Despite its title—a possibly spurious English translation of Nintendo’s brand name—and its gloriously pixelated cover, a collage of iconic gaming landscapes from the 8-bit era, few of the lyrical essays in Brian Oliu’s Leave Luck to Heaven, available now from Uncanny Valley Press, evoke bits or bloops. These are not escapes from reality; they are grueling descents into its very trenches.
The book’s layout seems hell-bent on obscuring this fact. Each essay bears the title of an NES classic, except for a few Boss Battles and Save Points. But don’t be fooled into thinking that these essays are about the Nintendo games their titles reference. “Donkey Kong” is about dressing for a funeral; were it not for a scattering of forced references to ladders, hammers and feeling “like an oaf, an ape,” the title would be a complete mystery. “Gradius” is even more tenuous, an imagist piece about airplane lights and “falling in grades into the river.” At times like these, Oliu’s adherence to the book’s theme becomes an awkward hobble.
At other times, though, it is pure brilliance. Witness “Bubble Bobble,” originally published under the title “No Parasol Stars.”
When I was a child I had no teeth. When I was a child my mouth was a cave. I will say my name once. I will count from one to ninety-nine and then over again. I will allow the onions to dry in the sun. I am named after a king. I am named after an emblem of wealth and plenty. There are crystals in my mouth I thought I could eat. There is a cross I thought I could eat. This is the journey into the cave of monsters. Unwrap this so I can feel it slide down my throat.
This is a book about misunderstanding. It’s about the conclusions you draw when you’re 8 years old and trying to master the rules of two worlds at once, the real and the digital. It’s about conventions derived from hardware limitations and development budgets, and what happens when those conventions become indistinguishable from natural law. It’s about moving “always left to right, always east.” It’s about the trap-laden dungeon in Shadowgate standing in for an unfamiliar new home, “the word home being constructed into something that is not home; far from home, the word for something left behind.” It’s about “what happens when you ignore all of the children” in Friday the 13th: “They disappear like breaths from mouths, like a lost sweater.” It’s about Dragon Warrior: “The colors change when I am about to die and they change when I am dead. … I go then you go and I run but cannot and you go and I go and then you go then I heal then you go. This is how it works now.” It’s about this received wisdom from Super Mario Bros.: “When the sky changed from pale blue to white-black that it meant something, that you were close, that the sky is not the only thing that changes.”
“You” appear often in these essays. But “you” are not the reader. The relationship between the reader and “you” is as clearly defined as the relationship between the player and the player character, from the character’s point of view. “You” are omnipresent but nebulous, a specter of loss. You’d need an Official Strategy Guide to decipher it. Yet “you” are the most important thing in this book, the big secret, the 1-3 Warp Whistle. That’s why the pixellated cover and NES game titles are misleading—the video game stuff is only a facade designed to frustrate the reader’s attempts to get at meaning. For Leave Luck to Heaven to be worth anything, you need to learn its secrets, where to duck down to drop behind the 8-bit backdrop.
Although many of these essays were previously published separately, Leave Luck to Heaven is at its strongest when read as a whole. Not that it should be engorged in one sitting, like a pre-save data relic—that is destined to cause frustration. These essays are dense with allusion, as tricky to navigate as the platformers they playfully reference. But, despite their far and sundry sites of publication, Leave Luck to Heaven’s individual segments feel as though they belong together, feeding into each other in surprising ways–just like a childhood or an understanding of the world is not built upon a single video game or a single memorable playground fight, but upon a recursive tapestry of all such experiences. This is especially true of the book’s surprising conclusion, which I won’t spoil here—you’ll have to play it for yourself