Let’s go snoop around the bookshelves in games

A few years ago, while scrolling through Instagram, I was delighted to see a book I knew. At any rate, its backbone: a perfect pillar of happy gold, neatly placed on a shelf next to some plants. The book was the life-changing great cookbook Eat Me by Kenny Shopsin, which I absolutely recommend, and the shelf it was on was part of the cookbook library in the Shake Shack test kitchen. I emailed Shake Shack about this as I’m weird and always hope to be invited to the test kitchen, but even before they came back to confirm that they love Shopsin as much as I do, I knew I was right in identifying the book. Shake Shack and Shopsin made a lot of sense. And seeing a book on that shelf was a chance to see a new, enlightening connection between two things I already loved.

Anyway. I’ve always been a bit of a spy on the bookshelf. Not necessarily at friends’ houses, which always seems a step too far. But bookshelves of people I don’t know seem like fair game. In movies, I always lean forward trying to see what the heroes and villains have on the shelves. At CNN, I can’t help but go over what the people interviewed on Zoom are stacking up behind them.

Games are also great for this, but in a rather unusual way. It’s rare to get that flash of recognition – Shopsin or that classic ’70s Tolkein with the unforgettable yellow spine – when looking at a video game bookcase. But you can get something else: an indication of what the developer values, a suggestion of how much time the team had to spend on small things. And more. Lets go. Let’s go snoop around the bookshelves in games.

Life is Strange with Expedit

Life is strange.

First stop, Life is Strange. And it just so happens to be a strange coincidence, because it wasn’t the books, but the shelf itself that made me stand out. In Max’s dorm room, next to the computer desk, I once noticed something that looked very much like an Ikea Expedit, a classic book/disc shelf that was so loved it made the Guardian’s front page when it was replaced with a similar but not identical one, callax. Oddly enough, Max’s Expedit was a 2×3 format, a form that didn’t exist in the real world. Horror!

It fascinated me at the time – I’m both boring and weird – but what I really loved looking back was that I always saw this Expedit unit elsewhere in the game. Recognition made it suddenly clear to me. It was like having a very boring superpower. It was in the principal’s office in the burglary scene. It was in the classroom. Once I started noticing it, I couldn’t stop, and with all these bursts of recognition, I felt like I had insight into Life is Strange that I wouldn’t otherwise have. The chests of drawers for this game were inventive and economical. They had a certain number of pieces to place around the world, as if a limited budget per piece. And they made Expedit work for them – cloned it, put it on its side, hung it on the wall, partially obscuring it. It was one of the fundamental atoms of the Life is Strange cosmos. It seemed to me that just recognizing this brought me closer to the other side of the game – the side where everything was constructed for players to enjoy.

Like Hyper Light Drifter, Solar Ash has a great library.

It was around this time that I came across the Hyper Light Drifter, which I believe is one of the best examples of a bookshelf as decoration. Bookshelves can be suggestive! I think they can do more for the lore of the game than a dozen nicely conceived audio logs. I climbed up the mountain in the Hyper Light Drifter, which meant jumping between exposed cliff face, ancient stairways, and odd little caves where structures were built into living rock. The higher I climbed, the clearer the chill in the air became, the more I began to notice bookshelves, until I found myself in the proper library at the top of the mountain. What a beautiful thing!

I often think of this library – along with the library in Solar Ash, from the same team. I think the Hyper Light Drifter library is so special because its order gives way to entropy. The shelves are partially collapsed, the pages are scattered on the floor, and I believe there is a strange skeleton in the corner, as if he died while reading. The walls have collapsed and the mountain weather is restoring this space, and perhaps soon no one will be able to use it.

And one more thing – I couldn’t use it in the game. It was set up so I couldn’t get the books out or even read their titles. But somehow it was also more than stage decoration because it seemed to tell me so much about the people who put it there. How they loved order, loved keeping track of things, loved having the details and history of the world at their fingertips. Here was a chance to see what was being lost by the time I entered the game – a chance to see what had already been lost.

Edith Finch Library

Edith Finch’s libraries are often a mystery – but aren’t all libraries?

Cool stuff! As far as books I could read a bit more, we must turn to What Remains of Edith Finch, a game set in a rickety and chaotic house that is both a library and family home. All the family history is here – in a neat contrast to Hyper Light Drifter, the problem, I think, is that the story is too present, and the Finchs could use a little more oblivion and erasure. And all the family’s books are here. Shelves on every wall, volumes spilling onto kitchen countertops, nooks and crannies for more books neatly placed around at least one door.

And you can look at the spines of these books and read the names! I only remember one hand because it’s my favourite. Gravity’s Rainbow, a true classic that I should probably read again. The Finch House has a few copies that I like to take as a commentary on the way families double and triple their books as people die and personal libraries are subjugated. Sure, it’s probably Expedit’s limited time or art budget story with Life is Strange, but it also acts as a somewhat spooky window into how a personal family library grows and consolidates over time. All these people independently reading Gravity’s Rainbow, leaving their own margins, their own conflicting ideas about the symbolism of a windmill reflected in someone’s eye. (Personally, I have no idea.)

This is the thing. Being a gaming shelving observer is a great pastime as shelving is everywhere in games. These are useful ways to fill a space and live in it. They give your eye something interesting to do as you ponder the layout of the books and try to spot copy-paste repetitions. Creating your own bookshelf in Animal Crossing is surprisingly difficult, but I’ve done it many times because I felt my home needed it. Games need shelving just like we need shelving this side of the screen. They are a neat artifact of being human and having a personal history.

I think the last bookcase I really looked at was in Marvel’s Midnight Suns. There’s a library with its own ghost, which is always money in the bank, and there’s a book club that meets every few nights and was organized – I love it – because Blade likes Captain Marvel and then Captain America also joined because he’s gentle and oblivious and always interested in self-improvement.

Cool shelves too, as you’d expect from Firaxis, a developer who loves tinkering with things. As far as I know, there were many interactive places on the bookshelves where you could read the title of the volume or even a fragment of the text from the middle. Beautiful things! But brilliant, there were only a few interactive areas and they seemed to change every time I entered the library.

Pretty! It felt like the game used bookshelves to give me some distance to my character. I controlled them, but they had control over the books they liked on any given day.

And as a rack owner who has a stake in Expedits and Kallax, I know that feeling all too well.

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