May 25, 2022

Move over, Oprah. Video game book clubs have arrived

When video games were just abstract concepts on college computers, journal clubs were already popular. When Toad told Mario the princess was in another castle, bringing video game storytelling to millions of living rooms, readers were already comparing notes on Jane Eyre. So it’s only natural that as video games become more narratively ambitious, they’ll take that familiar page of the literary world. Video game book clubs. So move on, Oprah, you have competition.

Why old games?

Delivered as seasons of multi-episode podcasts, these “video game book clubs” earn the moniker through weekly episodes of deep-dive into story-rich video games and ongoing guided discussions between their strong communities of listeners. Unlike many “real” video game book clubs and podcasts, they are less interested in new releases, instead focusing on in-depth analysis of popular retro titles. Every F’n FF, co-hosts Karl Germanovich and Curtis Ware, and producer Alex Noble, explore three decades of Final Fantasy history, one game at a time. The first season of Chris Stone and Eric Laymen Retrograde amnesia dissects Square Enix’s overcooked philosophy Xenogears line-by-line, with even longer runtime than the game’s impressive 60+ hour playtime.

But why the old games? Like many adult gamers, Ware fondly remembers the days of swapping tips with his childhood friends, which he calls “playground rules”. Loud online conversations about video games aren’t new — many adults have chatted online about video games since they played them — but, according to Ware, current video game coverage focuses heavily on reviews and comments. features of new titles. The gaming community is currently obsessed with Ring of Elden—a new RPG from the creators of dark souls and fantastic author George RR Martin, who is so picky and full of secrets it’s impossible to beat in just a few days, helping him break out of the traditional blink-and-you’ll-miss cycle for new releases. Social media has been raging for weeks with players swapping tips, recounting close encounters and theorizing about the game’s lore – a new era for Ware’s playground rules and experience. Every F’n FF wants to expand to legacy titles the same way we still talk about Star Wars: A New Hope or The Lord of the Rings.

For decades critics and casual fans have ignored video game narratives at best, and actively derided them at worst, culminating in Roger Ebert’s infamous musing on whether games video could never really be “art”. Retrograde amnesia co-hosts Eric Layman and Chris Stone see an opportunity to shed light on these stories from a modern perspective. They grew from the teenagers who played for the first time Xenogears in 1998, as did the gaming industry as a whole. Not only are game narratives accepted now, but they are respected.

“PlayStation games of that era had the feeling of an indie scene,” Stone tells me. “A lot of new creators had opportunities.” As I say in my next book, Combat, magic, objects: the story of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the rise of Japanese RPGs in the Westit was during this time that Japanese RPGs became popular thanks to Final Fantasy VIImeteoric rise. But despite the mainstream success, the genre was still in an experimental phase, opening the door to a deluge of unique and risque titles like those covered by Retrograde amnesiaincluding Xenogears, Chrono-Crossand Final Fantasy VIII. “Seeing how it all came together,” Stone says, “was really interesting.”

Many top RPG creators at this time were still in their twenties, and their games were full of risks that wouldn’t fly today. As they gain experience, they lose some of that edge, according to Layman, and that’s where going back and watching older titles can help us understand games better. modern. Layman highlights Tetsuya Takahashi’s recent announcement Xenoblade Chronicles 3a spiritual sequel to Xenogearsand Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi Fantastic as examples of how even revolutionaries can fall into familiar patterns. “You feel comfortable and you are afraid to leave your schema [of success].”

“Initializing FakeNet”

An episode of Retrograde amnesia takes about an hour. The hosts read sections of dialogue, discuss combat encounters, and describe game locations. The cover of the first season of Xenogears is a rabbit hole of religious and philosophical themes spanning everything from ancient Gnosticism to the works of Carl Jung and Friedrich Nietzsche. Layman and Stone’s challenge is not just to understand the story, but to explain it beat by beat, line by line in a way that is informative, thoughtful, and entertaining to a wide range of listeners.

Subsequent seasons take on different listener-selected games, with discussions spilling over to their Discord server where fans debate current and past seasons. Loading the latest episode into your podcatcher feels like a weekly pub night with friends, but instead of bullshit about work, you break down strategies for defeating demigods and theorizing about time-traveling witches. This allows listeners to stay connected to their favorite games even when they are not playing.

“When I got into podcasting,” says Every F’n FF‘s Karl Germanovich, “I drove hundreds of miles a week, driving to play gigs in bands or traveling for work. I was constantly driving. And all I wanted to do was play dark souls.” He turned to the next best thing: Gary Butterfield and Kole Ross’s Cat by the fire. “I would listen to it and hear their experiences with games and the experiences of their guests, and scratch that itch.”