It’s a good time to be a fan of reading about videogames (and maybe even playing them as well, I guess). Whether you aspire to be a DIY programmer (Rise of the Videogame Zinesters by Anna Anthropy), a gonzo games writer (Embed with Games by Cara Ellison), or a radical writer-programmer hybrid (Videogames for Humans by Merritt Kopas), inspiration is just an Amazon binge away. Once a genre reserved for novelisations, strategy guides, and fan-fiction, games writing has flourished in recent years to include everything from intersectional readings of racial and sexual representation in games (Gaming at the Edge by Adrienne Shaw) to sprawling philosophical analyses (Bioshock: Decision, Forced Choice and Propaganda by Robert Jackson). One particular publisher that has been riding the crest of this wave is Boss Fight Books. I had the lovely opportunity of asking some questions to the series editor Gabe Durham, as well as Nick Suttner, author of Boss Fight Books’ latest book on the Team Ico classic Shadow of the Colossus.
Durham founded Boss Fight Books in 2013 with the intention of starting a book series that afforded videogames the same critical, historical, and personal input that the 33 1/3 book series had been giving to music. Borrowing the 33 1/3 format where an author focuses on a particular album, each publication by Boss Fight Books takes one particular game as its focal point. It is in its second season of publications, having thus far published ten books including studies of fan favourites like Earthbound and Metal Gear Solid, as well as obscurer cult games like ZZT and Bible Adventures. I asked Durham how he determines which game to cover next. “For me, it’s always about finding the right pitch about the right game by the right author. Some of the best games might not make the best books, and bad or mediocre games could make fascinating books.”
So far, contributors’ backgrounds have ranged from fiction writing to journalism, and academia to game design. “By design, these books engage with their subjects from really different angles,” states Durham. Suttner, the author of Boss Fight’s Shadow of the Colossus, started out as a games writer with 1UP.com before moving on to Sony, where he now works bringing indie games to Playstation platforms as part of their developer relations team. “Both those halves of my career have mostly involved championing games that I love,” tells Suttner, “which comes naturally to me, and I think I’ve developed a decent skill for it.” On writing the book, Suttner says, “If I was ever going to write a book, this was going to be it,” and it shows: Suttner’s enthusiasm is palpable in the prose of Shadow of the Colossus. He combines descriptive writing about his gameplay experiences with more conventional journalistic writing about the culture surrounding the game and its development. “I knew that my personal experiential play-through had to be a part of it,” he says. “I wouldn’t have known where to start without it.” On being asked whether there was a struggle between the urge to be sentimental versus critical, Suttner replied: “The parts of the game that people remember less fondly aren’t particularly interesting to me. The book was meant to be more of a love letter and travelogue and less of a critique.”
Suttner’s love of the Shadow shines most in his descriptions of the downtime between the game’s bosses. Shadow’s quiet journeys and moments of discovery are treated with the thoughtful consideration that comes from a healthy combination of nostalgia and knowledge. The interviews with the game’s developers and other developers inspired by it are insightful, arriving throughout the book at all the right times. “I knew that I wanted to dive more deeply into some elements of the game and also speak to others who’ve been influenced by it,” says Suttner. “Much of the work was trying to weave that in naturally and not let any one element outweigh the others too heavily.”
Many modern games, particularly in the indie game sphere, utilise the aesthetics of older games, borrowing from the pixelated days of yore. Looking through the selection of games covered by Boss Fight Books you’ll notice a trend towards older games such as Chrono Trigger, Galaga, and Earthbound. Sentimentality and nostalgia are inextricably linked to our understanding of video games. I asked Suttner how he would classify nostalgia’s usefulness as a resource for both game developers and games writers. “I think gamers are lucky in that the medium is young enough that we have a largely shared past and can lean on the same tropes and assumptions to form a shared vocabulary and a heritage of sorts,” he responds. “It’s not always positive, and probably inhibits innovation and progress in some sense, but nostalgia serves as a powerful tool for creators and critics if they wish to tap into it.”
Suttner’s descriptive retelling of his play-through feels at times like a Let’s Play (a format of video where someone narrates footage of their play-through of a game). Coverage of videogames on a hobbyist level and on a critical level is moving more and more towards video production and away from the written word. “I think all media have their advantages, but books allow space to explore a topic much more fully than a video can,” says Durham. I asked Durham whether he would place Boss Fight Books’ output in a similar context to the work done by YouTubers. Is it an antagonistic relationship or a complementary one? “Sure feels complementary to me. There are so many awful, destructive things we could spend our time doing, and instead we’re all sharing our thoughts with likeminded enthusiasts.”
An example of this complementary relationship can be found in Boss Fight’s Metal Gear Solid, which was penned by Ashly and Anthony Burch, a brother and sister who co-created the web series Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’? Their take on Konami’s stealth classic seems like a natural analogue to their short videos which combine playful theatricality with criticism. While offering critique about the game’s poor representation of women and ill-conceived mechanics, they use footnotes to interject into each other’s passages with contradictions, jokes, and personal anecdotes which give the book a fun conversational quality. “I think for a lot of us, participating in the conversation around a game is one of the central pleasures of playing games” says Durham. “There’s something nice to me about stepping away from the game itself for a little while, reading and thinking hard about it, and then coming back to the game with the author’s criticism in your head.”
Durham thoughtfully manages Boss Fight’s line-up so that each new contributor’s take on a game differs tonally and formally to the last. “Every time we contract a book, it’s because there’s a unique take on the subject,” he says “so that examining the game closely reveals something important about the art form, or the world, or ourselves.” Whether you’re interested in critical dissections of mechanics, or just want to look back at an old favourite through someone else’s eyes, there is undoubtedly something in Boss Fight’s growing collection of books that will surprise you.
More information about Boss Fight Books can be found at www.bossfightbooks.com. Its next publications Spelunky by Derek Yu and World of Warcraft by Daniel Lisi are scheduled for release in early 2016.
Words: Aidan Wall