How Boss Fight Books Changed Video Game Literature for the Better

The idea for Boss Fight Books came to founder Gabe Durham in 2013. He was “hungry for the next thing professionally,” he tells me from Los Angeles, where the publishing house is based. He’d been writing and teaching college classes but couldn’t fight off the dissatisfaction with where his career was heading. While contemplating the future, Durham picked up a few books about video games, including Jeff Ryan’s Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America.

But he found even the best books about video games “were broad, sweeping industry histories that more closely covered the financial wins and losses of these big companies.” Durham wanted stories about the games themselves — ways to help him understand the art, method, and people behind the success. It wasn’t that he disliked the stories about the games industry, but he saw an opportunity for more. “It’s such a limited aspect of writing about an art form, and when you’re reading a lot of that stuff in a row, it feels more like you’re reading about capitalism more than art.”

While gaming is now widely accepted as a popular activity for adults, video games were predominantly marketed towards kids back in the ‘90s — and the writing in major magazines, like Electronic Gaming Monthly and Game Players, reflected that. Several decades later, video games have matured and expanded, their audience rightfully recognized for its diversity along all spectrums. Subsequently, the profession of games writing has come a long way from the days of young men writing wet dream jokes to amuse their audience of predominantly adolescent boys. And Boss Fight Books is a big part of that shifting tide. 

While online publications dominate the market share of games journalism these days, there remain publications dedicated to longform physical releases. These boutique presses provide a home for deep analysis that is disappearing in an online world dominated by clicks, engagement, and the insatiable algorithm. Foremost among these is Boss Fight Books and its growing stable of writers who try to change the way we read and write about video games for the better.

Origin Story

Durham envisioned a 33 ⅓-style series about video games instead of musical albums. Named after the rotation speed of a vinyl record, David Barker’s 33 ⅓ was a book series created 10 years prior. Each volume focuses on a single album, giving readers a rich, comprehensive look at the stories behind their favorite music. The first volume covered Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis, and the series continues strong into 2021 with releases examining Duran Duran’s Rio and Donna Summer’s Once Upon A Time.

Durham was surprised to find no one had created it up until that point, considering the increasingly growing scope and diversity of games. By 2013, online games journalism contained a wealth of essays and articles, but books like Ryan’s were few and far between. “It made me really excited for the idea of slowly building out a body of work that could investigate games from lots of different angles, as told by lots of really different people with different levels of expertise,” he says.

Editions 1 through 12 from Boss Fight Books.

Durham then launched a Kickstarter for Boss Fight Books’ first season with a goal of $5,000 in June 2013. In approximately eight hours, the campaign reached its goal. It amassed a whopping $45,429 in total. The appetite for longform games writing was just as ravenous as Durham expected, and Boss Fight Books was off to the races. With the first season underway (Boss Fight Books breaks its publishing schedule up into “seasons,” based on its ongoing Kickstarter campaigns), Durham signed up friend and The Secret Life of the American Teenager star Ken Baumann to write the first volume: Earthbound.

Over two dozen releases later, Boss Fight Books has covered classic games from Chrono Trigger to Silent Hill 2, Final Fantasy V to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and even deep cuts like 1987’s “nauseatingly gory” Soft & Cuddly. It’s a gamut covering decades of gaming, with titles like Reyan Ali’s NBA Jam showing how the formula works even for games that aren’t strongly narratively-driven.

Some writers have connections to Durham — like Baumann, who was the cover designer during Boss Fight Books’ early years. Michael P. Williams, author of Chrono Trigger, was plucked from the open call for pitches before joining Boss Fight Books as an associate editor. After several successful seasons, Durham attracted established games writers like former journalist Chris Kohler (Final Fantasy V), games-writer-turned-TV-writer Mike Drucker (Silent Hill 2), and actor and writer Ashly Burch (Metal Gear Solid).

Sometimes, Durham admitted, it takes a few tries before he finds a good fit with a writer — and the decisions get a little harder each time. The most common avenue is through open reading periods where writers submit pitches. Other times, Durham will reach out to writers himself who he believes would be a good fit for a particular game. 

“Sebastian Deken’s Final Fantasy VI was an interesting one,” Durham says when I ask how the unique story found a home at Boss Fight Books. They received many pitches for the beloved game, most of which took a broad approach. “But we had it in the back of our heads that doing a book about game music would be really fun,” he continues. So, when Deken’s pitch arrived for a game well-known for its classic soundtrack, Durham knew he had the perfect fit.

