(note: An edited version of this review originally appeared on http://www.gamerdad.com in 2003)
For the past 9 months, I have ventured passed the realm of the “Classic Game Fan” to a destination that can only be described as the absurd. I have been a fan of Atari since around 1977. I’ve owned every major system (and most minor ones) produced by the company in both its glory, and not-so-glorious days. I have been fascinated by it’s history and lore ever since I was 7 years old after played Combat! for the first time. in TV section in the back of Fedmart. In the past few years, books like Steven Kent’s The First Quarter , Wilson/Demaria’s High Score and Leonard Herman’s Phoenix have covered the early history of Atari in great detail, but have left out much of it’s fascinating and intricate second life (beginning in 1984) as Atari Corp. and Atari Games. Around December of last year, I decided it was time that someone rectify the situation. I’m not sure why I thought I, was that person, but delusions of grandeur might have played a small but significant part. In the span of a few weeks, using online and printed resources, I collected an 1800 page document filled with articles and stories, interviews and miscellaneous facts about Atari. In the ensuing months, I boiled down a subset of those pages into 180 page “timeline” of important Atari dates and events, with literally no end in sight. In that time, I collected 1000’s more articles, magazines, copyright, trademark, patent records, and haunted web sites like www.atariage.com, www.atariprotos.com, www.atarimagazines.com, www.atari-museum.com , all to help create a full-picture of this landmark and storied company. eBay stole much of my money as I bid on old Atari books, magazines, and catalogues. I emailed questions to dozens old programmers associated with Atari such as Scott Adams (Adventures) , Peter Oliphant (Mr. Cool, Wall War) and Chris Crawford (Easter Front, Energy Czar) just to see if they would answer my queries (most did). Some nights in the past 9 months I spent 5-8 hours straight sifting through BBS posts from the mid-80’s to find elusive release dates and trivia to add to the timeline. The online editions of Ebesco magazine and Proquest Newspaper databases became new discoveries, offering tidal-waves of headlines and articles that still call for my attention. I spent too many lunch-hours (some stretching the name “lunch hour” to it’s extreme) at the local library, scanning microfilm of long-lost newspapers for articles and advertisements that might have that one last piece of information to make MY history better than any others.
As I got deeper and deeper into this project, I started to neglect other “free-time” activities so I could add to the “document”. I stopped playing video games, programming, web site work, watching TV and anything that might get in the way of the my goal: the ultimate history of Atari. However, as each one of these sacrifices piled-up I started hearing a voice in my mind that would not go away. The voice kept asking “why am I really doing this?, what is this for?” It was just a faint whisper at the beginning, but as the months droned-on, I started hearing it more and more, at ever-increasing levels of volume. By June of this year, the sound of that voice rose to a level that could not be ignored. It was like all the projects and plans I had sacrificed for the “Atari Project” were clamoring to become important to me again. My original plan was to create a complete timeline of Atari, and then add to it my own numerous observations and experiences to make it the ultimate account of Atari’s effect on our culture. I questioned the whole idea of the “Atari Project” itself. I thought, “what kind of person spends this much time on something they suspect was a lost-cause to begin with? Just the idea of working on the document began to make me physically ill. When Mr. Andrew Bub. gave me the chance to write for this website, I took it as a opportunity to distance myself from the “Atari Project”, hone my neophyte writing skills, and try to figure out just what it was I was trying to accomplish in the first place.
A few days ago I finished reading an amazing book that put most of my “Atari Project” into the proper perspective. Lucky Wander Boy (Plume, 2003) by D.B. Weiss chronicles the fictional exploits of one Adam Pennyman, a 30-something dot.com copywriter with a gorgeous Polish girlfriend he seems incapable of pleasing, and nagging wander-lust that keeps him forever unsatisfied. This protagonist of Weiss’s brilliantly paced, and hilarious novel is a recently awakened classic gaming fan who is working on a book named the “Catalog Of Obsolete Entertainments” or “COE” for short. The COE when finished, promises to be a complete listing of important classic games each described in great detail as to their game play, artistry, and their significance alongside important literature, movies, philosophy, etc.
In other words, Adam’s project is not unlike a much more literate and well-read version of my Atari Project. At first this repelled me from reading too much of the story because if it was a full-on satire, it might “hit too close to home”, confirming my suspicions that my own project was completely without merit, nailing its lid shut forever.
