Title: The Book of Yōkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore
Author: Michael Dylan Foster
Illustrator: Shinonome Kijin (東雲 騎人)
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: University of California Press
Pages: 309

This guest review is written by Katriel Paige (@kit_flowerstorm on Twitter).

Yōkai are part of an ongoing conversation surrounding global popular culture. Even in the United States we hear about yōkai through games like Pokémon and Yo-Kai Watch, and we happily watch films from Studio Ghibli that feature wondrous and strange creatures.

Although Michael Dylan Foster acknowledges that commercial cultures factor into the continued vibrancy of yōkai lore, The Book of Yōkai does not focus on the portrayals of yōkai in contemporary popular media and fan culture. Rather, the goal of this text is to provide an overview of the folkloristics of yōkai, from how thinkers and artists have interpreted yōkai to how the mysterious entities have been created, transmitted, and continually redefined. Foster is especially interested in how yōkai enthusiasts create their own networks of practice, with popular media cultures as one node in those networks. As he writes, “For many of my students in the United States, for example, the terms yōkai and Japanese folklore are practically synonymous; they have encountered kappa or kitsune or tengu in manga and anime, films and video games, usually in English translation. This exposure inspires them to delve further into folklore, to find the ‘origins’ of the yōkai of popular culture that they have come to love. And that is [a] purpose of this book, to provide some folkloric grounding for yōkai they might encounter” (6).

Foster succeeds in this endeavor, as The Book of Yōkai is an excellent overview, especially for those new to the study of folklore. In his first chapter, “Introducing Yōkai,” the author offers a short introduction to the shifting definition of the term “folklore,” reminding readers that, like yōkai themselves, “folklore” occupies a place-in-between, where it is both traditional and modern, rural and urban. Folklore, like yōkai, can be found both in the shadows of the forest and in the light cast by our computer screens. Just as there is no single definition of “folklore,” there is no single definition of “yōkai,” and Foster’s cogent explanations of liminality and communal creation serve as an excellent introduction to the study of cryptids and the legends surrounding them.

The Book of Yōkai is divided into two sections: “Yōkai Culture” and “Yōkai Codex.” The “Yōkai Culture” section is where the reader will find Foster’s discussions of the history of yōkai, beginning with the mysterious twilight entities of the classical Heian Period (c. 794-1185) and spanning to medieval picture scrolls illustrating yōkai night parades and early modern codices classifying both natural and supernatural phenomena. The majority of this section is centered around important texts, such as the mytho-historical Kojiki and hyakumonogatari compilations of ghost stories, and influential figures, such as the artist Toriyama Sekien and the scholar Inoue Enryō.

The “Yōkai Codex” describes yōkai according to their habitats, such as the countryside, the city, and the sea. This section is similar to the indexes seen in games that involve the collection of strange creatures, such Pokémon and Yo-Kai Watch. Foster’s “Yōkai Codex” also draws on and serves as a link to yōkai indexes past and present, most famously the illustrated yōkai compilations of the manga artist Mizuki Shigeru.

The writing is accessible to academics and non-academics alike, making The Book of Yōkai superb for independent scholars or a general reader with an interest in yōkai. Foster by and large avoids technical jargon, and he clarifies his treatment of Japanese words and names at the beginning of the book, which aids in cross-referencing with other sources. As a folklorist, Foster privileges the storytelling experience, using anecdotes to make the reader feel as if they are having a friendly chat with the author. Although the academic foundation of Foster’s text is solid, his colorful personal stories have the potential to resonate strongly with a non-academic audience.

The Book of Yōkai is a great resource for undergraduates, non-specialists, and other curious readers looking for a comprehensive English-language introduction to the historical complexities and artistic potential of yōkai. It is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book editions from the University of California Press. Shinonome Kijin, who has provided thirty original illustrations for the text, can be found as @ushirodo on Twitter.

