Thursday, January 06, 2005

Lucky Wander Boy

I just finished readying Lucky Wander Boy by D.B. Weiss, and I recommend it as a good read in and of itself. However, it did get me thinking about games and culture...

Briefly, without spoilers, the book is about a guy who becomes obsessed with the obscure, "classic" arcade game, Lucky Wander Boy. His obsession leads him through a number of adventures, which make up the book's narrative. The book explores themes of geek-hood and nostalgia, but more than either of these, the book plays with the cultural significance that videogames have taken on in the minds of adults raised and weaned on Atari, Intellivision, etc. In fact, the book embodies this cultural significance.

Our grad school prof, Randy Pausch, used to talk about videogame concepts seeping into cultural awareness, his favorite example being the power-up. A deeper, more complex concept from games is the idea of multiple paths existing simultaneously. Especially in non-linear, simulationist, or emergent games, the same game can represent a multitude of stories or events. Even linear games have many different endings in the form of a player's frequent deaths.

This is not a new concept unique to videogames. Writers and philosophers have toyed with the idea frequently. However, videogames offer both an embodyment of the idea and a way to experience these multiple paths, contrived though it may be. With mass audiences, videogames also introduce these concepts into the cultural consciousness in a way that the writings of Borges, for example, never could.

The saved game represents the ability to explore multiple paths, though this exploration is sequential rather than simultaneous. This ability to not only accept multiple, simultaneous storylines, but to embrace and demand them seems to be seeping into our culture at large. The many endings of Wayne's World could be seen as a player's inability to accept defeat much like each retry of a tough level in a linear first person shooter. Each time, the characters revert to a "saved game" to replay the ending until they achieve success.

[Slight spoiler about the book] In Lucky Wander Boy, the repeated endings (each of the ending chapters is entitled "replay") are less about doggedly pursuing a single result than they are about filling in the many possible stories that exist. In fact, the endings of Lucky Wander Boy even start at different "save points" as the author goes back to various decision points in the story imagining multiple trajectories for the main character. The really amazing thing about these many endings is that they work together to form a far more satisfying end to the book than any one of them would alone. This is clearly due to excellent writing on Weiss's part, but I believe that it also has a lot to do with the fact that I, the reader, play videogames.


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