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Monday, April 15, 2024

Move Over, Oprah. Video Game Book Clubs Have Arrived

When video games were just abstract concepts on university computers, book clubs were already popular. When Toad told Mario the princess was in another castle, introducing video game narrative to millions of living rooms, readers were already comparing notes on Jane Eyre. So, it's only natural that as video games became more narratively ambitious, they'd take this familiar page from the literary world. Video game book clubs. So move over, Oprah—you've got competition.

Why Old Games?

Delivered as multi-episode podcast seasons, these "video game book clubs" earn the moniker thanks to weekly deep-dive episodes into narrative-heavy video games, and ongoing, guided discussions among their robust listener communities. Unlike many "real" book clubs and video game podcasts, they're less interested in new releases—focusing instead on detailed analysis of popular retro titles. On Every F'n FF, cohosts 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's Retrograde Amnesia dissects Square Enix's philosophically overbaked Xenogears line by line—boasting a running time even longer than the game's impressive 60-hour-plus playtime.

But why old games? Like many adult gamers, Ware fondly recalls days swapping tips with his childhood friends, which he refers to as "playground rules." Loud online conversations about video games are not new—many adults have been gabbing online about video games as long as they've been playing them—but, according to Ware, current video game coverage focuses heavily on reviews and features of new titles. The gaming community is obsessed with Elden Ring—a new RPG from the creators of Dark Souls and fantasy author George R. R. Martin that's so difficult and packed with secrets it's impossible to beat in just a few days, helping it break out of the traditional blink-and-you'll-miss-it cycle for new releases. Social media has been rife for weeks with players trading tips, retelling close encounters, and theorizing about the game's lore—a new age for Ware's playground rules, and an experience Every F'n FF wants to extend 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 ignored, at best, video game narratives and actively derided them at worst—culminating in Roger Ebert's infamous ponderance of whether video games could ever truly be "art." Retrograde Amnesia cohosts Layman and Stone see an opportunity to shine light on these stories from a modern perspective. They've grown from the teenagers who first played Xenogears in 1998, and so has the gaming industry as a whole. Not only are game narratives accepted now, they're respected.

"PlayStation games from this era had the feeling of an indie scene," Stone tells me. “A lot of new creators were given opportunities." As I cover in my upcoming book, Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the rise of Japanese RPGs in the West, it was around this time that Japanese RPGs skyrocketed to popularity thanks to Final Fantasy VII's meteoric rise. But despite mainstream success, the genre was still in an experimental phase, opening the door for a deluge of unique, risk-taking titles like those covered by Retrograde Amnesia, including Xenogears, Chrono Cross, and Final Fantasy VIII. "Seeing how that all came together," says Stone, "has been really interesting."

Many prominent RPG creators at that time were still in their twenties, and their games were full of risks that wouldn't fly today. As they gained experience, they lost some of that edge, according to Layman, and that's where going back and looking at older titles can help us better understand modern games. Layman points to Tetsuya Takahashi's recently announced Xenoblade Chronicles 3, a spiritual follow-up to Xenogears, and Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi's Fantasian as examples of how even revolutionaries can fall into familiar patterns. "You get comfortable, and you're afraid to leave your pattern [of success]."

'Initializing FakeNet'

An episode of Retrograde Amnesia lasts about an hour. The hosts read through sections of dialog, discuss combat encounters, and describe game locations. The first season's coverage of Xenogears is a rabbit hole of religious and philosophical themes covering everything from ancient gnosticism to the works of Carl Jung and Friedrich Nietzsche. Layman and Stone's challenge is not only to understand the story but to explain it beat by beat, line by line in a way that's informative, reflective, and amusing to a broad range of listeners.

Subsequent seasons tackle different games selected by listeners, with discussion spilling into their Discord server where fans debate current and past seasons. Loading the latest episode in your podcatcher feels like a weekly pub night with friends—but instead of bullshitting about work, you're breaking down strategies for defeating demigods and theorizing about time-traveling sorceresses. This allows listeners to maintain their connection to their favorite games even when they're not playing.

"When I first got into podcasts," says Germanovich, "I was traveling hundreds of miles a week, driving to play shows in bands or traveling for work. Just driving constantly. And all I wanted to do was play Dark Souls." He turned to the next best thing: Gary Butterfield and Kole Ross's Bonfireside Chat. "I would listen to it and hear their experiences with the games and their guests' experiences, and scratch that itch."