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Katriel Paige is an independent scholar of yōkai as well as media cultures and folklore. They earned a MA in Intercultural Communication with International Business from the University of Surrey and a BA from the University of Delaware with a dual focus in East Asian Studies and English, and they currently work in the technology industry. They like cats, video games, and caffeine in both coffee and chocolate forms. You can find more of their work, including their essays on Japanese culture and video games, on their Patreon page.



Title: Under the Midnight Sun
Japanese Title: 白夜行 (Byakuyakō)
Author: Higashino Keigo (東野 圭吾)
Translators: Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder
Publisher: Minotaur Books (a division of St. Martin’s Press)
Publication Year: 2016 (America); 1999 (Japan)
Pages: 560

This guest review is written by Tyran Grillo (@TyranGrillo on Twitter).

Although Naoko was the first novel by Keigo Higashino to appear in English, it wasn’t until The Devotion of Suspect X that an energetic following of the author grew among Anglophone readers. Subsequent novels by Japan’s salaryman-turned-mystery writer, however, left fans hungry for something different, as the clothes of his popular Detective Galileo were beginning to wear thin. Enter the gruffer Sasagaki, whose investigation of a 1973 murder in Osaka starts him on a 20-year chase after the truth. The circumstances surrounding said murder play on the classic locked room scenario, as the body of a man is discovered by children playing in an abandoned building.

Our body of interest was once the property of Yosuke Kirihara. The owner of a pawn shop, the unfortunate Yosuke has left behind a son, Ryo, and a wife, Yaeko. Sasagaki immediately suspects the latter, due to a seeming lack of emotion toward her spouse’s death. Ryo, for his part, is broken by the loss, and offers little in the way of helpful information. Even as Sasagaki fears for the boy’s future, he cannot help but marvel at Yaeko’s performance. As he watches her late husband’s funeral procession from a respectable distance, he thinks to himself, “The strange attraction of a woman in mourning…. If she’s trying to play the part of the beautiful young widow, she’s doing a knockout job.” Such statements may be common hardboiled fare but here set the tone for an unnecessarily chauvinistic slog of a novel. Sasagaki’s suspicions turn to Fumiyo Nishimoto, the last person to have seen Yosuke alive, and her daughter Yukiho is described in such perverse terms that it’s all this reader could do not to gag on their persistence.

Yukiho and Ryo, in the wake of a tragedy that has affected them both, become our main protagonists. We follow their diverging paths out of the nostalgic ignorance of the 1970s into adulthood. Along the way, Higashino introduces us to a chain of new characters, some of whom feel unnecessary as false witnesses. Each subsequent chapter throws new names into the mix to throw us off the scent. Ryo goes on to become a bootleg video game manufacturer, while Yukiho goes on to become a male fantasy of femininity.

Therein lies a fundamental problem of the narrative. Like all of the women in Higashino’s testosterone zone, she is little more than the sum of her apparently siren-esque charms, which Yukiho hones in service of being what she is called from the start: a “perfect lady.” On the surface, one might read this as a noble critique of the ways in which women are expected to live up to idealized images of beauty, but assertions of this point reach a level of absurdity that make the story nearly impossible to finish. For while Yukiho’s beauty is doubtless the very epitome of feminine perfection, she is also described as having “thorns in her eyes,” and, as our omniscient narrator so dutifully explains, a “true lady would never have eyes like that.” In other words, a “true lady” cannot be prone to dark thoughts or ever have an off day; she must maintain a perfect and consistent exterior, if only to please the men around her.

Higashino’s descriptions of the mature Yukiho are striking in their blatant vacillation between praise and condemnation, not to mention their occasional slip into racial stereotypes. To give an example: “Yukiho looked down at the table. She had long eyelashes. Some of the people in the club said she looked like one of those French porcelain dolls. The comparison was admittedly apt, with the exception of her Asian eyes.” When a younger detective by the name of Imaeda picks up where Sasagaki left off years ago, his first look at Yukiho reminds him of the “women he’d seen in old foreign films” and makes him wonder “where she got her seemingly natural elegance and grace. What had polished her to gleam so brightly?” More than overstating Yukiho’s beauty, such language elevates it to farce, so that the woman herself no longer functions as a human character.

