Okay, I'll be honest. I had never played Mechner's games before I picked up Mechner's two journals - The Making of Karateka and The Making of Prince of Persia. However, naturally, I knew them and was fully aware of even the mechanics.
This says a lot about the power of Mechner's games.
These books are very similar to my review on Masters of Doom, neither really provides that much to a reader looking to learn about each game's production. Sure, they're great historical documents, and for someone, such as myself, who is interested in retro gaming and old computers, there's a lot there to enjoy nostalgically, but other than the time spent in the 80s and early 90s, there's really not a lot to learn beyond Broderbund is full of incompetent people and Mechner is exactly what you'd expect of a young person in their early 20s who has received a lot of success and attention. That on its own is ultimately boring, unless you enjoy someone debating what type of successful person they should be repeatedly.
However, Mechner gets games. It's not as exciting from our 2014 point of view, but Mechner sees games similar to movies and is concerned with how mechanics, intros, art, sound and every other detail form a complete picture. Similarly, Mechner understands tension and anticipation, all inspiration from his interest and heavy consumption of film (he's even a legit screenwriter at points throughout the narratives). Considering that most games at his time were single screen puzzles, this is really what makes him most successful, and, again, that's obvious to us now, but I've still been in games discussions in modern times that either focus entirely on some widget-like component or some ridiculous storyline that all make you ask "And then...."
As pictured above, there were all these great snippets from his journals on how to construct his games, and I really wish more this was in the book. Both these books remind me a lot of Adventures in the Screenwriting Trade. I'd be more interested in how the games was built, not everything going on around the construction. Where were the missteps? What didn't make it in? Why the changes? Technical difficulties? Sure it's dull for most, but this is already a title for a specialized audience.
All this critique said, there was one gem that bears sharing. In Karateka, Mechner outlines what he believes are the basis of any good game, and you can see how it drives his development process throughout his design career. Summarizing:
- You have to feel in control of the thing you're supposed to be in control of.
- You have to be able to control the form of your attacks - have a strategy.
- There should be two goals. For example, getting points (primary) and clearing the screen (secondary).
He lists Asteriods, Pac-Man and Space Invaders as ideal examples.
When Previously Recorded reviewed Sonic the Hedgehog, they incidentally go through almost every single one of these issues as serious problems with the Sega franchise. As a Nintendo fanboy growing up, I'm definitely inclinded to agree, but it also demonstrates how prescient Mechner's analysis of simple games was, while everyone around him was more concerned with flashing lights and cheap gimmicks.
I can't really recommend this series unless you are either a huge fan of both of these games or someone who is very interested in the early history of personal computers and game development. Mechner isn't the best person (at his age) to spend time with and the thinness of his description to help to paint the world.
Credit where credit is due to Mechner's skill and creativity at his age, but looking back, it's probably better to just know these books are out there, and play his games.
Thursday, September 18, 2014