3 out of 5
There’s a tactic with non-fiction writing, perhaps stemming from the shortsighted “write what you know” maxim, where you start with your version of the story, and then tie it into the topic. This is surely similar to a conversational approach as well, something the kids might call “empathy:” I get you, dude, ’cause I’ve been there. While there’s undeniably value to this, especially when used sincerely, it can also express an inability to actually empathize, i.e. instead of whatever you were talking about, listen to me. And then in non-fiction writing, it can be a crutch, a way of trying to break into the subject matter when a more direct approach is elusive, but imbalancing the focus in the process.
I came to Boss Fight Book’s first entry, Earthbound, by Ken Baumann, with maladjusted expectations. Part of this is on the book’s back cover copy, which suggests we’ll be spending a proper amount of text time on the titular game’s background, and part of it is on me – a guy who doesn’t watch Let’s Play or response videos; whose eyes gloss over those “personal story” portions of reviews. I bought a video game book expecting a book about a video game.
But part of it is also on Baumann: I do think he started out with the intention of writing more about those details, and found it hard to suss out an approach. And so instead, he interrupts himself for a personal story about reconnecting with his brother over the game. Which works. We get into it: we get into the game creator’s background; we get in to Mother, the game preceding Earthbound, a.k.a. Mother 2. And then he interrupts himself to drop some literary references. There starts to be less about the game and more interruptions; there starts to be interruptions to the interruptions. And, as mentioned, our focus starts to get lost: not only are the various media references Baumann drops kind of obnoxious (to me, anyway; I’m also a curmudgeon who rolls his eyes when you whip out some fancy quote), but the way his brain starts connecting points from the game’s structure to his various stories is too spread out. You get mini-epics that leave you asking: and what the fuck was the point to that?
Yes, I was starting to really dislike this book. And when Baumann, at about the midway point, declares, essentially, that enough has been written about Earthbound so he’s going to ditch the pretense of research and just play the game and talk about life… I was ready to wage war. (Via online review.)
But: surprise: once Ken had accepted where his interests lay – in the study of his thoughts’ and experiences’ intersection with the path of Earthbound’s plot and characters – the sense of constant diversions and seemingly off-topic rants disappears. The eye-rolly reference drops stop. The flow of the book improves immensely, slipping much more logically between Ken’s own story and that of the game. Our “picture” of the game is illustrated to us much more effectively, and we do get a real sense of its topical transcendences, and its weirdness beyond its localization quirks. While I can’t say I experienced the same kind of quasi-religious peace of mind Baumann practices and promotes up through the game’s conclusion, I ultimately respected the way he related those feelings, and believed them.
I do think I’m still hoping Boss Fight Books, in general, have a bit more fact to them regarding their covered games, Baumann’s recollection of his childhood experience playing the game, how it may have affected him up through adulthood, and then his re-experience playing it now, was ultimately a worthwhile journey. It takes a goddamned roundabout way to get there, and I don’t think that was some metacommentary on life in general, but it does get there in the end.