Saturday, December 13, 2014

2014 in Shit: Boss Fight Books (Season One)

I backed the Kickstarter for the first season of Boss Fight Books in an uncharacteristic fit of optimism. Games writing had been my major source of exciting cultural criticism for a while, by that point, with a vanguard of radical women engaging in theory and practice that pushed in a number of directions.

There were problems, of course; the writing could be stilted or excessively guarded, the trap of ethical consumerism as political project lurked not far under the surface of some authors, and the engagements with race were often lacking. The creation of a series of books about games seemed to open up the possibility of that vanguard's being followed, if imperfectly. A certain amount of appropriation of their work, but also the possibility of the creation of a tone to the discourse that would allow them greater stability to continue what they were doing.

I lied to myself a lot, in other words. I told myself that, even if the idea of a book per game was not my thing, at least they had Earthbound, which could work, and that the author was a fan of M. Kitchell's, which was a good sign. And that Darius Kazemi couldn't do wrong, surely. And why not give a book about Galaga a try. The biggest lie, of course, was that comparing themselves to 33 1/3 was anything other than a huge warning sign that I would have zero fucking interest in these books.

I talked to a friend about Earthbound during breaks at the Critical Proximity conference. We both thought it sucked, but weren't really prepared to say it. He held out some hope for Anna Anthropy's ZZT, so I allowed myself to as well. I didn't read the Chrono Trigger book, because I didn't back at that level. I read the Galaga book, but I may as well not have. In that way, at least, Baumann's Earthbound was a perfect book; it set my expectations low, and the editors from then on did their best to never jostle them too strongly.

Coming from a literary criticism background, I expect a book about a single work (another book, generally) to be one of two things; either the consequence of decades of research and work, or something on the border of self help, all liberal platitudes about the ethical richness of the printed word. There is a reason a book like Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s Signifying Monkey moves from Walker to Hurston to Reed, through Ellison and others; whether the point is to develop concepts or to reconstruct certain historical conditions through their consequences, or whatever else, your single source is probably not up to the task without some embarrassing stretching going on that will likely undermine your argument.

The two books from the first season that I've seen receive the most praise have been the two, I think, that most deserve it. I've also got little to say about them, because I think they're basically the best possible examples of a broken, useless format. These were Anna Anthropy's ZZT, which especially felt like the strongest possible example of the type (a damning with faint praise, probably, but said with all respect to the work Anthropy has put in) and Darius Kazemi's Jagged Alliance 2, which felt at first as though it was straining against those limits, until it broke and settled into a sort of very bright journalism. This, of course, is fine for what it is. Except that what it is is largely uninteresting to me.

Maybe, as time goes on, they will develop a stronger editorial voice, or open up to interesting veins of thought. Or, probably, they will continue doing what they do, and it will be fine with the occasional outstanding individual project. Maybe Press Select, another small publisher with a similar idea, will push forward the field. I'll probably just dodge the whole thing though.

Worth noting, too, about the Boss Fight Books series, is a problem that only became clear to me during my reading of Super Mario Bros. 2 by Jon Irwin. In addition to the one game one book stipulation, the series is characterized by the inclusion of personal anecdotes by the authors. These range from childhood memories to detailing moments of the research process, and are largely inconsequential. What this does is to establish the author as a sort of congenially fallible authority; they demonstrate their dedication and the labor which they have exerted, and that they are only human. I've always found this sort of thing vaguely insulting, as though the author was worried I would forget that there was a human being behind the words had they failed to remind me. There's also the weird way in which it seems as though the author is insulating themselves from criticism with that tone, which just seems goofy.

There are weird little factual distortions in Irwin's book. On page 26, for instance: "Later, when the game would finally cross the ocean as an unlockable bonus in a Game Boy Color port of the original, its retrofit title explained what that simple numeral could not. This was Super Mario Bros.: For Super Players." This despite the fact that on page 52, Irwin references Super Mario All-Stars, which actually brought the Japanese SMB2 to American shores first. Because of this, I started noticing things like his claim on page 51 that, "It wouldn't be until 1996 that fans could finally play as a three-dimensional plumber in Super Mario 64," which is the right year at least. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars had a 3D Mario, and Irwin didn't say anything about playing as a 3D plumber in 3D.

I could usually give a shit about these sorts of issues, especially when I am just sort of plowing through a book convinced I won't enjoy it. Something about the tone, though, that "oh, I'm just a passionate fan with a little luck and a lot of work," made these issues stick for me. It's a balancing act, working those anecdotes in, and frankly, I think the Boss Fights Books thus far have been unable to find that balance. Even if they had, of course, they seem mostly to be content to be little more than works of mildly interesting journalism, which I'm sure is fine for many.

And the weird thing is that those little, inconsequential inaccuracies (or quibbles with wording, even, I am not above mentioning that it is reasonable to read my complaints as just that) seem like the exact sort of thing that the inclusion of personal anecdotes affects the personable tone to absolve the text of. Like, sure, he twists the wording about the subtitle of the American localization of SMB2 to use the better subtitle for his point; he's just some dude, you know? Just a fan with a book contract, god bless him. For me, of course, the opposite effect took hold; I found myself more and more inclined to call bullshit on his claims the chummier he seemed to get.

I'm somewhat scapegoating Irwin here; his just happens to be the most recent book and on the franchise with which I am the most familiar. I found this problem in all the books. And, truthfully, the issue of trusting the author to this degree wouldn't be any particular issue if I had ever seen any promise from the premise of the series after my cash had gone through the Kickstarter funnel. It's all, I suppose, a roundabout way to say that the thing I learned most from this set of books was about how I navigate trust around an author of a non fiction book. So thanks to them for that, I guess, even if the end result isn't much for flattery.

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