Galaga, by Michael Kimball. Los Angeles, California: Boss Fight Books. 136 pages. $14.95, paper.
Let’s say you’re interested in reading a book on Galaga. Remember Galaga? Let’s say you’re a lifelong fan of the 80s bug-shooting arcade game in which case of course you remember. You spent your childhood in the local arcade feeding a pocketful of quarters into the machine and maybe you never got the hang of those swarming insects or maybe you got a high score one lucky day when you didn’t lose your double fighters or maybe you got the high score everyday because the internal logic of the game clicked with you, the stage patterns spoke to some subconscious part of your being, the part that knows exactly where a tossed ball will land or how to worm out of parent-related trouble, and for that summer Galaga was your life.
In all likelihood you were somewhere between eleven and sixteen years old when the game reached arcades in 1982 putting you somewhere in your mid-forties right now, the same approximate age as Michael Kimball, author of Galaga, the new work from Boss Fight Books. If so, it is possible that you are prone to nostalgia. You own Galaga clothing, you have a Galaga tattoo or hang a Galaga Christmas ornament on your tree, or you are former Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis and, according to Michael Kimball, you have a Galaga arcade machine in one of your homes because you have fond memories of playing it as a kid.
In which case, what do you look for in a book about Galaga? What do you expect? Are you looking for a bit of history on the game? Kimball delivers. “Galaga was designed by a man named Shigeru Yokoyama,” he writes, “who is still on the board at Namco-Banda” and has “shaggy hair, glasses, and slightly bucked teeth.” Kimball also provides information on the composer who created the sound and music for Galaga, he lays out Galaga’s place in the history of arcade games, and he exhaustively demonstrates how Galaga has invaded popular culture.
Are you looking for discussion of strategy or an obsessive level of arcane trivia? Don’t worry, more than half the book is full of notes like:
To recapture a captured fighter, it’s easiest and safest to let the Boss Galaga make a complete loop on either the left of the right side of the screen, then curl to the opposite side of the screen under where it made its loop. Wait there, let the Boss Galaga square up with the bottom of the screen (so it is between the white active fighter and the red captured fighter), and then shoot the Boss Galaga at the last instant. Just don’t miss and let the Boss Galaga crash into the active fighter.
Or are you hoping for a confirmation of your lingering belief that there was something special about Galaga, that all those hours you spent on the game shaped you in a formative way and are, in the end, worth something? Are you really just looking for someone to articulate how and why a simple arcade game could be so important to a person that it could maybe even save their life? Because, yes, Kimball explores such questions in complex and deepening ways over the course of the book and while he remains aware that it is just a game, that it doesn’t hold all the answers or solve everyone’s problems, he nevertheless demonstrates its transcendental potential, describing in earnest how Galaga taught him friendship and love and loss and self-worth, how it helped him live though ridicule and pain, how it sheltered him from his own abusive family, his own hard childhood.
It was a difficult time in my life and going to the arcade any chance I got was a good excuse to get out of an abusive household. Galaga was my longest quarter and I could almost always set the daily high score in any arcade. Playing that video game gave me a way to space out and let me forget about the rest of my life. Galaga was my game and it might have saved my life too.
But maybe you’re not Galaga obsessed. Let’s say you just like video games, particularly the classics. Let’s say you are interested in engaging with video games in a thoughtful and aesthetically compelling way. Did you play a lot of these games as a kid? Maybe. Are you attached to academia or the arts in some way? It is likely. Are you the kind of person who not only has strong opinions about the media’s obsession with the do-video-games-cause-violence question but also a nuanced and thoroughly researched response that you sometimes deliver at length to strangers at the bar? It is not out of the question.
In which case you would turn to Kimball’s Galaga looking to compare his style and approach to other Boss Fight Book titles like Chrono Trigger, by Michael P. William, or EarthBound, by Ken Baumann. (Perhaps you have already read Jeremy Behreandt’s thoughtful reviews of both books right here on Heavy Feather and found his breakdown of the typical approaches to writing about video games is particularly useful.) Having read books and articles about video games before you would want to know what makes Kimball’s Galaga worthy of note. If so, you wouldn’t be surprised to find the usual mix of memoir, game strategy, history, and analysis—a mixture that has characterized Boss Fight Books thus far. You would, however, find Kimball’s choice of structure intriguing: a collage of two hundred fifty-five page-long chapters for each of Galaga’s two hundred fifty-five stages, juxtaposing narratives, ideas, factoids, and reflections with little to no connective tissue. This could be a meta-structural commentary on how video games often feel—disjointed, distracted, multivalent. It could be an attempt to engage the reader more actively in the ideas of the book by forcing them to draw their own connections and conclusions. Or it could just be cute, convenient, a bit simple, or even somewhat frustrating. It depends on your point of view, of course.
