Publisher: Boss Fight Books
Released: December 2015
Reviewed by Nick Page
Looking back on the games that I have played, Shadow of the Colossus (released in 2005) stands out as a unique experience: a game with almost no story, but awe inspiring action and amazing visuals set to an orchestral soundtrack that would feel at home in any given fantasy epic. A young man carries a young woman’s body to a temple and makes a deal with an incorporeal being: he will defeat a series of colossi to bring the young woman back to life. In short, the game involves a series of long horse rides through a beautiful country that each end in an epic battle with a big bad guy, your only tools being a sword, a bow, and your trusty horse, Agro. Aside from the lack of little bad guys, it sounds like plenty of other games, so what makes Shadow unique? Many gamers would see at a glance what makes it so, but Suttner walks the reader both through the game itself, as well as the lasting legacy of the Shadow of the Colossus.
Suttner incorporates his experience finding Shadow at E3, the largest video game industry event of the year, and its subsequent effects on his life. He further establishes his credibility as he describes his career selling games, writing about games, and eventually working at Sony to “help shape the culture of independent games on the PlayStation.” Suttner also cites creators of several other games, such as Fez and QWOP, and how the influence of Shadow reaches new games and gamers even today. Having twice interviewed the director for Shadow of the Colossus, Fumito Ueda, six years apart, the author builds trust in the reader with primary research. Finally, Suttner discusses the extensive research and videos of Michael Lambert, or “Nomad,” who has extensively searched, researched, and catalogued every virtual inch of this game’s world. The sheer volume of time spent with Shadow of the Colossus under a microscope is itself fascinating, considering the subtractive design philosophy of the director, “Like pruning tree branches, it’s necessary to cut things out in order to improve the quality of a game.”
The book is divided into 18 chapters that follow a playthrough of the game. Most of them are given names from the cryptic description of each colossus given by Dormin, the incorporeal quest-giver, as he provides clues to Wander, the mostly silent protagonist, about how to destroy each colossus. Aside from the introductory chapters that outline the basics of the game and its mechanics, each follows the player on the journey to and conquest of each colossus. Along the way, the reader is also given background on the creation of Shadow of the Colossus, as well as the lingering affects the game has had on other story-driven titles. There are no images of gameplay, but Suttner describes each battle in detail, and as one would experience it in the moment of playing: “My sword is driven home one final time as Malus groans in protest, holding a huge hand to his face as his life drains away. . . . For a moment, there’s nothing but death across the Forbidden Lands. I think of Agro [his horse and only companion].” Suttner captures the sadness that builds in the player as it dawns on him/her that victories do not come without cost.
Shadow is part love letter and part Let’s Play, with a pinch of documentary and strategy guide. A Let’s Play is a walkthrough of a game, sometimes in annotated screenshots, often in recorded video with commentary by the player. My favorite Let’s Plays are those in which the player explores all nooks and crannies of a game, completes every objective, and speaks to the history, development, and legacy of a game. Suttner captures a similar experience as he talks through the journey to and defeat of each of the sixteen colossi. As one who has played and loved the game, it was a fascinating way to relive Shadow of the Colossus in a way that both felt familiar and new.
Suttner played through the game yet again as he wrote his descriptions of the battles with each colossus, and he describes a troubling realization: after he explores the very last secrets of the game, he wishes that he could turn the last stone over again, simply to leave some mystery, but that simply can’t be. It leads me to think that the best experience would be for those unfamiliar with Shadow of the Colossus to play the game before reading this Boss Book, or at least watch a Let’s Play without commentary. Let Shadow of the Colossus speak for itself, then turn to this book to fill in the gaps and help make sense of the unique experience it has to offer.
Nick Page is the manager of educational technology at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. His favorite video game to play and/or watch on YouTube is Minecraft.