Since I possessed a slight fear of the book itself, I eased into it’s pages. It took me several days to traverse the first few chapters. I was slowly convincing myself that this book was not something to be afraid of. About ¼ of the way through my outlook turned cautiously optimistic, taking me only a few days to reach the mid-point of the story. I still was not sure if the unfolding events would hit me too hard, knocking the wind out of my “Atari Project”, but I’d reached the point of no return. The book was so good, it didn’t seem to matter anymore what the sum-total affect would be. At that point, I was fully engulfed, my appetite for the text became voracious, and I managed to finish the rest of the book in just a few hours.
Whatever my fears might have been, this well-written first novel from D.B. Weiss got my attention, and it wasn’t just because of its classic video-game content.
Weiss blends several different writing styles (straight easy to read prose, undergraduate-level compare/contrast essays, technical writing, movie scripts) into a completely engaging first-person account of Adam Pennyman’s search for “meaning” while sifting through the nostalgia of his childhood. Adam’s work on the COE begins with MAME, but leads him to other emulators and bonafide classic games (Donkey Kong, Mr. Do, Pac Man, etc.), and finally to the game fictional Lucky Wander Boy, a machine so rare that no ROM is available, and few if any arcade cabinets are still in existence. It’s this game and the fact that Adam never reached it’s elusive 3rd level, that drives the story through three distinct “acts” to it’s satisfying conclusion.
The story is told in the first person, as Adam describes to the reader his introduction, and subsequent immersion into the world of classic video games. We learn about the most important game Adam played as young boy , “Microsurgeon” for the Mattel Intellivision, and why video games became so important to him. We travel to with from Los Angeles, across the country, and around the world. All the while we watch Adam get more and more immersed in his quest, and we see the effect it has on the people around him. We learn early on about the stability of Adam’s mind, and at points, begin to question his interpretation of the events that he is describing.
Lucky Wander Boy is filled with characters and locations that are so true to life, you can imagine them as real people: Adam’s uber-geek love interest Clio, the dot.bomb “Portal Entertainment” where Adam works, the guys who fill a classic gaming convention, the arcade Adam frequented as a kid. As well, the actual history and classic gaming details are mostly accurate, and better yet, chosen to have a maximum effect on the story. The promised land of destiny Adam visits with Clio at the end of the book’s second act is so perfect, you’ll think “yep, that’s where this HAD to take place” and at the same time kick yourself for not figuring out the location in the first place. The book finishes in a way that all my favorite books finish. There are no tricks or twists, or “she’s a he!” 180’s that turn your emotional investment in the material into a moot point. It ends that way it should end. All points in the story lead to its inevitable conclusion, and better yet, you probably will not see it coming until it all unfolds before you.
Initially after finishing Lucky Wander Boy , the fears for my “Atari Project” were realized. Not only did I want to stop working on it, I wanted to toss it out the window. Why did I even think I could complete such a thing? In some ways, Weiss’ book covers some of the same ground that I wanted cover, but in such a vastly superior and engaging way it would make any straight-telling of video game nostalgia seem ironic by comparison. I decided I needed to know more about the book. I contacted Mr. Weiss, and he agreed to an interview. He was kind and gracious enough to respond to me very quickly. The following is transcript (this contains a few minor spoilers).
Q: How did you get started writing?
I’ve always written things. I remember my first stories were written on that thick-lined, horizontal paper they used in grade school. I never really stopped.
Q: What kind of response has the book received?
It’s been overwhelmingly favorable — much better than I thought. A lot of people who don’t particularly care about videogames read it and wrote to tell me they liked it anyway. But I was worried that the gaming
community would have a lot of nasty things to say about it because I got ‘x’ or ‘y’ wrong, but 95% of the gamers I’ve talked to about the book haven’t been like that at all. They related to it, and were happy to be represented in a novel.
Q: What is your favorite part of LWB?
Ah… definitely the “bad movie script” excerpt. However hard I worked on the best-written five pages in the book, I worked four times that hard on those bad screenplay pages. Tons of research. I think those five or so pages really capture the essence of a hidden genre, usually (and thankfully) invisible to the public.
Q: Where did the idea for the “Catalog Of Obsolete Entertainments” come from?
I’d wanted to do a piece of videogame-related fiction for a long time, and I knew from the beginning it was
going to involve something like the Catalogue — i.e., a videogame obsessive’s thoughts about the games he’s played. The actual story came afterwards.
Q: The details of “Classic Games” are quite extensive and fairly accurate in LWB. You seemed nail the hardcore classic game fan “Classic. Video. Games. as well as the lore and trappings of conventions and attitudes. Are you a classic games fan, or are you just a great researcher?
