This last week (sometime in July of 2014) I finished the fourth release from Boss Fight Books - Galaga by Michael Kimball. My intent with this book was honestly to wash the taste out of my mouth from reading their second publication Chrono Trigger (by Micahel P. Williams), but unforunately this recent book didn't help much.
Writing about video games as a serious medium is no longer in its infancy, but it is, to some degree, a stumbling toddler who has a tendency to hit their head against table ends. There are great books on games (and everying surrounding them), such as Masters of Doom, The Platform Series, and, shit, even Ready Player One for all its plot ridiculousness still makes playing with gaming concepts and literature fun. Boss Fight upholds my analogy and they commit one key failure that makes it so - they want gaming and gaming literature to be taken seriously without actually writing content that would make it so.
I'm going to look at both these books as a group because they share a lot of the same critical problems.
The biggest issue is both authors associate their respective games with something that on human level that is emotionally jarring and has nothing at all to do with their games. Williams talks at length about the Fukashima disaster (if the unnecessary amount of Japanese text in his footnotes wasn't an indication, he spent some time in Japan); Kimball intercuts stories of his abusive father.
I have no problem with trying to connect large ideas, themes, however you want to put it with games. What I do have a problem with is putting things physically next to each other in paragraphs and assuming that the reader will associate meaning with your argument with something obviously meaningful. Abuse and disaster make us feel things automatically. These books' main threads do not.
Take Williams summation of the Fukashima disaster within a chapter titled "The Day of Lavos." He draws a comparison with your first quest in the post-apocalyptic 2300 AD to retrieve some seeds for survivors of doomsday and the 2011 tsunami: "We [Williams was a resident of Fukashima for a period] are the people of Chrono Trigger's 2300 AD. All we can do is plant our seeds, work to nourish and encourage them and how they will grow into something beautiful, useful, alive." As much as I love Chrono Trigger, this is a ridiculously dull comparison and flat insulting to the people of Japan.
Think I'm just being harsh? Let's try another example off the top of my head: "We sacrifice part of ourselves, like Mario, every time we hit the question blocks with our heads. Will it be a 1-Up, or a just a single coin we risked our lives to obtain. Either way, it's chance we always take. A chance to grow, to gain new abilities, and to take one further step forward to the goals of our hearts, and those we take responsibility for." See how much that sounds like bullshit? The symbolism and the activity is not equivalent to what I'm trying to associate it with.
Earlier in the chapter "Life by the Book", Williams equivocates his game's strategy guide and "strategy guides for life." Stating earlier that games teach us "No matter how high your station in life, you can always be knocked down", he sets up "well-highlighted Christian devotionals" and "the book version of a bowl of chicken soup" as examples of these aforementioned guides. First, games are meant to be balanced, and Chrono Trigger especially is.
While games do sometimes make twists that reset us to lower position part way through the game (Chrono Cross is a great example), we nonetheless come out on top. Second, Christian devotionals, self-help guides, and so on are not akin to a guide that just flat says "the power tab" is here. It's a glib way of looking at life if you think the Bible and Chrono Cross Strategy Guide are peers. Maybe he meant A Purpose-Driven Life or something, but the point still stands. Life is unbalanced, life can knock you down, and life doesn't have definite answers. Strategy guides in fact are antithetical to these guides for life. Instead of just going out into something as small as a video game and trusting you can win, you cheat. Warren's Purpose-Driven is trying, in his own way, to give people the tools that he believes will do exactly the trusting and exploration guides remove from games.
Everything about both ideas are wrong and don't connect.
Kimball is more forgivable. He weaves a story of his growth as a Galaga player and growing up more generally, which, as I mentioned, does involve abuse. He rightly states that video games were an escape, were a safe place, and were one of the few places where he felt he could express himself and feel strong. I don't think any of this is disagreeable and I don't doubt that most kids, especially those from bad homes, would agree its what they really got out of games. Kimball unfortunately draws these simple and fairly obvious points out for the entire book (albeit a small one) and is somewhat vague about his abuse. Not to say that an author should draw out painful memories to up the emotional connection, but it gets redundant and I'm also at a distance from the discussion of abuse because of the nebulous descriptions ("wrestling").
Second problem shared by both books, a bit less serious, is both the authors spend time more time simply describing the gameplay, Kimball more than Williams. If the attempt is to bring in an audience who may not be familiar with the game, it fails as the game play descriptions are incredibly boring and don't really serve as good descriptions in the first place. For folks who are familiar, it's already a waste of their time. It'd be one thing if the gameplay descriptions were actually related to some point being made, but they're aren't. Want to know what Galaga looks like when reading a book from an independent publisher that just publishes books on games? I'd suggest spending 2 seconds searching on YouTube:
Finally, Williams and Kimball, despite devoting what I imagine is a decent chunk of their personal life to these books, don't actually appear to take their subject seriously.
A small beginning of this is how neither author appears to make any effort towards speaking with the games creators (Kimball does have second hand interviews, Williams a few spatterings of quotes). Neither of these guys claim their books are journalism, but the few bits of sources are actually interesting, and provide valuable background to why the game is the form that it is. As I said, that may not be the point, but don't tease us with interesting quotes and then waste time on gameplay descriptions.
The larger missing seriousness is both author's lack of respect for their readers's interest in their topics.
Kimball's book is a disjointed mess of one paragraph sections called "stages" that go for the entire book. I get it - it's stylish. However, I can't get engaged as a reader if every 15 seconds, I'm forced to jump to a new section. Furthermore, he never keeps his sections consistent. He goes from abuse, to gameplay, to friends he played with, game history, to abuse. I can't get emotionally engaged in any of it, and even if I tried, I would be immediately pulled away. I get it - this is stylish, but it's also annoying, because I actually want to care, but Kimball won't let the readers, because, you know, style. On top of this, Kimball makes several things up and then pages later reveals they weren't true. These are pointless things as well, mainly fan tributes to the game. I, and perhaps others, are interested in reading about games, we take a it seriously, so can we just get on with it?
While I've already criticized Williams for what I think are at best grasping at straws, his most troublesome statement comes at the end of the book:
"I've tried to make this book a Gate Key, but in doing so I have become the gatekeeper, opeing some doors to you and obscuring others behind false walls. I do not apologize for this."
What the fuck is this guy talking about? Honestly, I'm willing to believe I missed something here, something went over my head, so please tell me at email@example.com. This sentence in the penultimate paragraph makes no sense at all. At no point was there any revelation or feel of his control as a gatekeeper to any level. I can only guess the doors he obscured were the ones leading to better and more interesting thoughts about the game. But not apologizing? What does that have to do with anything written? When do author's apologize for the entirity of the thing you just read? What level of arrogance is required to speak to your reader's in this way? Just write a book, state your opinions, draw connections and walk away. Don't create an illusion about yourself in the last paragraph to some personal ends. No one cares.
These books are frustrating and in the end, Boss Fight maybe doesn't need stronger writers, but better editors. I don't doubt that Kimball and Williams could have written fairly enjoyable and enriching books had they been pushed by a proper editor to cut the bullshit parts, focus on real deliverable insights and acted like what I believe Boss Fight hopes to be - a publisher that shows how games can touch us deeply and emotionally, make us better people, and open us to new worlds.