It is a well-documented fact that I love found family narratives. Any chance I can, I scoop up those kinds of stories and shove them into my maw and enjoy the warm fuzzies of people of different backgrounds coming together and forming a tight bond. I was excited to read Good Game, Well Played for this very reason — the initial plot interested me and I was looking forward to reading about the characters and seeing how close they all were. Unfortunately, my experience reading this story was akin to the experience one may have while playing a badly designed, crunched video game: empty, irritated, and wondering what it could have been.
Story and Characters
Written by Rachael Smith (Wired Up Wrong, The Rabbit), Good Game, Well Played centers around Sienna, a young woman who, when we meet her, is heading to her hometown of Boston, Massachusetts for an important occasion. Flashing back a decade to 1999, we learn that she used to work at a video game store named Game Champ with her four friends: Jo, the video game whiz; Art, the…artist; Sid, the budding rock musician; and Hope, the aloof, goth friend. Every group needs a goth friend. Game Champ and their lovable, jolly owner Tim (and his dog) are something of a safe space for these young people, as four out of the five of them have complicated — if not toxic — home lives, so when their haven is on the verge of closing by a predatory landlord, the kids work together to raise enough money to save their beloved store. What follows are tough conversations, crushes, and well-intentioned attempts at fundraising.
While the initial premise shows promise, the story feels very rushed and disjointed. The A-plot about the kids trying to save the store is somehow both hurried and incredibly slow. We read many scenes of the kids coming up with events to raise money, but they are delivered with such little urgency and lack of energy that at times it made me wonder if they actually were invested in saving it. The only character with a real drive to save Game Champ was Sienna, who would get scolded for wanting to try too hard. Are we trying to save the store, or not? Though I understand that the A-plot of wanting to keep the store open was more of a stage so the interpersonal relationships could have a place to stand, it still disappointed me that it felt left by the wayside. I feel especially bad for poor Tim, who is so sidelined that I would forget he was there until he would reappear after being gone for several pages.
Instead of feeling like fully fleshed out people, all of the kids in the friend group feel very hollow and one-dimensional. Their specific hobbies are their core personality traits and, besides learning about their problems at home, we learn nothing about who they are. Sure, they seem nice and relatively helpful, but, like the core plot, there is a lack of motivation to want to know more about them, besides what we’re told. This makes them feel less like people who have their own agency that you want to root for and more like cardboard standees or pieces on a board game.
Additionally, I did not believe this group’s friendship; they felt more like pleasant co-workers who sometimes hang out off the clock, but I did not feel like they were true and close friends. This is due in part because we are given next to no information about it — we don’t know how long they’ve been friends, we don’t know how long they’ve been working at Game Champ, we don’t know how old they are, where or if they go to school, nothing. It’s not uncommon for stories to launch the reader in media res, but I would have appreciated something to make me care about these kids and their friendship besides the fact that these are the people we are following. It feels as though the book wanted the toxic home lives of most of the characters to do the heavy lifting, as if that is enough of an explanation for why they want to save the store and their friendship, but their backstories only served to sympathize them as individuals rather than strengthen the bond of the friends.
The time and place is, sadly, meaningless. The majority of the story takes place in Boston in 1999, though you could set it anywhere and at any time and it would have the same impact. Though I’m not a Boston native, I could tell that there is very little that reinforces that this is when the story takes place. Were it not for the occasional establishing shots of the skyline, one would be forgiven in thinking that the book takes place in Generic City. The time period is hardly represented, too. For being set in 1999, there is very little 1990s about it all. It isn’t evident in the fashion, décor, technology (there is one scene involving a Nokia phone), or even dialogue. The only bit of slang we hear is from Hope, who is very fond of telling people who annoy her to “get bent,” but I am sad that I read something that allegedly takes place in the ’90s without seeing so much as one “as if.”
Moreover, speaking of technology, for a book about characters that like video games and work at a video game store, there are hardly any video games actually present. We see a handful of arcade cabinets, but that’s as far as it goes. We are to assume that, because of the toxic environments in which the kids live, they might not be able to afford game consoles. But I’m assuming that, which I have to do because the book never tells us. The only reference to a video game from the 1990s is a poster of a character that is definitely-absolutely-not-Mario and Space Invaders stickers on the wall. The games that they do play — “Time Chaos” and “Dungeon” — are so bland and uninspired that they sound more like unfinished placeholders for a more exciting sounding game.