When Yukiho finally marries, her husband Makoto cheats on her by falling for a temp who works at his company. Not only does this downplay Yukiho’s tireless attempts to live up to perfection, it undermines her intelligence in choosing a suitable life partner, a point further stressed when we learn that Makoto, who admits to having an inferiority complex around his savvy wife, has beaten her in a drunken rage that he conveniently forgets. In addition to being entirely out of her husband’s character, this disclosure comes across as a desperate attempt to elicit pity for a woman of whom by this point we have no idea what to think.

Anytime a female character is described, the reader can be sure to learn a lot about her body, and Yukiho is no exception. Rather than add to knowledge of her character, as his visualizations of men do, Higashino indulges in details that have no bearing on her psychological profile. In an awkward scene of lovemaking between Yukiho and her husband, for instance, we get this: “Her breasts were soft and bigger than you might think to look at them.” Does this detail matter? Only to a voyeuristic narrator who takes pleasure in it.

Yukiho is animalized, as when she is compared to a cat for her “feline eyes.” When she later becomes a suspect, she is variously likened to a “black rose,” an “evil flower,” and ultimately an “artificial flower,” as if the combination of intelligence and femininity were a surefire recipe for malice. Although one might argue that Higashino is simply playing with the femme fatale trope like so many before him, it is far too convenient that Yukiho’s beauty, which for most of the novel has been seen as a divine gift inherent to her every fiber, suddenly ceases to be real once it’s revealed as a mask hiding an actual human being. Such classical sexism precludes any progressive tendencies that might be attributed to Under the Midnight Sun.

The issue of its depictions of female characters aside, problems abound in the novel’s structure and pacing. Aside from being too long for its own good – there is, for example, a full page of unnecessary dialogue between Yukiho’s college classmate and a future boyfriend about how wet one gets by either walking or running in the rain – it pads out a foreseeable conclusion with unrealistic conceits. The result is a novel whose flaws are, like Yukiho’s much-discussed features, bigger than you might think to look at them.

In addition, Detective Sasagaki is a rather uninteresting lighthouse decorating a coastline of possible perpetrators. We understand that he is skillful at his job, but his obsessive interest in this case feels somewhat out of place, given what we know about him. Then again, mistakes have been made on both sides of the equals sign that would have brought his suspicions to a verdict much sooner, and perhaps subconscious awareness of this drives him to overcompensate for the embarrassment of what ends up being a simple explanation. As in any mystery of this length, it’s the actions of investigators who unwittingly build a complex wall around the truth that allow murderers to get away with what they do for so long. As the story progresses, the plot becomes so unbelievable that it feels like a letdown when one reaches the tail end of its denouement.

Ironically, the novel’s meandering tendency is also its greatest strength, and the clearest justification of its author’s fame. Higashino makes it easy to keep track of an ever-growing cast of characters – almost to a fault, because many revelations, at least to this reader, were clear from many pages away. Above all, the book provides a fascinating cross-section of late twentieth-century Japan, tracing trends in manga, television shows, video games, and other popular arenas of technological production through a key transitional period in the nation’s history. Higashino juggles multiple arcs and implications with ease, and the reverse engineering required to put them all together will satisfy even some avid mystery fans, to be sure.

As a published translator of Japanese fiction myself, I feel compelled to note that none of my criticisms are the fault of Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder, who have done an admirable job rendering Higashino’s often-terse and idiomatic prose into fluent English. The novel reads smoothly, handles cultural differences with tact, and evokes the original’s grittiness with clarity. If anything, it was the quality of their work that kept me engaged.

In the end, Under the Midnight Sun is a lackluster story with little payoff. As for the back cover copy’s comparisons of this book to Les Misérables and Crime and Punishment, I can only say these constitute a deception as criminal as the novel they are describing.

Under the Midnight Sun will be released on November 8, 2016. Review copy provided by St. Martin’s Press.

