Wednesday, December 9, 2015
Review - Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons by Michael Witwer
Short review: Gary Gygax was an avid wargamer who launched Dungeons & Dragons into the world. There's not really that much else that was really all that interesting about him.
From Lake Geneva
A man named Gary Gygax
Dungeons and Dragons
Full review: There is no question but that Gary Gygax was one of the pivotal figures in gaming development during the last quarter of the twentieth century. As the prime force behind getting Dungeons & Dragons launched as the first commercial role-playing game, he was instrumental in bringing a new form of gaming to the public eye and launching an entire industry. Given these facts, one might think that Gygax would make a fitting subject for a biography. Surely the man who changed tabletop gaming forever would have a life story worth recounting. Sadly, the answer one can glean from this book is "not really".
The book opens by describing a fictionalized version of the aftermath of one of the key turning points in both Gary's life and the history of the role-playing game industry: His ouster from TSR engineered by Lorraine Williams and the Blume brothers. The book imagines Gygax eschewing a ride home in his Cadillac Seville in favor of a walk through Lake Geneva, whereupon he muses over the events that led him to this point in his life when he could be betrayed by people in whom he had previously placed large amounts of trust. This scene is told more or less as an internal monologue, and highlights the two of the main problems with this biography.
The first problem is the dramatized account of the story,relating Gygax's life events as if they were scenes from a work of fiction, including the internal thoughts of various actors. This serves to give the book an immediacy that many biographies lack, figuratively putting the reader in the middle of the action as it happens. Unfortunately, many of the people who show up in the scenes - including the principle subject - are no longer living, and were not when the author conducted his research for the book. As a result, it is hard to take the text seriously when it purports to tell the reader about the thoughts and feelings of various people concerning events. In some cases, the book gives fictionalized renditions of scenes in which every participant and witness had passed away, which makes one wonder exactly how the information concerning the scene itself was gathered, let alone the information concerning what the participants were thinking at the time. Further, the book veers at times away from biography, and takes a turn to hagiography, as the author's enthusiasm for his subject bubbles over almost uncontrollably.
The second problem with the book is that aside from his role in launching Dungeons & Dragons and TSR, Gygax led a fairly ordinary, mostly uninteresting life. He had a fairly ordinary childhood, got up to a fairly ordinary array of hijinks as a teenager, married a women he had been friends with since childhood, got a job as an insurance underwriter, and had several children, all while living in Lake Geneva, which appears to be a reasonably ordinary Midwestern town. Gygax loved games, and took to them at an early, becoming almost obsessed with them as an adult, but that isn't any different from a lot of other nerdy guys of his era. The book makes the mistake that many biographies make, starting with the subject's childhood and trying to make the mundane events of childhood seem exciting and interesting. In Empire of Imagination, one can almost feel the author's desperation to make Gygax's early life interesting: There's a chapter about how Gygax heard strange noises in the attic. There's a chapter about Gygax getting scared as he walked home in the dark from a movie. There's a chapter about Gygax playing chess with his grandfather. And so on. Witwer tries to tie these relatively common experiences to Gygax's development of classic Dungeons & Dragons scenarios such as the Tomb of Horrors or the Temple of Elemental Evil, but that doesn't make the actual events themselves any more intrinsically interesting to read about. There's a chapter about Gygax and his best friend Don Kaye exploring an abandoned insane asylum, which seems kind of unusual at first, but it mostly amounts to two kids and a mostly generic empty building, so even that falls kind of flat.
The meat of the book involves Gygax's obsession with gaming and the relationships he forged with various other hard core gamers that led to the synthesis resulting in Dungeons & Dragons. Witwer tries very hard to present Gygax as a creative genius, highlighting his work as an amateur painter, his development of a couple of wargames and variants on established wargames, and so on. But what really comes through in the biography is that Gygax's most critical personal attribute was his industriousness. At several points the book highlights just how many articles Gygax wrote for various game-related fanzines and magazines, staying up to all hours of the night tapping away at his typewriter. The book shows Gygax's organizational skills Even when the book details the sequence that led to the creation of Dungeons & Dragons itself, Gygax's role seems to have been more of that of an organizer: The hard-working force that transformed the creativity of Arneson, Weseley, and Megarry from piles of disheveled notes into a working draft that could be beat into publishable form.
Once the biography moves on to the topic of how Gygax pulled Dungeons & Dragons together and scrambled to found TSR to publish it, everything picks up somewhat. This is kind of a mixed blessing, because while the story of how Gygax built the company, the unforeseen tragedies that threw its future into doubt, the disputes that alienated some of the creative forces behind the company, and ultimately, and the boardroom machinations that maneuvered Gygax out of his position as CEO of TSR, and eventually, out of the company altogether, is interesting, but it just shows in stark relief how tedious most of the rest of the book is. The excitement provided by this portion of the book might even be driven in large part by the fact that the rest is so dull: When Arneson sues TSR over unpaid royalties, Witwer tries to make the event a big deal, as an outraged Gygax fumes over the ungratefulness of his former close friend. But TSR did fail to pay royalties to Arneson, and in the end, the company settled the matter by agreeing to pay a substantial sum of money - because they owed it to Arneson. This is not the stuff of great drama.
Even though the office politics of TSR seem reasonably ordinary for a small business, they have the effect of making the reader wish they were reading a book about them rather than a book about Gygax's life. For much of the portion of the book where Gygax is involved with TSR, most of the events that are most interesting take place entirely out of sight. For much of his tenure at TSR, Gygax was exiled to the west coast as the head of Dungeons & Dragons Entertainment (where his efforts resulted in the short-lived Dungeons & Dragons cartoon), and shortly after he returned to take the helm of TSR again following mismanagement by the Blumes, Lorraine Williams forcibly wrested control of the company away from him. At this point the biography follows Gygax rather than the company he created, and as a result, the fascinating chain of events that led to TSR's near demise and acquisition by industry rival Wizards of the Coast is mentioned only in passing. When the book moves on to discussing Gygax's work creating Cyborg Commando and Dangerous Journeys, the reader is left wondering why they aren't reading a corporate biography of TSR instead.
Overall, Empire of Imagination is something of a disappointment. Partly this is the result of the fact that Gygax isn't an incredibly interesting subject to begin with, and partly this is because the biographer tries to make the mundane events of Gygax's life more significant than they were, taking an almost worshipful tone at times. Even the title of the book seems almost overly bombastic for the subject being covered. When the book turns to matters related to TSR and Dungeons & Dragons it gains traction and speed, but whenever it turns to Gygax's own life it simply founders. Witwer wonders why no comprehensive biography of Gygax had been written before he set his mind to doing so. To a certain extent, this book is the answer to that question.
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