Boss Fight Books: Shovel Knight (#19) – David L. Craddock

4 out of 5

Eschewing the usual level-by-level structure most of the Boss Fight Books employ, David L. Craddock’s entry on Shovel Knight sits alongside Spelunkey in terms of its sense of access: Derek Yu’s book obviously benefitted from being scribed by its game’s creator, while Craddock’s is a step removed but still fully entwined with Knight’s dev team at Yacht Club Games, weaving together archived interviews and new material for a fascinating, detailed expose on the dedication and craft it makes to not just make a game, but the depthless passion it requires to make that game as perfect as possible.

Shovel Knight is perhaps the most focused BFBook yet, which is surprising, given the temptation to dive into NES lore as the Yacht Club team – and Craddock – describe how much appreciation for that era of gaming drove the framework for this modern platformers. This often informs the structure of the narrative: though we do follow a fairly linear history from Yacht Club splintering off from the company WayForward, through through initial pitch / design sessions, Kickstarter funding, and eventual release, each aspect of the development that is explored (level structure, graphics, sound, etc.) touches on NES inspirations, and the purposeful limitations that gave the team for their work. This, in turn, kicks off fascinating insights into how and when Yacht Club would decide to deviate from those limitations, giving the reader the same thrill the team purported to have during the process, of being energized by the confidence of what they were working on: as every little iota is pored over, it increases appreciation for that attention, and also for their motivations – to make a game that was seamless and fun the whole way through.

Some of this does juxtapose the journalistic style with which Craddock approaches the material, though: chapters on gender balancing in the game, and adjusting difficulty, come across as rather bias in their pats-on-the-backs. As Craddock mostly stands aside and lets the work and its authors speak for it- / themselves, when exploration of opposing points of view aren’t explored, and everything is written around being celebratory of, apparently, wholly positive opinions, the book reads slightly like a puff piece. This only crops up on occasion, though, and even allowing for those occasions – it’d be a very well written and entertaining puff piece.

I’ve looked at Shovel Knight from afar many a’time, with an “I’ll play this eventually” note to self. But even a few sections in to this Boss Fight volume, I installed the game anew and had to debate whether to finish the book or just start playing. While maybe being a bit too rose-tinted here and there, Shovel Knight (the book) has no need to “fake” the talents of its development team, and David L. Craddock helps bring their passions and skills to the fore, making an already appealing title a must-play. (Or, for many, replay.)