Rise of the Existential Crisis: How One Woman Nearly Never Finished a Book Review
Here is a book that is impossible to review. It is impossible to critique, judge or score. It defies me at every turn.
Game designer Anna Anthropy’s debut book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, is a nonfiction manifesto, a rallying call in which she encourages everyone to create and make and, perhaps most important, disseminate videogames. It’s also a work of critical theory, all while moonlighting as a DIY how-to handbook. At times it becomes an autobiography.
It is unquantifiable.
What is this book, even?
And what’s a “zine,” anyway?
You’re right to wonder. Here, let me explain.
“Zines” were those little photocopied works of indie literature I wasn’t allowed to read when I was a teenaged girl.
I’d look up their titles in a magazine called Factsheet Five and choose the ones that most appealed to – or more likely, appalled – my polite Southern Baptist sensibilities. Then I’d send a handwritten letter and a couple of bucks to each fanzine’s author. Zines began arriving in the mail, and the whole thing was magical. My favorite was Artaud-Mania, an entire collated Xerox of hiss and spit, all stapled together, written by a college art student called Johanna Fateman.
These were no monetary transactions; they were social ones. The world, I soon discovered, is so small.
I got away with reading them, for a while.
Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Chapter One.
Anthropy’s real mission is only this: a more perfect world, one in which everyone can build a videogame. Maybe these games will be unedited and jejune and a little bit broken, as zines themselves often are, but that’s supposed to be the allure. The games will be authentic, these experiential snapshots, the works of diarists instead of artists and computer programmers.
Maybe an alienated teen in south-coastal Texas could finally discover something to which she can relate – or better yet, she might find something to which she cannot relate at all. Maybe she will eventually make a videogame of her own.
Ought a videogame become the equivalent of a Livejournal entry? Can we really all be memoirists?
Or! What if videogames together comprised a continuous, gapless fabric that documents the sum of human experience? The idea itself is poetry.
Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Chapter Two.
Suppose it were ridiculously easy to make a game, using an accessible human grammar instead of impenetrable, gnostic programming languages. Suppose it were hilariously easy to distribute those games.
Wouldn’t you want to?
Miss Anthropy is correct when she asserts the technological barrier of entry to gamemaking is so much lower than it once was. Case in point: I’m currently typing to you from a Wal-Mart laptop that cost under $300. I am in a position to become a guerilla filmmaker or self-published novelist if I want to, and in kind, I could make an object-based text adventure from right here in the local coffee shop.
Incidentally, that’s where I’m sitting now. I am struggling, in broad daylight and in public, to review Anthropy’s book. People keep walking past, picking up the book without asking, frowning at it and setting it back down.
“It’s pretty good,” I manage. I am extremely nervous when I say this. I don’t know why.
Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Chapter Three.
Anna Anthropy explains the game of Tetris:
These rules function in tandem to give the game a momentum and shape: the player makes errors that cause further errors, until eventually the player is overcome.
But the player places all the pieces herself. Every player will place the pieces differently, will play a different game, but experience a similar result. The same holds true for any system of rules, as simple as Tag or Tetris or as complicated as SimCity. Games have a lot of potential for examining the relationships between things – or, rather, for allowing the player to examine the relationships between things, because the player does not merely observe the interactions; she herself engages with the game’s systems.
This passage alone is beyond “high concept.” This is serious philosophy, wrapped up in comp lit and game theory and who knows what else. Add unto this the videogame’s near-boundless storytelling potential, and you might become as excited as Anthropy is.
Because in a game where you are its player, every revelation can be personal, rather than having the moment explained to you in some cinematic cutscene. There are all these panels in any given story, and then there are the spaces between the stages and…!
Anthropy’s book is about everything!
You can’t read it in a single sitting! It’s all stopping and starting and thinking and turning to your cheap laptop to type one more cheap thought, and then you delete it, and then you type it a new way, and then you delete it.
Anthropy’s book has become impossible to review. How dare this book.
Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Chapter Four.
This chapter is about mods, hacks, machinima: that is, about assembling something piecemeal from resources and rulesets that originated elsewhere.
