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.