Ken Baumann has written several books of fiction, like Solip and Say, Cut, Map and lots of other stuff you can read here. He runs Saytor press. He co-edits No Colony with Blake Butler. He is an actor in TV and films.
When not doing any of the above, he also wrote a book about EarthBound which was the first instalment of Boss Fight Books’ series of book-length critical, creative, historical, and personal looks at a single game. They are like the 33 1/3 books, but for video games. You can find out more and buy Ken’s book on their site.
After reading the book, I decided I would confront Ken, who it turns out is a nice man, with a wall of my over-thought hostility towards how games are written about and ask him to respond. He very kindly did so. What follows is the result of that exchange.
Sean: The conversation around games coverage is often, depending who you ask, framed as: Hipsters Versus Normal People, Morons versus Sensitive Geniuses or any of a thousand other binaries. It feels to me far more like the tension between Consumer Electonics Reporting Versus and Entertainment Criticism, with a constant underlying debate on how much value either side should place on idealising non-critical nostalgia. Your book is very much a balance of all three of these factors, was this conscious?
Ken: It was conscious, yeah! I tried to communicate the tension I felt while trying to critically view, praise, and sometimes damn EarthBound, and also how that tension was intensified by self-doubt about critical projects in general. I had only closely read one 33 1/3 book, and I didn't get to it until EarthBound was mostly drafted, so I think most of the mixture rose out of my admiration of certain book reviews, nonfiction books, essays, etc.
S: I have a theory much of gaming’s critical narrative relates back to being bullied. Despite a constant need for the validation of being recognised as art, there is strong opposition to engage with the consequence of this, ie being subjected to a kind of criticism more wide-ranging and esoteric than the "just tell me if its good, yeah?" school of assessment applied to consumer products. This need for praise from authority without actually expending any effort seems to reflect games’ fetishisation of idealised childhood and the nerdiness/neediness (same thing) that are both still deeply-ingrained in gaming culture. Do you think games criticism seems has been slow to develop? Why there is still widespread violent opposition to acknowledge a game is anything aside from a lever to pull with a comforting experience on the end?
K: You know, I don't know if it has developed slowly… I'd have to look at early film criticism, early literary criticism. But I'd say it's a safe bet that humans are generally not very nuanced with their response to newly packaged stimuli for awhile. So with regards to critical responses to games, we're, what, thirty years into this new medium? And we are coming around to the idea that games don't need to solely exist as dopamine throttles. But games are particular, in that they were originally formulated to stimulate that play-for-play's-sake urge within us; literature and film were structurally different in their nascent stages. So maybe that "violent opposition" comes from an urge to protect our ability to Play (yes: with a capital P); maybe those gamers don't want their games—their fun, non-self-conscious, childlike games—sullied with Art (yep: capital A).
S: Does this apparent conservatism of gamers with both what kind of opinions they'll countence and what kind of things they want their games to do have anything to do with the class element inherent in being a long-running games fan. To be an up-to-date gamer you need money and to have been a long-term, widely-experienced fan your parents needed money too. Is taking the attitude of gaming as emblematic of thousands of grown-up spoiled children a bit too pat or is there something in that?
K: There's definitely something in that. I talked a bit about this in EarthBound; ecologically, games are a nightmare. And so are blockbuster films. And so are many pop albums. Art as it exists and is considered vital now—other than maybe street-bound dance and maybe live comedy—all requires an incredibly elaborate network of production processes, material, and $$$ to thrive. My question is this: Do we need to change our definition of "thrive"? In other words, the lowest-residue video game seems to be an indy affair that one person has made in their spare time, hopefully on a consumer-grade laptop, and then sold for next to nothing or distributed for free… Sorry if I'm a bit messy on this topic; I've been thinking about the ecological nature of culture almost nonstop for five years, so I'm a bit fried. But yeah, next/new/hype-gen gaming is purely unsustainable and gross, but the video game industry is a hugely profitable one that is presupposed by technological fetishism; class has everything to do with that line of business.
S: Even praised "new games journalism" seems intent on treating games as an event to be reported, which it definitely is, but ignoring how it fits into the larger milieu of art as a whole. Are games just such a time-consuming, cash-consuming, all-consuming hobby that people who can speak eloquently about them have only experienced other art very fleetingly? Baffling movie/book comparisons in reviews and Twitter chat makes me think so but this can't be the case.
K: Games are unequivocally in the same domain as film, literature, music, poetry; they're all under the big (bad?) umbrella of Culture. But there are folks who write about games with that openness… I'm thinking about this great essay by Lana Polansky. But I think the problem, if it is to be considered a knot, is untying itself as we speak. Time tends to lend itself to cultural complexity, and part of that complexity is tying things together that once deemed disparate. So yeah, I wouldn't use this as a worry stone.
S: Some of the criticism I have seen of your book, if you don't mind me mentioning it, seems to relate to dismay that it is not a straight history of EarthBound but is, in part, a personal memoir of your time with the game. Gaming is weird because it is simultaneously the best and worst documented hobby. Fan sites dedicated to archiving content are numerous yet official books of history and theory remain thinnish on the ground, although the situation is much better than it was even 5 years ago.
There is so much to archive when it comes to games and although hobbyist efforts are gargantuan, still so much is being lost. That is before gaming's extreme case of format obsolescence which makes it even harder to archive (legally). It seems unfair to attack every printed book that comes out about games for not being definitive histories yet that is a regular occurrence. Did you feel this pressure?
K: I felt the pressure to create a definitive history of EarthBound, at least at the start of the project. But then I realized that I didn't give as much of a shit about definitive histories; the art and arguments that incite me are those that feel human (even if radically bent), temporal (instead of psuedo-objective), and full of contradiction, pain, and ambient awareness of the larger forces that fill and move both people and culture. I quickly realized I couldn't smuggle any of that stuff into a supposedly impartial and adamantine HISTORY OF EARTHBOUND (all caps, Trajan Pro, 100 pt font). But I'm glad the criticisms of EarthBound exist; hate and love buoy a book on the seas (or sands) of time.
S: In the book you mention in passing the difficulty of Demons' Souls, reminding me of the cult of fandom around Dark Souls. Games have this unique ability to have 100,000s of people are all working to figure something out while not letting this completely annihilate their ability to appreciate traditional craft and artistry as it has in TV Criticism. This active, mass engagement and discussion of a created object seems powerful, especially considering the weird and opaque design of Dark Souls. Though stuff like Molyneux's Cube is a kind of asinine proof of concept, I wonder how this can be harnessed, what this force of thought could be made do next?
K: That's an interesting point; I remember falling into the LOST wiki wormhole when it was first airing, and yeah, I pretty quickly stopped giving a shit about the show's character arcs and emotional relationships… I just wanted mystery, mystery, mystery (and then a satisfying answer)… Maybe that same urge towards the Why and precise Hows of a fact or even a cultural mystery can be extrapolated out; maybe hundreds of thousands of people can work to eventually solve a murder case. (Though I severely doubt it… Something about that situation reeks of utopian thought, and as history as shown, large-scale utopian projects are ultimately catastrophic.)
Hah! Let's end on that down note.