Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
This article contains spoilers for Bible Adventures and EarthBound—both the games and the books.
A few years ago, humor website Something Awful published an article titled “If Films Were Reviewed Like Video Games.” The piece, ostensibly a review of the zombie thriller World War Z, heaped praise on the film for things like having functional lighting (“Multiple light sources hit objects at the same time”), being long (“World War Z clocks in at 116 minutes, so it passes our dollar-to-entertainment ratio test”), and being “cinematic” (“A lot of people talk in it and things keep happening, which makes it cinematic”), before concluding, “You should pay to see this movie because it functions and does many of the things you expect.” Anyone who’s spent much time reading videogame reviews should recognize the satire there as pretty spot-on: while a decent film critic will at least nod toward the history of cinema as an art form, a film’s philosophical and literary influences, or what profundities the film’s existence reveals about the human condition, game reviewers too often just check off a list of expected features and call it a day.
This contrast is particularly striking when you consider how insistent some gamers can be that videogames are a new and important art form, just as film was a century ago; but if games are an art form, where is the criticism that takes them seriously as one? If games are important creative works, why do we treat them as interchangeable consumer products?Boss Fight Books is a quirky, charming series that weaves together journalism, criticism, game theory, and often a heavy dose of memoir.
Admittedly, the situation has improved some in the years since the Something Awful piece’s publication—perhaps all it really took was for those of us in the Nintendo/Sega generation to grow out of our (extended) adolescence a bit. Websites that try to engage with games seriously, such as Polygon and Unwinnable, are gradually springing up; web series like Extra Credits are making waves; even The Atlantic publishes thoughtful pieces from game theorists like Ian Bogost from time to time.
If you’re looking for thoughtful deep-dives into videogames, though, I’d say you really can’t do much better than the Boss Fight Books series.
An independently published series that began in 2014 and (so far) comprises 18 titles, Boss Fight Books is a quirky, charming series that weaves together journalism, criticism, game theory, and often a heavy dose of memoir. Each book tackles a single game, looking at its creation, its mechanics, its story, its cultural impact, or even just what it’s meant in the author’s life. Some of them are written by professional game journalists, but others are contributed by novelists, poets, actors, and comedians. (One of them—Metal Gear Solid, which I’m currently working my way through, was written by a brother-and-sister team.) What they have in common, though, is that they take games seriously—not as consumer products, but as artifacts of creativity that color, shape, and define our experiences as human beings.
Many of them, as it happens, are also surprisingly candid about spirituality.
Probably the best example of this is Bible Adventures, the seventh book in the series, based on the famously terrible (or at least famously mediocre) Nintendo Entertainment System game of the same name. Written by Boss Fight series creator Gabe Durham, it tells the fascinating story behind what was probably the most successful “unlicensed” NES game ever published, along with how it impacted Durham’s childhood and spiritual development.
If you don’t know the game (and by now the game has become an internet meme a hundred times over, so you probably do, but if you don’t…), Bible Adventures was produced by a renegade software developer named Color Dreams, who were among the first to figure out a way around Nintendo’s “lockout” chip (which prevented games Nintendo hadn’t approved from playing on the system). Early in their history, Color Dreams produced fairly typical games—albeit usually with edgier content than Nintendo allowed their licensees to produce—but when Nintendo began pressuring retailers to take unlicensed games off their shelves, Color Dreams—now going by the name Wisdom Tree—decided to sell games via the one outlet Nintendo was afraid to go after: Christian bookstores.
The first game to result from this strategy was, of course, Bible Adventures—a fairly dull Super Mario Bros. 2 knockoff that nevertheless sold hundreds of thousands of copies due to its discovery by an untapped market. And while the game itself wasn’t that interesting, the story behind it proves captivating. Durham’s quest to track down the true story of a game that defined his childhood leads him through the wild west of the ’80s videogame business—tales abound of 24-hour programming sessions in basements and garages, along with celebratory company trips to the local strip club when the games finally shipped. Perhaps the book’s most memorable moment is when Durham tracks down Wisdom Tree’s lone Christian programmer—who, by the time they began production on Bible Adventures, had already been argued out of his faith by the company’s founder.
Durham himself takes a similar journey. His earliest memory of the game is not of buying it, or even getting it as a gift, but rather borrowing it from the lending library at the Church of Christ congregation in which he grew up (“the fact that these games were free to borrow blew my addict mind”). Durham gradually loses his faith as he matures, though, shedding it just like the disposable Christian pop culture that graced the margins of his childhood—programming and marketing might sell games, but they can only go so far, it seems, in propagating faith. What appears to have driven him away from Christianity, in part, is an (understandable) reluctance to engage in the scripted evangelism his church frequently pushed him into: “I’ll convert people to believe in Climate Change all day long—” Durham writes—”it’s a verifiable fact. But to pull someone toward or away from God? The best any of us can do is compare notes.”
