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Boss Fight Books #22

Breakout: Pilgrim in the Microworld

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224 pages, Paperback

First published March 1, 1983

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David Sudnow

10 books1 follower

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 22 of 22 reviews
Profile Image for Chris Salzman.
90 reviews
March 26, 2015
A deep analytic meditation on Sudnow's journey from never touching a videogame to mastering Breakout for the Atari. Every bit of the journey is told in excruciating detail as he takes time to reflect on everything (I mean everything) about the game. This might be the best writing on video games that's ever been produced.

There's so much I take for granted in games and getting a glimpse into it from the perspective of a pilgrim is fascinating.
Profile Image for Caleb Ross.
Author 38 books186 followers
January 17, 2020
(click the image below to watch the video review)

Breakout: Pilgrim in the Microworld by David Sudnow from Boss Fight Books book review

I’m reviewing all of the Boss Fight Books releases, so subscribe to my YouTube channel to be sure you don’t miss future reviews.
I just finished reading Breakout: Pilgrim in the Microworld by David Sudnow, which was originally released in 1983 and has been reprinted by Boss Fight Books as their 22nd book, and I’ve got some thoughts.

Breakout: Pilgrim in the Microworld is basically a memoir of one man’s discovery of, and obsession with, the video game Breakout on the Atari 2600.

Unlike pretty much every other non-fiction book about video games, this one documents a truly personal story during the earliest days of Atari and arcades. Sudnow seems almost prescient about the eventual dominance of video games as an entertainment medium. Nobody else thought to think so deeply about something so many assumed was just a fleeting fad. But he did. Maybe he is the madman many book reviewers of the time said he was, but I’m so happy this madman existed.

And because this book was written prior to any sense of video game history it’s free to explore the medium with curiosity, rather than be shackled by the idea of maintaining narrative precedent and some sort of cultivated accuracy. You just cannot get a visceral, hyper-reactive snapshot of video game history like this written contemporarily. This book is absolutely unique and absolutely integral to understanding the full impact video games have had on culture. It’s that important of a book.

The prose here is quick. This is a writer writing feverishly. He focuses on his own physiology, his literal sweat and tears. Sudnow doesn’t just describe the games Breakout and Missile Command. He uses the rhythm of language to replicate the experience. You’re practically out of breath just reading the book, so imagine how he must have felt writing it and playing its subject game for hours and hours and hours under tense concentration.

Considering his aim to capture frantic nature of arcade games, though tame compared to today’s games, his descriptions can often be difficult to follow. But that’s okay because you really aren’t meant to follow every word. You’ve got to treat Sudnow’s prose like your eyes treat the individual frames of animation in a cartoon: digesting every still is impossible. You must keep pressing forward because the experience is in the ride.

Here’s an example.

LAST BALL OUT OF FIVE. Three bricks left on screen. The farthest I’d ever come. After a minute’s break to gather composure, I serve. For some twenty seconds the ball floats off the boards around the empty space of the nearly vacant terrain. A no man’s ball. I feel the attempted seduction of the long lobbing interim, a calm before the storm, the action so laid back that I’m consciously elaborating a rhythm to be ready, set, go for a slam. Then! It hits the high brick, shoots down like a whip and I’m right there on time to return. Forget about placement. Just hold on, don’t miss, keep the time right, and watch like a hawk for added rhythmic protection. The phone rings. Return, back, return, back. Another one’s gone. The caller hangs up and maybe two seconds later I get the last, by God. (Pg 41)

The entire book reads like this. Sudnow’s writing is the closest you can get to playing the game without playing the game. And this is important because, remember, at the time not everyone was familiar with games the way we are now. He’s writing like a caveman discovering fire, eager to bring his clan to civilization.

I’ve always accepted that poetry has cultural value while admitting that I don’t fully get it. This book brings me closer to understanding poetry’s value by helping me understand poetry from a non-fiction, historical perspective. This is a rare snapshot of a person documenting their experience, in near-real time, with some of the very earliest video games. No retrospective or historical documentary could do that.

He captures the arcade scene as well. The opening chapters reads like a real-time discovery of video games. For anyone not alive during the era of arcades, or for anyone who lacked the capacity to truly internalize the arcade experience, this first chapter alone is worth the price of the book. But you’ll be happy to know that the book continues working long after the first chapter, from those first moments spent questioning the arcade’s purpose, through to the final chapters where you get the sense that Sudnow, after weeks of non-stop Breakout he’s accepting a self-imposed intervention, ready to join the real world again. I wonder what Sudnow would think if he were alive today where the real world and the world of video games occupy the same space.

