Lucky Wander Boy (Plume, 2003) is a novel that starts with the protagonist rediscovering the videogames of his youth through the MAME arcade emulator. But the game that he most wants to play, an obscure Japanese game for which the book is named, lies beyond his reach — it can’t be emulated, since its innovations required a specially built arcade cabinet. This epic quest might drive the story, but its strengths are the loopy humour and the opportunities it offers the author, D. B. Weiss, to play with concepts of childhood and obsession.
I read the book a while back and emailed the author to thank him. Finally, someone had brought up the existential question: for the brief time between Pac-Man disappearing from one side of the screen and appearing on the other, where does he go? Weiss suggests a few possibilities in the novel (that the pixelated mouth goes to Pac-Man Valhalla, where there’s a infinite amount of dots to gobble, was my favourite) and was equally generous with the questions I had for him.
What kind of response have you gotten from gamers having read Lucky Wander Boy? Was it what you expected?
I was really pleased to find out through experience that the statistics were right: gamers run the gamut from 13 (the youngest person to write me about the book) to 50, and indeed, they have retained the ability to read and like books. Or read and dislike books, in a few cases. Either way, it was gratifying to see that, in the eyes of most of the gamers who read the book and either wrote or spoke to me about it, I’d gotten something right, captured something of our group experience in a way they found funny or meaningful.
What’s your personal relationship with games, past and present?
Growing up, games were just as important to me as books/movies/ music. Except, unlike books and movies, games usually involved a social element. Gaming is often portrayed as some sort of anti-social activity, but when I was nine or 10, it was my cops ‘n’ robbers, or whatever the hell idealized ’50s kids were supposed to play.
I fell out of it for a long time once I got to college, which I regret — thanks to emulation, I’m getting a taste of all the games I missed, and realizing how many of them are infinitely more fun than reading Michel Foucault. But PS2 and Xbox won me back, and now it’s amazing that I get anything done.
Nostalgia for videogames is fairly recent — they’ve just been around long enough for the kids who played them to look back. Is there anything different about the nostalgia for games and the nostalgia for, say, pinball?
Yeah, I think there is. My dad has great nostalgia for pinball. He’s got a pinball machine in the basement, he plays it a few times a week… but honestly? The mechanics, look and gameplay of pinball are pretty limited. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s pretty much an extinct evolutionary line, you know? Gaming nostalgia, on the other hand, will end up being like moving picture nostalgia, I think — which is to say, it’ll morph into “gaming history,” and become respectable, and end up (as it already has) as the topic of various scholarly articles, retrospective documentaries and half-assed appreciations in The New York Times.
Has anything in recent games inspired you like the MAME emulator?
Katamari Damacy (Namco, 2004) was certainly an inspiration — it really captured the whacked-out, topsy-turvy experience I got from playing early Nintendo games, but scaled up (literally) to take advantage of current hardware, but not too much advantage, and I liked that too. The designers chose a visual simplicity that works in the game’s favour. I haven’t been able to adequately describe the game’s appeal to people, I don’t think, but I still try every chance I get.
The surrealist game in question in your book was also Japanese. Do you think Asian games are inherently of better quality or just more interesting due to the cultural difference?
I don’t know, man… after finishing Katamari Damacy, I’m inclined to say they’re better… but that’s a pretty unique game by any standards. Honestly, I just found the store near me that sells Japanese imports. Let me play a few more of them before I develop a real opinion about that. It does seem that there’s a hell of a lot more variety over there than over here. I like a good racing game as much as the next guy, but how many dozen can you make?