What do the following games have in common? Besides the fact that we’re here at RPGFan and can assume they are RPGs or within RPGFan coverage.
- The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
- Final Fantasy VI
- Persona 4 Golden
- Dragon Quest V
- Fire Emblem Awakening
- Dark Souls
- Mass Effect 2
One straightforward answer is that these are all relatively well-known, successful games. They are from a range of platforms and drastically different time periods, but they are likely to have stuck with you and elicited a positive response. The more precise answer is that these were some of the most important RPG and RPG-adjacent games for author Jordan Rudek throughout his life so far, and the ones he included in his recent book A Game in the Life: A Personal Journey Through Timeless Video Games.
If you’re anything like me, at this point you’re thinking, “Okay, that tracks. Some of those games are extremely personally important to me, too.” That’s the beauty and simplicity of Rudek’s work here. It invites you to listen to snippets of his life story and the connections he’s made with each game while leaving space for reflection and tying your own experiences to his life and the games themselves. I spent some time speculating about the order of the chapters — and there are several RPGs and non-RPGs included — for this very purpose and to more readily picture sequences of life events and release dates so I could compare and know where they fit into my life. It served as an effective vehicle for reminiscence.
The book as a whole is short at 116 pages, and each chapter is seven pages or so on average. Because of this, I think of it as a supercut of impactful games and life events. One device Rudek uses to make these connections clear and promote accessibility to the game information is linking each game with a life lesson, like “Super Mario 64 and Gaining Perspective” in the chapter titles. Looking at them all in a row, two trends immediately stood out: the games I played vs. ones I haven’t, and that the real-life lesson themes do not necessarily follow a pattern. Some occur in an expected timeframe, like the “How To Grow a Gamer” chapter occurring early in the sequence, but otherwise, the themes read as scattered, as they might randomly dawn on you in life.
Rudek’s work is timely, as we’ve reached a historical point where some older generations have gone from zero video games to current technology, whereas some younger generations have never been without 3D graphics. The medium is also old enough now that many of us who grew up as gaming technology rapidly changed (like Jordan and myself) can now reflect and start to understand what that meant in a cultural, personal, and even societal sense. Let’s see how this work approaches that by using some of the most pertinent (read: RPG) games and some of my reactions to get a read on these larger trends and if he met his goal of showing how his consistent gaming habit shaped his personal growth in a way that’s accessible for even non-gamers.
First of all, Mr. Rudek, sir. How dare you exaggerate and change details about A Link to the Past and tell your friends about secrets and items that don’t exist! I definitely would have been the kid spending hours wandering around Hyrule wondering if there was something wrong with ME or my game because I couldn’t replicate what you said. You should have just spent hours staring at the maps and sticking printed pages with some verse from the game into your parents’ old books to create tomes of ancient lore like the rest of us! (Just me, then? Okay, fair enough.) Though, I do appreciate this little bit of mischief in a chapter about “learning to love adventure.” This chapter showed a hint of that interactivity, a cross between gaming and imaginative play, that was the most possible at that particular age (around seven) and with a very particular sort of game like A Link to the Past.
At the same time, this glimpse into the social experience of Zelda was a relatively small portion of the chapter, and one that I couldn’t personally revisit without a pang because so much of my time during that same period of life was knowing that as much as I loved that game, it was rare for me to be able to share that enthusiasm with someone else and have them understand or return it. Looking back, the extensive description of the game and its reception may have interrupted my personal reflections, though I still had the resounding impression that these early chapters could land drastically differently depending on how much your personal experience varies from Rudek’s. It can be a hard life out there growing up!
As I made my way through the chapters on Final Fantasy VI and Persona 4 Golden, I found myself making a lot of effort to follow the thematic threads from the chapter titles, only to feel slightly thwarted due to the decrease in commentary on the author’s personal experience during these times, relying instead on commonly accepted reactions to these two titles to tie into these themes. And that approach is accurate — many of us did become more interested in RPGs as a whole because of FFVI‘s cast and do feel a deep connection with the everyday struggles the Investigation Team goes through in Persona 4 Golden — but may fall slightly flat for those of us who know these games well. This gives any readers unfamiliar with a given title an advantage, as they will likely come away with a comprehensive understanding of why these games are meaningful for so many players.
There was a welcome shift in the Fire Emblem Awakening chapter where Rudek dedicated a larger portion to specific events and goals in his life, specifically career changes and necessary risks involved to move him toward his target position teaching at a particular university. I have to pause and take a moment to applaud the vulnerability and yes, risk, involved in sharing these personal moments, especially when things did not work out as expected or desired. I appreciate the parallel between the long periods of waiting and taking small steps toward career successes and the long time it took to finish Awakening without losing characters. The result was a very cohesive chapter that was well-balanced between game-related exposition, reception, and personal experience, and this is where I think the book finds its stride.
The Fire Emblem chapter pairs well with the chapter on Dark Souls, which occurs chronologically a couple years before the Awakening chapter and relays some of the hardships and hard-won victories that led to those career shifts. This chapter takes the stance that there were no magic bonfires to reset things or make it easier to progress through those times, only carefully learned patience and perseverance. I enjoyed contrasting this with my real-life takeaway from Dark Souls, which involves “finding the bonfires” to be able to continue when everything is too much all at once.
Upon reaching the end of the book, I felt I had a solid sense of the events and games shaping Rudek’s life and a more mixed sense of precisely how those games shaped his personal growth, depending on the chapter. The writing is entertaining and approachable throughout, and for someone less familiar with some of the games, I found plenty of helpful information conveyed with a good sense of prioritizing the key factors to drive home why these particular games left an impact.
A Game in the Life is an admirable and honest effort to catalog our ever-changing relationship with this adaptable, interactive, and deeply personal form of entertainment and storytelling, and I am looking forward to what Rudek and other authors create in this vein in the future. My hope is that this book encourages the reader to reflect on and even record their own personal “game in the life,” and they find this reflection helpful, whether by seeing their own growth or better understanding their future course.
A Game in the Life: A Personal Journey Through Timeless Video Games is available in paperback and ebook forms through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop.org, and many other retailers, linked here.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a copy of the publication provided by the publisher. This relationship in no way influenced the author’s opinions.