From 2008 to 2013, Ken Baumann played the role of Ben Boykewich on ABC Family's drama series, The Secret Life of the American Teenager. The Texas native also guest-starred on shows like Castle and Eli Stone, and appeared in several feature and TV films. At 24 years of age, Baumann recounts his upbringing and familial relationships – along with tidbits about acting, struggles with illness, and more – in his new book, Earthbound.
Yes, that Earthbound – Nintendo's Earthbound (known in its native Japan as Mother 2), released for Super Nintendo in 1995.
Baumann's book Earthbound is the first entry in the Boss Fight Books series, which profiles games of personal significance to each author, with Galaga, Jagged Alliance 2, and others on the way. Baumann's Earthbound is as much an exploration of the creation, content, and legacy of the role-playing classic as it is a self-reflective deep dive into the author's own psyche and past – so much so that it's difficult at times to tell where one half of the narrative ends and the other picks back up. That's because, as Baumann explains, he can't separate his own story and that of the game.
Earthbound's analysis of the game uses its own narrative progression as a guide, breaking down its meaning and contents with each new locale encountered in the quest – yet the book hardly charts a direct path through its diverse material. Within the first several pages, you'll encounter brief ruminations on the game's satirization of the United States of America, a miniature horse that Baumann's family raised when he was a child, and a conversation between Baumann and his brother about the scratch-and-sniff cards bundled with Nintendo Power. The book rarely lingers on one subject for long.
However, the numerous small threads coalesce into a reasonably cohesive look at both the author's life to date and the game that captivated him when he was nearer to the start of it. He examines Earthbound's cultural influences, details the celebrity of its advertising savant-turned-game designer creator, Shigesato Itoi, and digs into its composite elements, like narrative themes and English translation.
All the while, we read about him playing the game as a young child with his older brother, moving with his mom and sister to a Burbank apartment complex to pursue acting as a teen, and recently battling Crohn's disease, among other topics. Cultural references also pop up with incredible frequency, spanning books, TV, and other media – even Ernest Scared Stupid, of all things. "If you simply came to see your favorite Starmen.net facts arranged on a page, this book isn't it," says Boss Fight Books publisher Gabe Durham, referring to the long-running Earthbound fan site.
And Baumann explores the game and its effects on him not only through his nostalgia of enjoying it as a child, but also a beat-by-beat adult playthrough that stretches the length of the book. "You're not culturally savvy when you're that young," he notes. "So it was a different kind of engagement with this piece of art."
While Baumann (pictured in a scene from his ABC series above) is best known for his acting work, Earthbound is not his first notable foray into writing. He's penned two novels (Solip and Say, Cut, Map) and numerous essays, plus he runs publishing house Sator Press from his garage. Durham describes Baumann's writing style as "curious, hungry, erudite, playful, restless, [and] kind," and adds, "Ken's got a mind that's always on."
Boss Fight Books spawned from the pair pondering whether video game criticism had its own equivalent to the 33 1/3 music book series, which has thus far generated 90 entries about individual albums. Upon discovering no games-centric analog, they made a deal: Durham would edit and publish the proposed series if Baumann wrote the first book. "I pretty much immediately knew Earthbound," Baumann admits. A Kickstarter campaign brought in funds – more than $45,000 on a slim $5,000 goal, over 900% of its desired funding – and publicity, and suddenly Baumann had a deadline.
Intent on feeding that ever-active mind, Baumann decided halfway through writing Earthbound to attend college for the first time – St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, known for its Great Books Program – and follow his wife's lead by leaving acting behind. "With acting, I just sort of lost my interest, sadly," he admits. "Writing continued to prove challenging and weird, and I just decided to kind of kick [acting]. So we'll see. I always have incredibly tentative plans, if I even have much of a future left. But I think acting's put aside for now."
The looming start of the semester provided minimal time to sit on a draft of Earthbound and reflect on the tone and direction. Durham says Baumann's personal details provided the highlights of the rough initial draft. "The book absolutely heated up when Ken related game elements to his own life," adds Durham, "so I pushed for more autobiographical content."
Those who backed the Kickstarter – or simply purchased the book, released in January – expecting a straightforward analysis of the game might be surprised to discover that non-traditional focus. Baumann says that it's something he's gone over in his head time and again, even after the fact. "I still have a healthy amount of doubt about whether that was the right thing to do," he admits, but says he prefers criticism that feels confessional and honest. Producing a clinical, detached text about something so meaningful to him wouldn't have felt right.
"I found when thinking about this game, it felt so personally important to me that it almost seemed indistinguishable from my childhood. Playing Earthbound when I was five and six-I couldn't isolate that, cut around it, and put it in a petri dish and examine it," he says. "It just blended and burred into my life as a kid, and my relationship with my older brother, in a way that just felt like I had to talk about myself when I was younger."
Why Earthbound, though? At one point in the book, Baumann rattles off pages of other games he's logged considerable time into over the years – so why this oddball RPG from two decades back? "I feel like my book was a very long-winded attempt to answer that question," he responds. Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger were both initially considered, but he believes each (while brilliant) has a narrow range in what it's trying to say and accomplish. Not so with Earthbound.
"You can't really place Earthbound in a tradition. You have to use too many references – so many references that it almost makes talking about the general tone of Earthbound incoherent," says Baumann. "To me, that's the sign of a great piece of art: if it can cohere with that many influences and do that many things tonally, and still kind of work."
And as a child, when he first encountered the game, its relatable characters – despite the extraordinary circumstances they're in – certainly helped cement its impact. "You're literally playing a kid – a 13-year-old kid with a baseball bat and a cap, who's going to malls and eating hamburgers, and going to arcades. You're not like some ninja who doesn't speak, with a Rottweiler, who's fighting a ghost train. You're not a robot from the future. You're a bunch of kids," Baumann explains. "It's so weird, too. As an adult, I'm most attracted to weirder aesthetic experiences, and I really blame Earthbound for that."
Expectedly, perhaps – considering the subject matter and Baumann being known for starring on a teen drama – the reaction has been divisive. Some readers have appreciated the intimate storytelling and distinctive approach, while others have been decidedly less open to reading about the subjects of wealth, work, and illness amidst a discussion of a beloved video game.
"I've had people say that was total shit, and that they didn't need or want to know that. 'Why do I give a shit about some minor TV actor? Where's my book about Earthbound?'" relates Baumann. "But I kind of love both reactions, and still do. I just like the strength of the reaction. I'm happy that I used personal stuff if it incites that much love or hate."
Though Baumann didn't write about Chrono Trigger, it's the subject of the series' latest entry, written by Michael P. Williams. While still blending personal stories with analysis of the game, it seems more focused on the latter than Earthbound. Durham affirms that the debut isn't meant to set a template for the series, and that the other announced books pick different paths – the upcoming ZZT-inspired book by Anna Anthropy is focused on community, for example, while Darius Kazemi's look at Jagged Alliance 2 is expected to look at that game's development. "What the authors all share, though, is a sense of curiosity, a willingness to dig deep and to honor games with their close attention," he notes.
But for Earthbound, it made perfect sense for Baumann to relate his own story alongside that of the game and its lead. "To me, Ken and Ness are the same: Young dudes who journeyed out into the big world seeking adventure and found it," asserts Durham. "Getting to watch them move through the book together is exciting and moving."
[Header Image: TIME; Game Images: Nintendo; Baumann Image: ABC, Disney]
Andrew Hayward is a freelance writer and editor based out of Chicago, Illinois. His work has appeared in more than 50 publications around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @ahaywa.