I am a classic (and current) gaming fan, and it was my enthusiasm for the subject that pushed me through the research. There was a lot of research — at the outset, I wasn’t nearly involved enough with the games
to write the book (or hadn’t been for years). So it was a combination of the two. As research goes, playing 5 hours of Tempest is a pretty sweet deal.
Q: Anya Budna seems like the geek ideal of a “comic book” woman, while Clio seems to be the opposite “ideal” geek woman who not only likes the same geek stuff as a geek, but actively participates. Neither seem to be the answer for Adam. Were you attempting to show these two sides of the “geek ideal woman?
Well, I’ll just say that the questions Adam has to answer for himself before any kind of meaningful interaction with any woman (or anyone else, for that matter) are possible precede any questions about whatkind of woman is right for him. Necessary changes being made, he and Clio would probably work prettywell as a couple. The question is: Can (or should) the necessary changes be made? Okay, that’s pretty
muddled. I’ll stop there.
Q: At a couple points in the story I starting thinking that Anya might not even be a real character, but just a figment of Adam’s imagination. Was this intentional, or just a figment of “my imagination”?
Hmmm… I hate scotching any interpretation of the book that sounds better than what I had in mind… I did intend her to be real, but I also intended for his extreme unreliability (especially toward the end) to make his story as a whole problematic. So I guess my intentions were working at cross purposes there.
Q: The structure of the story starts out seeming very chaotic, but by the end seems finely tuned and crafted. Did you start the book knowing where it was going to end?
I did know more or less how it was going to end. Didn’t quite know how I was going to get there, but I
always like to keep some notion of an ending in mind, to get me through that long, dangerous middle.
Q: As well, the details of working for a “dot.com” type operation are far too close to reality to be mere figments of your imagination. Do you have any experience working in the environment?
I did some copywriting for an internet outfit that shall remain unnamed. They’re actually still solvent
and going strong, which sets them apart from the company in the book.
Q: Are there any other portions of the book that are autobiographical?
Some settings and physical details of people and places were stolen from life, but by and large the thing is made up. My life doesn’t have the excitement and/or level of obsession necessary for a good story. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I destroyed anyone’s place of business with a battle axe.
Q: Even though LWB is specifically about classic video games, so you think the themes are universal to other forms of “Geek” > (even as far as the “sports geek”) as described by Adam in one of his COE entries?
Oh, definitely. I think you could have written a very similar book about beekeeping, or wine collecting, or
even sports fixations… oh, wait. Someone did write that last one. Someone named Fred Exley. It’s called A
FAN’S NOTES, and it’s better than LUCKY WANDER BOY. Never mind.
Q: Do you liken the “surreal” aspect of classic games to that of early Hollywood movies, where the technicals kept the images from looking real, but added to the transcendental aspect of the stories?
I’ll still watch some silent movies — say, Murnau’s FAUST, or Dreyer’s VAMPYR — and feel that the
jury-rigged in-camera effects they used were more effective for conveying the particular altered realities they were trying to convey than any CGI could have been. And to use Marshall McLuhan’s terminology, they were “cooler” — they required your own participation to fill in the wonderful or horrible details, to bridge the gap between what you were seeing and what you would be seeing and feeling if you were in that situation. So yes, I think the exact same thing could be said about early videogames.
Q: Adam has many misconceptions about LWB that lead to his own inaccurate conclusions about its origins, and its meaning. Do you believe that media like games, books, movies, etc. have a life of their own, beyond what the authors/creators intended?
That’s why I don’t like to go into too much detail about what this or that aspect of the book “means.” The life books have in readers’ minds is often every bit as interesting and vibrant as the life they have in their authors’ minds.
Q: Do you think people tend to find meaning in things that are foreign or “mysterious” even if they might be rather mundane to the indigenous population?
They do if involvement with something scarce, foreign or unique is important to their sense of who they are. Things are often found in translation when something is taken out of its indigenous sphere and into some other context, I think.
Q: In LWB, Adam was affected by video games at a fairly young age (early teens). What are your views on the effects, positive or negative, that video games may have on young kids today?
That’s a big question. They’re not going to make anybody kill anybody if they weren’t going to do that
anyway, but beyond that, I’m pretty biased. I mean, my best friend’s son is 3, and I’m like the devil in the
corner, badgering them to let him come over to my house and play Xbox, even though the controller is 10
times too big for his hands.
Q: Do you think those effects are any different with today’s hyper-realistic games?
