Wot I Think: Replay

By Kieron Gillen on July 5th, 2010 at 6:33 pm.

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This is the best single general history of videogames that I’ve ever read and I can’t think of a reason that you shouldn’t go and order a copy of it immediately. Unless you already own one. Or you’re Tristan Donovan himself. The reason why it’s the best are laid out in the second paragraph of the book, where he answers the question why write another book about this stuff anyway…

There are many reasons why, but two stand out. The first is that the attempts at writing the history of video games to date have been US rather than global histories. In Replay: The History of Video Games, I hope to redress the balance, giving the US its due without neglecting the important influence of games developed in Japan, Europe and elsewhere. The second, and more important, reason is that video game history is usually told as a story of hardware not software: a tale of successive generations of game consoles and their manufacturers’ battle for market share. I wanted to write a history of video games as an art form rather than as a business project.

And that’s it.

In short, the aim was a history of videogames rather than the videogame business, with an eye on the world stage. In this 500 page volume – 350 pages of history, 150 pages of gameography and Hardware Glossary – he does exactly that. It’s a book that is both audacious in its arguments of what actually is most important in terms of the shaping of the world of games we live in, but doesn’t let the iconoclasm get in the way of its comprehensiveness.

In short: it’s a very hard book to disagree with on anything that really matters. You may pick it up on how it chooses to contextualise certain games (For example, positioning X-COM in the lineage of Civilization’s tech-tree rather than as the pinnacle of a designer following his own path for a whole decade previously). You may disagree with it on matters of philosophy (Donovan sees video games as something that is separate and divorced from pre-existing games. I see it as a continuum of technology-enabled-expression going all the way back to bone dice). And you may pick it up on typographical issues (But, clearly, I’m the last man alive to give a toss about such things).

Really, this is fine detail. And in the detail where it matters, the book is extremely fine.

Best of all, it’s a history of games not written solely by the marketing budget or accepted wisdom. For example, Sony and Microsoft’s entrance into videogames is covered, but only as part of larger chapters – for example, Sony being dealt with as part of looking at the widening gamer demographic in the mid-90s. As in, they were mainly important in terms of the trends, but they were not an inventor of something new or something that altered a paradigm. They were merely two new successful consoles. Conversely, Korea is the focus of a whole chapter, dealing with the origins and reasons for its unique gaming culture and the economies of online games. And, especially central, the first real successes of the free-to-play/microtransactions model – which, if we’re talking payment-influencing-games-design games, is probably the biggest shift since the move from the arcades to the home consoles.

And I stress, that sounds much more contentiously argumentative in my paraphrasing. The book doesn’t pick fights, or have an obvious drum to beat. However,like the best large-scale histories, it is willing to choose its narrative out of the grand array of the facts. From Alan Turing sitting down and trying to work out how he would go about making one of his valve-powered monstrosities play chess to the flowering of the indie-rose in the last few years, it’s an effortless joyful journey.

Despite its wide focus, it doesn’t brush over games history’s traditional founding stories. From the rise and fall of Atari to Nintendo’s resurrection of the American home console industry, you’ll it covered. But you’ll also know about the rise of the British bedroom coder – and that seeing the gameography was audacious enough to include a section called “British Surrealism” was my first hint that this was going to be something special. Elsewhere you’ll discover what was happening in France or Germany, or where Spain and Italy fits in. It reaches further than “Tetris” when considering gaming behind the Iron Curtain.

I’ve regularly complained that games journalism is America/Japan-centric in its understanding of history. This is understandable, because the majority of the Anglophile games press are American. I chided them whenever they roll out a “everyone played Mario” riff… but that’s all I could do, because there wasn’t anything I could point them at. I could see the disease. However only now with Replay, can I diagnose a cure.

If you’re a journalist and you’re writing on the cultural history of games and you haven’t read this, you’re failing your readers and you’re failing yourself. This is the absolute basics that you should know. Or, metaphorically speaking, if we were talking about WW2 histories, this is the first one which has admitted the existence of the Eastern Front. And, talking on a personal level, there’s masses of stuff here I wish I knew a decade ago – and I’m grateful that Donovan has provided a means to lessen my ignorance.

