Book Review: Soft & Cuddly by Jarett Korbek

To put it simply, Soft & Cuddly is punk as fuck.

So is the game it’s written about.

Most of Boss Fight Books‘ library (at least the ones I’ve read so far) come from a place of nostalgia, if not outright love for the original games. Soft & Cuddly is markedly different, as it has absolutely no time for that shit. It’s easily the least personal of the Boss Fight Books library– Kobek doesn’t offer any childhood memories of playing Soft & Cuddly as a kid.

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I’ve never played the deceptively named Soft & Cuddly. I’d never even heard of it until Boss Fight Books’ Season 3 announcement. Hell, I never even heard of the ZX Spectrum, the microcomputer Soft & Cuddly was written and played on. Upon digging up some gameplay footage on YouTube, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to play it, either. Seriously, what the fuck is going on here?

The thing is, Soft & Cuddly (the book) isn’t entirely about Soft & Cuddly (the game). In fact, about two thirds of Kobek’s book covers other, tangentially related topics such as the “Video Nasty” scare that got a bunch of horror movies on VHS banned in the UK, the general shittiness of Thatcher-era England, and a brief history of Sinclair Research, the company that produced the ZX Spectrum.

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The ZX Spectrum is kind of like Jellied Eels or early seasons of Dr. Who in that it’s unmistakably English, ridiculously popular, and also kind of terrible. Despite (or perhaps because of) its flaws, the ZX Spectrum sold millions of units in the 80s. It was the first widely available computer in the UK, and various licensed and unlicensed clones soon spread across the world. The ZX Spectrum even used the most 80’s of memory formats: the audio cassette.

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Pictured: The 80’s.

The cassette format made programming (and pirating) software for the ZX Spectrum a big thing, which finally brings us to Soft & Cuddly. It was surreal and gruesome game programmed entirely by a teenager named John George Jones. Kobek explores Soft & Cuddly less like a game (seeing as of how the game verges on the incoherent) and more as a piece of provocative art. Describing it like that makes Soft & Cuddly sound a lot more pretentious than it really is, as Kobek writes his book with the same kind of smartassed anarchism (verging on nihilism) that permeates Jones’ game. Considering Kobek wrote a novel called I Hate the Internet, such a tone’s to be expected. Soft & Cuddly‘s snark is darkly cynical, yet all the more entertaining for it. Hell, Kobek’s smartassery even extends to the bibliography.

Ironically enough, the obscurity and incomprehensibility of Soft & Cuddly (the game) make Soft & Cuddly (the book) one of the more accessible titles from Boss Fight Books. You don’t need to play the game to understand what’s going on in the book– mostly ’cause the game was never really meant to be understood in the first place.

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