Many movies made about, based on, or even featuring games have often failed to show the human side of gaming. Games are often either portrayed as violent twitch experiences or all-encompassing virtual reality worlds without boundaries.
The written word has an even greater difficulty. Studies of games in recent history have either strayed in the territory of too technical, creating vast amounts of soulless documentation on how games play, look, and sound, or have been somewhat too human, focusing solely on how the games look and anecdotes behind their creation rather than what makes the games interesting.
Video games, the interactive art of corresponding actions to on screen visuals and audio cues, are inherently difficult to show.
But who'd have thought that it'd be a poet from Las Vegas to finally get the feeling that goes along with video games right?
"Blue Wizard is About to Die" (an obvious reference to Gauntlet 2) is poet, musician and writer Seth "Fingers" Flynn Barkan's third book, and the first about his childhood obsession: video games.
"Growing up in Vegas is hard to explain," Barkan said. "People come and go. The population here is mostly transitory. In fact, despite what you think, it's a really small town. Because it was a small town, and I didn't have as many friends as I would've liked, I grew up playing video games."
The large Vegas arcade scene in his childhood is where a lot of Barkan's early experiences with games came in. His father, a musician, often played at clubs while his son played in one of the local arcades.
Barkan wrote the book "with the normal person" in mind. His intention in writing the book wasn't so much to impress old-school hard-core gamers, but to cause the casual gamer to reminisce and remember how it felt to play great games at one point in their life.
At that, Barkan succeeds with flying colors.
Using the condensed poetic form, Barkan avoids the common mistake in portraying video games either by who makes them or how they look. Instead, most of his poems feature short narratives about either his life around the time of the game – an example being the father/son relationship in "Kid Icarus" – or how he felt while playing the game – such as the terror-filled "Pac-Man."
Most impressively, the poems have great staying power. I found myself on numerous occasions reading one of the poems, getting it stuck in my mind, and then reciting it to one of my unwitting friends. The poems are almost all catchy, and almost every friend of mine who games found at least one poem to love.
Furthermore, each poem has its own form and style and sound to it. The poem "Half-Life" is anxious and full of dread. The poem "Bubble Bobble" is weird and catchy and cute. Even the poem "Missile Command" portrays a feeling of impending doom.
Barkan is at his best when he poems not only relive the experiences of the game, but also say something about gaming through them. "Smash TV" is a long poem both about the old co-operative action game, and about the camaraderie that develops between two players while playing. "Haven't Played In Years," one of my personal favorites not only talks about a gamer growing older, but how the state of games now has completely changed the industry's perspective of games in the past.
"The Things I've Experienced" is a retort to non-gamers, a strident declaration of love of gaming that Barkan makes through listing the various roles he's played through video games.
If the book has a flaw it is that many of the poems rely on the reader's knowledge of the game being shown. While most of the poems don't require previous knowledge, some, such as the hilarious "Paper Boy" and "Crazy Taxi" are empty without a previous knowledge of the games. While I got the references, many of my friends unfamiliar with either title didn't get the joke or see the humor in the poem.
Besides the poems, there is also a length appendix in the back of "Blue Wizard" that not only explains every poem in detail, but also gives countless facts about the games. According to Barkan, over a hundred hours went into researching the games for the book, and many of the facts found were just too precious to pass up sharing with the reader.
"The appendix became so long that I eventually had to cut most of it. Originally, I wanted to do a little bit about every video game I had ever played. Eventually, it became more about the games that are in the book and facts behind them."
Barkan's background came strongly into play while writing "Blue Wizard." While none of the poems adopt a traditional structure that most people will recognize, many of his poems to seem to have a jazzy, improvised feel to them. As Barkan noted, many video games, especially the older ones from the eighties seem to have a rhythm to them.
"Video games, for me, really incorporate the techniques and skills of music. Look at the old scrolling shooters – they're like solos. You start off slow, and build up until you reach that final climax of the solo, having to weave in and around the enemies or the keys until you finish the piece."
