In What Are You Playing This Weekend? we discuss gaming and such with prominent figures in the pop-culture arena. We always start with the same question.
Ken Baumann is an actor, writer, and publisher. He stars in ABC Family’s The Secret Life Of The American Teenager, and his first novel, Solip, was recently published by Tyrant Books. Along with writer Gabe Durham, Baumann is helping to launch a series of 33 1/3-style books called Boss Fight Books, each focused on a single classic video game. Baumann has chosen to write about the Super Nintendo role-playing game EarthBound.
The Gameological Society: What are you playing this weekend?
Ken Baumann: Now I am playing EarthBound exclusively. I had plans to break it up, just to keep it interesting, and play some of the PlayStation 3 games I have, but those have already bored me. I have a problem with most new video game titles where I’ll play about half of the game, and because the campaigns are so fucking long, I’ll put them down in the middle and come back to them two weeks later and just not care. Then I’ll go trade it in to GameStop and play like half of another game. But now I’m 24/7 EarthBound. The Kickstarter, I think, is about 500 bucks away from getting me my author advance. So now I have a deadline. Now I’m playing EarthBound professionally, which is a childhood dream I’ve made come true.
Gameological: How old are you again?
Gameological: And EarthBound came out in…
Gameological: So how old were you when you started playing?
Baumann: Well, five years old. I was playing with my older brother, and he was—oh God, do the math, Ken—12 at the time. It’s weird, because I barely remember how the game was played. I remember the game, but I don’t remember if we switched off, or if it was primarily me watching my brother. So I have been calling him and asking him all of these questions about EarthBound. It’s weird, because Scott and I don’t talk that often. So now it’s like rekindling our relationship, which is a nice, nice side effect. He told me that when we played, we would switch off. When he told me that, I imagined 5-year-old me and with my 12-year-old older brother passing me the controller and letting me play his game. It got me a little bit.
Gameological: How did the Boss Fight Books project come about?
Baumann: Gabe told me—I wish I could remember the light bulb moment for him. It was probably over food. But he said, “33 1/3 for video games. Why doesn’t it exist?” And I went, “Yeah, okay. It must exist.” So we turned to Google, and Google told us that it did not exist, at least in our excited, cursory search. And so we were like, let’s just do it. We’ll just do it, because the idea is so good and simple and kind of obvious that it has got to be in the ether, and somebody will get to it before us. Then it was a lot of me hammering Gabe. We heard rumblings that some other video game writer was in the process of maybe assembling this same idea, and I was like, “We just have to fucking beat him!”
Gameological: Stake your internet claim.
Baumann: Yeah, exactly. You don’t have to be the best to win. Sometimes you just have to be first. Because it’s all a competition…
Gameological: If you’re not first, you’re last—on the internet.
Baumann: So then we just worked our asses off for about a month. Gabe found the first season of writers and put together the contracts and put together the administrative stuff. I was doing all the design work, and we were banging out the covers. And when we did the Kickstarter, it was like we have to take this thing really seriously now. And I’m glad we did. It did really well, for my expectations. I thought it would take plenty of time to reach the goal, and we just blew past it.
Gameological: Last I checked, it had almost doubled the initial $5,000 ask, with 25 days left.
Baumann: Yeah! It’s incredible. I guess some of our early hints that the market can bear it, that there might be a big enough overlap between readers and video game players. I knew there had to be more of us out there. And it looks like it’s true.
Gameological: I saw you wrote something the other day about three more recent games that resonated with you.
Baumann: I had tried to write an essay about just the Walking Dead game. I had also recently played Spec Ops: The Line, which I couldn’t get out of my head, and Kentucky Route Zero, which I had played most recently. So I kind of put them all together, and thought they are all kind of similar in that they’re brave in their tone. I think The Walking Dead kind of comports to zombie games and zombie apocalypse scenarios, but it’s really, really emotionally brutal. And the writing is as close to capturing the ambiguity of wanting to say something and you say something that’s close enough, and that gets misinterpreted and that just irrevocably affects the world. Or your little world. Spec Ops was great because it was just incredibly critical of shooters, and to have such an intensely meta-critical game exist on a big platform kind of blows my mind. It would be like The Fast And Furious making a bunch of snide comments about people who watch The Fast And Furious. It’s just not gonna happen. Vin Diesel isn’t going to say, “What does this all mean?” and drive his car off a bridge. But you kind of get that in Spec Ops. Kentucky Route Zero is just really gorgeous and really artful and weird.
Gameological: How much of the book is going to be your experience and how much is going to be objective history?
Baumann: They’re mixed together. I had planned originally to do one chapter of history, one chapter of my experience, one chapter of my relationship as an adult. Or one chapter of me replaying it as an adult for the first time. And then I started writing it, and it all blended—because I have no discipline—but it feels more interesting to me this way, so hopefully it works that way for the reader. I’d like to make it the most authoritative artifact about EarthBound. So I do want a lot of the history, and sort of the origin story, and what has happened to it since with the fan community. So I want it to be historical, but that’s not my only aim.
Gameological: A couple of my friends did 33 1/3 books. One covered Ween, and another did, I think, ABBA?
Gameological: I know. They are small books, but I know both of them kind of got pulled down the rabbit hole while doing the research.
Baumann: It’s incredible. It’s almost a little scary for me. I have this document, and it’s just like link, link, link, link, and it’s growing out of fucking control. I haven’t been annotating where I’m pulling sources from, so that’s going to be a lot of fun in the second draft. I thought there would be a terminal point; an event horizon of a cultural object that you can’t go past. It isn’t the case at all, man.
And now, we put the question to you. Tell us what you’ve been playing lately, and which games—video or otherwise—are on your playlist for the weekend.