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Tyran Grillo is a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University, where his research focuses on the (mis)representation of animals in contemporary Japanese literature. He has translated nine books from Japanese into English, five of which have been published. The most recent of these is the science fiction masterpiece Mr. Turtle by Kitano Yūsaku. Tyran is also an avid blogger, having to date written over one million words of criticism on music, books, and film at


Title: Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko
Poems: Kaneko Misuzu (金子 みすゞ)
Illustrations: Hajiri Toshikado (羽尻 利門)
Text and Translation: David Jacobson, Sally Ito, and Michiko Tsuboi
Publication Year: 2016
Publisher: Chin Music Press
Pages: 64

This guest review is written by Holly Thompson (@hatbooks on Twitter).

Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, published by Seattle-based Chin Music Press, is an unusual picture book — bold and broad in concept and scope. This is a multifaceted book, containing a history of the rediscovery of the writings of Japanese poet Misuzu Kaneko (1903-1930), a biography of Kaneko’s short life, current context for her work, and a selection of 25 of her poems.

With a foreword by Setsuo Yazaki, the Japanese children’s author and poet whose curiosity led to the rediscovery of her writings in 1982 and subsequent publication of all 512 of her poems in six volumes plus his own complete biography of Misuzu Kaneko, the reader is offered context: “Misuzu Kaneko’s poems are part of every child’s curriculum at Japanese elementary schools.” Of the intense fondness readers feel for Kaneko’s poems, Yazaki points out that her words “possess a deep kindness toward all things whether they are alive or inanimate.”

The story opens with a question — “Who was Misuzu Kaneko?” — then chronicles Yazaki’s quest to learn more about this insightful poet. From Yazaki’s encounter of Kaneko’s poem “Big Catch” about a huge sardine catch, which led to his desire to learn more about the poet and his ultimate discovery of her pocket diaries full of her poems, the narrative shifts to Kaneko’s life story and her childhood in the town of Senzaki (now part of Nagato City) in Yamaguchi Prefecture near the western tip of Honshu where her family ran a bookstore. Raised among books, Kaneko began writing poems, and at the age of twenty, after several of her poems were published in Japanese magazines, she became a well-known children’s poet. Kaneko’s poems appear interspersed with the book’s narrative — poems that focus on ordinary local topics, imbued with a sense of awe and curiosity. The poems “Benten Island,” “Wonder,” “Beautiful Town,” “Fish,” “Snow Pile,” and “Flower Shop Man” provide a solid introduction to the deceptively simple poetics of Misuzu Kaneko.

Kaneko’s life unfortunately took a tragically dark turn after her marriage to a man who was, as explained in the story, “a bad, unfaithful husband.” She gave birth to their child who she adored, but she “caught a disease from her husband that caused her great pain.” What’s more, he forbade her to write. Kaneko divorced him, but he demanded custody of their daughter. The book does not shy away from the truth that Kaneko, in her illness and despair, made the decision to end her life after writing a letter to her husband imploring that he leave their child in the care of her mother.

This is admittedly dark material, but picture books are not only intended for the youngest readers. Are You An Echo? is a picture book for all ages and is especially well suited to the middle grades. Kaneko’s poems resonate in part because she wrote while suffering and longing. Her poems, so simple at first glance, reach straight to the heart, lift the spirit and stay with you. To write a story about Misuzu Kaneko without broaching her death by suicide would have constituted a huge omission.

Thus, after a spread illustrated in gray tones that includes Kaneko’s poem “Cocoon and Grave” containing a metaphor of a butterfly as an angel, a subsequent warm double-page spread offers hope, depicting Kaneko’s mother and her daughter by the sea remembering Kaneko’s “kind and gentle soul.” The narrative then shifts once again, this time to more recent history — the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, in northern Japan. Kaneko’s poem “Are You An Echo?” was featured in a public service announcement televised after the disaster, and survivors in Tohoku, and people all around Japan struggling to cope after such profound and enormous loss, found comfort and hope in her words.