On the largest scale, these are heroic, human stories of failure and achievement. The exact grandeur of what certain teams achieved is made fresh and new, my cynicism seared away. I’ve never been a personal fan of iD software, but I came out of the chapter which they star (about the growth of 3D tech) more sure than ever that for five years, they were the medium’s Beatles. Even before Donovan makes that exact comparison. Even more than the romantic Masters of Doom, their chapter succinctly states a close-to-irrefutable argument why they were important, and why when the history books come to be written those five years will weigh so heavily. And, of course, “when the history books come to be written” is right now.

Oh, god. I could go on and on about this one. But for every story I exhume from it, I’m giving a false picture of what this book achieves. By choosing a single example, I’m making you think this book is about that, rather than all this other stuff. It’s a sterling general history. If you’re reading this, I urge you to consider buying it – because if you read RPS, you’re the sort to enjoy reading about games. And if you enjoy reading about games, there’s absolutely no way that you’re not going to find spending quality time with this rewarding.

Bravo! And encore! We should lob Donovan into cryogenic storage so we can thaw him out in 50 years to write write part 2.

Replay is currently available from Amazon UK and US.

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57 Comments »

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  1. Helm says:

    I’ll be getting this. Thanks for the heads-up.

  2. JohnnyMaverik says:

    Sounds good, I’ll probably give it a read, I usually dislike videogame history books since like you said, they’re usually mostly if not utterly US-japan focused, and delve into the nitty gritty of the console and publisher wars that I really don’t are about, glossing over the games and evolution of the medium from an actual game design perspective rather than a hardware and financial perspective, all the stuff I can get in one of the many tv documentaries that have been made over the years that only take 1 hour to watch. Glad to hear there is finally one that takes a closer look at the developers and games, and the industry on a more global level.

    Two questions: Are Valve covered in this at all? Also, are you the Kieron Gillen from PCGamer UK?

    • Wulf says:

      It’s the same Kieron, not to be confused with Karen Gillan from the new Doctor Who, which leads to all sorts of massively disturbing mental imagery.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Johnny: Yeah, it includes stuff on Valve. It’s a generalist history, so no-one gets more than part of a chapter, but they get their day in court.

      And yes, I am.

      KG

  3. Meat Circus says:

    Better than This Gaming Life?

    IS IT? How much better?

    • Frosty says:

      @Meat Circus

      Having got This Gaming Life recently and finished it and now reading Replay from when Kieron mentioned it in the Sunday Papers I’d say….

      They are very different books. But Replay is definitely worth it.

  4. Meat Circus says:

    What, no Kindle version? FAILED.

  5. Meat Circus says:

    Yeah, so I just tried to download it, but apparently I can’t, legally. I suppose it doesn’t matter, I mean, it’s not like gamers can use the fucking Internet, is it?

    • Bob Bobson says:

      It’s a book. Sure it’s one that gamers will want to read and gamers do love the internet (as do a bunch of other duller people). But first and foremost it’s a book.

      That means publishers rather than the author get to make all the commercial decisions and well… publish it. That means that irrespective of how sane it would be for such a book to be available for internet sale it’s a sales decision by someone who may or may not be interested in the subject matter.

    • qrter says:

      Yes, and? He isn’t saying it’s the author’s fault, is he?

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      It is on the iPad though. Oh noes!

      KG

  6. tomwaitsfornoman says:

    Bought it.

  7. Premium User Badge

    Vitamin Powered says:

    I’ll definitely be picking this book up.

  8. Lars Westergren says:

    Buying this.

    Anything about Sweden in there?

  9. TeeJay says:

    Tristan Donovan’s blog: http://www.tristandonovan.com/ where he directs people to extracts published by Wired and Gamasutra:

    Wired (part 1)

    “…A look at Nimrod, an installation at the 1951 Festival of Britain that was the first computer designed exclusively to play a game…”

    Link: http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2010/06/replay/

    Wired (part 2)

    “…the low down on the formative days of French video games … how the May 1968 riots influenced pioneering French game company Froggy Software, how the anti-slavery message of the text adventure Méwilo won an award from the Parisian government and the efforts to make distinctively French games…better known French games such as Another World (Out of This World to non-Europeans) and Alone in the Dark get covered in later chapters of the book by the way.
    Link: http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2010/06/french-touch-games/