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By nature, Butterfield tells me, interactive media like video games provide different experiences to every player. “Not everyone is going to see everything” in a game, he says. Even if two players do see everything in Elden Ring, they're going to see it in a different order, and tackle challenges in different ways, with unique outcomes. Butterfield explains that books have textual elements and films have a visual component, but if you're playing a game, there's an added narrative component: player agency. Changing the player's tools for interacting with the world can change how they view that world.

"Story can be unveiled through that too," says Ross. Games like Elden Ring are full of decision points that impact the player experience. Even the same story beats can take on different meanings depending on the player's path to get there, Ross says. "We can look at the same text and come to different conclusions."

Digging into these narrative experiences and exploring the space between the creators and the players is a core purpose of these podcasts, but their heart and soul aren't the likable and knowledgeable hosts (they're the catalysts); it's the passionate audience. They're the ones who allow two dudes talking about old games in Chris' basement to blossom into a full-blown community complete with ongoing debates, rampant in-jokes, and genuine friendships.

Friendship Level: 99

This rise of these video game book clubs comes parallel to the increasing popularity of Slack, Discord, and Twitter's recently launched Communities. According to the podcasters, many of their listeners came of age in the early 2000s on message boards like Something Awful, GameFAQs, and Eyes on Final Fantasy. This return to smaller, more curated conversations, provides a friendlier and more controlled environment to geek out.

"People in those communities gravitate toward walled gardens because they're curated," Butterfield says. "They're in a small, siloed group, there's moderation, and people can be literally kicked out for being douchebags in a way that you can't be on the internet at large." That level of control creates a safety net, he says. "Like a fellowship."

Maintaining an existing community of listeners is one thing, but growing it is something else, entirely. That's where Alex Noble and his fellow Every F'n FF hosts turn to a longtime music-scene tactic: "Punk rock rules," he says. "It's all word of mouth." Using grassroots methods they learned through years in the Philadelphia music scene, Germanovich explains that they don't find new listeners through typical channels. "You talk to people," he says. "You play with them, and become friends. That's seeped into every aspect of our work."

The podcasters I spoke with agreed that their audiences are predominantly made up of people similar to them—late-thirties dudes who grew up playing Final Fantasy during the series' heyday. But that's not set in stone, according to Ware, since Japanese RPGs are welcoming for diverse audiences. "We do have many a dad," he says, "but we also have pretty much every other demographic."

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Growing diversity among their audience helps the podcasters find new ways to appreciate games they thought they knew inside and out. "Every now and then somebody in their early twenties sneaks in," says Stone. They're not casual consumers but fans who enjoy playing a variety of games across the format's history, or became interested in retro games thanks to modern remakes.

Can you have a book club without books? A few of the hosts felt it didn't capture the effort required to break down a 60-hour video game scene by scene over dozens of episodes—but none of them had a better alternative. Germanovich, however, appreciates the term, likening it to skeuomorphic design—an easily grokkable shorthand that helps potential listeners understand how they're different from other video game podcasts like Triple Click or Retronauts.

Describing it as a "video game club" evokes a different feeling, Germanovich says, making it sound more like a chess or anime club with a general purpose rather than the focused and in-depth analysis of these podcasts.

You could call it a "video game homework podcast," jokes Ware. "We assign homework at the end."

"Who would listen to that?" Germanovich says, laughing. "Homework sucks."

While book clubs might require their participants to do the homework by reading along, Layman says a lot of listeners don't necessarily play the games alongside the podcast episodes. "They just want to hear the story again," he says, likening it to dipping into your favorite book's Wikipedia page every once in awhile. "You have a fondness for the story and want to hear someone tell it to you."

Layman and Stone put a lot of effort into making sure their show appeals to fans playing along, but also to that other type of listener. Stone explained that this style of podcast works well as a companion piece, but it can also help listeners explore nuances or themes they haven't thought about in 20 years with the community's broader perspective adding to the experience.

"The point of any kind of media criticism is to deepen the relationship between the player and the game," Stone says. "Hopefully our podcast can serve that purpose in terms of allowing somebody to think more deeply about the art they consume."

"I want us to walk the line between blind adoration and cynical criticism," quips Layman, succinctly describing Retrograde Amnesia's perfect blend of humor and depth.

Art is meant to evoke emotion. It's personal and ties into our experiences and biases, shaped by our interpretations. By settling down in front of a microphone for weekly episodes, these podcasters establish a connection not just with their younger selves, or the game creators, but with the audience of fans who consume these games as more than just a pastime. They're community leaders. Like kids sharing stories on the playground, or the word of mouth fueling a local punk rock sensation, these are communities brought together not just by shared adoration for classic games, but for love of the people who still play them decades later.


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