When we look back, I’m sure many will agree that the gaming industry has gone through a quicker and more phenomenal evolution than any other medium. The Art of Video Games is a book that celebrates this and so much more. It chronicles the early days with those who were there, all the way up to the games we enjoy today. It’s a love letter to the industry, but also an important example of creativity despite technological limitations.
The book was put together by Smithsonian curator Chris Melissinos and his colleague (and fellow videogame fanatic) Patrick O’Rourke. From the early days of Pac-Man and Space Invaders to the likes of Mass Effect and Heavy Rain, the book charts the rapid evolution that the gaming industry has undergone during the past 30 years. The authors, keeping in line with the gaming audience, have structured the book in a way that keeps the reader engaged. The sections are divided by the particular technology by which the industry was “restricted,” from the 8-bit era all the way to the transition that led to the introduction of 3-D. There’s also a brief introduction to each technological period, giving a nice backdrop that allows the reader to see what game creators were dealing with at the time.
The topics chosen are different from RPG, MMO and other gaming genres. “Target” deals with taking out hordes of enemies for a high score. “Adventure” is about the gamer engaging with the lore and story of a game in a created world. “Action” discusses the player’s speed and skill being tested. And “Tactics” pertains to testing the player’s strategic thinking. These are far broader categories that help to better track the growth of gaming. Each game’s development is explained, as well as its mechanics or story, and we’re told how it impacted the industry and broke new ground. There are interviews with important figures from throughout the history of the hobby. They give their background and talk of how they were pulled into the industry and the difficulties, creativity and freedom they found when developing games.
The Art of Video Games is very well put together. The presentation of just the right amount of information about each game always keeps the reader alert and pulled in. It’s nice to see briefly how the concepts of the featured games came about and what impact they had on the industry. There’s a shift when you get to the interviews, as they’re longer than the game discussions, but they’re equally as informative and interesting. You learn of the hardships the early creators felt and what they dealt with at the time. What’s also interesting is seeing the relationship between the developers and the technology available to them. You gain a far greater appreciation of how they were able to use their passion to overcome serious obstacles.
The discussion of the early days of gaming really caught my eye. Before Mario, there was Jumpan; fascinating insight is offered into how the game was developed. Mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto used the limitations of technology to further his creativity in creating the basis of the red-hat-wearing plumber who has becoming a staple in entertainment. This is definitely the biggest strength of the book, as it encourages you to applaud the efforts of those who didn’t have the technology of today to help them. As a gamer, I now more fully appreciate the blood that creators extracted from stone. It has actually changed the way I look at games that have “aged badly.”
Nothing in this world can be perfect, so I must talk of some of the issues I had with the book. I genuinely loved the layout and the amount of information given on each game, but I would‘ve liked some insight from gaming figures. Perhaps having a famous designer, animator or composer talk about how a game impacted them and the industry would’ve added a needed layer of information. I wanted to learn more about Jumpan and Panzer Dragoon, as they were such important games in the history of the industry. The authors give great insight into the impact games have made in history, but hearing what Miyamoto thought of Splinter Cell or American McGee’s opinion of Zelda: A Link to the Past would’ve been very intriguing.
When writing a book of this magnitude and having to pick from so many titles, there will always be exclusions that lead one to scratch their head. For instance, I can’t comprehend how Grand Theft Auto 3 was not included. Just like Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time, GTA 3 changed the industry. It would’ve been a vital inclusion to document how creators transitioned successfully into 3-D, getting closer to creating a virtual world. There was also the excellent use of well known actors providing voice-over work to make the game more immersive. Also, I’m not sure why the sequels of important games were chosen over their predecessors that made a bigger impact. Mass Effect 2 was a very good follow-up, but it was its predecessor that ushered in a new way to interact with characters. Its sequel, apart from improving on combat and being graphically more accomplished, brought nothing new to the table. Praise should have been given to the first Mass Effect, with talk of how it completely changed the way designers approach the RPG genre. The first Halo is still revered in the FPS world, and many agree that its campaign was far better than its sequel. Despite being more than 10 years old, it has aged very well. So I really can’t grasp how it wasn’t chosen instead of Halo 2. Also, something that the authors failed to expand upon was the online component that Halo 2 introduced. This has to be one of the most important things to happen in the industry. It came before the Modern Warfare series, which has become hugely successful based on the online play Halo 2 brought to the console world.
There are other lesser-known games that were worth a mention. I would’ve liked to have seen something about Soul Reaver, the game Amy Hennig (of Uncharted fame) worked on with Crystal Dynamics. The Soul Reaver games still go criminally ignored, and I was hoping they would be included in the book. They transcended the mechanics of the video game. Also, it would’ve been great to have seen a discussion about how stories in titles such as Soul Reaver rival and even exceed those in motion pictures.
I heartily recommend The Art of Video Games, not only to every gamer, but also to anyone interested in technology, and especially to those who feel games are harmful and childish. Despite a few exclusions and issues, it’s a fascinating journey through time, showing how this incredible industry has become one of the most lucrative and fastest growing in the world. When next your parents ask why you play video games, just give them a copy of this book and I’m sure they’ll apologize for ever questioning your love for this truly special and important medium. Also, if you’re in Washington DC between now and Sept. 30, be sure to visit the Art of Video Games exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Images from The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect, By Chris Melissinos and Patrick O’Rourke. Compilation © 2012 Welcome Enterprises, Inc., www.welcomebooks.com/artofvideogames