(About video games.)
For a medium that’s been around for a good 35 years at this point there are surprisingly few books that do a good job of exploring the various facets of videogame history. I’ve always found this a little bit odd; modern videogaming has found itself inextricably linked with the rise of the internet and so you’re far more likely to find retrospectives on games and developers somewhere online, but the catch here is that anything published on the internet is going to be 1) superficial by its very nature (and I don’t mean that as a slight at all, it’s just that the amount of effort you’re going to put into researching even a long blog post or news article is always going to pale in comparison to what you’d do for a full-on book1), and 2) distressingly hard to find unless it’s got really good search engine optimisation. No, I much prefer the old-fashioned approach of sitting down with a book that’ll do an in-depth exploration of one specific area, even if the authors can’t seem to resist giving them cliche titles like Game Over or Insert Coin; the act of reading a book has a permanence that scrolling down a webpage lacks and which leads to my assimilating the information far more readily, and as I like reading history books in general I’ve ended up reading rather more books about the history of video games than a normal person should. As I’ve hit something of a slow period when it comes to writing about games, I thought I’d change things up slightly by writing about writing about games instead. Here are a few books that I liked (or didn’t), and why.
Replay: The History Of Video Games
I tend to stay away from general histories of videogames these days, for one simple reason: I’ve been an interested observer for twenty years now, and I have an excellent (some would say freakish) memory. I already know the general history of videogames from the SNES/Genesis/PC era onwards since I was there the first time around, so there’s not much for me to get out of somebody else’s account and I usually prefer a more in-depth look at the bits that might have escaped my notice the first time around. Replay is the one exception I’d make to that rule and the only general history of the subject I’ve read that I’ve actually kept on my bookshelf, as it is meticulously well-researched and does take the time to pay a quick visit one or two areas I’d previously had little knowledge of, such as the French and Dutch development scenes of the ‘80s. For the rest, well, it is a sweeping history of (at the time) 30 years of gaming packed into 450 pages so it does end up being a little bit broad and imprecise in places, but it’s dense enough that it can afford to explore the key areas in a pleasing amount of detail. I might not recommend it as a starting point to somebody who was completely new to the hobby, but let’s face it: if you’re thinking about reading Replay you already have more than a passing interest in video games, and for that sort of person it’s an ideal window into the past that’s almost certain to have something in it you didn’t know about before.
Bitmap Brothers: Universe
I’m always a little suspicious of Kickstarted projects like this. The sort of person who is willing to spend over a year profiling a relatively localised area of gaming history such as the Bitmap Brothers2 — and who makes a Kickstarter in order to fund it — tends to also overlap with another part of this Venn diagram labelled “rabid fan”. When coupled with the blarney-tinged recollections of events that occurred decades ago it’s the sort of thing that has a significant chance of turning into a hagiography of the subject matter. Bitmap Brothers: Universe does flirt with that line a little bit, as everyone who worked at the Bitmap Brothers at any time is portrayed as a flawed genius — but at least it did include the flaws. Otherwise this is a perfectly serviceable history of the Bitmaps before, during and after the glory years of Britsoft; this is a period that’s always held a certain amount of retrospective fascination for me as I was too young to appreciate the talent behind the games I was playing at that time. The general story is a familar one: the Bitmap development style was perfectly suited to the baroque environment of the Amiga, but the Bitmaps failed to change with the times, made the leap to PC a couple of years too late, and were eventually undone by spiralling development costs and a general unfamiliarity with 3D graphics. The flavour is new, though, particularly the details of what it was like to be a developer in Britain during the late 80s/early 90s when cutting-edge games could still (mostly) be cranked out by one or two people. The book’s biggest drawback is its price: it is formatted and priced like an art book at £30, making it a rather expensive prospect for anyone who isn’t already intimately interested in the subject area.
Prince Of Persia Diaries
Extracts from Jordan Mechner’s diaries covering the five-ish years of his life that he spent developing Prince Of Persia from concept to finished, released product. Mechner was just 21 years old when he started working on it, but his previous success with Karateka put him in a strong position when negotiating with Broderbund for a deal to publish Prince and he ended up with a ridiculous amount of control over the project for somebody so young — the flipside, of course, being that he had to do almost everything that wasn’t physically publishing the game himself. As these are personal diaries they’re very light on technical detail bar some brief descriptions of the rotoscoping and the entry where he realises that the Apple 2 — the primary development platform — is all but dead and that success of Prince is reliant on what he considers to be a somewhat dodgy port to IBM PC, but the overly navel-gazing nature of it still gives you a fascinating look into how much willpower it takes to push along something like Prince all on your own; there are periods in the diaries when Mechner gets so sick of it he doesn’t work on the game for months, preferring instead to concentrate on what he considers to be the far more respectable prospect of trying to break into Hollywood scriptwriting.
