Great games writing can inspire readers to revaluate a classic game with newfound appreciation. Boss Fight Books, an independent publisher that recently surpassed its Kickstarter goal, aims to expand the discussion with a new series of books dedicated to diving deep into the significance of individual games.
"What if someone created a series like the 33 1/3 series but for video games?" This simple concept is the linchpin of Boss Fight Books' whole operation. But what does that mean, exactly? To find out, I tracked down series creators Gabe Durham and Ken Baumann, as well as the five other handpicked authors, to discover their approach to this intriguing assignment.
Admittedly, before learning about Boss Fight Books, I'd never heard of 33 1/3. This should surprise no one since my knowledge of music couldn't fill a paper cup. I came to find out that 33 1/3 is an ongoing series of short books dedicated to individual music albums, starting in 2003 with Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis. Each book is written by a different author. Because of this, the series can vary wildly in style and substance from one book to another, ranging from heavily academic to deeply personal.
"You only get this kind of opportunity a few times--if at all--in your life to stumble upon an idea for a cultural product that doesn't exist yet."
"33 1/3 really splits the difference here," said Gabe Durham, Boss Fight's publisher and editor. "Some are very alive and filled with the excitement of music journalism, and some are very dry and academic. It can really be a bummer when you think you've bought a book on OK Computer because you love OK Computer, only to discover you've actually just bought some dude's PhD thesis that's just been rebranded a bit." In Durham's opinion, 33 1/3 is at its best when it ignites a sense of discovery within its readers by leading them down the rabbit hole.
"My favorite one I've read so far is on Pavement's Wowee Zowee by Bryan Charles. One thing [the author] did really well was he used the book to smuggle in all these extra things he wanted to talk about, including autobiographical stuff about when he was in the throes of his love for Pavement, new interviews with the band that he was able to get, and the story of his investigation and the search for these people. [The book] was an exploration of all these different topics, a hybrid of several different genres, and that was really exciting for me."
When the lightbulb went on in Durham's head to bring this style of writing to the world of video games, he was amazed someone hadn't beaten him to the punch. "To be frank, when [Durham] presented the idea of 33 1/3 but for video games, I figured it must exist already somewhere; we just haven't looked hard enough yet," admitted Ken Baumann, the series' designer and first author. "I mean, we live in the Internet age where [everything] exists already! Well, we looked, but just couldn't find a pop-culture series of books on video games."
"Later, we discovered there are academic looks into video games, but that's not at all what we're trying to do," Baumann added. "I want to be able to put my book in anybody's hands and keep them entertained throughout. The academic study is fine and will always exist, but I don't know for the most part if [those books] are really all that interesting to the general audience."
In the end, the two dared each other into this project: Durham agreed to publish the books if Baumann agreed to write the first one. Since both men are published authors, they had some idea of what they were signing up for--but any nagging reservations were quickly put to rest by the potential of this project. As Durham explained, "You only get this kind of opportunity a few times--if at all--in your life to stumble upon an idea for a cultural product that doesn't exist yet." They had to go for it.
After hearing Durham and Baumann talk about their plans for Boss Fight Books, I got the impression they knew more about what they didn't want these books to become than anything else. And, for now at least, that's fine. This first round of authors will be the trendsetters of the series, so long as they present their work in such a way that it's accessible to the average reader. No, wait, "accessible" is a bit of a nasty word in today's gaming lexicon. Let's go with "approachable" instead. These books will dive deep into their subjects, but you won't need to have poured a hundred hours into a game to enjoy its story. Boss Fight Books is not an encyclopedia, nor a reworked Wiki page.
This distinction is at the forefront of Ken Baumann's mind as he pens the first book for the series. His game: the immortal SNES role-playing game EarthBound. "There aren't that many pieces of art, ever, that are as idiosyncratic as EarthBound. I'm talking genre-wise, the tropes used, the pattern of storytelling, and the game's humor--it all feels to me completely singular. I'm approaching the game with that sort of respect--it's a masterpiece."
Similar to Bryan Charles' approach to writing about Pavement's Wowee Zowee, Baumann is tackling his topic from many different angles. These include the author's own childhood spent bonding with his older brother over EarthBound--and later reconnecting with him as adults over the same game--as well as possible influences for the game's events, including JonBenet Ramsey's murder in 1996 and the Rodney King riots of '92. "I think that it's worth presenting them all simultaneously and letting readers draw their own conclusions about what affected the game that they might not have discovered on their own," said Baumann.