Breakout: Pilgrim in the Microworld is essential reading. Buy it and read it immediately.
Profile Image for Max.
46 reviews4 followers
May 23, 2017
I'm glad to have read this seminal work. Mostly glad because it means I won't have to read it again. It was not a fun read, but somehow remains clout with me for its rave reviews and general renown for being the first book that looked at video games. In my personal opinion, this book is not worth reading at all. It is only my recognition of my own flaws that I consider myself unfit to judge it worthless, and so finished it anyway.

It is incredibly boring and hard to understand. Rereading a section will not help you grasp it no matter how many times. This is caused both by the difficulty of describing events in an abstract game world, but also by the author's complete non concern with being comprehensible. Abounding with pseudo-philosophy, Sudnow begins every other sentence with "And the most vital aspect was . . ." or "The whole trouble arose out of . . ." These buzz words are irritating.

Yes, Sudnow did go to Atari headquarters and "interviewed" the engineers. Then throughout the rest of the book he complains of not having asked them anything of any value (e.g. history of atari, development of Breakout).

His lack of knowledge about these things becomes incredibly annoying, as he philosophizes about how Breakout was engineered to take money as efficiently as possible. Sudnow clearly has no idea how computers work. Nor is he an authority on anything else, except piano (which admittedly is possibly somewhat relevant).

Flipping to a random page and finding a typical example of "philosophy": "It's as if instead of truly incorporating the events on the screen within the framework of the body's natural way of moving and caring, the action on the screen must incorporate me, reducing me or elevating me to some ideal plane of synaptic being through which the programmed coincidences will take place." What is this garbage? It's like William Faulkner having a stroke.

Sudnow spends pages explaining how Breakout must have been engineered, and the thought-processes that must have been behind it. This is incredibly irritating because a) Sudnow is not a computer scientist and b) he did not take advantage of his trip to Atari to ask the actual engineers anything about it. Basically, he's plain wrong and doesn't know shit about the thoughts he's unintelligibly spilling.

The reflections on the impact of the new "microworld" is so quaint, and also so overblown. I would like to see what Sudnow would say about modern video games, with how far they've gone past Breakout. It would probably be too overwhelming for Sudnow, considering his reaction to ancient tech in this book. If Sudnow were to write a second book about modern gaming, it would probably span thousands of pages, and Sudnow would realize how inadequate his first book was.

Sudnow spends one of the longest chapters of the book "Practice" trying the same strategy over and over for months on end and not getting any better. It is actually painful to read about, but luckily he stops. He finally realizes that just playing the game more loosely is more fun and makes you a better player. To accept the challenge for what it is, he says. If there is one takeaway from this book, it is this: don't get stuck on one particular thing or you'll lose your mind and not go anywhere, and have absolutely nothing to show for it.

The intelligible bits were somewhat intriguing. They were a breath of air that made you realize you weren't stupid and could understand words when they were arranged properly. They add one star to make this book 2/5 stars.
96 reviews
August 21, 2020
This book is a chore to read in many places... but when it clicks, it’s a fascinating read that makes the many plodding sections worth it.

A deep dive into one man’s first experience with digital games, and their slow descent into obsession, Sudnow’s tale is one of the best phenomenological accounts of what it feels like to learn a game for the first time. His descriptions of the slow but persistent progression of his obsession, the frustrations that come with attempting to nail a particular challenge, or the feeling of ‘flow’ that you may achieve are all remarkably relatable, despite being almost fourth years old. Perhaps this is complimented by the simplicity of his game of choice: focusing on Breakout leaves little in the way of necessary description of the games systems (though Sudnow manages to add plenty). It’s an easily relatable game, even for those with little experience.

It’s also great to hear his tales of meeting the developers. When he wants to be, Sudnow is a great writer, with a clever wit and some beautiful turns of phrase.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like he wants to a lot of the time, as this book is half fascinating discussion mentioned above, and half overwritten prosaic nonsense.

Beyond the aspects of the book which are of its time (outdated theory, casual sexism), much of Sudnow’s musings border on incomprehensible stream of consciousness ravings. For every instance that perfectly captures the feeling of a game (such as descriptions of the physicality adopted when playing seriously), there’s another where he spends a page writing one unbroken sentence dealing with his obsession over figuring out a specific pattern he has explained five pages before in more clear words. Aspects like this make it hard to recommend, even if I did like the book.

I think this is a great resource for anybody looking to write on the phenomenology of games, or needing a different perspective on how we interact with this medium. Apparently it’s been a bit ignored in scholarship, and while I hate to hear that, and think it deserves some recognition for the great aspects... I can kind of see why the other aspects may turn people off.

