Atari: Game Over

Currently on Netflix, the documentary Atari: Game Over does one thing very well - makes you very endeared to Howard Scott Warshaw.

Warshaw is the game designer and developer for the Atari 2600 game E.T. based on the film of the same name, that in 1983, supposedly killed the video game industry and thus, millions of copies of its cartridges were shamefully buried in the desert. 

This documentary is the story of the filmmaker's, Zak Penn, attempt to find those cartridges and to answer the question - What happened to Atari? 

Like a lot of recent video game documentaries, the film begins with some variant of "Now, video games are everywhere." This is probably an unnecessary line, considering the audience for this film has to be specialized enough to care about buried Atari cartridges but let's move past this.

The film uses Warshaw as the central character around the history of late 70s and early 80s video game development, explosion and subsequent downfall. Warshaw, who is now a therapist, had, before creating E.T., developed classic games like Yars Revenge and the adaptation of Raiders of the Lost Ark to Atari. Warshaw is naturally a part of this arc of history and admittedly realizes that he tried for decades to find the same high as he felt as a young man on the wave of the video game craze. 

While Game Over does the perfunctory history of the history of Atari and interviews with Nolan Bushnell, what it does so much better than its peer documentaries is tie it to Warshaw, who is person that the audience can actually connect to. In contrast Video Games: The Movie has a group of young people talking about how "AWESOME" Atari was, which may be fun for them, but when sitting in movie and asking yourself 'why should I care?' Game Over answers with Warshaw's experience and life. 

The climax of the film, not surprisingly, is the big dig, where Atari cartridges are discovered in a land fill. People come out in droves to see the dig and a cheer goes up as the old games are found. Ernest Cline, author of Ready Player One, is there too. He makes an appearance for several scenes throughout in a DeLorean from George RR Martin for no reason other than I can assume to throw some nerd-credibility in there, cause seriously, he serves no plot or historically illuminative purpose. But, really, his presence is a lot like the cheer as the games are found.

I am a game and vintage computer collector myself. I don't have a tremendous amount of money, so often I content myself with old programming books from the 70s. I own three Atari's including a Sears Atari. I own multiple copies of E.T. and my most rare game is Swordquest: Waterworld. I get excited about old gaming stuff, but not enough to break my bank. 

Nothing about the Atari dig excites me. As the different people at the end of the film explain, hating E.T. has become fashionable. There are far worse games on the Atari 2600, even the Atari 5200 in its entirety is terrible. The dig and its excitement in the film are Internet Exciting not actually exciting on a gaming level. That strikes me as a little hollow, like just throwing a bunch of retro gaming t-shirts on a character in a film and calling them a "gamer." To any screenwriters out there looking to exploit this market, I recommend you use Ernest Cline. 

I don't doubt anyone's authenticity, but self-congratulation and masturbation in gaming docs is horrendous, and it's the only part of the film that starts to dip into this realm. Fortunately, Warshaw carries it past this. 

Warshaw, having been demonized for his creation of E.T., is understandably touched by everyone's involvement, hardwork and enthusiasm. This is actually moving. It's validation to a person that his who had to give up a career he was good at and loved. As the film notes, there are no lifetime achievement awards for Warshaw. 

I didn't obtain any new information from this film, but it did make me like Warshaw more and that's for a guy who is already pretty likeable. If you haven't seen his series Once Upon Atari it's one of the more in-depth "documentaries" on gaming and programming history I've seen.

He Had Such an Impact

And I really had no idea who Tokuro Fujiwara was until recently. His short Wikipedia summary ends thusly:

He is notorious for making his titles difficult for the average video game player.

That is what I remeber and know best about Fujiwara's games. This is my short gush about how great of designer this guy was.

As the creator of Ghost 'N Goblins, Fujiwara can probably credit himself with creating one of the most difficult games of all time. If you don't know, not only is the game ridiculously hard, but you have to do it twice. The same game - twice.

As it turns out, Fujiwara had a much greater impact on my early gaming career than just frustrating me. Fujiwara also created or worked on as a producer fantastic, and some easy games, like the game adaptations of Ducktale and Aladdin, two games that I could probably beat right now if given the rest of the evening.

Fujiwara also worked on Strider.

Strider was a game I didn't actually play very much, but for some reason watching kids play it at the arcade enthralled me. Looking back at the longplay above, I can't really say it was the best designed game, but that flash of the sword still looks cool.

While, I guess you might consider a lot of these games one-off's, Fujiwara's most enduring contribution was his production work on the Mega Man series. I can't really pretend to add anything to the discussion of how great Mega Man is, but it was one of the more foundational titles of my youth and the majority of the games in the series still elude my victory yell. While he can't be credited with creating the series, looking through the rest of his CV, particularly Mega Man X, I get the feeling of "Oh, I knew something was familiar in that. "

In this way, Fujiwara is an internally divisive designer - his games in many ways annoyed me to no end, and still do, yet his work blew me away and has fascintated imagination for years. Even the difficult titles.

