December 15, 2015 6:30 AM | Joel Couture
When Shadow of the Colossus (Shadow) came out in 2005, I was too busy playing God of War to notice it. Too caught up in Warioware. Too tangled with twitchy combat in Devil May Cry 3. Its open expanses didn't interest me. Sure, boss fights sounded great, but riding a horse for miles through an empty world to get to them? Unlike Nick Suttner, writer of Boss Fight Books' book-length study on Shadow of the Colossus, I wasn't immediately smitten with the game. I was too wound up on adrenaline and action, and had no interest in the game's abundant emptiness.
What I didn't see at the time was that emptiness wasn't the right word. The world is anything but empty - it is filled with the self. Bursting with unspoken story and mystery. Filled with moments that may have been quiet, but possessed of a subtle profoundness. In what a younger me perceived as nothingness, I would eventually find introspection. Self-sacrifice. More heart than any game had hoped to create before, and few have done since. Suttner's work has helped me refine my thoughts on what drew me back to Shadow all those years later, and has made me see why, even after disliking it years before, I would eventually return to the game and develop a connection with it like few other games have ever managed.
At first, the book feels like the game equivalent of a travelogue, bringing the reader along with Suttner as he experiences Shadow's world anew. He describes the lairs of the giant creatures he must topple, the tactics that allow him to bring a living mountain low, and the things he sees as these gentle creatures succumb to death. It almost seems like a bit too much, given that many of the book's readers have already played the game, but it's important that he does this. It's important because it helps you see these giants in your minds eye, even if it's been years since you've fought and bled before them. It stirs up the old feelings you had when you first witnessed these majestic, powerful creatures.
Do you remember the awe you felt when you saw the first colossus? The relief as Agro rushed by in a dangerous moment, as if the horse could sense you were in trouble? The feeling that your gentle partner, despite being a clutch of code and AI, was an intelligent, loving being that cared for you? The sense of creeping despair you felt every time you awoke in the temple, your body corroding as you brought death to this world? That sense of guilt, rotting in your guts as you continued to push forward?
Suttner dives into every moment of the game to bring you back to all of those places and feelings. His words dredge up every memory you have of the game, forcing you back to face moments that you may not have seen in a very long time. It's been a while since I played Shadow, but Suttner's work brought up memories of the game I didn't know I had. He showed me that I remembered almost every moment of the game - that all of it had stuck with me in some form. Even when I didn't know why a moment was important enough to remember, a part of me saved the memory. A part of me knew that I was witnessing something special.
Suttner's work is a joined journey with the reader, peppered with anecdotes and interviews with the game's creator, Fumito Ueda. It allows for some fascinating insight, often delivered in a single sentence or phrase, that helps to frame why the supposed emptiness of Shadow is so special. Ueda delves into his design philosophies and reasonings behind why the game and its world were created as they were. They sound so simple when Ueda describes them, and yet their importance to Shadow and the sheer narrative and emotional weight they lend the game is monumental. Suttner slips these moments in with skill, knowing just the right time to stop and tell you why point was so striking, and its creator helped shape it.
Many other industry greats have something to say about the game as well. People behind games like Halo 3, The Last of Us, and more pipe in about the importance Shadow had in their development lives, and how its ability to create a world filled with mystery, danger, and despair gave them a focus for their own visions. Shadow was one of the first, and is still among the greatest, games to let the player find the story through gameplay, and its skillful handling of its themes through player action has rippled throughout the game industry. It's surprising to hear of the varied voices who've been inspired by it, and again, Suttner weaves these moments right in with his descriptions. Impressed by a given boss or area? So were many other developers who would go on to make fantastic titles.
That's another key part of Suttner's work. He delves into some of the moments that have helped inspire other developers, or how Ueda's work ethic and ideas on minimalism have helped other developers find focus in their own games. The games I was playing at the time had little mystery about them, always giving the player more. More action. More moves. More bodies. More colors. Everything in its time period was about more, and largely, that hasn't much changed in big game development. Suttner shows how Ueda created narrative and emotional power with less, honing his game to a razor tip rather than a massive bludgeon of content. Many games overwhelm with content to provide entertainment, but Suttner shows Ueda's ability to make something that will penetrate the heart with its focus, and how that has inspired the games of so many developers.
More than just a catalogue of moments and interviews, though, Suttner's work is a discovery of the self. That was part of the beauty of Shadow, he finds as he writes. In the silent moments spent bonding with Agro as you gallop across the land, you're left with time to admire the world and contemplate your place in it. To some degree, you're thinking about Wander's (the protagonist) effects on this place, but Wander is you. You are Wander. This bond mingles the two of you together in the game's quiet moments, letting your own conscience and emotions fill the gap left by a silent hero.
So, we hear some of Suttner's thoughts that have spilled from the quiet - about how the game has made him think about nature, how it has made him examine the media he consumes, and how it has made him ponder what games bring to the medium of storytelling. It's about placing yourself in that world, but not. It's about letting the emptiness give you a space to consider the thoughts you don't normally take the time to think. That is Shadow's unique power.
In this unique emptiness, we bring ourselves. We're still sharing a space, though, with the game's storyline. Shadow's sparse plains and unspoken narrative help shape our thoughts and what we consider. We think about ourselves, but also about ourselves as Wander. We have the time and silence to consider our actions. There are no extra enemies or minigames to distract us. We're just left to think about what we see and do, and every time the game does show something, it's loaded with importance. Why do the black tendrils chase us when we beat a colossus? Why is Wander growing sicker over time? What are these creatures doing here? Am I murdering innocent beings?
Suttner points out that these are questions we will all have to answer as we play. We will answer these questions as ourselves, though. We won't watch Wander spout platitudes about justice and having a good heart. We won't be chastised for committing evil. We'll just experience the game's story, then decide what it means in our own hearts. Suttner shows how Shadow effortlessly draws us in with its minimalist presentation, but in doing so, it brings all of us within the game world, marrying the player and the protagonist. This, here, is the beauty that games bring to storytelling, allowing us to live in the worlds developers create.
I had mistaken emptiness for a lack of vision. A lack of content. A lack of things to do. What I would one day see, and have clarified by Suttner's insightful writing, was that this minimalist presentation was purposeful. The world seemed sparse because it wanted me to fill it with myself and my own wants. It wanted me to befriend Agro. It wanted me to look around and marvel at its beauty. It wanted me to feel what it was like to fell a harmless giant for my own selfish goals. It asked that I feel and think for myself rather than have a message given to me.
Suttner's Shadow of the Colossus captures the essence, both mechanical and emotional, of what made the game so special. He distills all of the game's power down in simple language that conveys why it was so important to him and many others. Whether you have played the game or not, it will show you a turning point in our medium's history - a point where we would all see the kind of incredible stories only games could tell.
Shadow of the Colossus is available for $4.95 from Boss Fight Books (or $14.95 for a hard copy). For more information on Nick Suttner, you can follow him on Twitter. For more information on the publisher, you can head to their site or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.