A couple weeks after perusing that Game Players review of Chrono Trigger, I read Deken’s book, which is, like all Boss Fight Books titles, a personal deep dive into its titular game. I’ve written my own extensive histories of Final Fantasy VI and its partner-in-crime Chrono Trigger, and I’ve even got an upcoming book about the Japanese role-playing genre’s journey to the west. As a result, I went into Deken’s book expecting to enjoy it but not necessarily learn anything. Within a page, I was entranced; by the end, I gained a new perspective on a game I thought I knew inside and out.

“I played Final Fantasy VI when it first came out,” Deken tells me. “So it’s been in my brain for almost as long as I can remember.”

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As an MFA student facing down a research seminar, Deken was dealing with the emotional fallout of losing his mother when the first seeds for the book were planted. “For this research seminar, I’m going to do the stupidest, most fun research that I can,” he remembers thinking. “I love video games, and I love music. I’m going to research live performances of video game music.”

He naturally fell into Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy performances — popular series he’d loved as a kid. “The class was more focused on the research itself and not so much on completing a 30-page article. So I wrote a five to seven page fragment of a research paper.”

Deken was proud of the title for the paper: Knight Music. It was simultaneously a shout out to Mozart and a display of Deken’s penchant for puns. This ability to connect the personal to the broadly historical is exactly what makes the whole Boss Fight Books line, and Deken’s book in particular, so wonderful to read. Each volume bridges our emotional connections to the games we play, while preserving their histories and legacies.

Living History

“In the earliest days, I was interested in exploration and personal experience,” Durham says. “There are people who are alive now, who won’t be a decade from now,” he continues, highlighting the unique opportunity to tell these stories while the original creators of the games are still around to provide context and insight.

It’s important that we’ve woken up to that with video games a little earlier than some other creative mediums, Chris Kohler tells me. The author of Final Fantasy V worked as a games journalist for 25 years before becoming an editorial director at Digital Eclipse — a boutique publisher focusing on classic video games. Sound familiar? As console gaming gained a foothold in living rooms in the ‘80s and ‘90s, many of its pioneers were young. Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi was just 25 years old when he helped create a series that would go on to define the JRPG genre, and he’s still creating games today in his 50s. This sort of access to notable figures who have shaped the industry is an unmissable opportunity for historians.

But it comes with some costs, Kohler cautions. There’s still a sense that the statute of limitations hasn’t lapsed with a lot of these games, so many of the “real stories,” as Kohler calls them, remain tucked away. “They can’t tell stories that might make people look bad,” he explains, “and that tends to give a more sanitized view of how things went down.”

While these creators are still around and willing to talk about most things, access can also be an issue for those deep inside major corporations. Kohler recalled a past interview with Sakaguchi. While he admitted to sneaking in a question or two about Final Fantasy, those opportunities were slim because he had to talk about Blue Dragon instead.

Writing a book like Final Fantasy V, however, opened doors for Kohler to speak candidly with Sakaguchi about his older work. He ended up interviewing Sakaguchi on stage at a Final Fantasy concert in San Francisco, and then reconnecting the next morning in a hotel lobby. “It was so great to get to talk to him about classic Final Fantasy without having to steal time that was supposed to be about something else,” he says. In the more casual environment, Kohler  — who had covered the series for decades — heard stories never reported before, including how a friendly rivalry between Sakaguchi and fellow-Final Fantasy alum Yoshinori Kitase led to some major scenes and gameplay mechanics in Final Fantasy V.

33 ⅓-bits

There’s an interesting parallel between video game music criticism and pop music criticism, Deken tells me. “When rock and roll became a thing, people didn’t know how to talk about it,” he says. Adults expected it to disappear once kids got bored, but it didn’t. Instead, the kids started writing about it. Deken points towards Lester Bangs, who came along with some “really intelligent and incendiary” perspectives that changed the way we thought about music writing. Pop music in the ‘90s went through the same thing, and so on. “Now you can find smart, thoughtful writing about pop music, how we relate to it, and how it relates to our culture, writ large.”

