Going Nowhere: a life in six videogames by Sam Leith [Book Review]

Going Nowhere_

Part of the Kindle Singles series (essentially extended essays on specific topics), charts the recollections of journalist and gamer Sam Leith setting some pivotal events in his own life against the backdrop of a game that he remembers playing heavily at that point in his life.

As a journalist used to using words to convey ideas and emotions, Leith does a good job of both describing the mechanics and gameplay of the various titles and getting across why they had such an impact. There is an occasional tendency to be a little overly-flowery when it comes to descriptions, and one or two moments when the book veers a little too close to pretentiousness, but on the whole, it’s an interesting account that will strike a chord with many gamers.

There are times when the book has a slightly disjointed feel; where Leith is talking about something and then suddenly leaps off into another memory, before returning to the original subject. This can be quite disconcerting when it happens and can leave you trying to work out the context (or indeed relevance) of the new anecdote.

Where the book doesn’t work so well is as a gaming book. The book itself is pretty much a brief memoir of someone who grew up in the 80s and reached their adulthood in the late 90s/early 2000s; games are merely a narrative device to give the memories a sense of time. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, but there were times when I felt that the games idea was simply a gimmick to give the book a “hook”, rather than a central part of it. The right balance is not always struck between a video game memoir and a personal memoir. This is particularly true in the latter chapters which focus much more on Leith’s personal life than his experiences as a gamer. I’m sure Leith is a lovely chap and everything, but I don’t know him and I’m not actually terribly interested in his personal life, so consequently, I found this aspect of the book a lot less interesting. By contrast, the earliest chapter – which focuses much more closely on the game – was easily the best in the book.

At just 33 pages long, Going Nowhere doesn’t take very long to read, something which is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it meant that the book was well-paced and didn’t get bogged down in too much detail. If you’re not familiar with the specific game that forms the spine of each chapter, then it doesn’t matter – you don’t have time to get bored and you know that the next chapter will feature a new game.

On the other hand, the size of the book does mean that some potentially interesting areas are skipped over and given only very superficial treatment. There were a few times when the book raised some interesting issues about the impact of games and the lasting influence they can leave on people’s lives. Unfortunately the short format left little or no time to dwell on them.

I also suspect you will probably get a lot more out of this book if you have played the 6 titles the author has selected. I was vaguely aware of them all, but had only ever really played Elite (the subject of Chapter 2). Sure, as a gamer you can appreciate how certain games become associated with certain phases in your life, but the lack of familiarity with the specific games can limit the book’s impact.

On the whole then, this is an interesting but far from essential title. It’s at its strongest when it focuses on the games and what they mean to the author and weakest when it wanders off into anecdotes that will only be of interest to the author’s immediate circle of and family. Still, at only 99p, it’s not going to break the bank and, if you’re around the same age as the author (late 30s/early 40s), then many of his thoughts and experiences will chime with you.

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4 thoughts on “Going Nowhere: a life in six videogames by Sam Leith [Book Review]

  1. ” (…) if you’re around the same age as the author (late 30s…) ”

    Yeah, cheers for reminding me. 😉
    You mentioned Elite, any chance you could list the other games this book is covering?

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  2. The other games are Planetoid (a BBC Micro version of Defender), Super Sprint, World of Warcraft, Red Faction and Fieldrunners. Of the six, I’ve only ever played Elite and Super Sprint (although I’ve obviously played plenty of Defender derivatives too!)

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