Lucky Wander Boy

Salon posted a review of Lucky Wander Boy today, and that made me realize it was about time I did the same, since I’ve been done with the book for about a month now.
Lucky Wander Boy‘s premise is interesting, and certainly familiar to some of us – guy spends too much time obsessing about retro gaming. He starts looking for deeper meaning in the games, and begins cataloging his thoughts.

Those of us who do retrogaming – or practically any sort of gaming – know the type; they’re the people who say that in 200 years, Mario 64 will be in a museum and people will treat it as a work of art. They’re nutty, and they’re out there, but at least they get us thinking about games on a different level than bleep-bloop-honk.
Now, there’s two paths a book like this can really take; you can either keep it general, having the person apply/see video game wisdom in their everyday lives. This wouldn’t give you much plot, but it’d be an interesting read. Alternately, you can have the character obsess over one game, and hold it to some higher standard and make it his life’s work.
Lucky Wander Boy tries to do both. There’s a nice slow build going from the former to the latter, but by the end of the book, the protagonist (Adam Pennyman) is in a full blown quest to find out all he can about the book’s name sake, Lucky Wander Boy, an obscure arcade game from the 80’s that only had 100 machines made.
Much of the first half of the book is a great read, because you get wacky speculation on Pac Man, reasons why Adam hates Double Dragon, his memories of arcades in the 80’s. It’s well written (someone, somewhere, compared him to Palahniuk, and I think that’s fair), a breezy read, and enjoyable.
Unfortunately, it all falls apart when you start getting to the middle.
Why? Let’s take Pac-Man. Everyone has played Pac-Man, and most important, knows the concept behind Pac-Man. Because of this, Adam’s in-depth analysis works. You can get into what he’s saying about there being another dimension off the screen, even if it is silly. Same goes for Donkey Kong, Double Dragon, Frogger, and even to some extent Microsurgeon.
As I mentioned before, the book doesn’t focus on a real game; it focuses on Lucky Wander Boy. In Adam’s book-within-a-book that he’s writing, the Lucky Wander Boy entry takes up 34 pages. Thankfully, we don’t get all of them, we get about 6 of them. Still, we are forced to try and picture this game that no one has played and quite frankly, from the description, sounds boring as sin. For instance, the “second level” of LWB consists of wandering around a randomly generated desert with moving landmarks, finding random objects, and should you find those random objects in the correct random order, you MIGHT find your way to “the third level”, which is essentially Nirvana.
This is normal – all video games sound mundane when put into words. But to make moralizing and intellectualizing about a video game work, you have to have played it or at least make the concept of playing it fathomable. Or hell, to even discuss it – I know that no matter how much I try to explain Beatmania IIDX to people, it will leave me blue in the face until they actually *try* it. So when nearly the entire second half of the book discusses a game that no one has played and then tries to find meaning in that game, it’s lost.
None of the reviews I’ve read have *said* that the book falls apart, mind you. So how am I not a crackpot? I think most of the people reviewing this book are literary types, who haven’t played most of the games he does mention, and get hung up on the whole “OH MY GOD HE’S SAYING THERE’S DEEPER MEANING TO VIDEO GAMES BRILLIANT” train. The aforementioned Salon review barely even talks about the book.
As for the rest of the plot? It’s a very standard dotcom-mega-gaming-portal bit where our hero is a copywriter for a company that just happens to be working on the Lucky Wander Boy movie, thus giving him access to resources that make his trek possible. Coupland did the dotcom thing better in Microserfs, honestly.
As far as d.b. weiss goes, thankfully, he’s certainly gifted as an author; the writing is good, the dialogue is mostly believable, and the exposition is well laid out. I just wish the poor guy had decided to make his plot and action a little more accessible.
So all in all, I give it a hesitant thumbs up; because while it is overrated, the good parts are worth trudging through the bad.