I’ve never thought of game hacks as any sort of art, but Anthropy’s argument – of game hacks as “mashup” – is a compelling one. Of course you can juxtapose ready-made objects and emerge with something new. Of course. It’s high art made easy.
You, too, can make something new! Stop worrying! It’s so easy!
Here is how the zine thing went down: one day my mother decided to read my mail, discovered the horrors I’d been filling my head with, and forbade zines under her roof. So I started having all my contraband mail sent to my best friend’s house instead.
This was my best friend’s idea, by the way.
“Oh, just have your zines sent here,” she suggested. “My parents won’t mind,” she continued, lying to me in this blithe, light way.
Sometimes I picture her as a teenager trying to beat her parents to the mailbox. She wasn’t allowed to read books by R.L. Stine. She was never in trouble, except when I made her late for things. She sang, very very softly, in choir.
My best friend gave me an Atari 2600 before I went away to college, too, even though “TV games” were also against the “rules.” My mother was irate. And my best friend – mellow, level-headed, painfully shy – talked my mother down.
I stopped playing videogames when I was 6, and I started playing them again when I was 18, because videogames had been against the “rules.”
Never mind zines: videogames were never meant for me.
I don’t like to admit that. I think I lose a lot of collateral when I try to write about games like some idiot expert. I feel like an idiot just playing them.
Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Chapter Five.
The chapters in the book are arranged like stages in a videogame, or maybe like panels in a comic book: there is an all-new argument presented once every couple of paragraphs, a syncopated rat-a-tat.
But until Chapter Five, Anthropy hasn’t done any of the hard work for the reader. She hasn’t explained the ties connecting one thought to the next. It’s a constellation with no thoroughfares. Until now, the onus was on you, the “reader” or “player,” to take what meanings you could.
Until now I’ve enjoyed Anthropy’s book. But she’s at her best in this chapter, wherein her book first assumes the timbre of autobiography.
Anthropy’s own origins are deeply relatable. She was a creative writing major in college because she wanted to make games (I totally identify with that). She dropped out. (I don’t identify with that, but for the grace of God.) She studied game design briefly at Southern Methodist University in Plano, Texas. (I do identify with this autobiographical wrinkle and, also, I am so, so sorry.)
SMU is a gentle, dream-killing place; small wonder, then, that Anthropy’s scrappiness got her expelled. These circumstances, added together, birthed Anthropy’s game Calamity Annie – it’s a game I’ve always admired without being able to pinpoint distinct wherefores – and the very notion of Calamity Annie being any sort of autobiographical work strikes me down dumb. But now that I can see this narrative subtext, it’s completely obvious.
I met Anna Anthropy only recently; she was visiting Chicago as part of her book tour. (I guess we’d met once before but, believe me, it doesn’t count.)
A game developer named Jake Elliott had organized the event. I took a cab. I greeted everybody. I greet people anytime I am trying to find my way toward the beer.
I’d already read the book. In fact, I’d already reviewed it. I’d already written everything you’ve read up till now, and I’d already written most of the parts that come later.
I’d already made up my mind to make up my mind, is what I’m saying.
When I wrote this review, I did not count Anna Anthropy among my friends. I do now. A lot of that is because of the book.
The book, the book. It has been slow and rough-going.
Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: Chapter Six.
In this chapter, Anthropy catalogues several independently-developed games, using each to illustrate not only how simply a game can be made, but how efficiently each game can communicate its ideas.
Chapter Six is the actual nitty-gritty of the book. But this is no textbook, no instruction manual. It isn’t advice. It’s a writing prompt. Anthropy is giving you some of her very best ideas, mostly for free.
What’s that you say? You’re scared? You’re scared because you can’t seem to wring a single original thought out of your anemic little heart? No sweat! “Don’t worry about making an original game,” Anthropy tells us, in a section titled ‘Be Derivative.’ “Just worry about making it yours.”
Here’s the rest of her advice: Use your limitations. Use what you already have on hand. And – I enjoyed this – ‘Make Weird Shit.’
