Before Kevin Spacey and the futurewar, there was Unreal, with its aliens and strange locations and its utter refusal to tell you where to go. Escape To Na Pali, written by Kaitlin Tremblay and Alan Williamson, is a new book out from Five Out Of Ten. It is positioned as a critical reading of 1998’s Unreal, a game that many continue to hold as an exemplar step in the development of the now-ubiquitous genre of the first-person shooter.
It is clear what you are going to get at the outset of Escape To Na Pali. It is not only a critical inquiry, but also a mode of nostalgic reliving. These two authors clearly have investments in Unreal that extend deep into their persons; they care about the world of that game. They do their best to draw out the small details of that world: the lives of the different species in the game, how the temples are constructed, what the immediate and long-form history of the planet looks like. There’s a reconstruction of just what the Skarrj are and how the design of the game drives those facts home. The authors read the shape of the planet, the culture of the Nali, its native inhabitants, and the effects of the Skarrj invasion on both. In short, they attempt to create a holistic theory of Unreal from the snippets that the game actually provides.
They build this theory from three distinct pieces. The first is through a very close reading of the game itself. The second is from outside theoretical domains like architecture, online games criticism, and technical knowledge of the game’s engine. The third is through their own particular experiences playing the game. While all the work done in the first category is outstanding, especially when fully incorporated with the other two categories, the book failed to fully engage me either theoretically or experientially.
For example, there are moments early in the book that exhibit some of the worst habits of the “literature review.” I am a huge proponent of citational work in popular games criticism, but several pages are devoted to a laundry list of other critics working on topics like architecture in games. These sections of citation stick out and are never fully integrated into the text. They’re a hurdle that made it hard for me as a reader to get invested in the book. While this isn’t a significant problem in most cases, Escape To Na Pali is a slim volume, and any amount of boredom that I felt while reading was a stumbling block. This was highlighted by the fact that I’ve read it done more stylishly in books like Anna Anthropy’s recent ZZT.
The other problem I encountered while reading is that the book is essentially written in the language of Unreal. I have never played the game, and even though the authors attempt to drag me along by making me acclimated to the words and names of the game, my comprehension was always behind because I had to keep checking the names of things against previous pages, never sure if the information I was being given was based on something written earlier in the book or being developed completely anew. There’s an assumption of a reader who is as fully engaged with Unreal as the authors are, and the worst moments of this left me alienated and unwilling to read further. I took several breaks.
However, Tremblay and Williamson are open about this fact in the introduction for the book. It is a work that depends on the reader having a sufficient level of nostalgia. It isn’t a book that gets you invested but rather one that is a helpful supplement to your already-existing investment. It is a mental expansion pack, interpreting and augmenting what you already had; it relies on something like the Videogame Mind Creation Kit to start working.
As critical works about videogames go, I would put this on par with books like Brendan Keogh’s Killing is Harmless and Ken Baumann’s Earthbound. It is for a very particular set of people who want more from their entertainment. It is for readers who want to find the people who care as much about Unreal as they do. In this endeavor, the authors are incredibly successful.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com.