Profile Image for Jonas.
166 reviews1 follower
March 26, 2022
Don't get me wrong, I'm glad I read this. There's just a lot of nothing here.
Breakout is a memoir about a man's obsession with the titular video game around the time of their birth. It's good. It's interesting how much the game consumes him; at least at first. Then it gets stale and repititive and hard to read/follow. Sudnow has a writing style unlike anything I've ever read. I saw two words I'd never seen before, only to learn upon googling them that this book is the only time they've ever been used - he coined them himself. The first was "imaskemediate" (still have no clue what he was going for there), the other "intraretinally," which makes more sense, as in that passage he was describing breakout as a drug you take through your eyes.
On that note, it's interesting how he treats the game more like a drug than an art- at one point he meets the programmers, and treats them more like scientists who discovered something than creators.
Sudnow's perspective is unique; he's a professional pianist, and thus he tries to apply the same techniques from the keyboard to the game. It doesn't really work. At this point he launches into a diatribe about how capitalism designed this game, not a person. He says this game was designed through a series of A/B testing, seeing which version could make the most money at an arcade in an hour, adjust, repeat. A sort of video evolution, with money being the driving factor. This is an interesting observation, but it's completely baseless. This is especially frustrating as he literally spoke to the men who made the game and never bothered to ask them their process in designing it. So it's an unproven theory without evidence; but he portrays it as the truth.
That wasn't that bad to me though. The main reason I rated this book 2 stars was the lengthy "practice" chapter, where he describes his every thought while playing breakout for some 50 hours. It just isn't good writing. The book would be better if it was like half the length. It would tighter and a much better read.
Profile Image for Travis Timmons.
180 reviews8 followers
July 2, 2019
I'm a reader of phenomenology. It's the field in philosophy that I find most compelling -- human consciousness is bottomless stuff. This being said, _Pilgrim_ is phenomenology. A sort of living-breathing-moving version of the philosophy. And in some ways, far more insightful than the philosophical stuff written about phenomenology. This book does IT.

The writing is sometime clunky and counter-intuitive, but I find this normal deficiency to actually enhance the kind of work Sudnow is doing in the book as he documents his process mastering the classic Atari video game, Breakout. The writing is mimesis in this sense.

Moreover, as an adult learner (of German ... and still working my chess games after 20 years!), _Pilgrim_ is an absorbing read for how the adult mind works it way through problem.

Finally, the book is an excellent study of "play" -- especially as articulated by Hans-Georg Gadamer in Wahrheit und Methode; for Sudnow, the lesson is that we must give ourselves over "caringly" to play. Gelassenheit.
Profile Image for Tyler Barlass.
9 reviews1 follower
April 19, 2022
As Gabe Durham writes in the forward to this book, Pilgrim in the Microworld is the first book to focus it's entirety on one single video game. So, it makes perfect since for Boss Fight to add this nearly 40 year old book to their catalog. But as I worked my way through this often times difficult read, I wondered who this book was really for back in 1983 or even in 2022. While I found the author's introduction to video gaming, his spot on predictions of gaming's future and the way that he compared the mastery of it to that of learning the piano fascinating, most of the book is a tedious slog to get through. Sudnow's every thought and move as he attempts to clear the Breakout screen over months of obsession is as much of a chore to read about as it was for him to master the game. If someone like myself, who eats up anything written about classic gaming, can't hardly build up the motivation to read through the middle part of the book, I have a hard time figuring out who can.
84 reviews
April 18, 2022
A tough read. Incredibly long winded. BUT. I do get the historical importance of the book. It needs to be somewhere between 1 star for being so long and rambling and 5 stars for being brilliant.

It’s basically one man’s breakdown over breakout. And it’s difficult to read as he explains in crazy detail his playing. But it’s just so rambling. I really can’t give it more than 3, it should probably be 2.

What a slog. I initially thought he was bonkers, but actually if you think about it it’s the late 70s and Atari is new. He’s never seen anything like it.

I’m rambling now. Read and see what you think
Profile Image for Vsevolod Zubarev.
53 reviews3 followers
March 26, 2020
It's incredible that this book was published so long ago, back in 1983. It is about the original Breakout (1976) for the Atari 2600. The author obsessively plays the game and describes his exact moves, tactics, kinesthetic feelings, etc., all the while pondering about game design and related topics that are intrinsic to video games and relevant today, maybe even more than ever.
4 reviews
September 6, 2020
What an excellent, weird, absolute time capsule of a book. Somehow so of its time and yet decades ahead. Still haven't read any kind of video game analysis quite like it.
Profile Image for Kevin.
252 reviews
November 13, 2020
As far as I can tell, the correct publication date for this is 1983. Some online sources claim 1979, but that can't be as it mentions Missile Command for the Atari VCS which came out in 1981.
Profile Image for Dan Seitz.
384 reviews2 followers
July 14, 2022
There's probably not a better discussion of the pitfalls of obsession than David Sudnow's memoir of trying to beat Breakout. If you've ever been obsessed with a video game this will be ruefully familiar even though it was written in 1983.
Profile Image for Joe Henthorn.
27 reviews
January 31, 2015
'Something vital was being dispensed.'

