By Ken Baumann
Boss Fight Books
Reviewed by Ian Denning
EarthBound, the video game upon which Ken Baumann's new book is based, begins in the year "199X" with a boy named Ness investigating a meteor crash just outside of his small town. He wanders through the hills behind his house, talking to neighbors and policemen, finding ways to circumnavigate roadblocks. There is the sound of crickets, and an ominous, thrumming night-static. For anyone who grew up in the suburbs in the nineties playing a lot of video games, the first fifteen minutes of EarthBound are electric. Remember sneaking out of your house? Remember how your cul-de-sac looked different at night with all those black lawns? How everything seemed threatening and wonderful?
EarthBound's fans would argue that the nostalgic effect is intentional. Marcus Lindblom, who worked on the English translation of EarthBound, writes in the forward to Baumann's book that, for many fans, "the game brought back memories of childhood, when the world seemed big, odd, and full of potential." Nintendo released EarthBound in America in 1995 to little acclaim. With its contemporary milieu, oddball sense of humor, and cultural references lobbed way over the heads of its pre-teen target audience, the game has since garnered a cultish fanbase. It's a game that tips its hat to the Beatles, Salvador Dalí, the Loch Ness Monster, David Bowie's "Diamond Dogs," B-movie horror and sci-fi flicks, and the Blues Brothers. It's a game where a magical photographer descends from the sky, orders you to "Say fuzzy pickles," snaps your photo, and flies away. It's a game wherein a random townsperson says, "You can't envision the final collapse of capitalism? Incredible!" as a throwaway line. EarthBound is a very strange game.
EarthBound the book—Ken Baumann's first nonfiction book and the inaugural title from Boss Fight Books—is just as idiosyncratic. It ping-pongs back and forth between an ekphrasis of the game and a memoir of Baumann's early years and young adulthood, finding room along the way to include passages about Nickelodeon TV shows, Karl Marx, the capacity for information storage in human DNA, JonBenét Ramsey, Donald Rumsfeld, the differences between American and Japanese fatherhood, an infamous Los Angeles apartment complex for child actors and their families, ecological collapse, Crohn's disease, and Ernest Scared Stupid.
Ken Baumann has a critically nimble and culturally encyclopedic mind, and the connections he draws between EarthBound's narrative and his own life, between EarthBound and the life of its creator, Shigesato Itoi, and between EarthBound and the American culture it reveres and satirizes, are always entertaining. Criticism that considers video games as art objects worthy of investigation has come a long way in the last five years, primarily thanks to writers like Ian Bogost, the staff of Kill Screen, and Tom Bissell (who Baumann name-checks twice). But EarthBound is more than just straight critique; it's a look into how the game has informed Ken Baumann's life and aesthetics.
Accordingly, many of the threads he teases out are deeply personal, and EarthBound is at its best when Baumann lays bare his own thinking. His early obsession with 2001: A Space Odyssey brings us an interesting analysis of EarthBound's developers' logos. And if these are connections that only a young Baumann, his mind aflame with apes and bones and sentient computers, could make, then that's sort of the point. The ending, where he melds the open-ended conclusion of EarthBound and his return to work after his hospitalization for Crohn's disease into a delicate rumination on experiencing peace and satisfaction after surviving disaster, is one of the emotional high points.
Another is his relationship with his older brother, Scott, with whom he played EarthBound as a child. With the exception of Shigesato Itoi—the creator of EarthBound—there aren't many humans in Baumann's book. Scott, however, is tied directly into Baumann's experience of EarthBound, and Baumann juxtaposes himself and his own past to his brother's with interesting, sometimes tender and funny, results. When they were kids, Baumann and his brother played video games together. They watched anime together. Baumann was a "polite little egghead"; Scott went through a "short but hard period of drug use and backyard bomb-building" when he was a teenager. Baumann grew up to be an actor and writer; his brother grew up to work in video games. In one section, Scott's memory of EarthBound's soundtrack spins Baumann off into a remembrance:
Growing up, his pitch was so perfect as to cause him physical pain when he heard someone sing off-key, and now I'm thinking about all those times I sat shotgun while he drove, screaming along to "Lithium" by Nirvana or rapping along to tracks off The Chronic 2001. How my highpitched inaccuracies, to which he didn't say a word, must've hurt.
There's a stilted distance between Scott and Baumann as well. Scott—like Ness's dad in EarthBound—only appears as a voice on the telephone. Early on, Baumann admits to not knowing how old his brother is (later he looks it up). But the awkwardness helps round out what Baumann could have allowed to turn into simplistic nostalgia. At one point, remembering how his brother would take turns with him on the Super Nintendo, he addresses the reader directly: "If you don't have an older brother, or if you have an older brother and he's not good to you, I'm sorry." It's a move he borrows from EarthBound the game, which at several points breaks the fourth wall and addresses the player, and it's a touching, human moment that helps ground Baumann's more abstract flights of imagination.
Not everything in EarthBound works as well as the Scott material. There's a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks quality to the book that sometimes gets out of hand. An early section manages to reference, in only three pages, the video game crash of 1983, Moore's Law (regarding the doubling of computational power every few years), Final Fantasy VI, Japan's attitude toward the Soviet war in Afghanistan, department store architecture, Dante's Inferno, and the Austrian architect Adolf Loos, who gets Baumann started on one of his airier tangents:
There's a line from the speech [a 1910 lecture titled Ornament and Crime] that went on to majorly impact architecture: The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects. In the Villa Moller, a house Adolf designed in 1927, I see the blocky origins of the Super Nintendo. And later still, the ascetic empire of Steve Jobs.
Brilliant tools like smartphones are already pocketable basic shapes, so it's hard to imagine new forms for future video game consoles. Might they someday be terminally utilitarian, i.e. invisible? As ambient and protean as clouds?
Terminally utilitarian! This section, along with a few others, feel as though Baumann is bringing his considerable knowledge of literature, philosophy, and art history to bear on retro video games just to show that it can be done, and he comes off sounding like the guy at the party spouting off intellectual observations when everybody else just wants to drink beer and talk about TV shows. Other passages, such as a tedious summary of the 1991 flop Ernest Scared Stupid, or a section that quotes Donald Rumsfeld's "unknown unknowns" speech at length, fall equally flat.
But Ken Baumann is breaking new ground—a few missteps should be expected. Without the flailing and grasping and wild connections, EarthBound wouldn't accomplish as much as it does. And its accomplishments are numerous and impressive. It's an ekphrasis of a video game that isn't mechanical, fanboyish, or reductive. It's a memoir that borrows its structure from a video game—a first, as far as I know. Most importantly, it's a book that argues that video games—a medium once considered cultural garbage—can be important catalysts in an artist's aesthetic development, just like 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Das Kapital.
Early in the book, Baumann challenges Marcus Lindblom to name a piece of art as idiosyncratic and inclusive as EarthBound. "Something that pulls in stuff from so many disparate genres? It can be any medium [...] movies, TV, books." Lindblom cites O Brother Where Art Thou? and Baumann "[senses] its similarities—the goofiness, the self-awareness, the moral lessons and mythological nods, the emphasis on music. But still, EarthBound feels bigger." Baumann has managed to write a book as singular as its eponymous video game, thought provoking and goofy and warm and strange. It may not be as big as EarthBound the video game, but it's as groundbreaking, and as entertaining.