Following the story is “A Selection of Misuzu’s Poems,” with fifteen illustrated double-spread pages of Kaneko’s poems, impressively presented side by side in both the original Japanese and in English translation. Counting the poems that appear in English within the narrative, as well as the fifteen selected poems presented bilingually, Are You An Echo? offers 25 of Kaneko’s tender poems that reveal her extraordinary heart and boundless empathy. The titles of poems like “Stars and Dandilions,” “Telephone Pole,” “White Hat,” “Waves,” and “Dirt” reveal Kaneko’s unique ability to imbue ordinary items with sensibility and love.

What a feat to contain all of this material — history, biography, poetry collection — in a single picture book, including an informative author’s note by David Jacobson and a Translators’ Note by co-translators Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi. Expansive watercolor illustrations by Tokushima-based Toshikado Hajiri capture early 1900s provincial Japan and provide sweetly detailed and poignant accompaniment to the story and various poems.

Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko is a beautifully packaged, substantial picture book to treasure — a book to give poetry lovers of all ages, in all corners of the world.

Visit the Chin Music Press website for the book, Misuzu Kaneko, for information, backstory and further resources.

Review copy provided by Chin Music Press.

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Holly Thompson ( is a longtime resident of Japan and author of the novel Ash and three verse novels for young people: Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth, The Language Inside, and Orchards, winner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. She compiled and edited Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction — An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories, and she teaches writing in Japan, the U.S. and places in between.


Haruki Murakami Bingo

The website Dissertation Reviews recently invited me to review the dissertation of Tiffany Hong, who is currently an Assistant Professor of East Asian Literature at Nazarbayev University. Hong’s dissertation, titled Teleology of the Self: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki, is an investigation of the postmodern aspects of Murakami’s storytelling framed by a discussion of the transnational publishing market that has launched the author into literary stardom.

Here is a short except from my review:

Tiffany Hong’s dissertation is primarily concerned with the developments in the narrative strategies of the internationally acclaimed and bestselling novelist Murakami Haruki, especially as these strategies respond to the relationship between the individual and the history of the Japanese state. While many scholars have examined the meaning of plot and symbolism in Murakami’s stories, Hong’s readings of four of his most well-known novels contribute a valuable perspective on the intersections between the author’s personal politics and his use of self-narrativization through diegetic and metadiegetic elements often associated with magical realism. Hong captures what makes Murakami’s novels so successful in engaging the reader by tying his work into larger discussions regarding the transformative potential of fiction.

You can read the full review on Dissertation Reviews.

( The header image is by Grant Snider, the artist of Incidental Comics. )

Final Fantasy VI Terra in Vector

My essay on Final Fantasy VI was posted today as a feature on the video game journal Kill Screen! This piece is about how the “magical girl” characterization of the two female protagonists of the game reflects debates concerning gender and bioethics in 1990s Japan.

Here’s a short except:

In Final Fantasy VI, magic—as both a narrative theme and an interactive element of gameplay—functions as a multivalent cipher for posthuman bioethics, while the culturally ascribed nonthreatening cuteness of femininity endows the destabilization of human identity with positive emotional connotations. The end result is that the world is saved, and humanity, in all its forms, can bravely continue on into an optimistic future.

You can read the full piece on Kill Screen.

The State of Play

Title: The State of Play
Editors: Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
Pages: 256

This guest review is written by John D. Moore (@johndmoore5 on Twitter).

The State of Play is a collection of sixteen diverse essays on a variety of topics related to contemporary video game culture written by game creators, journalists, and academics. The collection comes from Seven Stories Press, a company that has demonstrated a dedication to publishing interesting and new kinds of books about video games in the last few years, including anna anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters and The State of Play editors Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson’s own Minecraft. The essays consist of some previously published material as well as pieces original to or adapted for this volume. This is not a video game culture primer; while each essay does an adequate to great job of describing the particular corner of video game culture it explores, a basic familiarity with games and the popular discourse surrounding them is necessary to keep the reader from feeling disoriented.