“I’m trying to review your book,” I admitted to Anna directly, a little bit helplessly, a little bit crippled by my own nerves. “It’s become…uh. This book is a total existential crisis, for me.”
That was true. I was telling her this from the crest of a meltdown.
But I also felt like a criminal. I had this book review – the exact thing you’re reading now, almost, only I kept inexplicably calling it “unfinished” – with me. I offered to show it to her. I secretly wanted her to read it right then and there, I think because I hoped she would nuke me. I hoped she would look at my review and show me how I was wrong about the book, about games, about life.
“You might not like my review,” I added, and I was probably flinching violently.
“Why wouldn’t I like your review?” she asked me. It wasn’t a rhetorical question: she was really asking. I stared at her. I shrugged.
“I’m trying to review your book. It’s become…uh. This book is a total existential crisis, for me.”
“The other problem,” I continued, “is I’ve tried to write my review as I read the book, instead of waiting and writing the entire review later.”
This made her laugh.
“So,” she said, grinning impishly. “You’ll read a paragraph, write a paragraph, read another paragraph, rewrite all your paragraphs.”
I nodded, “Yes, exactly!”
These aren’t exact quotes. I was not recording Anna Anthropy, obviously. I was just talking to her. I’m barely a journalist. Actually, I take that back: I’m not a journalist.
Real journalists read fast, write fast, say things nice and neat. They’re shortwinded, clinical, efficient. They don’t pick fights with themselves over book reviews. It doesn’t take a month and a half to read a fucking book, okay.
This isn’t rocket science, here.
I am not 100% down with Anna Anthropy’s ideas.
Her main argument – that we can all make games, and ought to – is certainly revolutionary. And there is an institutionalized homogeneity in the videogames industry, absolutely.
Still: it is rare, but not impossible, for a big-budget AAA title to have a unified artistic vision, in spite of the game’s disparate parts and voices. And when it does, I am undone by a wellspring of admiration for whatever team of game-makers was united in its authorial and aesthetic intent. I cannot help but respect the sacrificial willingness to play even a grunt’s role in a larger work – probably because it’s the type of collaborative, gracious attitude my own personality lacks.
So I am not too sure about Anthropy’s assessment that a game needs to be authored by one person to most closely approximate a truth. I’m not sure books or zines need to be authored by one person. I’m not sure paintings need to be authored by one person. And in fact, videogames might be the one medium that benefits most from the creativity of the hive mind.
I have other issues with Anna’s proposition as well. She contends that games might eventually become the highest, most sublime medium, and she makes a great case. Like, Scott McCloud great. And I do believe people ought to work toward that. Yes.
But the long leap to her point is almost disingenuous: games are important, we are now convinced. But do we really believe that everyone should make games? Is Anthropy’s book really written for everybody? Really? Everybody? For sure? Including the sorority girl who dreams of being an orthodontist? The waiter who just wants to be an airline pilot? Or my mother, who didn’t sign up for that watercolor class like she promised me she would?
When the book promises that “there will be plenty of mediocrity” but “we’ll find new ways to sort that shit,” I dully wonder how. Some days I’m not too sure we need more writers, more guitarists, more comic book artists, more lawyers. And anyway, not every reader dreams of becoming a writer. Not even my mother wants to learn to paint.
I admire screen prints as legitimate art, for instance – I will collect them and take them to be framed by a professional – but I don’t necessarily want to learn how to chemically burn my own images onto the mesh. I’m just a patron. I still read zines, but I don’t need to publish a zine of my own, I don’t think. After all, I have column space right here.
I’m satisfied. I’m sufficient.
Do I have to make a game? Do I have to answer Anthropy’s clarion call?
I mean, I agree that games are important – often banal, sure, but sometimes larger and greater than the sum of their parts – and Rise of the Videogame Zinesters goes a long way in exploring how important videogames are, what videogames can do, how they function as autobiographical documents. But that alone will not make me want to turn my autobiography, my personal data and baggage and girlhood and adulthood, into a game.