I remember reading about this getting a really glowing recommendation a couple of years ago on Anna Anthropy's blog and desperately wanting to read it - but I couldn't find a cheap copy (it's a long, long time out of print), and inevitably forgot about it. But when I saw it pop up again on Brendan Keogh's blog the other month and realised it was being sold for a penny plus £2.99 shipping by one of those weird Amazon marketplace sellers, I snapped it up immediately. I am very very glad I did because it is so so so good.

How the fuck do you describe a book like this?! The bulk of it is an incredibly obsessive study of the early Atari VCS game Breakout, but because Sudnow's mind works in powerful and mysterious ways it is so much more than this and it ends up touching on everything from the sociology of arcades, to the military-entertainment complex, to coin-op economics, to parent-child relationships, to the pleasures of the piano, to the benefits of the type-writer over the computer word processor... (you could go on, and on) ... Each question handled in the same manner as Sudnow's fave Missile Command move; with grace and style in a slick lateral panning shot - boom, boom, boom!

It pre-dates the current wave of academic game studies by a good twenty years, and to be honest I think it is just so superior to the majority of stuff that's been written since. The approach is wonderfully diverse, for starters. There's a lot of thick phenomenological description of the author's experience of learning to play the game - it's big on how it 'feels' to play a game, about the tactility of the controls, the blinking lights, the bleeps and bloops in 7.3/4 time. It also anticipates a lot of the post-humanist games writing (without resorting to overwrought hyper-academic prose or drowning you in a see of academics-you've-never-heard-of) in its description of human-computer hybrids, of the breakout twizzly-wheel-controller-thing becoming a part of his body. Towards the end, he writes of the displacement of the human as the central figure within this mad new electronic world - Sudnow sits in a dark room and tries playing the game with the sound off, only to find himself making the atonal bleeps and bloops himself, and wonders if he has not become 'a non-being the TV set uses to complete an electronic circuit so its programmed balls stay in motion'.

And it works so well because Sudnow is such a phenomenal writer, capable of spinning an hallucinatory chapter-length essay out of a couple of seconds of gameplay-time that has all the insights of the densest academic commentary with none of the distracting decorum. He's also really funny and completely aware of the obsessive lengths he's gone to to master this dumb bouncing ball game.

Would recommend to anyone really - people with any interest in games (academic or otherwise) will get a lot out of it, obviously - but there is a LOT here that will be of interest to absolutely anyone. Unique and fascinating!
Profile Image for Stacey Mason.
15 reviews37 followers
January 30, 2013
Jazz pianist David Sudnow didn't play video games until he went to retrieve his teenage son from an arcade in the early 80s, and he immediately dismissed them as a silly money-sink designed to keep teenagers occupied. When an Atari 2600 ruined a party of academics, however, he decided to give games another shot and try the Atari for himself. Thus began his decent into obsession.

Following in the style of Ways of the Hand, Sudnow's deeply detailed exploration of the phenomenology of playing jazz piano, Pilgrim in the Microworld provides an equally detailed account of Sudnow's quest to master Breakout on the Atari--from the physical feeling of the controls to the subtle changes in his strategy of where to look on the screen. The book follows his transition from bemused to curious to obsessed and back, all the while revealing the most subtle changes in outlook and strategy, changes that most of the rest of us would never consciously stop to think about.

Sudnow is clearly catering to a high brow audience. His descriptions are peppered with references to classical music, and never misses an opportunity to name drop Debussy, Lenny Bruce, Nietzsche; but his tone only serves to legitimize the deep study of games at a time when they were regarded as low brow entertainment. As you might expect from the title, the writing recalls Thoreau or Dillard in its tone and approach--carefully balancing obsessive detail with a narrative arc whose drama you only appreciate when you've finished the book. At times the depth of his analyses of the most trivial functions of the hand or the eye can become exhausting, as--no doubt--his frustrating play sessions were, and these sections toward the middle are best handled by giving the book a rest. While others might complain about the pace of the middle chapters, to me, these sections only further highlighted the experience of Sudnow's frustration, and as a whole the book is engaging, thought-provoking, and masterfully written.

