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Shadow of the Colossus: The Yin and Yang of Dormin



Shadow of the Colossus

Yin and Yang are two opposing forces that are also complementary. It is represented by an S-shaped curve in a circle splitting black and white. A pearl of white sits in black, as does a pearl of black sit in white. While they appear separate, they are one. It is the pattern of the spiral nebula, the pattern of lovemaking, of two fish chasing each other, and the double helix. It is the pattern of life. The attraction and repulsion of these opposing and complementary forces are manifested as the universe itself.

Dormin is an entity that acts as a major driving force of 2005’s Shadow of the Colossus, but its role is neither distinctly heroic nor villainous. Dormin’s nebulous presence feels at times less like a character and more like a force of nature. While the lead character, Wander, succumbs to Dormin in the end, he is rather a victim to himself. A man seeking to defy such laws of nature like life and death, seeks to defy the very universe he inhabits. He seeks to defy Yin and Yang.

“Success is as dangerous as failure, and we are often our own worst enemy.”

Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching

In Shadow of the Colossus, a young man called Wander carries the body of a young woman to what is known as the Forbidden Lands. It is a place where it is said that one can bring back the souls of the dead if they wish.

Wander places the lifeless body of the woman, Mono, on an altar and speaks to the disembodied voice of Dormin. It can bring Mono back if Wander destroys the sixteen colossi that are holding pieces of him, but warns Wander the price he may pay is “heavy”. Wander says that it doesn’t matter.

When Dormin speaks, its voice emanates from a large hole in the temple ceiling like a god from a higher plane of existence. Dormin’s voice is one of duality. When Dormin speaks to Wander, both a masculine and feminine voice can be heard. These voices represent opposite aspects of Dormin: the light and the dark. In yin there is yang, and in yang there is yin, represented by the dots of opposite colour in each part of the circle. This is seen in the Colossi as well.

The weak points in the Colossi show as cracks in the flesh, where a pale blue light is visibly shining through. Their eyes are spirals of the same light, blue when passive and orange when defensive, the hole in the center acting as a pupil of darkness. Yin within yang. Upon being defeated, black tendrils rise from them and seek refuge in Wander, while a pillar of light also rises from the slain colossus and pierces the clouds above.

Wander carries the darkness of Dormin, but the light is going to Mono.

While Ying and Yang can be translated as “Dark” and “Light,” it does not specifically refer to a traditional sense of good and evil so prevalent in storytelling. It simply refers to the two forces in harmony. Life and death, emptiness and fullness, high and low, active and passive, order and chaos, masculine and feminine. In Yin and Yang, the white is masculine, active, full and light and the black is feminine, passive, empty and dark but they each carry the seed of the other. While opposite, neither is the objective better one. They give each other meaning and can not exist without the other force. One is not rich unless another is poor.

In Lao Tzu’s “Tao Te Ching” it is written:
            “Being and non-being produce each other.
             Difficult and easy complement each other.
             Long and short define each other.
             High and low oppose each other.
             Fore and aft follow each other.”

Imagine a bowl once filled with a bounty of berries sitting empty. It’s easy to take the empty bowl, or its Yin, as a negative, but it is the bowl’s emptiness that allows it to be filled–just as a home must be empty for you to inhabit it, just as Dormin will inhabit the passive Mono as Wander actively releases each piece. The Yang starts an action, and the Yin receives it.

It is easy to sympathize with Wander’s plight and actively root for him. An individual facing fearful odds for the sake of love and saving a life is one of the oldest heroic journeys in fiction. It appeals to our human nature of not only striving to be better and to leave a mark on this pale blue dot, but also an inherent fear and rejection of death. This is, however, where the story subverts this old tale and it is hinted at as early as the first colossus, Valus.

With his task laid out in front of him, Wander mounts his noble steed, Agro, and gallops into the Forbidden Land to save the girl, backed by the player’s equal enthusiasm.

Upon finding the first colossus, it strikes an awe inspiring and imposing figure as it walks into view, the camera struggling to take in the scale of it. It is a bi-pedal, furred beast invoking the image of a minotaur and wielding a club made of stone. Its design is equal parts an enemy and a majestic creature spotted in the wild, something done very purposefully.

While engaging Valus, the track “Grotesque Figures” plays, a piece of deep percussion and blaring horns that spells danger as Wander and player alike try to figure out how to tackle such an enemy. When Valus is brought to his knee and Wander can fully climb towards its head, the score switches to “The Opened Way,” a heroic piece that celebrates the end being in sight, with notes of confidence cheering Wander and the player on as Valus tries to shake Wander loose. Our hero gains hold, raises his blade, and brings it down.

The track cuts off as soon as the strike hits. “The End of the Battle” plays and it’s not a piece of celebration. It sounds like the end of something great. It sounds sad. It sounds like a requiem for species. As the colossus falls to the earth, it leaves the victory feeling hollow. In fact, it hardly feels like a victory at all. The player feels like they did something wrong.