I cannot begin to imagine building a game, even as the book tries to imagine the process for me. And okay, this book has convinced me I can, and that you can, and that’s nice, but I’m not sure anyone can be convinced to want to.
What if I don’t want to make a game? What if I only want to play them? What if that is enough for me?
Suppose I feel like – or suppose I might be worried, maybe – I can only say things with words.
Suppose I have a dying need to over-explain, to never let a videogame do all the subtle work for me. Suppose I might be misunderstood; worse, suppose a game left me overexposed. No, I’m not too sure I have an entire game in me.
These are only counterbalances. Believe me, they go no distance in undermining Anthropy’s beautiful book.
Because I do approve of Anna Anthropy’s attitude. You don’t have to be a cog if you don’t want to be. You don’t have to wait for your ship to come in.
You can be in absolute control of your own destiny, and your players’.
You can singlehandedly change the world, probably.
If I so fundamentally oppose Anthropy’s philosophies, and at every possible turn, about what makes a videogame authorially “authentic” and “true,” or about whether everyone should make a game at all, how can I also believe that Rise of the Videogame Zinesters is the most important book about games yet written?
It is strange, yes, that I would believe all these things simultaneously.
In the mid-1990s Rolling Stone interviewed the late Howard Zinn, the radical historian, about allegations of “bias” in his People’s History of the United States.
Zinn’s response, “effectively” (which is to say, I’ve fabricated still another quote): of course my book is biased. Of course it is a revisionist history. Of course there is a slant. That’s the whole point. It isn’t “true” taken all by itself. But there are already so many history books saying “this, this, this,” championing some consensual version of truth. My book is not meant to be read alone but, rather, to be added unto the sum collective of recorded history, so that our perception of “history” can start to approach the absolute truth of things.
That’s Zinn in a nutshell. (Except he would never go “this, this, this.” That part was me.)
Irrespective of how you or I feel about Anthropy’s book and all it contends, it is the book the games industry needs. It is a revision of “this is how things have always been” so that we can begin work on a rounder, fuller, more complete picture.
Which is what Anthropy herself argues for, isn’t it: more game-making, so that the sum of all things will account for more “truths.”
Anna Anthropy’s palpable urgency, however, is what moves me most. Why am I waiting? Why do I always feel like waiting?
Why is anybody – anybody who does want to make a game, or anything at all – waiting?
In many ways – and this is my own fault – Anthropy is not who I expected at all.
Sometimes, when you are reading what she’s written, she sounds angry. No, I don’t mean to undermine her: she is angry. Certainly. There is a lot that ought to make Anna Anthropy angry. But she isn’t angry the way you think, maybe.
She’s good-natured, for one. She has a sense of humor. There’s a twinkle in her eye, always, even when she challenges people. When someone asks her something, or tells her something, she gets this keen, serious look that means she’s listening hard. When she disagrees with something, she voices it in this disciplined, measured way. When she speaks, and especially when she speaks to a group, she is magnetic.
How can I describe this? Anthropy speaks the way she writes – there is no artifice, there’s zero bullshit – but she isn’t confrontational at all. She makes these proclamations, yes, but they’re all kind of… gallant.
When she reads aloud from her book, you listen, and you realize you’ve been reading the book in the wrong voice.
Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: Chapter Seven.
This chapter is here to help you through your first game. It’s not intended as an instruction manual, as an encyclopedic reference, or even as a step-by-step guide. Rather, it’s a series of tasks designed to stimulate you creatively, to get you thinking about game design decisions, and to actively involve you in working on a game – which is the most important part.
Try to ensure that all the rules in the game have relationships with each other. If you think of them as a vocabulary – nouns, verbs, and adverbs – try to construct a vocabulary with which you can tell engaging stories.
Task #7: Design a Level. I’m using the term level to mean a sequence of events the player has to negotiate using her vocabulary of verbs. In other words, a level is a story: the tension that rises before the climax of the game resolves it.
One of the nicest things about Anna Anthropy’s book is that it is very transparently written for creative writing majors who never had the foresight to take a programming class.
A writer friend, who’d finished reading the book long before I did, promised that its text briefly acknowledges people like me – that consummate outsider who will never, ever design a game of her own.
