Boss Fight Books: Breakout: Pilgrim in the Microworld (#22) – David Sudnow

2 out of 5

Published in 1983, decades before anything approaching detailed gaming analyses would become a thing that people do, David Sudnow’s “Breakout” – the single-player iteration on Pong that I would know as Arkanoid – as republished by Boss Fight Books, is undeniably historically notable. And it’s conceptually interesting, firstly due to being written contemporary to an Atari-era game – getting a rare in-the-trenches point of view on that era’s gaming – but also because Sudnow wasn’t a gamer, but rather a pianist, making the structure of his book one of a complete newbie to the scene learning what the scene even is, while also commenting on the game itself.

Unfortunately, notability and conceptual strengths don’t translate directly to something being fun to read.

I have a quick cheat for books, to determine if I’m enjoying them or not: I flip ahead. If I find myself daunted by the opening, or X amount of pages in, I’ll flip to a later chunk and read a bit. I’ll do this a couple of times, chancing that maybe that first chunk just happens to be a lull in the story or, oppositely, maybe a misleading thrill – but the only thrill. Two things can be gleaned from this: either I don’t care a bit about what I’ve read in these flash-forwards, or, in scenarios where I’m moderately interested but just sort of bored by the text, I’ll confirm that that boredom ain’t gonna be lifted, as the ‘previews’ offer more of the same. To compare, with a book that I’m enjoying, looking ahead is exciting – setting aside the possibility that you might spoil something, catching sight of characters together or in a certain scenario, or even just the mention of new topics or new settings, can spin your head with anticipation. So, uh, ‘Pilgrim’ was not a book that I enjoyed, and looking ahead just filled me with dread.

Sudnow is an undeniably intelligent guy, and often quite funny, but – and this is forewarned somewhat by a newly written intro from Boss Fight – his texty tribute to Breakout is more like a personal diary of his thoughts on the game than anything formalized for a “book.” While it’s intriguing to think about someone who’s wired their brain for top tier piano trying to come to grips with hand-eye coordination for a game that was ported from the purposeful quarter-gobblers of the arcade, during a time when the technology was, compared to now, quite primitive, it is, firstly, exhaustive. For anyone who’s tried to “teach” someone to use computers when they’ve already unconsciously resolved that such technology is out of their wheelhouse, it can be frustrating to hear their attempts to stuff new logic into their old logic; to try to reformat something into a box in which it simply will not fit. And so extend that experience to an entire book: Sudnow gets some skills playing the game, and goes to the extent to talk to programmers to learn how it breaks down, technically, but then can’t seem to wrap his head around the divide between the black and white of that programming versus his desire to “master” the game, and he grapples with this – in boring-ass detail, brick-by-Breakout-brick – for pages, and pages, and pages. That’s what the flip-ahead would show me: here’s twenty paragraphs on mapping how the ball pongs around the screen, and then one hundred pages later, he’s still doing that. The paragraphs are interchangeable. Secondly, and definitely compounding the firstly: Sudnow never met a clunky, over-worded sentence he didn’t like. Complex prose can be compelling in a great writer’s hand, implying meaning and context even if the 10 dollar words are unknown. I fell in love with language reading authors I feel write in that style, and they encouraged me to look up this words, or to embrace more challenging ways of structuring sentences and imagery. And then there are those who just write with all the stuffing, but without the same appreciation for what the stuffing’s purpose is. Sudnow tends to fall in to the latter, which might be a consequence of his rather analytical approach – again, this isn’t really written for a reader not exactly on his obsessive wavelength – but it’s complicated by the way he weaves in and out of exacting descriptions of the game / technology, hand-waiving metaphors, and jokes. I’ll be with him for a sentence, and then have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. He might be making a joke, or he might’ve changed subjects, or he might be talking about the same thing he started talking about however many words ago. When the jokes land, they are pretty funny – he’s got a dry sense of humor and self-awareness that he’s trying to make sense out of something that might be senseless, to an extent – but when that dryness is masked by wandering sentences, it just adds to the general morass of the text.

The book is roughly split into four sections, which, natch, don’t match how the chapters are divided. First we witness Sudnow’s exposure to gaming when he picks up his kid at an arcade; Missile Command, specifically. This is a compressed view of what would happen when he expands to playing Breakout: trying to understand the appeal; wondering if there’s skill involved; trying to break down the components of that skill. Everything you really need to know about the book, Sudnow’s brain, is in this section, and given its relative brevity in comparison, it is entertaining enough, if marred by that same overwrought wordiness. Breakout, perhaps, appeals more due to its tick-tock similarity to music, Sudnow’s forte. He puzzles over the game’s grasp over him while he goes to Atari to talk to people who worked on the game, to divulge its secrets: analytically, he feels the key must be in the design. This is the second section. The actual technical stuff is minimal, but interesting. Another short part. The main chunk of the book is then David’s bit-by-bit breakdown of his time with the game: trying to repeat certain playstyles; trying to play a perfect, one-ball game. The subtext of all of this is his trying to justify to himself his enjoyment of something that he might otherwise consider puerile; trying to find the “art” in 1s and 0s. This eventually results in the final section: playing the game simply for enjoyment. Let it be. It’s okay to like it. This is only a few pages, but the sense of catharsis is, at least, a nice cap to things.

David refers to video games as “microworlds,” and he is thus a “pilgrim” wandering one such world, hence the subtitle. It is fitting that Boss Fight Books dug this up and reprinted it, and it is, as mentioned, for sure a historically notable bit of gaming journalism. Its appeal beyond that, though, is questionable. For those that were “in” to gaming at the time, I can imagine some amusement at seeing their hobby given such an in depth treatment, especially by someone outside of the scene, but I’d have to think you’d get tired of Sudnow’s harping on the same goddamn thing for oodles of pages. In my retroactive reading, I wondered if the book would have been written by Sudnow in modern times for modern games, when feedback and physics are more realistic, as the lack of these things in Breakout seemed to spur his need to understand it on the most, but this wonder certainly did not buoy my entertainment beyond a few pages.