Gordon Houghton will be instantly recognisable to many retro gamers as the ex-editor of C64 magazine, Zzap!64. Since leaving leafy Ludlow, Houghton has written a number of books. Game Boy is most closely related to his gaming past and the one of most immediate interest to retro gamers.
Four friends meet at university and are united by a love of computer games. Now in their forties, they have drifted apart as life and family commitments take them in new directions. However, they still meet up on four successive weekends once a year to hold a gaming tournament.
If you know Houghton’s background, there are large chunks of Game Boy that are semi-autobiographical. However, the book’s central themes will strike a chord with anyone who has ever fallen in (and sometimes out) of love with games and gaming. At the same time, there is a certain raw truth and honesty about Game Boy that makes it a compelling and fascinating read.
As you might guess from the subject matter, it’s certainly helpful if you know about games and gaming history to get the most out of the book. Games are referenced throughout and are an important part of the plot. If you don’t know your Mario from your Master Chief, you may find yourself all at sea and the book may leave you cold. Even dedicated gamers may find themselves floundering – you need an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of gaming history to pick up on all the references, but it’s a lot of fun spotting them and then feeling smug!
Thankfully, for gamers everywhere Houghton avoids the usual stereotypes. Despite displaying some obsessive tendencies, none of his characters are nerds, geeks or loners. They are all (relatively) normal people with normal relationships – married, divorced etc. Gaming is just a hobby in the same way that other people enjoy gardening or reading – a way to relax and get away from the stresses and strains of their lives. For gamers it is a pure delight. Houghton speaks to us in our own language, confident that we will understand. His own love of games and gaming shines through and will be readily understood by his target audience.
Game Boy is much lighter in tone than some of Houghton’s other offerings (which are enjoyable but quite dark) and the humour is more obvious. Houghton’s silly sense of humour, astute observations on the fundamental pointlessness of gaming (or indeed, most hobbies) and the amusing dialogue between the four friends kept me amused throughout and made me laugh out loud on several occasions.
Not that Game Boy should be dismissed as light and frothy. It still touches on some darker issues; (lost youth, the unremarkable (almost pointless?) nature of most people’s lives). It focuses on how mundane most people’s lives are and how we try to distract ourselves from getting older by buying things we don’t need in an effort to recapture our youth. These are themes that will resonate with anyone who collects anything.
In this sense, Game Boy is a surprisingly emotional and poignant book and Houghton shows himself to be a skilled writer and novelist in capturing the wistful feelings of nostalgia and lost youth. The early parts of the book appear light and care-free, almost superficial. Then, as Houghton starts to reveal more about his characters, their background and their hopes and fears, the book takes a darker turn. New elements are developed and following the lightness of earlier passages, turn out to be surprisingly full of emotion. Houghton is not so crass as to pull obviously on the heart strings instead doing it gradually, by stealth. By the time he reveals some of the darker plot elements, you are attached to the four friends and don’t want anything bad to happen to them. When life deals them a tough hand, you feel for them like they were your own friends.
Whilst Game Boy might be something of a niche book, it will definitely appeal to anyone with an interest in gaming, particularly retro gamers. It was both a blast from the past and an interesting read. It won’t appeal to everyone, but if you understand where it is coming from it is a good read.
Game Boy is only available as an e-book across a variety of platforms, including Kindle, iBooks and Sony Reader (see Houghton’s website for more info). At around £2-3, it’s an absolute snip and should be on every gamer’s e-reader.