The book is prefaced by a short introduction written by the editors that argues for its own necessity in the current climate of video game culture. The editors propose the term “post-escapism” for our present moment, pointing to a paradigm shift for independent game production and video game criticism symbolized by – if not initiated by – the miserable advent of Gamergate. As such, it explicitly announces its progressive stance against an oppositional conservative “side.” The majority of the essays have a definite progressive political slant, dealing primarily with race, gender, and sex. Not every piece is so politically conscious, such as level designer David Johnston’s rich account of his approach to designing CounterStrike maps and the tensions between level design and real-world architecture. Curiously, the introduction does not make reference to this or other pieces that fit this loose classification, and that lack of framing is disappointing. It does provide for their place obliquely by linking progressive politics to a progressive approach in writing about games as cultural objects that matter and are subject to the same scrutiny as other media.

There are as many approaches to writing as there are contributors in this volume. anna anthropy’s essay “Love, Twine, and the End of the World” is characteristically playful and borrows the format of a choose-your-own-adventure book, sometimes even inviting the reader-player to exit the book and take action elsewhere, advancing her cause for games as a powerful medium of self-expression. In “A Game I Had to Make,” Zoe Quinn writes of her experiences surrounding the development, release, and reception of her Depression Quest in an intimate and challenging second-person perspective, stylistically reminiscent of the text of her game. Cara Ellison and Brendon Keogh share a meandering correspondence about the meaning of violence and its dominance in contemporary video games, trying on frames like colonialism. History professor William Knoblauch offers a wide-reaching analysis of apocalyptic scenarios in games from the late Cold War to the present.

In one of the book’s finest pieces, Anita Sarkeesian and Katherine Cross describe their separate and varied stories of online harassment, putting them together to expose their common threads of misogyny that are, in turn, pervasive in mainstream video games and video game culture, dehumanizing and objectifying real women as non-player characters. Sarkeesian includes a harrowing sample of the threats she received. It is a vivid and accessible chapter that succeeds in succinctly delivering many of the main points of Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency project and I’d nominate it as required reading for anyone involved in video games.

With no thematic divisions, there is no clear structural logic to the book’s presentation, though some of the juxtapositions provide provocative or synergistic effects when read together. Evan Narcisse’s “The Natural: The Parameters of the Afro,” an exploration of black representation in games, pairs very neatly with Hussein Ibrahim’s “What It Feels Like to Play the Bad Guy,” about playing first-person shooters where the only in-game people who look like the author are presented as enemies and the representations of his culture are often ludicrously inaccurate. Together, these issues connect to the next essay by Quinn in a way that opens up broader questions about embodied experiences. Other essays, especially toward the end of the collection, seem arranged at random.

In these pages, it is unfortunately rare to see an acknowledgement of the specific regional discourse the writers are talking about, even as Japanese companies (which are admittedly multinational, with major global presences) are routinely referenced. An exception is in one of the standout pieces of the collection, in which merritt kopas examines the intersection of sex, games, consumerism, and culture, arguing that the intertwining of these themes in mainstream game productions is a reflection of our society’s misogynistic and problematic relationship to sex. While she acknowledges that her discussion might be applicable in some areas to other cultures, she emphasizes that her focus is on her own American context. This statement stands in contrast to the introduction, which identifies the mainstream game industry as historically preoccupied with the “young, white, Western male” from its genesis. That of course applies to what would generally be termed the Western video game market since the late 1980s, but it seems to dodge the problem of other major markets, or at the very least the Japanese market. Oli Wikander, a professor of Religious Studies, offers a strong exception, examining Western theology and Gnosticism in 1990s Japanese role-playing games. It’s an excellent piece, but its position at the back of the volume seems to speak to its outsider status.

The book would have benefited from more careful editing on both macro and micro scales. There are a few more instances of awkward grammar and spelling mistakes than I’m accustomed to seeing. In addition, only a handful of the pieces cite their sources, which is disappointing. Predictably, those who cite are among the small handful of academics in the collection.

