Street Talk

Michael Kimball

Michael Kimball is the author of seven books, including Galaga, Big Ray, Dear Everybody, and Us. His work has been translated into a dozen languages, and featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as in The Guardian and BOMB.

Saving the World and Yourself on 25 cents a Day: An Interview with Michael Kimball by Salvatore Pane


Salvatore Pane is the author of the novel Last Call in the City of Bridges. His work has appeared in American Short Fiction, New South, Hobart, and many other venues. He is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Indianapolis and can be reached at


How do you write critically about a game that, for all intents and purposes, boils down to steering a spaceship on a flat, fixed line and shooting two-dimensional bugs that resemble undulating amoebas? I have no clue, but Michael Kimball does just that in the excellent Galaga, the fourth entry in Boss Fight Books’s series of video game nonfiction inspired by the 33⅓ series. Galaga the book, you may be stunned to discover, tackles Galaga the video game, the classic ‘80s shooter that ruled arcades in the era of Pac Man and Donkey Kong. Surprisingly, Kimball manages to achieve legitimate emotional depth. This is no mere tips and trick guide, though those are present too. Kimball weaves a narrative about the history of arcades and Galaga with his own troubled childhood in Baltimore dealing with the specters of his abusive father and brother. Kimball wrings every last ounce of emotion out of the seemingly simplistic arcade game, and hopefully Galaga the book will have as long a shelf life as Galaga the game.

Salvatore Pane: The early ‘80s was such a rich period for arcade games. All-time greats like Millipede, Donkey Kong, Mario Bros, Q-Bert, Ms. Pac Man, and a host of others were released in arcades between ‘80 and ‘84. You discuss this in the book a bit, but why did you became so obsessed specifically with Galaga over all the other ‘80s classics? What about that game captured your imagination more so than the others?

Michael Kimball: Space Invaders was the first game I ever sought out in an arcade, and I was fascinated by it even though I wasn’t very good at it. And then the unofficial sequel to Space Invaders, Galaxian, was my game for a couple of years. So I was set-up to be obsessed with Galaga. I loved the simple controls of Galaga, just a joystick and a fire button, one thing for each hand to do, and it had a great pace. The double fighters were a shift in gameplay at the time and the Challenging Stages were a wonderful second mode of play. Also, on a different level, I think I was drawn to Galaga because I had recurring apocalyptic nightmares in which my school, my neighborhood, America, or the Earth was being invaded by Russians, monsters, or aliens. In these nightmares, I had to save whatever was under attack. On some level, Galaga was my nightmares transformed into an arcade game, but it was fun and I wasn’t as afraid to die and it only cost a quarter to try and save the world.
SP: Much of your work centers around the dissolution of families and people dealing with overwhelming tragedies. How exactly did Gabe Durham of Boss Fight Books convince you to write a full-length book about Galaga, and what initially attracted you to the project?

MB: I think I was pretty easy. When Gabe was starting Boss Fight Books, he talked with Adam Robinson of Publishing Genius about running an independent press. Adam told Gabe that I loved Galaga and that I needed a project. I was going through a divorce at the time and Adam knew I wasn’t really writing. Writing a book about a video game I’ve been obsessed with for decades was exactly the thing to get me writing again.
SP: Video game criticism often gets knocked for being as cold and alien as the characters in the games themselves, but with your book, nothing could be further from the truth. The emotional core—and one of the strongest elements—of Galaga lies in your childhood where you’re physically and emotionally abused by your father and brother. You’ve written about this subject in the past, but often under the guise of fiction. What was it about this project—and specifically the tap-tap-tapping of the seemingly simplistic Galaga—that led you to include the abuse through line? Did you intend to include the more memoiristic sections before sitting down to write?

MB: I intended to write some memoir sections when I started Galaga, but I thought they would all be about playing video games with my best friend at the time. As I worked deeper into the book, I realized that part of my obsession with Galaga was the pure escape it provided for me. I did not want to live the life I had when I was a kid and playing almost any game allowed me to leave it. Putting a quarter in any video game machine gave me a new life for as long as I could stay alive.

SP: Throughout the book, you rely on video games as a mental escape from the carnage of your home life. Why do you think your teenage counterpart gravitated toward the sticky darkness of the arcade over the football field or punk music or any of the other countless options teenagers employ to escape their families?

