BOOK REVIEW: 100 Best Games (That Never Existed)

Once, a long time ago, a writer known as Nate Crowley foolishly decided to tweet a fake video-game premise for every Twitter-like he received. A thousand likes later (and with thousands of pounds donated to a charity to preserve frog habitats), he found himself with a book deal and a mission to cull the best one-hundred games from this exuberant, non-existent, indescribably thorough list of video-games titles never made. What emerges, 100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed) is a superbly comic love-letter to video-games and all their maddening illogic.

No stranger to writing in unconventional forms (Nate Crowley is the author of Daniel Barker’s Birthday, a novel in 700 tweets), it’s mesmeric just how well Nate has expanded these one-hundred and forty character tasters into in-depth analysis, complete with referencing, quotes, detailed gameplay descriptions and much more. At the heart of this book, one senses a mind alive with ideas, almost literally bursting in fact, and reading these entries feels like getting inside that lively head. It’s a refreshing place to be.

Creating a timeline, Nate Crowley takes us through the history, or perhaps more accurately a history, of video games, from brightly coloured eighties titles such as Beastmaster, in which players engage in “relentless blubber-shuddering combat”, to the ill-advised virtual pet exploits of recent years such as Pocket Diogenes. The true genius of 100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed) is that it is not only tear-inducingly funny in places, regardless of whether you’re a video game nerd or not, but that it also captures the wonder of being a child and experiencing video games for the first time, with all their subversive mechanics and seemingly endless possibility. Whether you’re an ardent fan of the medium or not, I think this book speaks to the inner child in all of us, our love of play, of mixing together quintessentially alien concepts for the sake of awesome. We see this evidenced in such ridiculous titles as Beastenders, “brutal, gore-streaked sci-fi action, bizarrely licensed on popular British soap-opera”. Nate Crowley is an expert mixologist, because he knows just which ingredients he can combine to raise a laugh. Or, more deftly, to make a serious point about the state of modern gaming.

100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed) satirises the ludicrous logic of many games in funny ways. “The controls were erratic, the characters’ movements were massively loaded with inertia” he writes of Egg Grabber, a game about “shitfaced businessmen as they struggle on all fours to eat scotch eggs off the floor of a budget hotel”. But it also goes further than that. One senses from the writing that there is a slight sadness beneath the rapier wit. After all, the fact these fake video games found such a following must indicate a hunger in fans for more creative games, games that push boundaries instead of being mired in tropes of grinding progression, meaningless points and pay-to-win corporatisation. The brilliance, and dare I say it ebullience of Nate Crowley’s prose is such, however, that one never senses bitterness. One of the main things I took away from 100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed) is that I’d like to see more than half of these games made. I kept pinching myself, kept having to be reminded that not a single entry, whether obliquely referenced or expanded upon in “excruciating detail” (to quote the blurb), was actually a real game.

At the same time as exposing the lack of creativity in modern games, he shows the near-limitless innovation of the industry, echoing moments of incredible revelation where one type of game turned out to be quite another. I won’t quote too many more entries, because to do so would be to ruin the exquisite joy of discovering these moments for yourself, but suffice to say it made me nostalgic of the classic titles that’d shaped my childhood years of gaming. Although this is certainly a book that can be dipped into, taking in one or two entries over a meal or in the evening before bed, there is a narrative to it, as we journey from the naivety and innocence of early titles to the streamlined mass-market productions of recent years. We follow certain fictional developers, their highs (and more often their lows) as they try again and again to make video game history with increasingly bizarre and far out concepts.

Love for the industry seeps from every page of this book, even when the satire is so sharp your eyes are bleeding, and this love carries you along with it, from one entry to the next, making it an alarmingly compulsive read despite being one-hundred individual entries. The whole immersion is helped along by a team of real video-game conceptual artists, who do stunning work bringing Nate Crowley’s bizarre imaginings to life, mimicking the styles of the relevant time period to perfection. More than a few times I got a double laugh, first from the picture, then from the words to go with it. This is one of the most beautiful and well-designed books I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year, and you’ll find yourself poring over the artwork, the graphic design, and the witty asides, for days even after you’d finished reading cover to cover.

Some people might struggle to understand why anyone would want a book of video games that aren’t real. And it’s true, I’m not even sure what you could call the genre. Fictional-Faction? Satire? Raw Imagination? I’m not sure it really matters. This book is funny, witty, nostalgic and even, in places, a little moving. I guess it just goes to highlight the timeless, and now somewhat well-worn, saying about art, that it’s the truth inside the lie.

Whether you believe that or not, one thing is for sure: here we have one-hundred lies.

And they’re all bloody entertaining.

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Check back with us on Friday for an exclusive interview with Nate Crowley! 

Published By Solaris

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Nate Crowley lives in Walsall, and​ knows too much about the history of public aquaria​. Once, he ​accidentally punched a wrasse while wearing a diving suit from the 1800s. He keeps a List of Animals. He is the author of Daniel Barker’s Birthday, and The Sea Hates A Coward is his first wossname.

REVIEW BY JOSEPH SALE

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