Boss Fight Books: Soft & Cuddly (#15) – Jarett Kobek

2 out of 5

Conceptually, I like the promise of Boss Fight Books entries that focus on games with which I’m less familiar, or haven’t played, or – as with Jarett Kobek’s Soft & Cuddly – of which I haven’t even heard. Classic games have likely had essays done on them ad nauseam, and if it’s a game I already dig, trying to find a unique angle or new information to present makes approaching those subjects more difficult for making them rewarding reads; if I’m newly exposed to the topic, you almost automatically get a leg up – it’s like the opposite of nostalgia: I’m fresh to it, so I’ll hang in there with newbie interest.

Unfortunately, when you then spend over 50% of your 150-page book not talking about that game, and then double-down on this avoidance by focusing a bit on my least favorite topic – history – you’ve created an uphill readerly struggle for me.

Soft & Cuddly was a ZX Spectrum game, notable for its very anti-gamer attitude and, for the time, its focus on surprisingly polished – and garish, and bloody – visuals. It got a “video game nasty” reputation, and was then kinda sorta forgotten. There are two avenues down which Kobek approaches S&C, and they’re both potentially interesting: the social climate that produced such a game (thereby bringing in the history), and the evolution of gamer culture such that a mostly forgotten relic can be not-really-forgotten, and produce a spiritual sequel from a different developer over a decade later, not to mention a book focusing on the game. But Kobek is entirely too roundabout on both approaches, and blankets his admirable background research and postulating with a lot of swear-laden sneering regarding Margaret Thatcher and Jimmy Saville. Not that those two don’t engender such a response, but I never felt informed by the way this attitude shaded things; rather, it just felt like a rambling screed of someone forever trying to explain something, and never quite getting to their point. Kobek tries to lampshade this delay by titling a chapter, “After Seven Chapters, the Re-Emerging of Soft & Cuddly, the Apparent Topic of this Book,” but by then, you’ve made it through 100+ pages of this rant, and we still haven’t quite arrived at a thesis statement.

As to the second focus – a historical gaming footnote coming back around after the fact – it’s mostly relegated to some sentence-long thoughts in the book’s epilogue, leaving further gaps in the text into which Kobek can insert more ranting.

To be fair, this ranting isn’t necessarily unentertaining, and sprinkled throughout, Kobek still does the due diligence of explaining the structure of the game, as well as its creator’s previous game, Go To Hell, and digging in to that does take some background on the ZX, which is why we’re rewinding through a lot of this in the first place. Again, the research put into this is undeniable. But the text still needed some more efficient editing to pound it into something that actually ended up feeling like it had a point, and if there’s some meta commentary there on Soft & Cuddly’s own kinda punk-rock “what’s it all about?” ‘tude, well, I guess it’s admirable to deliver a slowburn punchline like that over the course of a whole book.