Despite his passion for games, Barkan realized the possible backlash against his book.
While there has been praise for the book, some publications, such as Computer Gaming World, have given the book negative reviews.
"That hurt our sales. We're getting great reviews from literary publications, but just one review like that can hurt the book."
The poet was quick to acknowledge that his poems can be silly, such in the case of "Bubble-Bobble", and can deviate from the game itself, such as the poetic license taken in "Half-Life." However, he reiterated that the poems were about the experience of the game as much as they were about the game itself. "Bobble-Bobble" just basks in the silliness of the game its based on, and "Half-Life" builds an amount of tension that most people in Freeman's shoes can attest to.
Since finishing the book and its recent publishing, Barkan seemed relieved to have the weight off his chest. While some reviews have been negative, the overwhelming response from gamers, such as at the retro-gaming festivals in Las Vegas, has been positive.
In fact, the response seems to be so good that Barkan plans on releasing many of his cut poems on the website as a bonus to readers. These poems, such as "A Lullaby for Voldo" were considered by the poet either too "fan-boy" or they just weren't up to his standards.
Most interestingly enough is Barkan's view of the book in retrospect.
"What I found, after I finished the book, was that the book is really an
autobiography of my life. The book goes from my earliest experiences to the latest in my life. It's almost me through what I was playing at the time."
And for a independently published book of poetry to be the first real medium to accurately portray video games, being an autobiography of the author almost seems proper.
You can check out more samples of and order Barkan's book "Blue Wizard is About to Die" at http://www.twhi.org/bluewizard.htm.
And that's that for my "Reading Rainbow" moment.
The terror I experience
during my "tactical" flight
is very real, as real
as any nameless creeping
horror derived from any supernatural
stalking presence waiting
to seize me from the darkness
at my back while walking
down a black alleyway.
They are coming for me:
THEY ARE COMING FOR ME!
and I am
to stop them.
King Of Plumbers; cartoon hands
white gloves, a psychotic
jumping thing made of big
slabs of solid color punctuated
by black lines, giving him features;
old hand… old hand… the savior
of the princess. Hero of the mushroom kingdom,
one who commands the psychotic and useless power to Yoshi,
a creature so dumb and pointless that,
only you, my little mustachioed Italian freak,
would dare punch it in the back of the head,
as if to say,
"read the tongue!
prepare to fire!",
mounted like a monkey on a dog at a rodeo;
you bastard, sent him – after jumping – to his death,
using his doomed back for leverage.
Jump those pits, flee into the safety
of the green pipes, spit those shells,
send up the flag at every castle in the kingdom,
for, I, the liberator, the conquering Italian hero,
have returned, again and again and again;
we're going to make millions doing this!
you and me, kid, millions!
It is a great irony
that a child
tortured by fears
of nuclear holocaust
should take such delight
in a game
that gave its own
of the apocalypse;
the mushroom cloud
rising as a splash
of red pixels,
the dream maker
by his own creations.
I lose the last base:
blew my missiles too early,
pace myself "My God, we're
all going to die," I thought,
and we did.
The Game Over screen comes up
and, with sweaty palms
whisper one word, standing
in awe of the end
of life as we know it:
Mike Drucker was born in the wilderness of suburban South Florida. When he was younger, his parents were foolish enough to buy him and his sister a Nintendo Entertainment System. Taking it to it like someone who takes to something they like, thank you very much, Mike became a gaming addict. Initially planning to become a strategy guide writer as a child, Mike realized he sucked at games competitively. Later deciding to become a programmer, it became apparent Mike was a failure at software engineering. Finally settling on writing about gaming culture, Mike may still have no skills, but he's trying his darndest to break into the niche of videogame journalism.
Mike's currently a sophomore at New York University, majoring in English and Journalism (two separate degrees, mind you), and minoring in Creative writing. He's 19 years old.
Besides gaming, Mike reviews movies for a local newspaper, covers NYU sports for a different newspaper, and writes short stories for his hard drive and hopes.
His website is http://home.nyu.edu/~msd248.