Shadow of the Colossus Book Review

There’s a saying, attributed to various musicians, that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” and the sentiment has frequently been applied to games as well. The implication, of course, is not that either feat is wholly impossible, just that in order to have some success in such an endeavor you’d need to approach your subject in such an oblique manner that communicating the fundamental truth or power of that subject would be… basically futile. 

It’s funny, then, that “dancing about architecture” is about as close as one could come to a succinct three-word description of Shadow of the Colossus, Team Ico’s seminal action game about mounting, and then surmounting, sixteen building-sized foes. In Boss Fight Books’ tenth outing, Nick Suttner narrates a playthrough of the game, attempting in prose to communicate the enigmatic beauty and awesome power of a game whose influence on the medium has been outsized, if not, well… colossal.

Each entry in the Boss Fight Books collection thus far has contained roughly the same elements in considerably different proportions. The formula involves some narration of a playthrough of a game, some research into the game’s development and the personalities of its creators, some autobiographical reflections on the part of the author, and some attempt to distill the game’s importance and influence. Ken Baumann’s Earthbound traded heavily on a narrative of the author’s childhood, while Gabe Durham’s Bible Adventures focuses primarily on the bizarre story of development house Wisdom Tree. Jon Irwin’s Super Mario Bros. 2 succeeds because Irwin’s penchant for poetic explication mirrors the surreal dreamscape of his subject matter.

Nick Suttner’s greatest strength is his position working with developer relations at Sony (you may have seen him onstage briefly if you watched the PlayStation Experience keynote earlier this month). His role in the industry gives him access to any number of different developers whose work has been influenced by Shadow of the Colossus. Suttner peppers his playthrough with asides from Jenova Chen (of thatgamecompany), Vander Caballero (director of Papo & Yo), Phil Fish (of Fez), and several others in order to illustrate how widespread the influence of Team Ico’s quiet masterpiece really is. These brief interludes are the highlight of the book, and come the closest to explaining just what it is about Shadow that makes it worth celebrating. By collecting these analyses from designers, Suttner convinces us that we might reasonably look at any game published in the last ten years and ask “is this in some small way indebted to Shadow of the Colossus?”

Suttner also does an excellent job collating and giving context to the many interviews that Shadow’s director Fumito Ueda has done since the game’s release. The picture he paints of Team Ico as a contrarian, fiercely independent little development team whose ability to stick to its artistic guns with no regards for focus groups is charming, to say the least. Suttner makes the claim that a game like Shadow of the Colossus, with both high production values and a development free of boardroom meddling, couldn’t be produced today, and his argument is compelling.

Suttner’s personal asides are less so: he writes briefly of his time working at EB Games, his childhood playing in the woods, and his feelings on having a beard (he’s ambivalent). These tangents tell us a little something about the author, but not very much about Shadow of the Colossus. Most telling, perhaps, is Suttner’s admission that he has not dealt much with loss, tragedy, and death in his personal life. I’m relieved for him, of course, but I can’t help but wonder what someone who has experienced a tragic loss would make of Shadow of the Colossus, a game bathed in profound and pervasive sadness. Players slay colossi in an attempt to undo a loss suffered by the protagonist, Wander, but each slain colossus itself feels like a loss, and the price that Wander ultimately pays for his violence is loss again. Suttner walks us through each of these losses, but he can’t quite make us feel them.

And here we return to the bit about “dancing about architecture.” Suttner’s approach to conveying the potent magic of Shadow is to tell us plainly what happens in the game–at least half the book’s text is a description of him playing the game, moving from one colossus to the next before slaying each and returning to where he started–and narration never quite feels like enough. A sample: “I scamper down the rest of the way and up onto his belly, the telltale blue glow of a sigil calling for my sword. I get a few stabs in before he rights himself, and I run back upstairs, climbing high to be sure I lure him far enough to create distance for his next fall. Like clockwork, I lure him up, shoot him down, and finish him off with just another two stabs.”

Suttner’s prose is by no means bad, but it’s perfunctory as often as it’s poetic, and it’s easy to start skimming the sections which are clearly This is What Happens With Each Colossus, especially if you’ve played the game before and have memories to call on that serve you better than prose. There are some lovely moments in which Suttner describes inhabiting and exploring the sparse world that Team Ico created, and some of his storytelling feels personal and intimate, but it feels like he’s fighting an uphill battle: so much of the power of Shadow of the Colossus lies in its presentation that narration could never be an effective vector for communicating it. You can read about the majesty of these fictional beasts, the lonely beauty of the world, or the exhilaration of leaping from atop your horse to snag hold of a passing limb, but it will never have the same effect as seeing it, feeling it, doing it for yourself.

The terrible irony is that one of the very reasons that Shadow of the Colossus makes an excellent candidate to write a book about–it’s one of the better examples of a story best told through the medium of games–also makes writing a book about it an exceedingly tricky proposition. Suttner’s love for the game is plain to see in every paragraph, but even he acknowledges the difficulty of communicating one’s personal relationship with a game like Shadow: “It feels lonely sometimes,” he writes in one of the latter chapters, “having such an intensely personal attachment to a piece of art. While Shadow has affected so many others, no one can really understand what it means to me. Just as I can never understand what it means to them.”

If you’ve played Shadow of the Colossus, you already know what it means to you. If you have a love for it, you’ll probably enjoy hearing what skilled designers have to say about it, and you’ll likely take pleasure in Suttner’s nostalgic tour of the sixteen battles the game has to offer. (I did!) But if you haven’t played Shadow of the Colossus, and you come to the text looking for an explanation of that grand, ineffable power that compels players to love the game, you may walk away still mystified. You’ll have to play it for yourself to find out.

Shadow of the Colossus, by Nick Suttner, is the latest from Boss Fight Books.

Nate Ewert-Krocker is a writer and a Montessori teacher who lives in Atlanta. His first book, an adventure novel for teens, is available here. You can find him on Twitter at @NEwertKrocker, where he mostly gushes about final boss themes from JRPGs.