MB: I needed a lot of different escapes as a kid, but the book only covers some of them. The most important escapes for me were sports and video games. Football would have been an odd choice for me given the abusive household in which I grew up and punk music never really registered for me, but I played a lot of baseball and basketball, and I ran for miles and miles. Of course, I don’t play any of those sports anymore, but I still play Galaga. There’s something about the completeness with which a player can get lost while playing a video game that I haven’t found anywhere else and in that way it was more an escape than anything else I had access to at the time.

SP: One of the funniest elements of the book is the repeated referencing—real and imagined—of the bizarre creations of the Galaga fan community, everything from Galaga cakes to Galaga tattoos. Were you as surprised as I was to learn that a Galaga fan community actually exists? What was the strangest bit of fan flotsam and jetsam you ran across that didn’t make it into the book? And why do you think the Galaga fan community has endured thirty years removed from the release of the most popular entry in the series?

MB: I have loved Galaga since the early 1980’s, but I didn’t know so many other people loved Galaga too. I was astounded by the extent of the fan community for Galaga, as well as by the cultural legacy of the game, and I tried to include every strange bit of information I could find – all the stuff about drinking games and sex acts, all the rap songs that include Galaga references, the coined phrases like “galaganster” and “galagasm,” etc. I think Galaga has endured for a few reasons: (1) the gameplay has a great pace and it really is the best shooter from the golden age of arcade games; (2) some version of Galaga has been released on nearly every gaming platform; and (3) the contemporary love of retro and those 20th anniversary Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga machines have kept the arcade experience alive.
SP: One of the aspects of the book I admire the most is how it mimics the fast-paced rhythm of Galaga the game through a series of 255 interweaving micro-essays that mirror the 255 levels of the game. You often write in this purposefully clipped style, but did you always have this structure in mind for your book? Was it your intention to parallel the pacing of the game? In many ways, the shorter snippets about the fan community or ‘80s esoterica reminded me of the bonus levels of Galaga, while the memoir sections felt like the actual, more difficult stages.

MB: The structure of Galaga came to me pretty early in the process, in part because I had no idea how to write a full-length book about a game that only has a kind of implicit narrative to it. I focused on the structure as a way to write 255 separate paragraphs and I tried my best to parallel the structure of the game with the different types of content—gameplay, cultural legacy, and memoir.

SP: Can you talk about the difference between playing Galaga as a child and an adult? Are there still arcades where you can lose an hour playing Galaga?

MB: While writing the book, I played Galaga wherever I could find a machine—in a pool hall on the northside of Baltimore, at a Laundromat where I was the only one not doing laundry, at a crab shack out in the county. I played a bunch of Galaga machines along the Ohio Turnpike on a trip back to Michigan last winter and there’s a really good machine at Two Bit’s Retro Arcade on the Lower East Side in NYC. I don’t think my reflexes are as quick as they used to be and a lot of the machines have broken down or gunked up over the years, which makes playing them more difficult than when I was a kid, but I think I have a better understanding of the game now, and I can still get deep into that game flow where I lose track of everything except playing Galaga.

SP: For the launch of the book, you hosted a Galaga tournament/reading at Atomic Books in Baltimore. Can you tell us a little bit about how you did, and if there were any other game tournaments-cum-readings?

MB: I had a tough time at the tournament. The cabinet was a multiple arcade machine emulator (MAME), and the controls were strangely off to the far left side of the machine (that is, not where they normally are on a Galaga machine). I’m extremely partial to the traditional Galaga controls, so my high score in the tournament was almost one million below my all-time high score for the game. That was beaten by the guy who owned the MAME, and then a woman named Kim beat that score. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t really get to show off, but it was still fun to play. And, yes, there was a night of people reading video game nonfiction on September 9th at KGB in NYC.
SP: Now that Galaga’s been released, can you tell us about what you’re currently working on? What can we expect from you next?

MB: I wrote Galaga in under a year and I didn’t finish it until about a month before its publication. So my new stuff is in the early stages. I might be writing a novel about a misfit group of softball players. Or I might be writing a novel about a couple that is really mean to each other. Or I might be writing a new kind of twist on the apocalyptic novel (I know, I know).