    Wired (part 3)

    “…the wild, wacky and surreal early days of the UK games industry. Games covered include the famous Jet Set Willy and the much less famous Can of Worms by Mel Croucher…”
    Link: http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2010/06/sinclair-zx80/all/1

    Gamasutra

    “…chapter 14 from the book all about the controversy surrounding Mortal Kombat and Night Trap in the mid-1990s…”

    Link: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/5833/mortal_kombat__a_book_excerpt_.php

  10. stahlwerk says:

    Ordered, as a gift for a good friend. I hope I can sneakily read a few pages before wrapping it up.

  11. TeeJay says:

    (also you can read the first three pages of each chapter on the amazon ‘preview’ pages)

  12. Down Rodeo says:

    Slightly relevantly there was an interview with Sir Clive Sinclair on Click late last night (I suppose more like this morning, just slightly after midnight). The focus was not on his inventions’ impact on games but they did touch upon the bedroom coder. I think he mentions that the Spectrum was his favourite device that he’d made. Apparently there are extra bits online as well which I have not watched yet. Better commenters than I would provide a link.

    …actually, some of it’s here but I’m not sure that link has everything. Here’s hoping I’ve not failed at HTML…

  13. Rohit says:

    “I’ve never been a personal fan of iD software”

    I can tell.

    • Man Raised By Puffins says:

      *cough*id*cough*

    • Man Raised By Puffins says:

      Nevermind, got the wrong end of the stick there. ¬_¬

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      Question, do RPS’ers pronounce it Id (to rhyme with lid), or EyeDee software?

      (From reading an About file from Doom or something, I seem to remember that the name refers to the psychological concept, the id, and the ego and super ego [I think], and so is pronounced Id, but what do I know eh? EH?)

  14. James G says:

    Has been on my Amazon wishlist since the Sunday Papers linked an extract in wired. (On a sidenote, I’m very glad I have one-click shopping turned off, as I almost accidentally purchased a Canon 7D when adding it to my wishlist in case a very rich person decides they like me.)

    Its strange, thinking back on my early gaming history, it was difficult to come up with an overarching view as to what the British gaming scene was, as most of my experiences were highly personal. Sure I chatted to friends, read magazines, and routed through boxes of highly genuine cassettes and disks at car boot sales, but I never really had a perspective on the scene which didn’t immediately encompass the games I was playing. I suppose in some ways this was true for most people, the internet was a much smaller beast back then, and few people had experience of it, it was much more difficult to get an overarching impression of what everyone thought.

    Yet one thing that is surprising, is how many of my early gaming touchstones are shared. Not all of them of course, and some talk enthusiastically about games I never played, but Jeff Minter, Manic Miner/Jet Set Willy, Ant Attack, Adventure (Crowther and Woods), Dizzy, Knightlore, all seem to have resonance with other gamers.

  15. Leo272 says:

    Wins points for: Including Speccy classic The Train Game.

    Loses points for: Calling Tetris a puzzle game.

    • Chris D says:

      What’s Tetris if not a puzzle game?

      Also, what’s a puzzle game if Tetris isn’t one?

    • Premium User Badge

      Sagan says:

      Professor Layton could be a puzzle game. Or something like the puzzle parts in various (old) RPGs.

      I have always been confused why Tetris and similar games are called puzzle games. They don’t have any puzzles in them.

    • Chris D says:

      Doesn’t “Make a solid line with these blocks before they reach the top” count as a puzzle?

    • Premium User Badge

      Sagan says:

      I don’t consider Tetris a puzzle because a) it doesn’t have a solution and b) it isn’t played by thinking about it. Sure you have to think a little in it but you never have much time or much need to think anything elaborate.

      I can see how Tetris might be a puzzle as a physical game, but the computer game implementation has taken the puzzle elements away.

    • Chris D says:

      OK, although by that definition you also exclude Puzzlequest, Puzzlekingdoms, Puzzlechronicles, Puzzlefighter and Puzzlegeddon.

      I’d still consider this category to be puzzlegames, mostly because it’s a convenient term that seems to fit as well as anything else.

