Top critical review
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Clear and business-like, with an emphasis on business
on 24 June 2010
As a life-long player of video games, I was happy to discover Tristan Donovan's book 'Replay', which promised a solid and entertaining general history of the people and technology behind the rather dry business of videogame production.
I did enjoy the book, with reservations, and I'll explain why.
First of all, I'll be clear - outside of articles in Edge or Retro Gamer, I've never read any kind of canonical history of the medium. Therefore I had no preconceptions and no frame of reference as to how this book may compare to others available (and there are a few).
'Replay' moves chronologically through the entire known development of video games, beginning in experimental labs at the end of the 1940s and ending with the current generation of hi-def consoles. In the early going the book is revealing, and describes early forms of computer games whose evolution was invariably cut short due to the cost of the equipment and the fact that, put simply, no-one seems to have thought they were a viable business proposition.
The chapters devoted to Atari, and particularly Nintendo in the 1980s, are very interesting - I could have read even more on Nintendo's corporate and creative culture, which seems to have always configured existing technologies in novel and cost-efficient ways, instead of pursuing vanguard technology, which, as the PS3 proved for Sony, usually proves to be a black hole into which money disappears.
Chapters on British game design in the 1980s are also well told - as is the brief history of the C64 and ZX81. But the entrance of Sony into the market, and eventually of Microsoft, is oddly given short shrift. Sony's ten year dominance with the PS2 and Microsoft's gamble to challenge them with the Xbox is hardly dramatised, despite the fact that this period represents the apex of success of video games in mainstream culture. It's as though Mr Donovan ran out of interest, or time, and this was seriously anti-climactic. The book's story, well-told up to this point, just fizzles out. On the plus side, there is a comprehensive index of key games and game genres at the end of the book - something approaching an attempt at a canon - with brief notes on each game and who designed/produced it.
Mr Donovan sets out his stall very ambitiously at the start of his book, in a forward in which he states that he intends to make a case for video games as an art form which can rival film and literature. However, the book he ended up writing is a readable breakdown of a series of business manouevers made by individuals in the pursuit of profit, some of whom were more organised - and thus more successful - than others. Despite sixty years or more of video games, and over 500 pages, he does not have much more than this to report.
Mr Donovan may well be delighted by games, but I suspect that even he doesn't really believe they're an art form. Most of the moments of insight or joy in the book describe hardheaded businessmen going after their vision - like Nintendo's CEO, who refused to give up on the NES despite all the signs telling him it was a stinker. Actual moments of creative joy - either playing the games themselves or in creating them - are hard to come by. The creator of Tetris describes how he came to discover that game's perfect form, but he is clearly solving an engineering problem, whose ideal outcome was "I couldn't stop playing". Tetris offers no insight into the human condition, and nor does its maker suggest it should. The game provokes a compulsion, and it's creator is justly proud of having perfected an elegant design.
In fact Tetris, the most perfect of all video games, is a simple example of why video games will most likely never evolve into an art form, and suggests perhaps why Mr Donovan himself, despite his best intentions and his intelligence, never gets around to pursuing the argument. What video games do is provoke, manage and regulate behaviour in the player, in ways that produce, hopefully, pleasure. Like Skinner's Box, they stimulate self-rewarding behaviour and issue punishment when the rules are broken. I have played and enjoyed all the modern classics, and, probably like Mr Donovan, enjoyed most of them for what they were. Their value as feats of engineering, and even as psychological experiments to which we willingly subject ourselves, is self-evident, and you can call this art if you like.
For me, though, and I suspect for Mr Donovan, they're 'simply' games, which people create out of a very real need for play, and have enjoyed for time immemorial. But if the game isn't fun, then no-one plays it. And I don't think that anyone, no matter how much he wants to believe it, thinks that art has to be fun to be art. Games, instead, live or die by this definition.
Overall Mr Donovan has written a very good book, which is certainly fun to read, and is very informative. Despite my disappointments with some of it, I do recommend it as a good overview of the business of video games.
One final note for the publisher - "Replay" contains more grammatical mistakes, type setting errors, and spelling gaffes than I've ever come across in a book. It's truly bizarre!