As a game studies text, this is an indispensable resource for anyone interested in phenomenology or player experience. No other personal account of playing games has come close to this level of thought and analysis. At times his descriptions teeter on the edge of what might be considered obsessive mental illness, but Sudnow's perspective is entirely unique among the field, and this level of detail will be incredibly hard for most researchers to duplicate.

A must-read for game studies researchers, obsessive gamers, and gamers who also happen to be musicians.
Profile Image for Jlawrence.
305 reviews145 followers
December 17, 2016
Jazz pianist Sudnow's super-analytic, hyper-intellectualized account of his addiction to beating the Atari 2600 game Breakout when it first came out (he even travels to Atari Inc headquarters to grill the game's programmers on how to best play). As a nostalgic Atari 2600 fan and someone with interest in in-depth analytic digs into games of yore (The Digital Antiquarian is probably my favorite blog), this seemed like it'd be right up my alley.

But Sudnow's blow-by-blow detailing of his minute variations in play and strategy as he tried to figure out the game eventually becomes kind of numbing. I enjoyed it most when he stepped back from being inside the obsession and gave higher-level thoughts on the nature of addiction-inspiring game design, what constitutes a game, social implications of this at the time brand new video game craze, etc. Could have benefitted from trimming so that we get more of just his insights, instead of *all* the steps that led to the insights, but still a interesting read.
Profile Image for Mut.
23 reviews1 follower
October 25, 2022
Videogames as modern visual music making devices

Not sure I ever read an in depth analysis of the experience of playing a game (or even the video game playing experience as a whole) that goes as deep in the players thoughts and feelings as this book does. I really wish there was more long form video game writing like this, as the closer I can think of is videogame blog. Please point me more in that direction if you read this comment and know of it. Video game writing is usually way more about the process of creating than the process of over analysing the experience of playing. As a game designer I could say I learned as much from this than any of the best technical books I read.

The only flaw I could say it has is when the rambling for too long it describing/assuming how the game came to be as a machine for optimizing quarter consuming, giving to much credit to the engineers in my opinion (even if I thing he ended up predicting what would become the method of making casual mobile games in the current era).
760 reviews14 followers
July 29, 2012
Neil David Sr. (or David Sudnow, as my copy stubbornly claims) describes in great, great detail his experience playing Breakout when it first came out on a home console. It's an extremely in-depth tale of his obsession with the game, from his trip to talk to Atari designers in person to his personal demand that he create the exact perfect playing sequence. It's of a reasonable amount of interest to those interested in game history, or game scholarship, as it's one of the earliest (and again, most detailed) account of what it was like to play such games when they first came out, and how they were experienced on a phenomenological level. There's a lot of comparisons with addiction, for example, and a lot of negative comparisons with other types of performance, such as playing the piano. I can't imagine what would keep you reading to the end if you didn't come into it with these interests, though.
27 reviews
November 10, 2022
Fascinating as an early example of literature about videogames, and at first the author's descent into madness over the game Breakout and how all its mechanics work is very interesting, but it tends to meander for long stretches at a time, which can make it a struggle to read. Definitely needed an edit to cut out a lot of the fat. Still, a fascinating artifact but I wouldn't recommend reading it unless you're as interested in literature about games as much as I am (or if you're a hardcore Breakout fan, but I can't imagine them existing in this day and age).
Profile Image for Alex.
29 reviews
October 11, 2007
fucking awesome

to qualify that:

it's amazingly OCD, it's a thinly veiled fictional account about a grown man getting addicted to 'missile command' and 'breakout' on atari 2600 in 1982.

he has screenshots of strategies, combined with social and cultural criticism; he says of his first sight of arcade:

"something vital is being dispensed."

not 'good' by any 'literary' account - but it's a must-read for any geek.
Profile Image for Erik van Mechelen.
94 reviews4 followers
October 19, 2013
Stumbling upon an interest, seeking mastery, and finding a world within worlds are Sudnow's high order bids in his epoch spent with Atari's "Breakout." Useful for philosophical introspection, applications to learning a craft, and reflections on the motivations of mankind and the behavior of individuals in a machine world.
Profile Image for Nate.
817 reviews8 followers
May 31, 2011
I love reading about other people's insanity. This guy became obsessed with Breakout for Atari, played it 8+ hours a day, took *meticulous* notes, and play by play accounts of individual games, then wrote a book about it. I mean, the amount of lunacy it built up in this man is staggering.
Profile Image for Tony.
27 reviews4 followers
June 17, 2007
Interesting tale of a man who explored the limits of consciousness and the video world... by playing Atari Breakout.
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