Which explains a lot; Prince Of Persia is pretty much exactly the sort of game I’d expect a film student to make. Mechner is very aware that the younger version of him is a bit of an idiot in some respects but has resisted the temptation to over-edit the diary entries, ensuring that this account of his struggle with Prince is fittingly raw and personal. There’s a matching set of diaries covering Karetaka, which is also a good if less immediately compelling read, but the interesting thing about the Prince diaries is that there’s an entry where he gets the idea for flawed classic The Last Express. I’ve been hoping since 2012 that Mechner would release diaries revealing the story behind it, but it’s been five years now and I’ll just have to assume the development and subsequent commercial failure of The Last Express (Broderbund imploded about three months after it was released and the game was yanked from stores) was painful enough that he doesn’t want to publicise it. Which I can hardly blame him for.
Service Games: The Rise And Fall Of Sega
Now, you know the rabid fans I mentioned earlier? This similarly-Kickstarted account of Sega’s early 90s tussle with Nintendo and subsequent fall from grace was definitely written by a Sega fan as it is unashamedly one-sided, although not quite in the way I expected. The fanboying is almost entirely directed at Sega of America, whom the book credits with every single piece of success the company had outside of Japan; the later downward trajectory the company took before cratering deep into the Earth’s crust with the Saturn and Dreamcast is blamed entirely on Sega’s Japanese HQ becoming jealous and stripping their North American subsidiary of all decision making power. Doubtless there is a kernel of truth to this as the marketing accompanying the Genesis’s insurgent run against the SNES had a decidedly Western bent to it, but the book is mostly based on interviews with the NA staff of Sega at the time with absolutely no critical eye given to any potential whitewashing they might be attempting to apply to the narrative. Still, it’s not like the book doesn’t do enough of that on its own: did you know the Dreamcast was intended to fail all along, and that said vastly expensive failure was merely supposed to allow the company to exit the console market on a higher high than the Saturn? I certainly didn’t, and it’s not a theory I’ve seen advanced anywhere outside of this book. Which, incidentally, is the one book on this list you could easily afford to miss; it’s got some value as a collection of first-hand accounts if you’re used to reading history (and thus have plentiful experience parsing biased sources), but otherwise it’s far too stodgy and partisan to be worthwhile.
Masters Of Doom
If you prioritise sheer entertainment value over all other concerns when reading history, then you should definitely consider reading Masters Of Doom. It’s a pop-history account of id software’s glory years, starting with the initial meeting of the key players at ‘80s software magazine Softdisk, their formation of id and initial success with Wolfenstein 3D and the first Doom, and extending all the way through to John Romero’s high-profile split from the company and the launch – and subsequent descent into farce – of Ion Storm. Much of the latter subject has already been documented in painstaking detail on the contemporary web and in numerous retrospectives since, but having it all in one place plus some extra detail really brings home just how insanely dysfunctional Ion Storm was3; the deal they made with Eidos is a great example of a publisher being screwed over by a developer rather than the other way around. Although it does find time for plenty of interesting anecdotes the bulk of the book focuses overwhelmingly on the relationship between John Romero’s expansive visions and John Carmack’s introverted brilliance, both of which are portrayed in painstaking detail but — and this would be my one serious criticism of the book — without much nuance, leading to both of them feeling more like caricatures than real people. Still, the ‘90s really was full of those larger-than-life characters (as is Masters Of Doom) so it might not be too far off the mark, and if you want your history to tell a good story you can’t go wrong with Masters Of Doom. There’s a non-zero percentage of it that I’m decently sure is pure fiction (or at least extremely embellished truth) as the author has focused on building a narrative over getting absolutely everything right, but it’s accurate enough to be an immensely entertaining read because of this.
- Okay, so I have a very low opinion of Games Journalism these days, but I should balance up the constant dunking by mentioning the exception to this rule: Eurogamer occasionally put up some really good retrospectives that are easily ten thousand words plus. The one on Tomb Raider was fantastic. ↩
- There’s a reason I’m not using the word “niche” to describe them: the Bitmap Brothers and their games were extremely popular in Europe where there was a huge install base of Amiga owners, but virtually unknown outside of it. ↩
- I’ve had Daikatana on my GOG account for some years when I got it with some bundle deal or other, and after watching a speedrun at Awesome Games Done Quick last month decided to try it for myself to see if it really was as bad as everyone said. That I only made it as far as this moment, which is about two minutes into the game, should tell you that yes, it absolutely is. ↩
Re: Footnote 1
While video games aren’t their main focus, the A.V. Club has excellent features on games and a lively and well-informed community of commentators.
I really enjoyed Derek Yu’s Spelunky retrospective from Boss Fight Books. Continually tempted to dip into the rest of their range, but as they’re from fans rather than creators I fear they may fall into the rabidity trap you mentioned above.
Empires of EVE: A History of the Great Wars of Eve Online was also great but then it basically covers my entire era of activity in the game so I’m hilariously biased. Get the impression it’s fairly accessible though (I think the author never played?), and spins a good yarn.