The Platform Series from MIT Press is something that I've dreamt about but never had the specific description to really define what I was looking for nor the expertise to deliver it myself. As the name implies, each book in the series covers a particular platform, as of the time of this post: Atari VCS (the 2600), Nintendo Wii and the Commodore Amiga. Considering the nature of the publisher, the books are not maudlin non-sensical nostalgia-gasms that some other companies (BOSS FIGHT BOOKS) have published on video games.
See, unlike most of what's written about video games, which seems to center on the idea that "video games are popular and have gained credibility", the platform series treats the individual platforms, their games and social cultures adjacent as distinct subjects that they genuinely believe have something to reveal about the nature of play, simulation, technology, economics, and all the rest of those academic subjects.
Generics on the series as a whole aside, each book, which I loved each of them, has their own gems and rather than summarize in their entirety, and they should be read as such, I'd like to hit on what stood out to me for each one
Racing the Beam
I have a fascination with the Atari 2600 that a lot of my generation shares. I didn't grow up playing it exclusively (that was the NES), but I did have one in my home for a short while, and I've always loved the charming simplicity of its games, its hellish sound and the legacy as a business Atari laid (by the way, if you haven't seen Once Upon Atari, please do). I'm a collector of Atari stuff, and if my income and wife were a bit more open, I'd probably have near a full collection at this point.
Needless to say, it's why I bought the book. The best section, and most important to the rest of the arguments in the book, is the long and thorough discussion of the different processors and memory locations of the VCS's hardware. Here you learn about how racing the beam actually worked (the beam that drew the CRT TV images), hardcoded sprites, memory for sprites, and the 6507 all worked together. For one, it's nice to have a set of hardware that you can really wrap your head around. Again, charming simplicity. But more importantly, as the book progresses through the games "Adventure" and "Pac-Man", it delivers detailed discussion of how these games were crafted using the chipset available.
You can't understand why "Pac-Man" on Atari sucked unless you know its chipset, and you can't appreciated how clever "Adventure" was without understand how sprites were kept in memory. The book accomplishes in this long section and subsequent chapters what it sets out to do in the introduction - show how creativity intersected with hardware, and how hardware formed games. It's really something we'd rather ignore now with such an obscene amount of memory and power, but the material does affect the medium and knowing its strengths and weakness helps creative professionals know where to cut and what to push.
The Future Was Here
I found this book to be by far the most fascinating. However, I don't think there's anything revolutionary in the author's discussion of the Amiga and its software. It's simply the best book I've ever read on a single computer and its history. Well researched, covering every aspect of the system the author's could find including The Bard's Tale, the boing demo, the Demoscene, digital music / video, and the multitasking operating system.
Putting this book down, you walk away with such an appreciation for the folks who built the Amiga, and those who used what would now be considered, pretty humble hardware, to build unheard of digital expressions. It's one of those moments of understanding - yes computers are about automation, but truly, and particularly in the demoscene, they are really about expression and hard fought at that.
I am not a Wii player. I don't own one, I've played it some and for the most part, I've found it interesting, but never enough to purchase one. Similar to Racing the Beam, the book's author target the intersection of the technology of the platform including its all important peripherals in order to draw a point about how expression changes with a reduced processing capacity, the sensitivity of the controller, and the player's physical game space.
I enjoyed the discussion on the design of Mii characters, which led to a tangent on the design of Nintendo's early character designs (Mouths are hard to draw, cool give Mario a mustache), but it's not really the power of the book, which comes in the final chapter. After chapters on how the different aspects of the Wii had impacted game creators and player interaction with the system, the author's took on the follow-up competitors to the Wii, namely the Kinect.
Not to say they are outright bias, but it's apparent the authors are definitely not fans. They back it up - while the Kinect was supposed to submerge the player into the gaming environment, the author's point out that players generally don't want to be completely subsumed by the gaming environment. Instead, they want a cybernetic environment. Case in point - Wii Bowling. While it may be more "freeing" to not have a controller with the Kinect, having a button, the player could more accurately control release of the ball.
Having personally had to do non-game programming with the Kinect, I found that trying to do accurate things other than jump and lean, were outside of its capabilities and prevented the user from receiving good feedback as to whether their actions were received. Keys at the very least click.
As I said, I'm not a Wii fanboy by any means, but its an excellent defense of where the Wii succeeded and the Kinect failed. Yes, Wii needed a better library and wasn't as powerful, but when it used the motion, it used it right - the motion gave you the control you wanted rather than forcing you to substitute physically jumping for pressing the "A" button (not true for all the titles to be fair).
While I don't have a stake in either camp, the final chapters made me actually care about how 3D motion was used in games and that is demonstrative of where the Platform series excels - they teach you and carry you through history and technology to help you understand game expression to the point where, even if you aren't playing said platforms, you're still enjoying that they're out there.
Sunday, June 29, 2014