The past five years have seen an explosion of books that are not just about video games but incorporate the concept of gaming into the narrative itself. The Kickstarter-funded Boss Fight Books has published books that combine video game explorations and memoir, including Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn. Cartridge Lit is a fledgling online journal dedicated to video game-related material. And, of course, there is the massive success of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, Ready Player One—Stephen Spielberg has signed on to direct the movie adaptation.
Press Start to Play: An Anthology further narrows the gap between literature and video games. Cline provides the book with a brief introduction, arguing that video games are a way to mentally exercise the hunter-gatherer instinct in all of us. The idea of seeking out something hidden is a strand that runs through many stories in the collection, just as it was the main premise of Ready Player One.
The collection includes big-name writers like T.C. Boyle (whose story in this collection originally appeared in The New Yorker), Andy Weir (The Martian), Holly Black (The Spiderwick Chronicles) and Hiroshi Sakurazaka (author of All You Need Is Kill, the basis for the Tom Cruise movie Edge of Tomorrow). Many of the stories, however, come from people better known for their work on video games, such as Marc Laidlaw (Half-Life), Chris Avellone (Fallout: New Vegas) and Micky Neilson (World of Warcraft). This brings a lot of diversity to the anthology in terms of how each piece approaches a story and builds momentum. Some blast off right from the first paragraph and dazzle you in a short burst of a story; others gather strength and successfully pull off a 30+ page narrative.
More important than the diversity of styles, is how each piece finds its niche in the video game theme. There are a lot of the predictable tropes of blurring the line between reality and video games (think Vanilla Sky-esque) or hidden messages found in games, but there are quite a few stories that do something new and exciting. “Rat Catcher’s Yellows,” by Charlie Jane Anders, was probably my favorite in the book. It reminded me of Adam Johnson’s story “Nirvana” in the way that it starts with the common idea of video gamers (or frequent technology users in general, in Johnson’s story) being shut off from reality or society and takes it to the next level, using medical issues to ask when might it be okay for someone to stay “plugged in.” The title refers to a dementia-like disease in the near future that afflicts people of all ages, but despite their rapid memory loss they become savants at a massively multiplayer online game that involves kingdoms of anthropomorphic cats. The story follows a man who watches his wife sink simultaneously into the disease and the game, while latching onto any signs that she still remembers their lives together.
Not all of the stories in Press Start ask meaningful questions of their readers, but the ones that do really hit it out of the park. Besides “Rat Catcher’s Yellows,” there are stories that use gaming to explore the implications of reincarnation, sentient AI, digital society’s effect on the future of group interaction, and more. These alleviate some of the collection’s more cliché plotlines. Press Start has a heap of cliché plotlines, and it’s hit-or-miss whether the quality of the writing makes that okay. There’s an homage to Ender’s Game that’s a close miss—it doesn’t do enough new to push it past tribute—while a self-aware Pinocchio-inspired tale, “The Clockwork Soldier,” twists the story enough for it to be fresh and exciting. There’s actually a line of dialogue in “The Clockwork Soldier” about the game-within-the-story that says, “The setup is good, but the pacing is off. The language is self-indulgent in places, and the Pinocchio storyline is a bit clichéd. Still, I think it has potential.” I read that and immediately thought it could be talking about several of the stories contained within this collection.
There are stories set primarily in the video game worlds. Others are realistic tales where games are simply a device within the plot. In a few, the setting is unclear: it could be the real world, it could be a fantasy world. Sometimes the authors leave us unsure when the story is taking place in a game and when it isn’t, while others, especially Chris Avellone’s “<end game>,” use the text-based game genre as part of their storytelling. The video games in Press Start are used as parts of conversations about feminism, the global economy, mental illness, relationships, money’s relationship with scientific research, and more. It’s so satisfying to see games to communicate such a rich range of experience.
This diversity of topics, genres, and approaches, is ultimately a weakness. The collection feels uneven and at times repetitious. A few of the stories read like thinly veiled masturbatory power fantasies, while others feel like the beginning to something bigger and not stand-alone narratives. I left the collection wishing the editors had used a heavier hand on both the micro-level of paragraphs—which often felt bloated—and the macro-level selection of pieces for the collection as a whole. I think there’s a great 300-page collection in these 500 pages, and I wish it was easier to point to those 300 pages.
Many of the stories here work without prior connection to video games. Boyle’s story, especially, serves as a great springboard into the subject matter. In “The Relive Box,” he explores the life of a single father, who has access to a device that allows him to relive, in full detail, any of his memories. It touches on addiction, responsibility, and the gap between reality and fantasy. Boyle’s story doesn’t quite fit into the collection stylistically and can only vaguely be considered to be video game-related, but it would’ve anchored the reader who needed anchoring. Unfortunately, his story doesn’t appear until halfway through the collection, and I’m not sure there are enough bridging stories like it in the collection for this to be a book for people who aren’t already steeped in the movements found in video game, or at least science fiction, narratives. Regardless, Press Start to Play makes me excited for the future of video game-related literature, and I think it’s a must-buy for fans of Ready Player One and video game stories.