Someone with particularly interesting notes on God is former teen star Ken Baumann, who contributed Boss Fight’s first entry, a memoir of the classic Super Nintendo game EarthBound. EarthBound, unlike Bible Adventures, sold poorly upon its release in 1995, but—also unlike Bible Adventures—has grown enormously in reputation in the two decades since (fans celebrated a minor holiday when Nintendo finally re-released the game on Wii U in 2013). Similarly, Baumann’s faith journey is almost the mirror image of Durham’s, leading him from a staunchly secular upbringing to a more divinely oriented adulthood—it appears that EarthBound, unlike Bible Adventures, is the spiritually minded game that actually grows up with you.
Maybe this is because, unlike the vast majority of other videogames, EarthBound is a game about fairly normal kids being forced by their circumstances to mature. Though mechanically a turn-based RPG á là Dragon Quest, thematically the game draws equally from Peanuts comics, Beatles songs, and ’50s sci-fi films to tell a story about some psychic kids who set out to save the world from an alien invasion. Though reviewers panned it at the time it was released, kids who bothered to pick it up—such as Baumann, who recalls playing through it with his militantly atheist brother as a means of escaping from the stifling Bible Belt culture around them—remember connecting with its themes on a level that was rare for games at the time. Even the small details resonate with Baumann—for instance, the fact that to save your game in EarthBound, you have to phone your father—whom you never meet in person.
For Baumann, this game mechanic rings true, though perhaps not for the same reason it might for a lot of ’90s kids. As a teen trying to break into acting, Baumann spent months at a time away from his Texas home, crashing in Hollywood hotels, while his ever-supportive dad stayed behind, working to pay the bills. If Durham’s Bible Adventures is a look at the seedy underbelly of the ’80s games industry, then Baumann’s EarthBound proves to be, among other things, a window into the similarly shady side of 2000s-era cable television. Baumann doesn’t shy away from the vice and self-destructive behavior endemic to the teens who throng to L.A. hoping to get noticed by leering producers; nor is he reticent in confessing how pleasant it is to be paid obscene amounts of money to look pretty on TV once you “make it.”
Nor, for that matter, does he try to hide how meaningless it all becomes when death is staring you in the face.
I‘ve never gotten around to playing all the way through EarthBound, so I didn’t know this until I read Baumann’s book, but apparently the game’s climactic battle ends in a “scripted loss“—it’s a fight that’s impossible for the player to win. When the final boss has nearly destroyed all of your characters and everything looks hopeless, that’s when all your characters’ family members and friends—basically everyone they’ve met in the course of the game—somehow, psychically, pick up on their distress, and begin to pray. In EarthBound as in Scripture, it is prayer, not physical strength, that defeats the evil in the end.
Baumann might know this small truth better than anyone. Mere months before his planned wedding, he tells us, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and a perforated intestine. In the book, he relates month after month of excruciating surgeries, an inability to perform basic self-care tasks like eating and bathing, and the very real possibility of his own impending death (“We cried while I asked her to say aloud that she would find happiness without me.”). What can an irreligious TV star even do when staring into the face of his own mortality and ultimate helplessness?
“So you pray,” he writes.
Baumann’s book on EarthBound climaxes with an unironic, unashamed command to the reader to pray. “Please,” writes the man who should not now be alive, whose every breath is a miracle. “I’ll do it with you: Let’s close our eyes and ask.”
I’m not ashamed to admit I was physically shaking as I read these words.
It’s entirely possible that Baumann’s discovery of God in his desperation will read as trite to some—as will Durham’s rejection of the faith in Bible Adventures. I can hear the objections already: “Of course someone raised on terrible Christian pop culture would give up on the Christian faith.” “Of course there are no proverbial atheists in proverbial foxholes.”
And maybe the naysayers have a point. Our own personal spiritual journeys are frequently obnoxious, confusing, and yes, trite, to the ones watching them from the sidelines. And yet, they are ours—and they are inescapably guided and nudged by the art that graces the margins of our lives, whether such art acts as a catalyst for life-changing epiphanies, or simply as weird background music. To pretend otherwise would be naïve, and would, paradoxically—by denying the importance of discernment and thoughtful engagement—give even more power to art. Art—good, bad, or mediocre—shapes lives.
Durham’s Bible Adventures closes with a thought as haunting as it is inescapable. While chatting with a former Wisdom Tree employee at a coffee shop, Durham was approached by a woman who asked for his thoughts on the so-called Big Questions—”What is your personal philosophy?” and so on. Pressed for time and distracted by the interview he was already conducting, Durham found himself fumbling to give her a worthwhile response. “These same conditions,”—he writes—”limited time, energy, and resources—have yielded both undeniable masterpieces and the most atrocious works of art you’ve ever seen, read, heard, or played. But most works, like the games in Wisdom Tree’s catalogue, fall somewhere in between. The miracle is that they got made at all.”
It’s possible the agnostics among us are right, and we’re all just blind men fumbling in the dark. But even if we are, what a grace to know we can still shout into it. Even if no one is listening to our prayers, what a mercy that we can pray at all.
And even if the works of our hands will ultimately crumble to dust, what a joy that we can create them.
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