      If you want more of a justification then I’d consider each move/block/step to be a puzzle with a range of solutions, some better, some worse. You may not have to think too hard most of the time, but usually that’s because you’ve already thought about it at some stage. Once you know how to solve a rubiks cube you don’t have to think too much about it either but I’d still consider it a puzzle. Tetris then is a game made up of may simple puzzles in succession, hence not a puzzle itself but puzzle game seems to fit ok.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Tetris has been called a puzzle game ever since it was released. I don’t see a reason to change that now.

      KG

    • Gabe says:

      I agree that Tetris has always been labelled a ‘puzzle’ game, but I’m not sure that it was ever a very satisfactory fit.

      Sure, the thing that inspired it (tetronimoes – wooden blocks) *is* a puzzle. And in 1985, Tetris was more like a puzzle than say… Ghosts n Goblins or Gauntlet. But I’m afraid it’s the ‘speed’ thing that makes me feel uncomfortable. Puzzles to me say ‘sit back and think’, which is not Tetris. Maybe a match-3 game without a time limit… that lets you ponder before you move.

      Yes, it’s 26 years too late to make up a new category for Tetris. But I wonder what would have been a better title, if we were there at the time…?

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Gabe: You’re right on all counts here. However, I suspect it’s also too late. It’s like the word “video games”. We’re stuck with it.

      KG

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      oceanclub says:

      “But I’m afraid it’s the ’speed’ thing that makes me feel uncomfortable. ”

      Er, jigsaw puzzle competitions are based on speed, but it doesn’t stop the jigsaw being a puzzle.

      Problem: You’re thinking too much. Solution: Have a beer.

      P.

    • Clovis says:

      Oh boy! Fancy RPS highlighted comments are back! Now I can scroll past the comments of all the other losers!

    • TeeJay says:

      We’re not completely stuck with things if we start promoting different labels in a consistent manner.

      ELSPA (the UK “computer and video games industry” trade body) were originally “European Leisure Software Publishers Association” then “Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association” and soon to be “UK Interactive Entertainment Association”. They have some reason to use these instead of “video games”.

      Recently RPS had three articles about the “Immersive Sim”.

      Mobygames and the Wikipedia have ongoing discussions about how to structure and organise their genre heirarchies and games databases. example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Grand_Theft_Auto_clone (is “Grand Theft Auto clone” a distinctive ‘genre’).

      Discussions that start with “can interactive software be art” or “does using software make people more ” may well progress differently than if you included the word “game”, just as the words ‘interactive’, ‘entertainment’ and ‘software’ can suggest more things to include and exclude before a discussion even begins.

      Is out concept of genre in popular culture being changed by search results based on “keywords” and “tag-clouds”. The term “world music” was deliberately invented and marketed in the 1980s so that record shops could create a separate shelf for consumers. High street book shops still need fairly well defined categories to order books their shelves whereas Amazon presents me with “Customers who viewed this also viewed” and offers multiple routes to the same book.

      The meaning of “indie” and “casual” as a genres (eg on Steam) are still emerging and evolving.

  16. Skyvik says:

    It really is excellent, journalistic and entertaining rather than academic (that’s not a criticism) and genuinely impressive in its scope, with bonus points for the gameography and index (its a very easy book to get sidetracked with siply because you glance an old favourite when skimming, or are trying to find the entry on Quake and end up going to the pages on Quaker Oats). But the introductory mission statement Keiron quotes is bang on – if that describes a book you want to read then go for it – the book hits its goals far more often than it misses.

    Of course for a book that tries to cover everything there are aspects that I would like more on, which is inevitable, yet at the same time it opens a row of doors I never thought to look through.

  17. Premium User Badge

    UW says:

    Rather off-topic but the book Replay by Ken Grimwood is a fantastic novel which completely reignited my fading passion in the Fantasy genre.

    When I first saw this WIT and the mention of a book, I thought it was for that. I must say I’m a little disappointed, even though obviously this book is considerably more relevant to the content of the site.

  18. The Unshaven says:

    I just sent off an email seeing if I could wheedle my university into buying a copy for the library. I need it for my summerschool paper, since it looks deeelightful.

