You never know when you’re going to read a book, watch a movie, or play a video game that will change the course of your life. I believe that the pieces of media that truly impact us are the ones that we were never expecting, the ones that you pick up on a whim and fall head over heels for. As much as I anticipated and enjoyed Persona 5, I wasn’t as struck by it as I was with NieR Automata, which from my point of view came out of nowhere and proceeded to dominate my thoughts for far longer than Atlus’ RPG ever did.
Even amongst those surprises, there’s only one book that I can honestly say has not only influenced how I write about video games but put me on the path to a career in writing and criticism in general.
And strangely enough, it’s a horror novel called World War Z.
A book of tales
Written by Max Brooks and released in 2006, right as the zombie craze truly began to permeate popular culture, World War Z is equal parts post-apocalyptic fiction, horror, and satire. Set 20 years after a zombie virus nearly cause humanity’s destruction, the book is structured as a collection of interviews conducted by a United Nations agent a decade after the war to reclaim the world has ended. One chapter focuses on the viewpoint of a dirigible pilot watching the exodus of Americans from their cities at the height of the outbreaks; another dives deep into how a contingent of astronauts kept the International Space Station operational for the duration of the war.
I purchased World War Z from a bookstore when I was 13 years old in the midst of a school field trip. I had just started reading my first horror novels thanks to a large collection of Stephen King books at my local library, and I was on the lookout for something new to buy with my small allowance. Thirteen years later, and it’s the only book from my adolescence that I still have with me in an apartment over two thousand kilometers from the store I bought it at. I have read it cover to cover at least a dozen times, and I honestly think the actual number is over twenty.
When I tell friends that, I get a look. The kind of look that says “Really? I would’ve pegged your favorite book to be Infinite Jest.” Most know of World War Z from the Brad Pitt film of the same name, which has almost nothing in common with the source material and is a generic summer blockbuster at best. From a cursory glance, it appears to be just another zombie book that does little to separate itself from zombie fiction as a whole. So how did a book like that make me want to be a writer?
World War Z is first and foremost a great story. Without that, I wouldn’t have made the decision to read the book as many times as I have. By having each chapter be an entirely new perspective on the overall zombie apocalypse, World War Z frequently changes genres and examines new themes and ideas on a chapter by chapter basis. The aforementioned astronaut chapter examines duty and nationalism. One chapter in Brazil reads like a coked-up black comedy from the ’80s. And a series of chapters focusing on an American veteran is as much an examination of modern military politics as it is a blow by blow account of the campaign to retake the country.
The structure of the book is entrancing. To this day, I’m drawn to games that differ from a standard narrative in terms of structure. For example, Dragon Quest VII is a bad game by many standards, but the fact that it’s akin to a collection of short stories allows me to overcome much of its faults and find depth where others would be turned away.
Learning the ways
That’s exactly what happened with World War Z, only as I reread it, I knew there was something that I was missing that lied just beneath the surface. A character would reference the Yom Kippur War to describe Israel’s intelligence policies, and I wouldn’t have a clue what they were referring to, only that it must have been something important. Discussions on monarchy vs. republicanism, allusions to the creation of the Russian Federation, and callbacks to the works of Martin Scorsese and George Romero similarly flew over my head. But I was curious, as kids often are, and I used my family’s slow internet connection to study and learn what all of these references meant. If I could just know what they mean, I figured the book itself could only get better. I just wanted the answer to one question: Why?
Around the same time I was studying World War Z, I also discovered popular criticism in the form of film reviews, essays, and the books of the late, great Roger Ebert. This was a wake-up call; not only was there a form of writing that did the very thing I sought to do with World War Z, but that there was a way to do it and get paid for it (If only you knew kid). So I started to read and write reviews, not just about World War Z, which I did, but about any movie, book or game that I interacted with. As I grew older, I realized that there were a lot of film and book critics out there already, so I decided to focus on what I grew up with: video games.
I’ve reviewed hundreds of games in the years since, most of which have failed to recreate the spark I felt when I first read World War Z. A game need not be original, or unique, or some other buzzword; it only needs to make me want to understand it better. As a critic, I want to play games that make me want to learn in some form or another.
Shaping a new story
To use NieR Automata as an example, I’ve read the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir because two minor characters happened to be named after and serve as allusions to the French philosophers. I read Richard Dawkins because of memes in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. I’ve watched footage of soldiers going over the trenches in World War One thanks to the imagery in Valiant Hearts. And while it’s a different take on that philosophy, the fact that I’ve read optimal healing rotations for White Mages in Final Fantasy XIV is a sign that it is similarly engrossing.
Not all games are like that, however. I recently had the opportunity to review the video game adaptation of World War Z, which has far more in common with the film than the book. My feelings now were much the same as they were when I watched the movie in 2013 — it bears little resemblance to the story I adore, and I’m O.K. with that. It’s a perfectly average game, but after a single playthrough, I struggled to play any more of it. There’s little reason to explore the same unchanging levels or unlock skill trees that don’t deviate from its simple gameplay formula except to play it for the sake of playing it. I wrote my review, filed it to my editor, and immediately deleted it from my hard drive. I doubt I’ll remember it in six months, let alone a year.
You can also read: Into The Breach Helped Me Accept Imperfection
But playing it wasn’t worthless. About a day after its existence was wiped from my PS4, I dug through the pile of books that are messily organized within my TV stand. At the very back, beneath old textbooks on film criticism and journalism, was a familiar well-worn orange cover. And as I read the introduction for what felt like the twentieth time, I was reminded once again of why I fell in love with World War Z all those years ago.