Move Over, Oprah. Video Game Book Clubs Have Arrived

When video games were just abstract concepts on university computers, book clubs were already popular. When Toad told Mario the princess was in another castle, introducing video game narrative to millions of living rooms, readers were already comparing notes on Jane Eyre. So, it’s only natural that as video games became more narratively ambitious, they’d take this familiar page from the literary world. Video game book clubs. So, move over, Oprah—you’ve got competition.

Why Old Games?

Delivered as multi-episode podcast seasons, these “video game book clubs” earn the moniker thanks to weekly deep dive episodes into narrative-heavy video games, and ongoing, guided discussions among their robust listener communities. Unlike many “real” book clubs and video game podcasts, they’re less interested in new releases—focusing instead on detailed analysis of popular retro titles.. On Every F’n FF, co-hosts Karl Germanovich and Curtis Ware, and producer Alex Noble, explore three decades of Final Fantasy history one game at a time. The first season of Chris Stone and Eric Laymen’s Retrograde Amnesia dissects Square Enix’s philosophically-overbaked Xenogears line-by-line—boasting a running time even longer than the game’s impressive 60+ hour playtime.

But why old games? Like many adult gamers, Ware fondly recalls days swapping tips with his childhood friends, which he refers to as “playground rules.” Loud online conversations about video games are not new—many adults have been gabbing online about video games as long as they’ve been playing them—but, according to Ware, current video game coverage focuses heavily on reviews and features of new titles. The gaming community is currently obsessed with Elden Ring—a new RPG from the creators of Dark Souls and fantasy author George R.R. Martin, that’s so difficult and packed with secrets it’s impossible to beat in just a few days, helping it break out of the traditional blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cycle for new releases. Social media has been rife for weeks with players trading tips, retelling close encounters, and theorizing about the game’s lore—a new age for Ware’s playground rules, and an experience Every F’n FF wants to extend to legacy titles the same way we still talk about Star Wars: A New Hope or The Lord of the Rings.

For decades, critics and casual fans ignored, at best, video game narratives, and actively derided them at worst—culminating in Roger Ebert’s infamous ponderance of whether video games could ever truly be “art.” Retrograde Amnesia co-hosts Eric Layman and Chris Stone see an opportunity to shine light on these stories from a modern perspective. They’ve grown from the teenagers who first played Xenogears in 1998, and so has the gaming industry as a whole. Not only are game narratives accepted now, they’re respected.

“PlayStation games from this era had the feeling of an indie scene,” Stone tells me. “A lot of new creators were given opportunities.” As I cover in my upcoming book, Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the rise of Japanese RPGs in the West, it was around this time that Japanese RPGs skyrocketed to popularity thanks to Final Fantasy VII‘s meteoric rise. But despite mainstream success, the genre was still in an experimental phase, opening the door for a deluge of unique, risk-taking titles like those covered by Retrograde Amnesia, including Xenogears, Chrono Cross, and Final Fantasy VIII. “Seeing how that all came together,” says Stone, “has been really interesting.”

Many prominent RPG creators at that time were still in their 20s, and their games were full of risks that wouldn’t fly today. As they gained experience, they lost some of that edge, according to Layman, and that’s where going back and looking at older titles can help us better understand modern games. Layman points to Tetsuya Takahashi’s recently announced Xenoblade Chronicles 3, a spiritual follow-up to Xenogears, and Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi’s Fantasian as examples of how even revolutionaries can fall into familiar patterns. “You get comfortable, and you’re afraid to leave your pattern [of success].”

‘Initializing FakeNet’

An episode of Retrograde Amnesia lasts about an hour. The hosts read through sections of dialogue, discuss combat encounters, and describe game locations. The first season’s coverage of Xenogears is a rabbit hole of religious and philosophical themes covering everything from ancient Gnosticism to the works of Carl Jung and Friedrich Nietzsche. Layman and Stone’s challenge is not only to understand the story, but to explain it beat-by-beat, line-by-line in a way that’s informative, reflective, and amusing to a broad range of listeners.

Subsequent seasons tackle different games selected by listeners, with discussion spilling into their Discord server where fans debate current and past seasons. Loading the latest episode in your podcatcher feels like a weekly pub night with friends—but instead of bullshitting about work, you’re breaking down strategies for defeating demi-gods and theorizing about time-traveling sorceresses. This allows listeners to maintain their connection to their favorite games even when they’re not playing.

“When I first got into podcasts,” says Every F’n FF‘s Karl Germanovich, “I was traveling hundreds of miles a week, driving to play shows in bands or traveling for work. Just driving constantly. And all I wanted to do was play Dark Souls.” He turned to the next best thing: Gary Butterfield and Kole Ross’s Bonfireside Chat. “I would listen to it and hear their experiences with the games and their guests’ experiences, and scratch that itch.”

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