Saturday, December 19, 2015

\\ In the Shadow of Greatness: Nick Suttner's Shadow of the Colossus book review //

There are few games in my life which have had a more profound impact than Shadow of the Colossus for the PlayStation 2. I consider it to be my second favorite game of all time - Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Dark Souls tends to take the cake for me but it varies depending on the day. The first time I ever saw the game, I was very young; I couldn’t have been much older than 12 or so. Something about it lightly intrigued me as a couple friends and I watched another friend toil over its many hulking boss battles. Yet still, my innate “gamer” instincts found a way to be repulsed by the game – a game with only boss battles, an immense landscape, and nothing else to do but ride and wait? I vowed never to touch the thing.

About five years later, that same friend lent me a copy of the game. By then, my artistic sensibilities had drastically shifted, my childish allegiance to Nintendo had all but vanished, and my desire to have new experiences was at an all-time high. And I was hooked – Colossus was impossible to let go of. I played it so quickly that it became but a blur in my mind. I went online and read up and watched everything I could find about creator Fumito Ueda’s next game The Last Guardian, and an obsession was born.

As the wait for The Last Guardian increased far longer than I ever imagined it would, the Ico and Shadow of the Colossus HD Collection was released, and my infatuation with the worlds Ueda and his team at Sony’s Japan Studios (christened “Team Ico” by fans) only seemed to grow. I’ve paid much attention to these games, played them multiple times, and have spent countless hours scouring the internet for information on their many secrets (I based my article for Kill Screen about Fez’s black monolith around what I feel is a seminal piece of investigative games writing by Craig Owens at Eurogamer about the year-spanning search for secrets in Colossus).

All this is to say that I stepped into reading Nick Suttner’s new book about Shadow of the Colossus with lofty expectations – I had actually pitched to its publisher, Boss Fight Books, to write it, but Suttner is far more qualified. I left this book feeling mostly satisfied – Suttner paints a picture of the game from start to finish, packing in descriptions of the vistas, forests, and rivers which populate the Forbidden Lands, analyzing controls, the game’s cinematic camera, and more. He documents a playthrough of the game dedicated to the book, which triggers interesting asides of working at EB Games and memories of playing the game for the first time with one of Suttner’s roommates.

The Forbidden Lands lack much in the way of landmarks. They are a place of rocks, biomes, dilapidated stone ruins, caves, a variety of flora and fauna, but differ from the spaces found in many other adventure-style games of the time, where everything is distinct and immediately visually interesting. Colossus’ lands by comparison appear rather drab, yet Suttner does an excellent job of painting them as vivid spaces filled with mysteries to explore and hidden truths to uncover. It’s this intimacy with the reader where Suttner excels as an author. In one section of the book, he recalls spending time as a child in the outdoors, overturning logs to find all kinds of insects living beneath, and connects this experience back to Colossus’ embrace of the mundane to help us to understand that finding something of interest here becomes a genuine event, and thus memorable. Suttner understands that the world here is as much a character as Wander, Agro, Dormin, and Mono.
Personally, the most striking parts of the book are those when Suttner uses his current position at Sony (a job he toiled to obtain after being profoundly shook by Colossus) in order to obtain interviews with other game developers and learn of Team Ico’s influence upon other games. Here we’re shared personal anecdotes from the likes of Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann (The Last of Us, Uncharted 4), thatgamecompany’s Jenova Chen (Journey, Flower, Flow), Polytron’s Phil Fish (Fez, Super Hypercube), From Software’s Hidetaka Miyazaki (Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Bloodborne), and many more. As a game designer myself and someone who’s always been a fan of the game design process, both technically and philosophically, it was thrilling to get further insights into Ico and Colossus from developers I respect and through lenses I’d never seen before. Suttner is able to uncover deeply compelling morsels of knowledge from other developers due not only to his status as an employee of Sony PlayStation, but also due to his deep knowledge and respect for games and the wider games culture. Suttner touching on Ico and Colossus’ influence beyond the scope of games would have been nice (director Guillermo del Toro and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood are noted fans of the games, and the game even has a deathcore band named after it), though he does briefly mention Colossus’ inclusion in the Adam Sandler film Reign Over Me, reflecting upon how the game’s meditative and therapeutic qualities help Sandler’s character cope with the loss of family members due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks upon the World Trade Center.
I mentioned how my favorite parts of the book are when Suttner gives broader context to the game through interviews and personal connections to phenomena within the game’s world. Unfortunately, it’s in his description of the game’s main plot and sixteen battles where he starts to lose me a bit. This likely comes down to two factors: one, I’ve already played Shadow of the Colossus multiple times, and thus already know what to expect. I know that you have to charge Cenobia into pillars, I know that you must hit the rocks on top of Pelagia’s head to get it to move in a certain direction, and I know that pillars of light billow out from a colossi’s resting place upon finishing a fight. So in this way I’m not taking much from these sections of the book by default.
But Suttner’s descriptions of the bosses and clashing with them generally cease to match my experiences having fought them time and time again all these years. I often forget how to approach each colossus, as every encounter is a puzzle of sorts to solve. Fighting a colossus is toilsome – it takes a long time, and you will make many mistakes, struggle, probably even give up once in a while. Colossus can certainly be a difficult game, but Suttner’s descriptions of each of these encounters are often short, feeling like throwaway filler that’s there simply because it needs to be to fill a book’s worth of content. It’s ironic that Suttner mentions a part of the way through the book that it’s likely impossible for one to truly understand his connection with Colossus, because I started to get the feeling by his sixth or seventh colossus description that Suttner wasn’t much here to dig into this stuff, more interested is he in the smaller things and the broader context within the past, present and future of gaming culture.  Still, one wonders how one could possibly even do this aspect of Colossus justice. It’s true that everyone has a different experience, but I wish Suttner had tried harder to encapsulate in text those first-time feelings of wonder and awe upon meeting a new beast; he admits upfront that he has a hard time remembering exactly what those emotions felt like, and it shows a bit. For me it’s a shame because, again, Suttner is excellent when describing his muted experiences of stumbling upon a fruit-bestowing tree on the side of a mountain ledge or the joyously natural way fish and turtles swim away from Wander if he steps near them in a small pond or galloping through the lands atop our lifelike sequin companion or pondering that which Ueda referred to as “visual noise” of ruins within the Forbidden Lands or the game’s way of treating death maturely and with reverence.

