Book Review: Shadow of the Colossus

Regardless of what tool is used to create a form of expression, whether it is artistic or purely functional, the creation is an exercise of mimicry. The tool may be a brush, a pen, a musical instrument, or any of a great many other things, yet the piece remains a modified image of many others. Despite that, each work offers a unique contribution to those that experience it. Nick Suttner, author of Shadow of the Colossus by Boss Fight Books, assumed the daunting task of using words to describe the experience of playing Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus and to explore its impact on players and developers since its release. His work steps up to this challenge handily.

I adore the Shadow of the Colossus. I’ve scoured the PlayStation 2 original and the HD version on PlayStation 3. I’m quite familiar with the game. Still, the most enjoyable themes of the book were Suttner’s personal experience of the journey and the impact of the game’s director, Fumito Ueda. I generally only read reviews of things I already love—not to inform myself but to see what someone else thought and why.

Ultimately, words can’t quite translate experience. That’s one reason Shadow of the Colossus has resonated with gamers for so long. Reviewers tend to focus on story, graphics, music, and gameplay, and usually avoid discussing intangible characteristics, leaving them up to players to discover on their own. Shadow of the Colossus was successful with its tangible qualities but even more so with its intangible qualities. What is it like to become friends with Agro, your horse? How do your feelings about your quest evolve as you, one by one, kill sixteen colossi? Those feelings can be discussed but not fully shared.

Suttner explores the tools that make the game’s intangible qualities successful. These range from camera work, to the world’s subtractive and minimalist design, to futile interactions that recur throughout the game in which the player has nominal control of Wander for a short period of time but no control over the outcome. Despite how the game looks while fighting a colossus, in a lot of ways it is more of a puzzle game than an action game. The setting is a quiet, expansive world and the colossi themselves both adversaries and moving set pieces within it. What you explore as you progress through your quest is as much how you feel about it as it is the world and colossi themselves. This is the treasure buried deep within. It’s a gift from Team Ico that you get whether you started the game seeking it or not.

Shadow of the Colossus Cover

Nick Suttner’s Shadow of the Colossus (Boss Fight Books, 2015)

As a consumer of games for about thirty-five years now, I recognize as well as anybody the mimicry to which I alluded to earlier. There are a number of cookie cutters out there, but, especially with high-budget games, the variations are slight. In part, developers do this to manage risk of rejection. The chance of losing a lot of their audience just for the sake of ingenuity and art is difficult to stomach—especially with so much invested in big budget titles. In 2005, when Shadow of the Colossus was released, the industry was in a sort of sweet spot for experimentation in big budget titles while also providing the developer tools needed to create a game like this.

It begs the question, though, if this game is so cherished by so many, why hasn’t it been copied? Suttner notes specifically how its impact has been felt by other developers, more in terms of tools of expression than the actual design of a game itself. For example, Phil Fish, the creator of Fez, was “hugely affected by a post-mortem talk that Ueda gave on Ico years ago, in which Ueda discussed removing every superfluous element from the game” (131-2). In addition to publishers’ risk aversion, developers may just know better than to copy it. I’d like to believe it is out of respect for Team Ico’s creation, and it partially may be, but it may also be a hesitancy to leave their comfort zone, within which they know they can create games that are successful and enjoyed by their customers. What we already have in Shadow of the Colossus doesn’t need to be copied directly. It can inspire others without forcing their hands. It’s better that way anyway.

Shadow of the Colossus is an outstanding game worth playing, and Nick Suttner’s book by the same name is a worthy complement. Gamers who want to avoid spoilers of the fights or the story should read it after they’ve played. My experience with the game was similar to Suttner’s in some ways and different in others. That’s normal and expected. Reading his perspective and reflecting on it gave my own perspective more depth and context. It helped me get a little closer to finishing an endless journey to understanding those parts of my experience that transcend words.

Suttner makes the comment that, in a lot of ways, you are what you like. He shares the things he loves with those he cares about for reasons that one wouldn’t at first expect. “Maybe it’s less about wanting others to experience the same magic and humanity that I felt,” he writes, “and more about wanting to be better understood in some small way” (150).

Even though I’ve played the game a lot, I feel like the experience of playing it and the themes themselves have enough complexity to keep me engaged, seeking more while somehow simultaneously understanding less. Understanding is impossible to completely achieve, yet worthwhile to continually seek. Just as any light cannot help but cast a shadow—an ephemeral projection of something far more complex.

Shadow of the Colossus Cover Detail

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Works Cited

Suttner, Nick. Shadow of the Colossus. Los Angeles: Boss Fight Books, 2015. Print.