Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I'm Going to Regret This: Announcing the Video Game Book Club

I'm not allowing myself to buy Starcraft II yet. I've worked up a burgeoning backlog already, and I'd prefer not to spend what little time I have away from work lately in front of another PC. Not because I don't want to play PC games, mind you, but because I'm usually so beat by the time I get home, do a perfunctory workout if I'm feeling ambitious, and/or eat dinner that sitting upright for several more hours is an undesirable prospect.

Yes, I just complained about being to tired to play video games. Ouch.

So to fill the Starcraft-shaped void in my heart, I did the next best thing: borrowed a Starcraft novel from the library. (Side note: the new self-checkout system allowed me to do so stealthily, with pride relatively intact.)

I'd noticed, while browsing the sci-fi section I found the book in, that there were a bunch more videogame-branded paperbacks on the shelves: the Halo, Resident Evil, and even Mortal Kombat franchises were all represented. Some quick Googling after I got home confirmed that holy crap, there appears to be a market for these things, and no, there doesn't appear to have been a concerted effort to comprehensively review them. (Imagine that.) There were plenty of collections of books about videogames and reading lists of books gamers might like, but very little save a scarce Wikipedia entry covering this particular niche. Curious after my experience with a couple Mass Effect novels, I felt the seeds of a very bad idea growing in my mind.

And so I submitted a proposal to Mrs. JPG for her approval: what if I were to read as many of these things as I could stand over, say, a year, and review them on the blog? Would this inevitably masochistic exercise - a Video Game Book Club - be the last nerd transgression that would finally invalidate our marriage?

"Can I help?" she said.

And it was then I began to suspect the secret to a successful marriage is suffering for your partner's entertainment and amusement.

The next step was to establish some ground rules:
1. No straight game or movie novelizations. Original stories only.
2. No graphic novels. Love comic books, but for the purposes of comparing apples to apples, gotta stick to text only.
3. Have to be available free, or cheap as free. Not about to pay for this stuff.
4. Have to be from franchises I've played or am fairly familiar with.
5. No franchises that existed in other media first (e.g., D&D, Warhammer 40K, Magic: The Gathering).
6. Fiction based on game worlds only - no criticism, "making of" books, guidebooks, etc.
7. For every videogame novel I read, I will concurrently read a work of actual literary merit, to help preserve the last remaining shreds of taste and culture I still possess.

For each book I review, I'd want to have some criteria by which to judge its (relative) quality:
1. Ridiculousness rating, including choice quotes
2. Fan service rating - truthfulness to franchise/characters, inclusion of ephemera, etc.
3. "Explicit callouts to gameplay" rating
4. Awesomeness of front cover rating
5. Guilty pleasure rating

To inject the project with just the slightest sliver of merit, I would probably want to consider some overarching questions throughout:
1.. Does reading the book enhance the gaming experience, or make me think about the franchise/game differently?
2. Why do these get written, in 2010? Is the age of the blatant tie-in product over, or can branded novels actually be a worthwhile way of extending the life and scope of an IP?
3. Is there anything to the idea of a "transmedia narrative," or is that a goofy academic concept slapped on an old cash-grab business tactic?
4. I'm obviously entering into this project assuming these books will be garbage. Clearly, none of these selections are meant to compete with Faulkner or Joyce, but is my bias unfounded? Or maybe a better question is: Should you feel bad about buying one of these for your ninth-grader? Just because reading gets kids away from the TV doesn't mean what they're reading is irrelevant.

Mrs. JPG, with a little too much relish, helped me put together a list of candidates using the library's website. Here's the preliminary lineup of franchise books I'll attempt:
  • Tomb Raider
  • Krondor
  • King's Quest
  • Halo
  • Baldur's Gate
  • Diablo
  • Mortal Kombat
  • Perfect Dark
  • Gears of War
  • The Elder Scrolls
  • Resident Evil
  • God of War
  • Starcraft
  • Splinter Cell
  • Warcraft
  • Dragon Age
  • Myst
  • Mass Effect
  • Doom
I'll try to do one review per month. My first entry will not, in fact, be on the Starcraft book I found, but on the much more, um, resonant Mortal Kombat. Look for that soon.

And you, dear friends, are welcome to join me in this endeavor, provided you have all or some of the following:
  • High tolerance for crappy literature
  • Willingness to kill brain cells with something other than illicit substances
  • Deep self-loathing
See you at Book Club!


  1. Mrs. JPG is a very very special girl

  2. ...with a very subtle sadistic streak.

  3. Man, what a great terrible idea. Looking forward to watching this unfold.

  4. Dan: I grew up on Mystery Science Theater 3000, so the whole "masochism for fun and profit" thing is pretty firmly ingrained at this point. And oh man, was reading MK ever an exercise in masochism. Stay tuned.