"Any good essay should almost be like an event horizon: you should be drawn to stay on the edge of the book and keep reading, but also feel the draw to seek out all this research."
"Any good essay or any good nonfiction book should almost be like an event horizon: you should be drawn to stay on the edge of the book and keep reading, but also feel the draw to put down the book and go seek out all this research. My book will succeed if it inspires that level of curiosity."
While inspiring curiosity in others is certainly a noble task, it can also be an intimidating one because the desire to click one more link, read one more report, or investigate one more source can easily slip away from you. Speaking from my own experience, if you travel too far down the rabbit hole, that bottomless well of information can become an intimidating--and paralyzing--tomb. Michael Williams, author of the book on Chrono Trigger, is currently staring into the maw of his own research with trepidation.
"It's scary, because you think, 'There's so much I don't know that I will never get this project done. I have to know everything about what it is to be a digital other before I can even hope to talk about what it means to play Chrono Trigger.'" Armed with all this knowledge, the desire to transform these books into all-encompassing tomes is enticing--the only problem is those tomes already exist. They're called the Chrono Compendium or Starman.net or any of the other well-maintained community resources.
Being the final word is overrated. Gaps are good. Gaps invite questions, questions invite discussion, and discussion is at the core of what this series is trying to achieve. In his Chrono Trigger book, Williams wants to invite his readers to reflect upon issues of race, gender, and sexuality in Japanese role-playing games; disaster history in Japanese artwork; the role of party and of the avatar; and more. It's a bit of a topical grab bag, sure, but he's confident he can make it work.
"The narrative flow of Chrono Trigger is based on semi-related points of reference that skip through different times. If I can do the same thematically, by having a running thread, I can jump from one topic to the next quite easily because the game's text and structure supports this kind of narrative leaping."
While Baumann and Williams explore the deeper meanings within their selected games, another Boss Fights author, Anna Anthropy, is looking outward. Her game is an MS-DOS shareware game with simplistic, text-based graphics called ZZT. It might not sound like much, but what you might not know is that the game also includes an intuitive game editor that lets curious fans try their hand at game creation. While game mods and small, independent projects are common nowadays, having the power to build your own game was uncharted territory in 1991.
"A ZZT game is often an intensely personal portrait of someone at a specific moment in their life," Anthropy explained, "usually a kid or a teenager who is going through a lot of messy changes. These games are little glimpses into a very personal, very specific, moment. A lot of them feel like discoveries to me. They inform my understanding of these people's lives--people I haven't talked to or interacted with in any other way. It's a lot like an archaeological expedition in a lot of ways."
With every game--and every creator--she tracks down, Anthropy is able to piece together the lost history to one of gaming's earliest modding communities. Some of this information endures on the archive site ZZT.org; however, it is just one site where there used to be many. AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy--each had a ZZT following that was eventually shut down. As Anthropy describes it, a lot of her book is trying to put together a history of these communities that are gone now and have left no record.
"The book is a personal history of a game, a community, and a tool that's not just mine. I'm trying to bring in personal experiences from a lot of people--some who made stuff, some who just experienced it, but all of whom have a personal connection to the game. Reaching out across the years and connecting with the people who made these games that only I had cared about like 20 years ago has been a really heady experience."
Whether it's about the games, the developers, or the fans, each entry in the Boss Fight Books series brings with it the excitement and enthusiasm of its author. Listening to Darius Kazemi talk about the development history of Jagged Alliance 2, or to Michael Kimball pontificate on the greater cultural significance of Galaga, makes me want to revisit these games with newfound reverence. Jon Irwin, author of the book on Super Mario Bros. 2, summarizes this feeling best:
"In a lot of books I've enjoyed, the subject wasn't what drew me to it in the first place. It was the author's deep participation with that [subject]. That's the angle I'm taking…and hopefully, no matter what [the subject] is, if the author does a good job of presenting the information, it can be interesting and surprising."
Great games, whether they're AAA blockbusters that reached millions of people or fan-made efforts that touched only one person, deserve this sort of recognition. They deserve not to be forgotten or overlooked in the endless stream of new releases. As Durham puts it, "Long-form video game writing has been thriving online, but has not been given the honored space of the book. Things that [society] writes a book about are things we honor in culture--and I believe games are worthy of that kind of scrutiny."