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Replay: The History of Video Games by Tristan Donovan [A Book Review]
Replay: The History of Video Games does very little to convince you that you need to buy it: its cover is unattractive, to say the least, and should you decide to casually browse it in the shop, you’ll be confronted with nothing but a massive wall of small-font text with the occasional black and white picture of people you probably won’t recognize. In short, this is one book that will never make the acquaintance of a coffee table.
And yet, it’s an absolutely essential read for anyone that wants to broaden his/her understanding of video games, and how they came to become what they are. Not only is it hands down the most interesting book I’ve read on the subject, it’s also one of my favorite non-fiction books of all time. A clear example of substance over style, if there ever was one.
Chronicling 40+ years of video game history will never be done comprehensively, even in 400 pages of dense text. But Replay is certainly the most convincing attempt at covering everything of importance. And it doesn't compromise on the width to achieve its remarkable depth. It's a history of video games, but it's also a history of the people who create them, of the hardware they run on, of the companies that make them their business, of the economic issues they had to face and of the social debates that games have raised. It gives balanced attention to the arcade and the home games. Even more remarkable, Replay is a true worldwide history, covering people and events in all the places that ever mattered for the hobby: the USA, Japan, Europe (the UK, of course, but you might be surprised to learn exactly how much happened in Spain, France or Eastern European countries), Russia... There's even a whole chapter dedicated to the very peculiar history of video games in South Korea. Very, very little bases are left uncovered.
The early history is told in an essentially chronological manner. It may be the most fascinating part of the book: it's an era of heroic deeds by individuals, or small groups, who single-handedly created games and/or game machines with the reluctant agreement of companies that believed so little in the projects that they only allocated pennies to them. An era of teenage boys creating both complex and surreal worlds in their basements, and then squeezing them into the very few kilobytes of memory available on the early home computers. If you're among the youngest VGG members, this part will probably make you wish you were born sooner!
More recent times have seen the rise of bigger studios, with big-budget games rarey associated with a single creative mind, and the release of hundreds, if not thousands of games each year, render the chronological approach impractical. That's why Tristan Donovan logically switches to a more theme-centric discussion. Chapters in the second half of the book tend indeed to each focus on a couple of themes. At first, these themes appear unrelated, but he nonetheless always comes up with an elegant transition. Finally, the last chapter covers the rise of indie video games and we go sort of full circle, back to visionaries making the most of limited means. It has to be said that, being published in 2010, you won’t get coverage of the last three years.
Going back to the stylistic aspects, Donovan's writing is elegant and enjoyable. Many quotes from hundreds of interviews are interspersed within his narration, making the people come alive in the reader's mind. My one and only complaint with the book would be the rare but annoying grammatical errors. I'm talking about horrible, "could of been"-style errors that one can expect to find in a teenager's Facebook wall, but certainly not in an otherwise excellent history text.
Two large annexes close the book. The first is a "gameography", listing some 600 games by genre, with short comments. Many of those have already been discussed in the main text, but the annex's interest lies in its organisation: it's a sort of evolutionary tree, explaining, for example, when fighting games got split into the beat-em-up's and one-on-one fighting subgenres. The second annex lists all systems discussed in the text, with a definition in one or two sentences. It may occasionally come in handy, but is little more than a glossary.
Overall, Replay is about as perfect as a history of video games can be. It's pleasingly written and entertaining enough for the general public who would like to know more about the hobby. It's also deep and rigorous enough to satisfy the more scholarly-minded reader. In short, it's an essential read for most everyone.
Replay : The History of Video Game is available in paperback format for about $17, or for the low low price of $5 in its Kindle incarnation.