Ah, I don’t know. People were up in arms about Death Race, they were up in arms about Berserk, and Double Dragon and Mortal Kombat and Quake and GTAIII, and each time it’s “Okay, forget about that last one… this one is different.” The gory details are still so far from even the stuff you see on network TV, I
really don’t worry about it much at this point.
Q: If you had kids, what kinds of games would you let them play?
Well, not having kids (yet), that’s an easy one for me to shoot my mouth off about, isn’t it? I think it
would be so dependent on the kids themselves, especially once they hit 11, 12, 13, that it’s hard to
answer. I imagine that once they got to high school, I would no longer have the will (or the ability) to keep
them away from anything they wanted to play. I came from a home where the parental control in the
book/movie/music/videogame department was fabulously lax. If I wanted to check out NAKED LUNCH at 13… no problems there. I was forbidden to rent, say, a pornographic movie, or FACES OF DEATH… so I watched them at someone else’s house. Despite these years of mental poisoning, I made it through, with no police record that I know of, and am now a more or less productive citizen — because my parents were
parents. They were always there for me, they were always a part of my life, they always made sure the
lines of communication were open. I’d probably follow their example. Remembering back, it seems to me a lot of parental ‘culture proscriptions’ were a sort of quick fix parenting, in lieu of communication — which
is so much more difficult than Just Saying No.
Q: Are you working on another novel?
Yep. 17th century Germany. Not much in the way of videogames back then.
It took me a few about 24 hours to digest Mr. Weiss’ answers. I could not decided if he had inspired me to continue my “Atari Project”, or just forget it altogether. I tried to think of Lucky Wander Boy in terms of my own work, and an idea occurred to me. With my “Atari Project” I was trying to place “meaning” on my Atari experiences, but I was never sure if that “meaning” would arise from annals Atari itself, or instead, from my vigorous quest to find it. I quickly sent Mr. Weiss a follow-up question, asking him if the same was true for Adam in Lucky Wander Boy. I asked him:
Q: Do you think Adam actually found true “meaning” in Lucky Wander Boy, or
instead, did meaning arise from the quest itself, no matter what the final
discovery may have been?
He never responded, and I took that as my answer. Sure, he might have simply thought I was a raving lunatic (the jury is still out), but no answer can still be an answer. Like Mr. Weiss said in the interview, he hates “ scotching any interpretation of the book that sounds better than what I had in mind”, and that is all that mattered. I was getting my answer, no matter what the author intended, and while Lucky Wander Boy spurred it on, it really came from myself.
I began to understand that the story is not really about classic video games at all, but instead, it is a universal story about the need to search for your own feelings, and discover your own meaning in whatever it is you are exploring in life.. The book is less an indictment of fandom, than it is wildy funny and surreal journey of someone who starts on a video game “vision quest”, that turns into an completely self-obsorbed and obsessive journey to find “meaning” from nostalgia in the modern world. In that sense, there just might be space for anyone to write their own account of what their past has meant to them, and how it affects their present. Last night, for the first time in several months, I visited www.atariprotos.com, a web site dedicated to prototype Atari 2600/5200/7800 cartridges. There were a few new entries, so I broke out my “Atari Document” and filled in a few spots that had before been left blank. My Atari Project did not seem “dead” at that moment, but simply in hibernation waiting for me to return to it. There were real reasons why I wanted to complete the project and while there is no guarantee it will ever be finished, or that anyone will ever want to read it, I feel compelled to continue with it. I may never find “meaning” within the seemingly random facts, and dates of my Atari Timeline, but just like Adam in Lucky Wander Boy by taking it to it’s conclusion, I just might find the “meaning” within myself that compelled me to start the project in the first place.
Kid Factor: Don’t even try to read Lucky Wander Boy to your kids, it’s simply not that kind of book. Some of the material may be objectionable, but to be honest, most kids just won’t “get” what is happening in the first place. I think the book is best read by readers aged 25+ who are just starting to realize the actual sweating, claustrophobic, panic that nostalgia can generate. This is not just a good book, but a great piece of literature. Mature high school students who have “cool” English teachers, could probably get away with writing a paper on this book, as it’s as good or better than some of the “classic” literature I consumed “back-in-the-day”. I recommend D.B. Weiss’s Lucky Wander Boy to anyone who enjoys a little thinking with their reading, to any fan of classic video games, and especially to anyone who ever “geeked-out” attempting to find “meaning” in things that other might find silly or trivial.
Update: D.B. Weiss is now a writer, producer and director for Game Of Thrones on HBO. Lucky Wander Boy was released as “Video Games” in 2014 for the French Market. His book on 17th Century Germany, as far I can tell, was never released.