Majestic and powerful. (Image credits: Uber Gizmo)
This lack of emphasis expands to Suttner’s treatment of other areas of the game as well. He ends on a description of climbing the Shrine of Worship, an optional feat many players never partake in, as it requires developing Wander’s stamina far past its initial scope – even I’ve never done it, mostly out of the tedium killing lizards and eating fruit required. This section feels abrupt as an ending, and lacked the descriptive prose I’d gotten used to expecting from Suttner. I asked Suttner about his decision to leave out Ueda’s upcoming The Last Guardian (see, I get the hot interviews too!) and he replied that it didn’t quite fit in the context of the book, but personally I can see mentioning this game in the context of the way people have fallen in love with the idea of it not only due to its obvious qualities, but also because it’s another game by the creator of Colossus, a prospect in and of itself extremely exciting. As well, while he does touch upon the aforementioned Eurogamer article and some aspects of the hunt for the game’s fabled “seventeenth colossus,” I can’t help but feel like there’s further investigative work to be done here.
Colossus is not a perfect game by any means, and I felt that Suttner was a bit less critical than what I was hoping for, a tad too reverent in his feelings for the game. He briefly glosses over the game’s bizarre unlockable items and time attack mode, superfluous elements which for me detract from the strong minimalistic core that the game is known for championing. His idolization of the game’s minimalism sometimes divulges into taking shots at games that are a bit wordier or more discrete in their narratives. There’s a section of the book where he discusses the differences between the more overt worldbuilding of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt juxtaposed against the implied narratives and objectives of Colossus and Dark Souls, but paints one as inherently better than the other for the means in which this information is fed to the player. While I agree that games sometimes borrow too much from anime and literature in their heady exposition, I feel that criticizing The Witcher for its brand of narrative simply because it’s different than Colossus’ is unfounded, especially when Wild Hunt has such excellent writing and depth of character. He writes, “…even for a game that stars a supernatural detective (of sorts), Witcher’s sense of mystery still pales in comparison to even a few minutes of riding around Shadow’s empty expanses.” (Suttner, 144) But aren’t we to assess games on their own terms? If the entire gaming consensus had derivatively compared Colossus to The Legend of Zelda upon launch for having no common fodder enemies to slay, no side quests, so few characters to meet, would we not have balked at the thing and forgot about it?
Still, I do share much of his reverence for Colossus, though perhaps not quite as strongly. For its flaws, the game does so much right, inspiring those innate feelings of magic and wonder. It turns players into aspiring designers, musicians, world builders, artists. One plays it ten years out and can’t help but marvel at the thing, the majesty and peculiarities of its irregular design daring but still bold in 2015. With Shadow of the Colossus, Ueda broke new ground, inspiring a generation of artists to be unafraid to venture out into the dark. And it’s the game’s unique sense of beauty that Suttner successfully taps into with this book. The way the game inspires conversation, garners excitability, has led people to remain interested at any morsel of news for Ueda’s next genre-defining work in the making, The Last Guardian, which only recently was re-unveiled for the PlayStation 4. I hope this book finds game players who haven’t yet been exposed to Colossus and makes new players of them, and thus wholeheartedly recommend it.

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