Art and Visuals
The illustration is this book’s saving grace. Done by Katherine Lobo (Inventor of Nothing, Bullet) and lettering by Justin Birch (World Class, Bountiful Garden), the colors are bright and rich and the character designs are distinct. The characters are very cutely designed, with big expressive eyes and youthful demeanors. However, I must say that the youthful character designs made it difficult to tell how old everyone was; they could have been in their late teens or early twenties, but I couldn’t tell you. Perhaps if the book was clearer in their ages that could have shown more in the designs. The body types are almost all the same, everyone in the friend group is tall and slim, the only one who has a different type is Tim the store owner. It would have been nice for one of the friends to have a different build from each other. The attire everyone wears plays in favor of their personalities, but that too left something to be desired. Hope and Sid are shown to prefer mini skirts and crop tops and skater shirts respectively, but that’s as far as it goes. We see Jo vehemently reject dresses for hoodies (for more than one reason), but we don’t get any insight into their personal style aside from that. I’m not sure what it says that people in the background look more like the protagonists than the actual protagonists, but it can’t say anything good. My favorite aspect of the illustration is the lighting. Lobo gives us some very striking shots of buildings lit by a setting sun and a twinkling city skyline at night, as well as some dynamic crowd shots of concerts and people in front of an arcade cabinet.
There was one truly interesting artistic sequence in this book. Near the beginning, where the kids are trying to come up with ideas to save Game Champ, they are playing the “Dungeon” game, an action RPG. The characters are literally transported into the game as different characters, talking about their plans while also fighting in-game monsters. I was floored and enthused by how clever and imaginative that was and felt promising, like the friend group were going to be put in different kinds of video games throughout the book. But sadly, it seems like it was a one and done thing because that artistic choice never returned. It made me go, “why did you stop? It was so cool!” As previously stated, there were very few video games in this story about young people who like video games, and it would have been really charming and inventive to see them engrossed in other games, perhaps we could have learned what kinds of games everyone liked that way; like Hope favors platformers while Jo favors first person shooters. But that did not happen. Additionally, many of the backgrounds in Game Champ feel very empty, only a handful of shelves and posters line the walls; I guess it makes sense to show a sparse store if it is on the verge of closing, but the store felt oddly clinical despite it being a sanctuary for these kids.
This graphic novel is ambitious for trying to tell the stories of people from different backgrounds, but, like most things with this book, it doesn’t do anything to enhance the story. Sid, who is Latino, lives in what we are to assume is a tough neighborhood and is the main caretaker of his younger sister; Jo is Black and is questioning their gender identity while living in an abusive, deeply religious household; Hope is forced to live with creepy older men, on the run from a landlord, and experienced homelessness, and Art lives with a very large family who doesn’t respect his artistic skills. The only one with a fully supportive home life is Sienna, who is white. We learn that Sienna is particularly driven to save Game Champ because she is afraid of change and wants everything to stay exactly the way it is and have her friends nearby, but that reason is not on the same level of someone seeking solace away from an abusive household or a bad neighborhood. It feels like making one of the marginalized characters the protagonist would have served the story better, because the need for escape would make a lot more sense.
Even as I am writing this, I am conflicted about the use of representation in the story. On the one hand, there are definitely people in unsupportive households trying to figure out their identities and there are people who have experienced homelessness, but there is something about the way Good Game handles these topics with these characters that feels very malignant. They sought a sensitivity reader, Chloe Brailsford, to help, but even still, the use of diversity left a bad taste in my mouth. The discussions of gender dysphoria and homelessness felt less like the creative team wanted to actually shed light on these topics, but felt more like they wanted to have a quota for things that make their book feel more diverse and important, only for it to serve no purpose.
As always, this graphic novel could have greatly benefited from having content warnings written somewhere. There is also definitely a conversation to be had about a book not being Own Voices and having the one Latino character live in a bad neighborhood and having the one Black and queer character have hyper religious parents that refer to their friends as “good Christians” but then scold them for not going to church. A long, long, long conversation.
All of these things made for a story that, when I was done reading it, made me feel very empty inside. I found myself saying “I wanted to like XYZ” versus earnestly saying “wow I really liked XYZ.” Which is a massive shame, but I was excited to read it and get to know these people in this world, but the experience was so lacking for me that, when it was time to flash back to the present and join Sienna at the important occasion which turned out to be a funeral of one of the other characters (a very rushed, slightly insensitive funeral), I did not feel much for the deceased. We see the friend group and learn what’s changed and, while that was uplifting, it was less uplifting because you feel for these characters and more because I enjoy knowing people are doing well.
Good Game, Well Played had quite a lot of potential and wanted to enter the found family space, unfortunately, the family in this book remains lost.
Join the AIPT Patreon
Want to take our relationship to the next level? Become a patron today to gain access to exclusive perks, such as:
- ❌ Remove all ads on the website
- 💬 Join our Discord community, where we chat about the latest news and releases from everything we cover on AIPT
- 📗 Access to our monthly book club
- 📦 Get a physical trade paperback shipped to you every month
- 💥 And more!