As an adolescent industry, games face an uphill struggle to be recognized as a legitimate medium when it comes to mainstream attention. Industry-changing journalism uncovering culturally-embedded issues like sexism and worker’s rights, as well as books like Durham’s, are helping to shift the tide — but games have unique challenges that don’t have easy solutions.

For instance, Kohler sent a copy of his book to his college mentor, who at the time was a leader of the Japanese cultural language studies program. Kohler hoped his efforts to build the story around a tight, compelling personal narrative would offset his mentor’s lack of gaming experience and interest. 

“I really want you to read this because it’s not only about Final Fantasy V, but also explores the concept of American and Japanese cultural crossovers,” Kohler told his mentor. “His response was similar to my parent’s response: ‘I didn’t really understand all the video game stuff, but it’s a good book.’”

Final Fantasy V

Kohler wanted to write a book that didn’t require video game experience to enjoy. But no matter how much effort he put into bridging that gap, the readers he personally knew often fell off when they reached the parts that described the game’s mechanics. “It’s frustrating,” he shares. “You want to try to write about these things, you know? But can you write about a video game for somebody that doesn’t play?”

Part of the challenge is that writing about video games is closer to writing about sports than film or books. Like sports, video games are an active experience — the player is directly involved in the action, and without their input and energy, nothing moves forward. The mechanics for doing so are often complex. Conversely, you don’t have to explain the way a movie or a book works to someone — you can get right into talking about the story or the acting. But, if someone’s never played a game of soccer, you’re gonna have to spend some time explaining why you can’t use your hands — and if they’ve never played Fantasy V, you’re going to have to explain Ability Points.

Part of what works so well with Boss Fight Books’ Final Fantasy VI is that Deken approaches the topic from an angle he’s uniquely qualified to discuss. As a trained musician, Deken applies his intimate knowledge of music theory to provide new perspectives to Final Fantasy VI‘s story. I don’t know anything about music theory — but Deken trusts himself and the reader enough to tell his story one note at a time, with such clear language that, by the end, I was able to hear the whole song. There wasn’t anything like that in popular gaming magazines back when I was first discovering games writing. Like the young game designers creating games in the ’90s, a lot of games journalists had no template or guiding hand. The work was new and fresh, but needed time to grow.

“I think when you’re in your late teens, early 20s, you can be kind of an idiot,” says Deken. “You’re not thinking too hard about what you’re doing — you’re just kinda doing it without feeling all these expectations placed on you.”

Though the complexity of games writing is increasing, Deken doesn’t believe that’s necessarily a mark against the writers in the ’90s. Rather, it’s a sign that the vocabulary we have access to is maturing, creating more opportunities for better criticism.

Kohler points out that there was serious games writing available in the ’90s, but you had to know where to look. “Even as a young teenager, I didn’t read a lot of GamePro or Game Players,” he tells me, instead reminiscing about magazines like Bill Kunkel, Arnie Katz, and Joyce Worley’s Electronic Games. “These were old school journalists who were also active in fan communities — and not just video gaming fanzine communities, but in science fiction fan communities, as well.”

While the most popular gaming magazines were brimming with adolescent humor and “surface level” coverage of games, Electronic Games provided lengthier reviews and criticism. Similarly high-brow magazines like Next Generation might not have been as popular as Game Players and EGM, but they helped define the vocabulary we now take for granted, inspiring kids like Kohler to become games journalists and providing a historical jumping-off point for Durham and Boss Fight Books.

“Boss Fight Books is a fascinating publisher because there seems to be no limits on what they will put into print,” wrote Alana Hagues in the RPGFan review of Final Fantasy VI, a notion echoed by John Friscia at Nintendo Enthusiast. The books don’t just provide a “factoid dump,” Friscia said, but instead “illuminate games by placing them in their historical context and critically scrutinizing them on a foundational level. No two books from the publisher will feel the same, which is part of the charm.”

Games writing in the ‘90s was about the here and now, what’s next, and the potential for the future. Now, 25 years later, we still explore the diversifying future of gaming, but also have a rich history that can retroactively teach us about what may be coming next. That’s what Boss Fight Books is all about: old games and new perspectives. New ways of understanding video games, the people who make them, and the people who play them. A meeting of the past, the present, and the future.

“That’s been a lot of what’s motivated me,” Durham says. “What else? What haven’t we explored yet? What would be interesting and exciting?”