Shadow of the Colossus

The black tendrils emerge from the corpse, and pierce Wander, knocking him unconscious and bringing him back to the Temple to go after the next one.

It’s easy to frame the colossi as enemies, a roadblock to our protagonist’s heroic journey, but as it progresses the design of these creatures hint more and more that these are not monsters. They may look like fearsome beasts from afar, but once Wander climbs them and we see their face and eyes up close, we can see the humanity in them. They look more curious about you, confused at your aggression, and fearful. Even when they fight back, they often only attempt to shake Wander loose and deter him with a stomp or swat. It’s self-defense.

With every colossus slain, the dark tendrils enter Wander’s body, and he is filled with more and more darkness, slowly losing himself to become a host for Dormin. Wander is so resolute to his task, never wavering, never paling in the face of the colossi, that he doesn’t notice what is happening to him. The paling skin and the black veins slowly creeping across his skin goes unnoticed even by many players until it is too late.

But it was too late from the start. At no point can he be stopped. There is no choice to be made in this game. The player feels this discomfort from the first slaying of Valus, from watching Celosia back away in fear from the fire, Phalanx and its lack of aggression, and Malus lifting its hand to study you with curious blue and non-hostile eyes. The player is locked in with Wander to see this through, killing each colossus towards the heavy price Dormin warned him about.

The Yang, Wander, is slowly taking on an excess of Yin in the form of darkness. The Yin, Mono, is slowly taking on an excess of Yang, the light. There is imbalance.

It is not Yin or Yang, light or dark, that is the issue–it is the imbalance. Splitting Dormin seems to have influenced the very land itself. The Forbidden Lands are frozen in time and carry very little life within them. Whoever split Dormin into pieces and sealed him away tampered with the world itself. Those who meddled with splitting light and dark tried to split the world.

Shadow of the Colossus

In the finale, Emon frames Dormin as a villain, yet by the tale’s close, it’s hard to say Dormin did anything inherently bad at all. When Wander asks Dormin for help, Dormin warns him of the price, and in the end, the bargain is kept; Mono wakes. We know Dormin has light and dark in him, is not a mortal force, and wants to be whole. We can see the damaging effects of his split in the Forbidden Lands and Wander’s plight. It seems the only act that we should fear is trying to use Dormin’s power, trying to split it. To take summer without the fall, the object without the space, life without death.

All men who have tried to “fix” the world are men who opt for one side winning, when the solution to opposition is unity.

Alan Watts once said, “If I have a black background, somehow, I am tempted to make a white mark on it. If I have a white background, I am tempted to put a black mark on it. Because if there were nothing to see but black, that would be tantamount to being blind, because there would be no difference. Nothing would matter, nothing would make a difference. So there wouldn’t be anything. Likewise, if everything were white it would be as good as being blind, for there would be no difference. It’s only by contrast, when black and white are put together, that we know black is black and white is white.

However… when I look at a small white circle or disc on a black background or a small black disc on a white background, I once get this in my thought: which is positive, and which is negative? Does black represent the negative because it’s dark? Like night? But when I look at the black dot on the white background I think ‘The black dot is the thing there. That must be positive’. It was put on. And therefore, the white represents negative because it suggests nothing.”

Both white and black can play the negative or positive role. You just can’t have one without the other.

Man falls when he fails to think about the other side. We turn the balance of these two forces into white versus black. If we decide white is the positive and black is the negative, then white must win. But you can not play a game where there is a win but not loss. White can only win if black is there to have lost.

“Yang and yin, go together. But through not seeing this, the whole of our life is as I said geared to the thought that we might be able to make the yang side win. And so in every sort of human enterprise, we are trying to have white without black.”

Alan Watts

Wander’s hamartia was wanting life without death. He wants white to win. He wants to split yin from yang.

Shadow of the Colossus

Once Wander defeats the final colossus and Dormin borrows his body, the feminine voice vanishes from Dormin, and all that is left is the masculine. Part of Dormin resides in Wander and part in Mono. This leaves him weak and able to be conquered by Emon and his men. Emon casts the sword of light into the pool, and Dormin and Wander are pulled in. Grabbing on to the stairs, Wander reaches for Mono, half of Dormin reaches for the other, both wanting to be whole again. But Wander can’t get away from the light. The attraction of these two forces, the light and dark, are in the very universe. His fate was inevitable.

The bridge to the Forbidden Lands is destroyed, sealing it from the rest of the world. But left in the pool of light at the end is a newborn baby. A baby with horns. A constant reminder that within yang there is yin, and within yin, there is yang.

Mono picks him up and walks to the garden atop the temple. Two characters each with a bit of Dormin inside them. And, for now, Yin and Yang are together again.

Geordi fell in love with storytelling when he was just four years old. Watching movies that kids maybe shouldn’t, reading books with too many big words, and exploring new worlds on his NES and SNES, he found his passion. Left with a deep empathy for countless worlds and all who inhabited them, he pursued not only media, but firefighting, much to the confusion of his teachers. When he is not consuming every film, book, and game he can get his eyes on, he’s writing about them… and perhaps making his own.