Monday, March 7, 2011

Several Pounds of Dubious Material

Last week in Barnes & Noble I stumbled across the book '1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die'. I'd read a capsule review and the writer liked the book, feeling the only downside was that no one is going to agree with a lot of the choices, which yeah, no 'list' a reader didn't write is going to line up with his or her choices. The most positive thing they said was that the book was valuable as a historical overview rather than as a chance to validate the reader's own favorites, which is almost always what 'best of' lists are used for... validation... not as buyer's guides.

Anyway, I flipped through the book and the production values were good, the book was thick but not super-gigantic, and the few reviews I skimmed seemed okay. I wouldn't expect any of them to be incisive. The book needs to cover a thousand and one games and they're already winners in the eyes of the writers' just by being included, yes?

So I bought it, a sale and my B&N membership cooperating to bring the price way down for a fat hardbound.

Then I get the thing home. Peter Molyneux introduction. Ugh. Even if I'd noticed that blowhard's name on the cover... which I didn't... I probably would've bought it. Introductions don't affect the contents. Then as I'm flipping through the book... hmm it IS probably useful as a history lesson, the editors wisely choosing to organise the entries by year of release. So you can see the evolution of gaming, graphical fidelity, complexity, etc pretty clearly from pictures or text. But what's this? Seems like an pretty big selection of British computer games are in here.

Now I'm not knocking the UK's contribution to video games. Rare used to be a force to be reckoned with as a developer and I just recently sung the praises of a Codemasters racing title. UK coding houses are the rival of anyone anywhere. However, when it comes to seminal video games, the Brits seemed determined to fly the flag for the Spectrum, Amstrad, Acorn, BBC Micro and whatever other plastic brick with a keyboard got a limey boy's weenie hard in the 80s. English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh game writers don't typically say their homegrown games are superior to the rest of the world's or anything like that, but the UK had a whole slew of home computers that the rest of the world knows very little about. They are writing to their domestic audience first and that means including the game machines they grew up on. But the impact of games like Spindizzy, or the Saberman games on the rest of the video game world is minimal at best. I love Retro Gamer magazine, but when they tell me about the profound effect of the graphics in Knight Lore, I have to recalibrate that statement in my head to mean 'in England'. So the plethora represented in the book puzzled me. For about twelve seconds.

It took about that long to find the list of contributors and scan down through about a third of it. My suspicion was confirmed, and as I ran through the rest, it was pretty clear that the book was basically written by Edge Magazine. I knew the main editor worked at Edge (as told to me by the text on the back cover), but given the huge scope of the book, and the budget it appears to have had, I figured he'd pretty well cast a wide net looking for input.

Nope. And if you have read anything about gaming mags in this blog you probably will have run across the fact that I am no fan of Edge. They are like the video game equivalent of the Grey Poupon guys. Snotty and grey. They are the prime examples of a group of game writers who appear to have totally forgotten what it is like to have fun. Their work is literate, but unbelievably pompous and frequently fickle. It's like the magazine has a goal of bringing legitimacy to video games (unnecessary) and have decided that talking down their nose is the way to do it. I want Graham Chapman to rise from the dead and give them a good verbal thrashing for it: 'Oh oh, putting on airs are we? Oh, we're all posh now? Oh oh!'

Interestingly (and refreshingly), this book doesn't read much like Edge itself does. No, these guys have decided that these games 'made it' in their eyes, so they no longer dissect the fun out of them. So the blurbs are pretty positive. But I'm just kind of cranky I gave money out to Edge, more or less. I used to buy Edge occasionally but I've pretty much quit now that GameFan is going again. I also know that what I want in a game, what I think is influential in a game, and it ain't what Edge and its house policies think it is. So now I'm dealing with a diametrically opposed editorial policy on top of the minefield of personal opinion and judgement.

So, somewhat useful as a history, but be warned even apart from the limitations of any 'best of' list, the book is British, so you will get an inordinate amount of entries that UK pundits think are important. There looks to be little to no American, European or Japanese contributors. The editors do have the majority of games derived from outside the UK... I was actually surprised to find a few entries from Commodore computers which had Apple versions... those two machines would be the American nerd-stiffening computer experience of the 80s. You also have the filter of Edge taste, laid over the choices... and while they are not being overly-hard on any of the games in here, readers from other countries might be scratching their heads. No Space War? No Computer Trek. No Metrod (the first one)? Nothing from Castlevania 'til the 4th installment. No Phantasy Star. These are all games that changed the face of gaming globally AND all games that still have dogged adherents today. Okay, there probably aren't many Computer Trek players, but it sure as hell had as much influence as Eamon, which IS included in the book!

The title of the book makes you think the games will all be quality, but that title is a bit misleading. The games are all good or WERE good to at least a segment of gamers at one time, but they are not all interesting or even playable by today's standards. The book is really about influential games in its first third or so, and then the rest of the book could be argued to be 'good games' by today's standards because modern gamers can mostly stomach the graphics and mechanics from about the PC-Engine/MegaDrive era on. The general editor admits this in the intro, but I guess calling the book '1001 Most Influential Video Games' just didn't have the same impact as the chosen title. And really the book almost has two sections as I said. One title isn't directly appropriate to the tenor of both parts.

Whatever. I'm not in marketing.

I'm not going to throw the book out. It isn't terrible. In some ways I find it perversely gratifying to read so many Edge people being so positive. And in certain moods I am interested to read about the UK tree of video game history, even if there's so much Speccy talk thrown about. To be honest, I'm not really a fan of computer/PC based video gaming anyway. I got out of it after the Apple II computers fell out of fashion. So ANY list book from any country that is comprehensive enough to include computer games is probably going to have a lot in it that I could care less about.

Consoles only. Keep it simple. Or as simple as it can be when our consoles now have hard drives, internet, NetFlix, and can interface with our computers.


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