    – The Unshaven.

  19. Mo says:

    Purchased.

    The last videogames history book I read was Construction Complete, a freebie book that came with an issue of PC Gamer UK, following the issue with the epic history of videogames poster. Both of those were rather excellent.

  20. internisus says:

    I hope you are getting a commission from that Amazon link; you just made a sale.

  21. M.P. says:

    Wow, that’s a very enthusiastic review, you make this sound like something special! I’ll read the extracts in Wired before making up my mind, but you’ve certainly intrigued me!

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    Hodge says:

    You sold me on this when you mentioned one of the excerpts a few weeks back… and now it’s been released and I’m broke. Boo!

  23. Johan Idstam says:

    Yes, some of those early ZX Spectrum games really strike a chord for me. I don’t know if it’s the platform core that was presented there and never really changed or if it’s the programmer in me that is in awe of those early game developers that made games by them selfs.

  24. 3Suns says:

    Outstanding review, Kieron! Thanks for the heads-up on this book!

  25. Fraser says:

    It’s cheaper at bookdepository.co.uk (I think; I’m doing the exchange rate from Australian dollars here), and shipping is free.
    http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/book/9780956507204/Replay-The-History-of-Video-Games

  26. RazorBlade79 says:

    really interesting. even includes a foreword by Richard Garriot, or as some call him THE MAN

    sold!

  27. Richard Clayton says:

    Ordered. Many thanks for the review. Sounds like just my cup of tea.

  28. Azazel says:

    Orderfied

  29. FatMat says:

    I’ve just finished reading the book a few days ago. And that’s absolutly true : this is the best book ever written about the history of video games.

    Why ? Because it’s not US-centric or Nintendo-centric. Because you’ll discover games you’ll never heard of (the chapter about the french gaming scene in the 80’s is so exciting).

  30. Cunzy1 1 says:

    There are shit loads of video game books out all of a sudden. I remember doing an Amazon search a couple of years ago and only getting Trigger Happy, Julian Dibbell’s rape book and that awful one by the Triforce that missed out a bunch of games cause they couldn’t get the rights to reproduce stuff.

    Just saying.

  31. Premium User Badge

    phlebas says:

    I’m about a hundred pages in so far and enjoying it, though the focus is mostly more on industry than medium so far – hoping it swings the other way later.

  32. Marar says:

    “I chided them whenever they roll out a “everyone played Mario” riff… but that’s all I could do, because there wasn’t anything I could point them at”

    Funny you should mention this… I never played Mario, in fact, most of the people I know never had. When I was young I had a Spectrum, then I moved on to a Pentium 1 and in the PC camp I stayed, never had a SNES, Sega, etc., and neither did most of the people I know. I’m in Eastern Europe just for referance.

    I did however play most of the console stuff eventually many many years later via the miracle of emulation.

    • Scandalon says:

      I’m in Eastern Europe just for referance.

      And that’s it, exactly. If you are a (North?) American male between a certain age (say, 25-35. ish) then if you didn’t have an NES, you had a Genesis, or at least 9/10 of the rest of your friends/schoolmates/peers did. That’s a large part of what you did when you spent the night at a friend’s house or had an overnight birthday: After the swimming/trampoline/running around outside, you’a rent a movie that the parents might watch with you, and you’d rent a game along side it and stay up all night trying to beat it. Hopefully it was something good (Contra!) or at least different and more complex (Strider!) But even it weren’t, we’d barely know the difference. (Tiger Heli!))

    • Simonkey75 says:

      That was always the problem listening to Retronauts from 1up – something I did purely due to the paucity of retro gaming podcasts around at the time – for professional game journalists (and Jeremy Parish is no moron) their lack of knowledge beyond US/Japan NES to Genesis to Snes to Playstation lineage was astonishing. They could work themselves up to orgasm about some rare and frankly unplayable JRPG but the Commodore 64 episode was just embarassing – they literally knew nothing about it, apart from “Erm, it was popular in Europe”.

  33. Scandalon says:

    That was supposed to be a quote. I’m in Eastern Europe just for referance.

  34. Tristan Donovan says:

    A Kindle version on its way! Should be available in a few weeks – don’t have an exact date unfortunately