On a related note, my biggest complaint about the book is its lack of contextualization. At least three essays were originally written for their authors’ blogs, and I think it would strengthen the book to contextualize these articles as such. Short introductions preface each piece, but they mainly serve to specify the topic of the essay. This book was published in 2015, so it is mildly confusing when Ian Bogost’s piece on the fantastic stupidity of Flappy Bird and video games at large, originally posted at The Atlantic, refers to “last summer” but means the summer of 2013. The nature of blogging tends to produce writing that is very reactive to its moment and the broader online ecosystem of blogging. These repurposed bog posts are all fine pieces by themselves, but their transition between media calls for some more compensation than the book provides. Another example would be Dan Golding’s fine specimen of rhetoric “The End of Gamers,” originally a 2014 Tumblr post, in which Golding opts to not delve into the events commonly credited for spearheading Gamergate, deeming it not worthy of consideration. Given the priorities of his post, this makes sense on Tumblr. The nature of a print anthology, however, would almost certainly benefits from a stronger historicization either in the text or in footnotes, especially if it aspires to continued relevance.

While the collection’s lack of an absolute unifying coherence is arguably a weakness, it is simultaneously a strength. The diversity of content allows for a wide range of examples of different ways people are approaching video games. The collection and availability of the pieces that were originally published online in a physical book has great value, preserving them from the vicissitudes of ephemeral news cycles. To give an example, in researching this review I discovered that Shanahan’s essay has disappeared from its original home on the Internet. While it remains available elsewhere online for the time being, it would be a shame if it were ever lost to the Internet’s ever-growing cemetery of failed servers and expired domains.

The book’s inclusion of essays on so many varied subjects from so many different angles inspires an excitement concerning the existence of new possibilities and fresh approaches that even this wide-reaching collection cannot accommodate. The collection’s title, The State of Play, suggests a sort of crystallization of all the current discourse surrounding games. I would love to see something like this turn into a series, chronicling these conversations as they continue to evolve in coming years.

The State of Play is strongly recommended for any reader with an interest in the current culture of video games and how we talk about them. Each individual essay could provide, at minimum, a jumping-off point for a spirited discussion on a major topic in contemporary video game culture. Indeed, I can imagine this volume providing the backbone for a unit in a college course. To that end, it’s worth noting that Seven Stories Press offers (free examination copies of its titles to professors.

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John D. Moore is an M.A. student in the Department of East Asian Languages & Literatures at the University of Oregon researching Japanese anime in general and Mobile Suit Gundam in particular. He is also a filmmaker and hobbyist developer of several dozen freeware video games, including Caverns of Khron and ExpandoScape.

You Died

Title: You Died: The Dark Souls Companion
Authors: Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth
Illustrators: Paul Canavan and Angus Dick
Publication Year: 2016
Publisher: BackPage
Pages: 333

This guest review is written by Ryan Nock.

I came to You Died: The Dark Souls Companion as a casual fan of the Japanese video game series Dark Souls (and its sister Bloodborne), and I was expecting the text to explore the craft, the development, and the secrets of the games. It’s not quite that book, though, and devotes its attention to the game’s fandom rather than its creation.

The Souls series is infamous for its difficulty, and you’ll see the words “YOU DIED” flash on the screen dozens of times as you learn how to play. The most casual encounters with enemies can kill your character repeatedly until you get into the groove and learn the dangers of the world and the attack patterns of the undead and other monsters that roam it. While you’re connected online, other players can scrawl notes from a limited set of available words to offer hints, and you can call on help from other players, but they cannot speak to you. Moreover, those same players can “invade” your game and try to kill you.

While yes, this is challenging, it has created an interesting sense of community, as players all struggling at the same time to survive the game and solve its mysteries. That community, which expanded from the video game to the internet and even into the real world, is the focus of You Died.

The authors, Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth, are both game journalists who had early access to games in the Souls series and were early popularizers of them in the West. Through this book (which doesn’t have a table of contents), they recount the history of how the precursor game Demon’s Souls came to the West through imports and fan translations, how its popularity led to the enthusiastic reception of the eventual release of Dark Souls, and how the fanbase proselytized the game firmly into the sphere of gaming pop culture icons.

