And now, we interrupt Phil Phillips’ “toys are evil” announcements to bring you a Books Without Pity Special Report.
This selection is of more recent vintage, has nothing to do with sex (mis)education, and actually comes in praise of its subject rather than reviling it. Quite the departure, wouldn’t you say?
However, some things stay the same. The book in question was gladly given to me by my boyfriend, who runs a certain video game website (hello to those of you who have come via his recommendation. Make yourselves comfortable and have a cookie). He made it to page 18 and stagnated. I, having achieved a higher tolerance for poor writing (Twilight, ahem), blasted past his bookmark whilst we lay about one Saturday afternoon, ill with food poisoning. After a few chapters, I knew where the review needed to make its home, and it wasn’t at Boyfriend’s site.
The book’s full title is All Your Base Are Belong to Us: how fifty years of videogames conquered pop culture. I thought that it sounded interesting, even if that meme is a dried-out husk by now. And I enjoy origin stories about topics that interest me.
Video games and I go way back. I had an Atari 800 computer and spent countless hours guiding Pac-Man through a panoply of mazes until my eyes ached from the strain of staring at the flashing screen in the semi-darkness of our dining room. With the introduction of the NES to the household (a Christmas gift from my parents), my weekend hours were consumed with finding out which castle that damned princess was REALLY in. (This nearly led to our NES’ demise, as my mother, in a fit of pique over being jolted awake one too many Sunday mornings, yanked it from the wall and threw it down the basement stairs. My brother and I ran after it, and huddled over its slightly broken body as it came to rest on the last linoleum step before the cold concrete. The door had broken off, but it still worked, a testament to the hardiness of that console).
While most kids of my generation were either in the Nintendo or Sega camp, my brother and I held dual allegiance, which all began when my grandma got us a Genesis as a Christmas gift. My Game Boy kept me entertained on many road trips, as I evaded bobbing hot dogs and wobbly pickles in Burgertime. I’ve played Tetris so much that games continue in my dreams. I’m rather familiar with most of the denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom, Hyrule, and whatever world Sonic is from. I’ve played Earthbound and a portion of Mother 3. On the casual side, Popcap’s games kept me sane in my college days, when I worked at a very slow-moving insurance agency.
I natter on to give you a sense of where I’m coming from. I thought (since I still play lots of older titles) that All Your Base would appeal to my retro sensibilities. As far as the history of this topic, I knew some broad strokes going in, which, admittedly, wasn’t much. However, in his introduction, Harold Goldberg purports to tell the story of landmark instances in the history of video games, as well as why they have affected popular culture so much. He claims the book is for core and casual gamers alike. Did he succeed in reaching both (or either) audience? Press Start to play!
Goldberg’s chapters follow in a mostly chronological order, beginning with the Magnavox Odyssey and ending with the Wii, as well as a “bonus” chapter with a look towards what the future might bring. All the major players are featured: Pong, Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., Tetris, Grand Theft Auto, The Sims, et cetera. His prologue, if you will, relates his personal experience with “Tennis for Two” at a recreation exposition in the place of its birth, Brookhaven National Laboratory. Towards this section’s end, however, it begins to suffer something that spreads and infects the rest of this book – the disease of extraneous detail. All Your Base, in its paperback format, appears rather lightweight, clocking in at slightly over 300 pages. Generally, this is something that I could read through quickly. However, this took me a week to slog through, and that is embarrassing for me to admit.
To give you an example of the author’s detail-itis: in his chapter “A Space Odyssey,” which tells the story of the Magnavox console, he gives some backstory on Ralph Baer, who created it. Baer invented things when he was younger, and here are a few examples. He was an engineer during World War II. Alright, these two things might have had an impact on Baer’s later years with regards to video games. However, Goldberg also tells us other things that Baer did during the war, such as laying and removing mines, and teaching military strategy, which detract from his main point. If this were an essay submitted to a teacher, there would be red ink striking several sentences from that page, making it rain more blood than a Mortal Kombat fatality.
Which brings me to my next criticism – the popular culture allusions. I know this is a book about video games. Therefore, allusions to video game characters and plots is likely. However, he overuses them, and most of them are downright terrible. “Ran for the hills like Sonic the Hedgehog on speed.” “Like those aliens being shot as they fell from the night sky in Space Invaders.” This last one is clunkier than the acting in Twilight. Fail!
In addition, he makes some other references that haven’t a place anywhere. He name-checks David Foster Wallace several times, as well as his gigantic tome of pretension, Infinite Jest. I have perused a few pages of that “book,” and it appears to be one of those items of modern literature that people claim to have read in its entirety, even though it’s next to impossible. The pages I previewed were slightly more readable than Finnegan’s Wake, but still made me want to scoop my eyes out with a rusty spoon. Wallace goes off on tangents, and has pages upon pages of end notes, and after discovering this, I realized that Goldberg obviously idolizes the late author and made an attempt to emulate him here. Put the pen down, dude. Slowly, slowly . . .
Goldberg is also an ardent fanboy for Bioshock (more pretension for everyone!) and World of Warcraft. He devotes many pages to descriptions of WoW plots and you can feel the excitement dripping off the page, in a deluge worse than a hurricane. He is the prose version of that person who never stops talking, like the guy in the Animaniacs short who tells a long meandering story about how he met Bob Barker. The mention of cheese balls is his version of Proust’s madeleine, evoking a flurry of memories that no one else cares about.
In the chapter for Bioshock, he mentions Ratchet and Clank and the homoerotic subtext in their games (his words, not mine). He name-checks Leslie Fiedler, who wrote an essay about homoeroticism in Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick, entitled “Come Back to the Raft A’gin, Huck Honey!” First of all, what does Ratchet and Clank have to do with Bioshock? Secondly, if you’re going to make a statement like that, perhaps you should back it up with some examples – which he did not; probably because he wasted so much space with unimportant bluster. Thirdly, what purpose does the literary reference serve, save the fact that he wants his reader to know he’s supposedly well-read, even though he’s a gamer geek? (See David Foster Wallace, above). Let’s be honest here: how many of you would even have heard of this essay? And secondly, is this gonna make you seek it out? Hell no. I only knew of it due to my Literature professor mentioning it while we were studying Huck Finn. I never sought it out, however, until now. Perhaps it was revolutionary for its time, but it just seems rather homophobic to me. It was written in 1948 and I know the word choices would obviously be different today, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth – a taste worse than a penny. Feel free to read it for yourself here, if you are so inclined. I hear it impresses the ladies (or gents)!!
His writing style is all over the map, as well. His habit of switching from “erudite” to “swagger” is more annoying than a mosquito whining in your ear all night. King of the simile, he is (or so he thinks). He scatters more “like”s and “as” es than the legendary Johnny Appleseed sowed, well, apple seeds.
In conclusion, I really wanted to like All Your Base, but in the end, I just couldn’t. It would have benefited from a much better editor who wasn’t afraid to strike lots of meaningless paragraphs (and even pages at times). I appreciated all the interviews he did with developers of many of these iconic games to give one the “inside scoop,” as it were, but at times it was at the expense of the games themselves. This makes his thesis misleading. Cut most of the idiotic video game allusions and the wannabe swagger into the bargain and this might have been eminently more readable.
Goldberg begins his book with the words, “I am Nightmare.” Not quite, but your book certainly is.