You would also be interested in the unique way Kimball recounts the various homemade Galaga merchandise available online or the different user-created Galaga hacks that are out there, occasionally mixing in fake examples from his own imagination and admitting to it a few pages later. After a while you hear so many true examples of different kinds of Galaga porn or Galaga hacks such as Galaga Bin Ladin that even something as crazy as this—“There is a Galaga hack called Galigula in which the bosses are the heads of Roman emperors, the bees and people in togas, and the butterflies are two people fucking. The bullets are daggers in honor of Caligula’s assassination.”—starts to sound not only possible but probably true too. Besides being a fun subversion of authorial responsibility, this mixture of real and fake Galaga products also takes on deeper meaning, asking the reader to examine a culture which gives rise to such fandom as well as our own inclination to believe that if it can be imagined it must already exist. This is just the kind of indirect suggestion Kimball brings to his subject and while you may wish for more direct analysis or clearly spelled out meaning, Galaga the book—like Galaga the game—will only give back as much as you are willing to put in.
But maybe video games aren’t that important to you. Let’s say you’re just a fan of Michael Kimball’s writing. You read his 2008 book Dear Everybody and were floored by how a series of suicide letters to friends and family and neighbors and strangers and Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and God could result in such a cohesive narrative with fully developed characters and a satisfying emotional arc. Or you read last year’s Big Ray with your hand over your mouth in stunned disbelief, amazed at how he was able to render such complex trauma with such straightforward beauty. It is also entirely possible that you have followed Kimball’s career from the beginning and seen the ways he has allowed himself to write about his childhood abuse at the hands of his father and brother with fewer and fewer fictional layers of protection. A path as personal as it is artistic.
In which case the story here will no doubt be familiar. “To understand why playing video games is so important to me, you have to know this abuse history too,” Kimball writes. It is the same trauma he has spent the majority of his writing life uncovering only now out in the open as nonfiction, as honest naked truth.
I was a skinny little kid who didn’t grow up until my late teens. My older brother was a lot bigger than him. I’m noting our relative sizes because I grew up in an abusive household. I was picked on and beaten up by my older brother. I was picked on and beaten up and had other horrible stuff done to me by my stupid dad. (It didn’t help that both of them were named Ray.) I lived in a fairly constant state of fear after the abuse started and before I was big enough to fight back with any real ability to return the pain they inflicted on me. Because of this, playing games became a refuge for me.
But the trauma doesn’t overshadow the story entirely. In fact, you would find that many of the best, most emotional moments of the book involve the childhood that developed outside the home in the local Lansing arcade Aladdin’s Castle. Kimball renders the setting with reverence and awe:
I walked into the place and was engulfed by the sound: the splash of tokens from the change machine, the flippers and clatter of the pinball machines, the tokens being dropped in coin slots, the hopeful theme music that started so many arcade games, all the beeps and dunh-dunhs, all the shooting and explosions, all of it mashed together into a wall of sound. I had never heard anything like it before.
There, at Aladdin’s, Kimball finds safety and confidence. He has a brief adolescent romance and falls in love for the first time. Most moving is the story of his friendship with another boy named Todd. “We had a friendly competition with one another, and then a less-than-friendly competition between us and everyone else in the arcade. It was great to have a friend to do this with—us against the world.” As with most childhood friendships, this one must come to an end and in relating the slow motion falling apart along with the lonely trips to the arcade after, Kimball gets at something bigger than any video game: the joy and pain of human connection.
“I probably shouldn’t have agreed to write a book about a video game that has almost no story to it, but I didn’t think of that before I signed the contract for Galaga,” says Kimball late in the book. And while he does lean too heavily on overly detailed strategy, while he does have trouble pulling deeper meaning or analysis from the game itself, Kimball succeeds in making us care about Galaga by making us care about him. His enthusiasm is infectious.
Todd and I each pushed a token into the coin slot and listened to the hopeful techno music that introduces Galaga. The screen flashed “START” and then “STAGE 1” and then “READY.” I tapped the joystick back and forth. I fingered the fire button. I was ready.
Or maybe, just maybe, you have no idea about any of this. Let’s say you’ve never heard of Galaga or Boss Fight Books, you’ve never read any Michael Kimball, you have little interest in video games and literature doesn’t play a very large role in your day-to-day schedule. Let’s say, in other words, that you have a life. A job. You have to wake up every morning at 4am because you’re installing the plumbing on the new Hospital they’re building out in Monfort Heights. You spent two years in rural Cambodia for the Peace Corps helping deliver babies and now you are studying global health and human population so you can develop better systems of sanitation practice in developing countries. What do you expect of this book? Or any book for that matter? Is it a fair question to ask what Galaga has to offer your or why it would be worth your time or money given that this book, like most every book, isn’t intended for absolutely everyone but rather a limited group of potentially interested readers? Or is this the most important question we can ask of any book? Why should we read it? What does it matter?
I’m not sure I have an answer. I’m not even confident these are the right questions to be asking, to be honest. So if you fall into this category and you choose not to read the book, I don’t blame you. I’m sure Kimball and Boss Fight Books wouldn’t blame you either. It’s understandable. But if you do decide to check it out, if you read it freely with an open mind—even with no knowledge of the author or the game or the press or anything—I can guarantee you won’t be able to put it down until you clear all the stages.
Matt Weinkam’s work has appeared in TINGE Magazine, Monkeybicycle, and The Rumpus and he is an editor for Threadcount, an online journal of hybrid prose. He is currently in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University in Marquette.