This was what I had been waiting for! I searched for the paragraph my pal had recommended. But I felt sick. I worried that, if I ever found that text, I would have to rewrite the book review all over again.
Finally I asked Daphny David – she is Anna Anthropy’s subordinate, yes, yes, and a crucial figure in the telling of Anthropy’s biography – about this section in the book I had somehow lost. How had I skipped past it?
Daphny asked Anna about it. Then they told me the passage does not exist.
Whole minutes passed.
“I found it,” my friend said, “page 140.”
It’s possible that your interest in digital game creation is purely academic and doesn’t extend to becoming an author. In that case, I hope that what you take away from this book is that the videogame isn’t the creation of a corporation, but of an author, that this form is important, and that people are using it to do exciting things.
“Do you see it?” my friend asked me.
“Plain as day,” I replied. “Even Anna wasn’t sure those sentences exist.”
“It doesn’t really seem like it fits on that page, right?” my friend said.
“I’m glad it’s there, though,” I told him. “She is giving me something to do.”
I pointed out the passage to Daphny.
“Oh, yeah,” Anna told her, “I do remember writing that line.”
After I’d talked to Anthropy about games and her book – and about subcultures, health insurance, death, Occupy, whether humankind is inherently good, Jersey Shore – I told her I admired her advocacy. Advocacy is the most important thing, probably.
“I’ve always had one advocate,” I explained, and then I told her about my best childhood friend. But I stopped my story short.
I suddenly felt very stupid. I needed to wipe my eyes.
In speaking to Anna Anthropy in person, you immediately notice this: if she has an opinion she states it, and she says it in this undressed, matter-of-fact way. But she says it all smiling and twinkly-eyed, too. She isn’t even blunt; she’s telling you something you ought to be happy to hear.
We generally don’t take kindly to people with strong opinions, do we? When we see an opinion in print, we read it to ourselves in the way we would say it instead.
It’s a mistake.
Sometimes we read Anna’s thoughts in our own angry voice, and then we wonder how she could be so forceful and mean.
The real truth is, I cannot find a single fault in Anthropy’s book. In reading, I only find faults in my own attitudes.
I used to think – and I told Jake Elliott about this once – that I might like to create a videogame where all you do is try to take care of your parents. There would be nobody else for you to interact with, and the whole game would be walking in circles, getting drunk and becoming physically and emotionally unable to leave the house. Maybe occasionally you’d get to put out a small fire.
I thought it might be nice to script the game using photographs from my own life.
Don’t wait, I wish I could have told myself then. Don’t wait to start making this game because, six months from now, you won’t have a father to photograph.
I don’t want to make that game anymore. When I think about it I don’t feel anything.
Well, I feel tired.
I told Anthropy, as a joke, “I’m no contrarian!”
“You’re no contrarian,” she repeated knowingly. She smiled, but then she visibly became serious again. I think she was thinking. I started thinking, too.
My main issue with Anthropy’s book is, I might never want to make a game of my own. Sometimes, when I read things she has written, I want to pick a fight with Anthropy, no matter how encouraging and willing she is.
Unfortunately, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters assumes that a reader like me will want to make a game, once she sees how easy it is, how important games are, how necessary her voice is. The book presupposes that she is on board, and so it leaps ahead, leaving some of its best arguments impotent.
The other difficulty is you.
The book itself is terrific – brilliant, even – and I only hope you can match its zeal. You should be passionate about your game idea. You should want to have that passion. You should aspire to be as passionate as Anna Anthropy is when she encourages you to go forth and multiply. Anthropy believes in you. She believes in your possibility.
More than anything else, you should want to be your own benefactor. Be vehement, be obstinate.
But don’t wait. You risk losing your knack for wanting to make things, or to bother saying things.
Read this book sooner rather than later. You might wake up one day feeling so, so tired.
Rise of the Videogame Zinesters is available on Amazon and elsewhere. Given its popularity, the book is already primed for its second printing. You can follow Jenn Frank on Twitter @Jennatar.