There have been a few memoirs from thirty-something video game players in the last couple years, and I’ve avoided them all. It’s a weird quirk of mine, the result of some toxic mixture of envy and sloth and pride on my part. It’s sometimes hard to make myself read books that I wish I had written myself or that resemble the kind of book that I might someday write. Well, I broke down and finally read one of them, Tom Bissel’s Extra Lives. Actually, I listened to it on unabridged audiobook, read quite effectively by the man himself. I’m afraid to say that all my fears were justified: Extra Lives is every bit the book that I would have loved to have written about my own relationship with video games and then some. My version for instance would never have had a section on playing Grand Theft Auto IV over and over again while doing cocaine, and thus, would’ve been the poorer for it.
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Note: This is part 2 of a book review I started over a month ago. Personal life got in the way of good intentions, and I never got around to posting this until now.
“Eight is beautiful”.
This is where The Search for a New Game Machine caught me. Those three little words capture the ridiculousness, the arbitrarity nature of working for a customer driven by the vision of a single person. Because, you see, to that single person, the very idea of something like “eight is beautiful” is not even close to arbitrary; it makes all the difference in the world.
In The Search for a New Game Machine, the processor that would someday run the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox was designed to have six “synergistic cores”—basically, the part of the processor that does math operations—and those would have to be meticulously designed such that they would all fit on a single chip. When narrator David Shippy presents his final design to Ken Kutaragi, however, Kutaragi is pleased but not satisfied. He wants eight cores. His reason? “Eight is beautiful”.
A little background: I’m a software guy. I grew up tinkering with BASIC, learning programming on PASCAL, taking years of college courses based on C++, and now I have a job programming Java. I’ve always thought like a software guy, I will always think like a software guy.
I mention this because David Shippy and Mickie Phipps are hardware people. In fact, they’re the hardware people responsible for the chips that run the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, which is what their book The Race for a New Game Machine is all about. They live and breathe microcircuitry, while I don’t even know if microcircuitry is a real word. To them, everything worth doing can be put on a silicon chip; brilliance is measured in gigahertz.
As a software guy reading a book by hardware people, then, I’m willing to acknowledge that maybe Shippy and Phipps are at a disadvantage when I’m the one evaluating their book. After all, there are passages like this:
When a kid drops $59.95 at Circuit City on Microsoft’s Halo 3 interactive shoot-em-up and launches the game on Xbox 360, more is demanded from this game console than has ever been demanded from any other game machine. When the player swings a joystick and levels a weapon at a charging alien beast, then presses the button and showers it with lead, splattering it straight back to hell, the quality of the experience depends less on the code written by the people at Microsoft than on the processor brains in the chip inside the box.
That’s from the very first page of the prologue. For a software guy to read that, it’s an awful way to start. One, he (and when I say “he” from here on out, I speak of David Shippy, given that the entire book is written in his voice, from his point of view) speaks of the code written by the people at Microsoft, when Halo 3 was developed by Bungie; he actually slights the people who built the game, giving credit instead to those who sold the game. While it’s an honest mistake—Microsoft’s name is the one splashed on the Halo 3 box, after all—that’s just the kind of thing that can make the hairs on the back of a developer’s neck stand on end.
The other problem with that passage: he actually puts the role of the chip designer above that of the developer. In that one simple statement, he makes it known just how much stock he puts in what software people do. Whether that was his intention or not, or whether he even believes it or not is irrelevant. He just told us that the chip is more important. As a software guy, I would counter: I’ve seen too many awful games running on these amazing machines to believe that the quality of the experience has more to do with the hardware than the software.
That’s not the only nit I have to pick, either.
So…this never happened, then?
In a chapter called “Do Your Homework”, Shippy recounts the research he did to get acquainted with the gaming industry, and he does a quick recap of gaming history up to the release of the PlayStation 2. The problem? He does all right up to 1984, where he details the doldrums that gaming was finding itself in…and then he skips right to the PlayStation. As far as he’s concerned, the ten years of the NES, the SNES, the Sega Genesis, the rise of portable gaming in the form of the Game Boy…they never happened. 1984-1994 was a black hole for the industry as far as he was concerned. While I don’t expect a full, detailed recount of every system that was ever released, the NES, at least, seems to be a bit of an omission, yes? Shippy actually seems to have a decided aversion to Nintendo in general—the only reference to Nintendo that I recall is a passing mention of the GameCube, and only because a colleague worked on its chip.
Again, I’m being unfair, because none of this has much to do with the story that Shippy and Phipps are trying to tell. The point, however, is that there is an interesting story to be found in The Race for a New Game Machine, but much of the audience who would be interested in that story is going to be alienated by the assumptions that are made and the history that is overlooked.
That’s why I’m putting this here. I want to be able to talk about the story told in this book without the bias of a “software guy”. As such, I had to lay out all my “software guy” problems before I talk about the good stuff—because there is good stuff, and it’s worth talking about without getting sidetracked. For that writeup…well, you’ll have to come back next week.
The Art of the Video Game by Josh Jenisch (Quirk Books, 2008) is a handsome coffee-table book that describes itself as “the first book to celebrate an exciting new visual medium…” While this isn’t strictly true—The Art of Game Worlds (Morris and Hartas, Collins Design Books, 2006) covers similar territory with more extensive artist interviews—Jenisch’s new book is the first to contain such a rich assortment of digital artwork from a wide array of publishers, including EA, Activision, Sega, Sony, and Konami.
Every page of The Art of the Video Game is filled with imagery from games, and Jenisch wisely includes a broad sampling of concept art, development art, and in-game art. As a result, the entire arc of the design process for selected games like Hellgate: London can be traced from early sketches through painted renderings, all the way to final in-game depictions of characters, weapons, and environments.
The writing is generally illuminating, though it sometimes lapses into hyperbolic proclamations: “Not only are the (NBA Live ‘08) players’ likenesses captured to the last sweaty detail, character movement is flawlessly lifelike”; Such claims aren’t always supported by their accompanying images, but overall, the book offers a useful collection of observations by Jenisch and a variety of game artists and producers.
I was disappointed by the general unevenness of the coverage devoted to the games included. Some titles like Hellboy and Hellgate: London receive full developmental treatment and extensive commentary, while others like Tomb Raider Anniversary and The Sims are barely more than a collection of screenshots. Beautiful Katamari fares even worse in this regard, with meager quotes from a Gamasutra interview and some decidedly un-beautiful images from the game.
My biggest complaint is with the book’s introductory chapter. Entitled “A Brief History of Video Game Art,” it functions as a condensed boiler-plate chronology of video games as industry and video games as technology, but says almost nothing about video game art. Reading it, one might logically assume this chapter was written for another purpose and included here as a kind of contextual primer. Small blue breakout text boxes discussing “the role of the artist” appear to have been added later, seeming to confirm the impression that the book’s subject and its opening chapter have little to do with each other.
While I might wish for a more balanced and thorough treatment of the games included in The Art of the Video Game, the book remains a valuable resource for readers interested in the artistic elements of game development. The fact that the book even exists in such a beautiful hardcover form suggests that Jenisch’s main thesis (“I’m here to make the argument that video games should be considered art”) has been proven with copious visual evidence.
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