Boss Fight Books Explores the Cultural Significance of EarthBound and Others

Publisher Boss Fight Books is releasing a series of books each dedicated to an individual game--but how are the authors handling this assignment?

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."

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38 comments
WeWerePirates
WeWerePirates

At $5 each as ebooks I'll probably buy them but $20 in print for a short book? Seems excessive, It won't cost anywhere near $15 to print. Then again it came from Kickstarter and the trend is to put a premium on physical goods to essentially subsidise the project. It would look bad if they made backers pay more than they did people buying later.

franzito
franzito

A Chrono Trigger book would be a treat.

Prats1993
Prats1993

JA2? Great game, but im not sure how significant it was compared to Chrono Trigger or Super Mario Bros 2.

FollowY0urBliss
FollowY0urBliss

Earthbound = Best game ever.

Well, maybe not EVER, but it's DEFINTELY on the list.

I still remember reading through the guide that came with it a million times... Oh! and the scratch n sniff stickers!! Ah, the memories.

Ironically, I started a new game a week ago. I just got Poo. lol

Coco_pierrot
Coco_pierrot

Good article ! While reading it I remembered some of the boss fight that I had a hard time or just felt like an accomplishment as a kid on the NES and SNES. Like the first time I finish Mega Man 2 and 3 or the last battle of Final Fantasy VI ( III in america ) ... man 4 rounds of boss without a break or Contra ! I would also like to read something about Shadow Of The Colossus since it is all about boss fight

immortality20
immortality20

I have a few great video game books, and a few really boring and "dry" ones that just have no soul or character to them. Yes they're hard to find, but ever so great when you do, just like any great book in a genre you love.

Pierce_Sparrow
Pierce_Sparrow

This is great stuff. I'm definitely interested. I've always found gaming history pretty fascinating, not simply because I've grown up with both console and PC gaming for almost 30 years, but because it's something of a roadmap of technology and storytelling technique. And what's more fascinating is how far it's come in only a couple decades. Going back and revisiting some of these specific games is such an interesting idea because each is not only a representation of the state of gaming at the time, but everything that surrounded that: the technological advances, the methods of storytelling within the confinements of the technology, the culture surrounding the games, and even the audiences and what attracted them to these games when they came out. It's also great to see such diversity. ZZT is so vastly different from Earthbound, it should create a very interesting comparison to read these two and see the differences in culture and inspirations for each. Thanks for taking the risk, BosFight! This should be awesome stuff.

tommya06
tommya06

9/10 people won't know what "trepidation" means without google-ing it. (its used on the second page of this article)

BossFightBooks
BossFightBooks

Hey! Just wanted to say thanks so much to Maxwell for waiting patiently through all our rants until we said something he could use. On the phone, I talked for 10 mins about whether you should capitalized the B in EarthBound, and Ken kept quoting rappers and talking shit about Pitchfork.

If anybody has questions about Boss Fight, you're welcome to ask them on here or Twitter (@bossfightbooks), and you can check out our 6 launch titles at http://bossfightbooks.com. There's also an excerpt from our EarthBound book that you can read here.


monstachruck
monstachruck

Not enough PC games mentioned- most consoles games (even old ones on consoles like Nintendo, Atari and Colecovision) borrow tropes , story and gameplay mechanics from much older PC games and pen-and-paper RPG's.

Shenmue_Jehuty
Shenmue_Jehuty

Having played Earthbound recently, it is one of the most overrated games I have ever played. In no way was it on par with Chrono Trigger, either SNES FF, Secret of Evermore, or just about everything other RPG I've played from the 16-bit era. It was not a bad game, but felt very flat for the most part. It blows my mind that this game is actually worth over $150.

GermanBomber
GermanBomber

I love EarthBound. Replaying it right now.

nait2k4
nait2k4

It sounds like a good idea, but if I want to know anything interesting about a game I'll just wait for Danny O'Dwyer to do a video about it.

ArchoNils2
ArchoNils2

So, they pretty much saw Bobs book "brick for brick" and thought they xan make this for other games too?

starduke
starduke

Sounds very interesting, and worth checking out. I wonder if they're going to just stick with golden oldies, or also do more modern games.

Games, like say, The Elder Scrolls, which won Greatest Game Series of the Decade.

ManicMasochist
ManicMasochist

I think you've misunderstood your audience on this one, Gamespot.  They can't be bothered to read beyond a headline or score for a game.  They sure as hell aren't interested in reading a book.  Also, XBone!  Cats rule, dogs drool!!  lololololololol!!... ?

BossFightBooks
BossFightBooks

@WeWerePirates I know the price is up there but you're right--It's subsidizing the whole project, including the LLC fees, ISBNs, and the (forthcoming) new website. So our generous backers and pre-orderers have literally made the whole thing possible.

AND. Please note: The $20 includes shipping. :)

BossFightBooks
BossFightBooks

@Prats1993 Very true, but we really want to get a mix of books about bestselling classics AND under-appreciated gems. As with Anna and ZZT, I knew I wanted to work with Darius. And JA2 is his all-time favorite. He also had access to the developers, which is huge, and something that's less possible with say, Super Mario Bros 2.

cinerius
cinerius

@monstachruck 

Well, one of the authors is writing a whole book on ZZT. That's C-RPG gaming at its roots. 

jimbothef
jimbothef

@Shenmue_Jehuty EarthBound, from a game-mechanics standpoint, certainly isn't one of the best games of all-time (although it has some cool gameplay features like rolling HP & insta-win for easy fights).  It's a pretty generic RPG from a gameplay standpoint, basically, and not difficult if you've played it before.   Why it's so highly rated is it's so charming and quirky, not to mention the awesome soundtrack.   Not everyone will appreciate the setting/story/characters, of course, but if you do, you'll love the game.

Moogle07
Moogle07

It's all relative to when you play it really. I'm almost 30 and when I played it, I was 12 years old. In comparison to games at that time, Earthbound was in a league of its own and out performed a tonne of games in the genre. It's tough growing up not having the time to commit personally to new stuff coming out. Makes you hold on to happy times as a kid.

cinerius
cinerius

@Shenmue_Jehuty 

Maybe it doesn't speak to you as a person. I never played it, but as far as I know it touches on social matters which are particularly sensitive to Americans. I'm not American and I didn't grow up with the SNES, but the PS1, so I'm quite uncertain wether to spend the time to play it or not.

punisher41542o
punisher41542o

@nait2k4 could not have said it better myself.  Danny for PM!!!!!!!


BossFightBooks
BossFightBooks

@starduke YES. We are absolutely going to do newer games. Anything that's not currently its first big sales cycle tornado is fair game.

michaelsgreat
michaelsgreat

@starduke Those games have notoriously bad boss fights too, so it would be interesting...

starduke
starduke

@BossFightBooks Well, a suggestion, if you do decide to do one on the Elder Scrolls, you could mention it's modding community. Morrowind is where it really started to take off, and a lot of the people who mod the Elder Scrolls games got into modding with that game.

Moogle07
Moogle07

@cinerius @ManicMasochist


Don't underestimate the average age of gamer today. There's a lot of buzz about the attention span of kids, and as adults, we don't participate in the community of gaming as much anymore. But educated, full-time working moms and dads make up a huge portion of today's gamers - And we all remember how to pick up a book and read. 


Good job, Game spot. Keep diversifying. 

cinerius
cinerius

@Moogle07 

Just to clarify, my comment was sarcastic. 

Also, as a philosophy student (university) I always found fascinating how some "retro" games could transcend the simple tools of a developing media to tell, or even just to allude to deep messages, as is the case with Earthbound. That's why I find the idea behind these books to be amazing.