Broken Giants: the Jewish Mythology of Team ICO,
Although spoilers follow, an intensive knowledge of the plot is not required for this assessment. The elements dissected in this essay are given enough context to be understood by those who have not played the game. For those interested, a basic plot synopsis can be found here.
Everyone knows Shadow of the Colossus is a masterpiece. Every time the status of video games as an art form is brought into question you’ll find legions of fans there to put forth Team ICO’s iconic boss-rush as the best example the medium has produced. With beautiful scenery, a tastefully minimalist story, and simple, yet satisfying gameplay, the tale of The Wanderer’s tragic quest to slay 16 colossi and save a woman only known as Mono has been burned into the collective unconscious of the subculture. But did you know that the game is inspired largely by Jewish mythology?
It’s far from rare to see a Japanese developer take inspiration from Judeo-Christianity. For example, Atlus’ Megami Tensei games are absolutely indebted to biblical iconography, while even titles like Capcom’s Devil May Cry are rooted in extra-textual works, traditions, and teachings. As I’ve discussed before, a very common Japanese interpretation of the Yahweh/Satan binary is that of a “Law vs. Chaos” struggle, instead of a clear battle between good and evil. However, Shadow of the Colossus is perhaps best known for its subtlety, and it may be difficult to parse out the exact meaning behind the Pentateuchal allusions.
Let’s start with the most obvious reference: Dormin. Dormin (pictured at the top of the page) is the sinister force that tasks The Wanderer with slaying the colossi, and ultimately ends up possessing his body and leading to his death and rebirth. Obviously, the name “Dormin” is simply “Nimrod” spelled backwards. Far from being some kind of insult, this designates the creature as a reference to the biblical figure of Nimrod, the great-grandson of Noah. Canonical details on Nimrod are relatively scarce, but centuries of apocrypha, Rabbinic writings, and popular culture have provided Team ICO with plenty of material to work with.
The Table of Nations in the Book of Genesis identifies Nimrod as “a mighty one on the earth” and “a mighty hunter before God,” both phrases that are sometimes associated with Nephilim, which are often interpreted as giants. Tradition holds that upon his death, Nimrod was cut into pieces and scattered across the land, just as Dormin is sealed away by separating his powers into the colossi. By the medieval period, Nimrod was synonymous enough with giants to be portrayed as one in Dante’s Inferno, in which he yells, “Raphèl maí amèche zabí almi,” the infamously gibberish line which Vergil assures Dante is some sort of admission of guilt.
With the Dormin/Nimrod connection firmly established and some history out of the way, the question remains: So what? Shadow of the Colossus is about hunting giants, so it makes sense to have a character named after a mighty hunter and giant. Well, consider that aforementioned Alighieri quote. Nimrod is inextricably linked to the story of the Tower of Babel, which so angered God that he punished human beings with myriad languages so they could not communicate. Likewise, Dormin spends the entire game trapped in a great tower, from which he draws the attention of Lord Emon, a priestly figure who seals away the “cursed lands” that contain the tower.
Perhaps more importantly than the transgression of the tower, Nimrod is said to have been an idolater. As you can see from the header image, Dormin has very prominent horns, a defining symbol for the Semitic deity Hadad, who is called Ba’al in the Bible. You can see the influence of the bull god even more clearly in the original design for Dormin (on the left of the header), which recalls such idolatry as the “The Sin of the Calf,” a.k.a. the Golden Calf Incident. When The Wanderer is cursed with horns at the end of the game for reviving Dormin, this seems to indicate a generational affliction such as the “Sins of the Father” prescribed in Exodus. These horned progeny continue into the timeline for ICO, which is a loose sequel that happens to have been made first.
If Dormin is so clearly Nimrod then who does that make The Wanderer in this Hebrew fable? Well, the first figure to come to mind is Jeroboam, whose idolatry so angered God that the resulting punishment torments Israel for generations. But perhaps that is too historical. In many ways, Shadow of the Colossus only utilizes the vague outlines of people, places, names, and symbols to fashion its own universe, so it makes sense that The Wanderer would be a more archetypal curse victim. In fact, I would argue that he is *THE* Wanderer from Bereishit: Cain. Although there are no explicit parallels with Cain’s famous fratricide, the character is single-mindedly violent and bears an undeniable similarity with the man via his hair. Even Shakespeare, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, referred to red hair as “Cain-coloured” and it could be argued that this is The Wanderer’s most defining physical feature.
The what about Mono, the supposedly dead, ethereal woman who The Wanderer sins so gravely to revive? It could be said the she represents a gender-swapped Abel and that The Wanderer is merely setting about to undo his murder. But, once again, we run into the problem of trying to fit the broad strokes of Colossus into a cohesive retelling of a story, instead of the more ambiguous abstractions Team ICO seems to have intended. I would therefore submit that Mono symbolizes Monotheism, the belief in only one god. With Nimrod, Jeroboam, and Cain as the only other direct references in play in the game, it makes sense that all of the dark, evil, and violent characters would be famous idolaters and sinners, with Cain sacrificing the last of his humanity to restore the life of the benevolent Mono. In fact, fealty to “the one true God” is an intensely feminine and even sexual metaphor in scripture, with polytheists and idolaters often referred to as “whores.”
It can’t be ignored that immediately upon awakening, Mono picks up the reincarnated, cursed baby that The Wanderer has become in “The Secret Garden.” This area is clearly symbolic of Eden, and players who manage to scale the tower and eat of the fruit during the game will found out that it is poisonous. Clearly, The Wanderer’s sacrifice has cursed him in some ways, but it has also given him another chance to start over as he and Mono apparently become Adam and Eve analogues, eventually culminating in the birth of Ico.
To say that Shadow of the Colossus is influenced by the Pentateuch would be an understatement. It may not be as direct of an appropriation as Call of Duty: Black Ops, but it still has enough overt references to make the skeleton of a theological framework visible. Team ICO’s games seem to take place in some other universe full of magic and beauty, but it’s still fascinating to see the way they utilize another culture’s oldest myths to enrich the thematic undertones of loyalty, death, and rebirth already present in their magnum opus.
Pixelated Pretension is a weekly column by Austin Yorski dedicated to discussing the literary conventions of video games, including themes, rhetoric, and symbolism. Tune in every weekend for more analysis. Feel free to disagree with, add to, or question everything. I welcome your feedback. Also, follow me on Twitter @austinyorski (please).