumito Ueda doesn't use it.)
What impresses me about SOTC is that it conveys the experience of clinging precariously to the back of a thrashing monster, while still leaving your choices in the adventure realm (do I climb up, climb around, jump off...) as opposed to the action realm (do I succeed at the button-mashing, or -- oh, dammit).
Is it better than Ico? Well, it is similar and it is different. I've replayed Ico about three times; even though I've memorized all the puzzles, working through it is relaxing. Working through SOTC is not relaxing. The action challenges, despite being subservient to the puzzles, are real. I would not enjoy redoing them; I'd get frustrated at the inevitable failures.
And, somehow, SOTC feels less varied than Ico. I don't have a good explanation for this. Each colossus is a brand-new puzzle, which requires new thinking about the tools and commands at your disposal. The landscape is immense and richly textured; every corner you turn reveals a new and hand-crafted work of beauty. Even if you consider only the colossus challenge areas, they're all unique.
But something is missing. I think it's a sense of variety in travel. The landscape has variety, but you travel it all by gee-upping your horse. Run, run, run. Ico, or for that matter Prince of Persia, gives you lots of engaged variety as you move through the game -- even when you're just navigating to the next interesting area. You run, then you climb, then you swing, etc.
Now, SOTC is going for landscape rather than architecture, so maybe there's no way around this. You can't cover five miles of rolling hills if you're crawling from rock to rock. (And it's not like the backtracking in PoP: Warrior Within didn't get tedious.) But this is a spot -- really, a large percentage of the game -- where you don't feel involved, despite the artistry of what you're looking at. Oh well.
But, in case I didn't make this clear: SOTC is the most beautiful piece of work I've seen in a video game. The next three years of artistic design in gaming will consist of stealing ideas from SOTC. No surprise there; that's what happened after Ico.
I have some inchoate theory about how what I really love in these games is the same thing I really love in Myst, which is enormous and fantastical architecture. Forget complicity, forget ranges of choice, forget unique game-state responses. It's all about the megaliths.
I will return to this theory later.