Today, myriad YouTube channels highlight hidden bits of lore and showcase the skills of expert players, and the authors document some of the most famous examples of each. They seem to be trying to craft a sort of historical record of the game community, with whole chapters devoted to the time a Twitch stream crowd-sourced playing Dark Souls, or how one YouTube celeb got in hot water for collating insights into the gameworld’s mysteries without providing proper attribution to the messageboard community where that information was first posted.

Unfortunately, You Died is not adequately comprehensive as a reference, and as a documentary piece it doesn’t remain engaging all the way through. The presentation is a tad dry and perhaps a bit overlong; and, for a book about a video game, it’s a shame the only art is a series of black-and-white line drawings. I wonder if I, as a casual fan, am not the target audience. The authors assume the reader has beaten Dark Souls, and every once in a while I found passages of the book rather self-congratulatory, like the twelve pages detailing how one author got a 100% completion achievement. Rather than a unified book with a coherent through-line that builds to a satisfying conclusion, You Died is better read as a series of articles, which makes sense considering the pedigrees of the authors.

Still, there’s plenty to like. Entertaining vignettes recall how a couple bonded through co-op play, and how trickster players subvert the “invasion” mechanic to goof around and give rewards to would-be enemies who play along with their shenanigans. The chapters I found most interesting were the ones about the actual craft of the games – a biography of and excerpted interview with the series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki, recollections of the translators who localized the games and the British voice actors who gave gravitas to a mournful story about a world where nothing can truly die, and musings of other game designers on what lessons they’ve learned from the Souls series.

One early and appealing chapter quotes from a long email chain that bounced back and forth among game reviewers who got advance copies of Dark Souls before it was released in the West. The reader is invited to witness their shared amusement and frustration as they work through the game, share tips with each other, and brag about their successes.

For my taste, there’s a bit too much on the community around the game – a still-active community one can easily learn about with some web searches – and not enough behind-the-scenes information. Dark Souls has a setting you have to dig your teeth into in order to really appreciate the game’s plot. Today, it’s easy for someone new to the franchise to hit up a wiki and have all the secrets revealed, and I wish this book had cared more about the unrolling of revelations in the games – the lovely “aha!” moments that cause pieces of the puzzle to fit together.

Also, the focus is almost wholly on Westerners, with scant attention paid to the fans in Japan or the other designers – artists, programmers, composers – who are all Japanese. What inspired these developers to create a setting so firmly rooted in a medieval and Renaissance European aesthetic? All the authors offer the reader is a few paragraphs on Miyazaki’s interest in Western fantasy, and I lament that the topic was not explored in more detail.

By chance, shortly before reading You Died, I finished another book about a pop culture phenomenon with a large community centered on unraveling mysteries. In 1979, the British artist Kit Williams buried a bejeweled golden rabbit and published Masquerade, an illustrated, riddle-filled book that served as a treasure map. In 1982 the rabbit was found, and in 1983 Bamber Gascoigne (a name which will be familiar to players of Bloodborne) released Quest for the Golden Hare. The book served as both a thriller, deftly portraying a cast of characters trying to locate the rabbit, and as an oral history of William’s creation of the puzzle and of the phenomenon of Masqueraders around the world trying to crack the code he’d crafted. Perhaps unfairly, I ended up comparing the two books, and I found Quest for the Golden Hare more compellingly written, though this could be a result of different journalistic styles separated by thirty years – or because I’m not exceptionally engrossed in the Souls franchise.

You Died certainly has its moments, and as a celebration of a fandom it has the potential to inspire appreciation within the community of people who love the game. Its content could have been tightened and condensed, however, and I think it would have been improved by a stronger focus on its Japanese origins rather than just its reception in the West.

You Died: The Dark Souls Companion is available on Kindle and in print.

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Ryan Nock is a writer and tabletop game designer at EN Publishing and product line director of ZEITGEIST: The Gears of Revolution and War of the Burning Sky, two adventure series for Dungeons & Dragons and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.