Randomly, one title stood out to me amongst his credits -Little Nemo.

I've been a huge fan of Winsor McCay and Little Nemo is one of those comic strips that is simple to describe but never gives you any sense of how wild and explosive the work was. I've always found it strange they decided to adapt the comic into a NES game. Not surprisingly, Fujiwara was invovled in it as well.

I really can't say much about the game as it wasn't one I really played growing up, but I will close in saying that the difficulty of Fujiwara's games did a lot to help me imagine how I would make games as much as the colors, music and levels. And after all, the difficulty has kept Ghost 'N Goblins on my mind since I was six.

Video Games: The Movie

This moth Netflix released Video Games: The Movie, the KickStarter funded documentary from director (writer, producer) Jeremy Snead. Before I sat down to write this, I was thoroughly confused why this history / culture review / look-ahead documentary on video games would solicit opinion from Zak Braff throughout, but then I saw he was the executive producer, which should give you the perfect context for the quality of the rest of the film. 

The main problem of the film is I'm not sure who it's for. Let's go to the source on the film's KickStarter page: 

One of the major goals of our film is to tear down the misconceptions the public has by revealing the truth about video game culture and the amazing, vibrant community gamers have created over the years.

Okay cool. So this is for people who are not gamers in order to tear down their misconceptions. Well that being said by the filmmaker (or whoever writes his copy), the film does a decent job. In a lot of ways it was a more slickly producer Gamers (though that film's focus was just on MMOs), going through the history of games, what gaming culture is like and what excites those who game. I would have been really excited to see this when I was ten and maybe caught it late night on some PBS documentary series. In the same way I was excited for The Wizard when it came out simply because it was talking about games. 

However, while there's a decent amount of background on gaming and introducing gaming concepts as if they were new to the audience, there's also a tremendous amount of watching Will Wheaton, a bunch of gaming journalists, game design / coding luminaries, and apparently whoever was around when filming happened waxing annoyingly nostalgic about their favorite games. There's no problem with cherishing memories of games, but it's not exactly interesting to put to film. Unless your intent was to generate in your audience the emotion of "Totally. I know what's he's talking about."

Right alongside this is the really long montages of game footage, which if this was for non-gamers, it's given no context. If it is for gamers, there's little exciting there except the feeling of "Hey, I like that game." 

On that film technique, the long montage of the "next, next generation of games" near the end, I had to mute. It was akin to an episode of Top Gear when they test a new model car. In TG, it's playing with toys that I'll never afford, even if it is a brand plug, however, in this movie, I'm just being advertised at, which is particularly obvious, if you end said montage with close ups of a PS4 and a XBoxOne. Seriously, the only difference between the below ad and this movie is that XBox labeled the games.

While I certainly imagine the fim being sponsored to some degree by game companies, and that's forgivable but, there's definitely something worse in the film. Going back to the quote above from KickStarter, which supposedly explained the purpose of the film, there is immediately a tone of defensiveness. This film is about fix what's been done to us gamers!

And it's throughout the film. Two sections are of note.

First, the culture section is a long collection of clips and quotes of how great the gaming culture is. Yes, totally, games and the people I've bonded with over games are great. Yes, people do make friends when they do similar activities. Oh, people have gotten married after meeting in games. People have probably gotten married through the oil business as well but yeah, we should devote 20 minutes to this topic. Not trying dismiss it, but this isn't 1979 - while gaming may still have stigma of fat white dudes, it's not as though friendship through games is an anomaly. Again, maybe this film is indeed for the uninitiated, however, the section is mostly self-congratulatory. 

Second, and worst, is when the film discusses violence in games. The defense that the film mounts against accusations that video games causes violence is both unnecessary and also incorrect. To be sure, it doesn't take much for most gamers or even non-gamers to remember a parent accusing gaming for rotten children's and teenagers' minds.  

However, first off, you have to understand blow back. New media brings blow back. That happens. It's no coincidence that the stock footage the movie used of uptight white people discussing violence in video games are from the mid-90s. Columbine was the last serious discussion of video game violence as a motivator for unstable people. But it's new, kids play games, and it's something easy for conservatives to be upset about the world going to hell. It's gonna happen, it's not personal. After Marilyn Manson and Doom, there was Eminem, who was destroying American culture. Which again, he's white, he's charismatic, he was just another threat. 

Second, the defensive lines about violence in video games are just a trope at this point. My favorite is "As I recall, Caine didn't kill Abel with a Gameboy". Uh, sure. However, while it won't get you anywhere to say that games have a statistical correlation with violence (they don't), it's also not valuable to reduce the argument to absurdity. And that's really the problem with most defensiveness regarding violence in gaming (suspending for the moment discussion of sexual exploitation, racism, xenophobia, and so on). 

Look - in the same way the films says cinema doesn't deserve banishment because it has violence, there must be acceptance that some games are trying to elicit a reaction, trying to be purposefully, explicitly violent. Killing prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto is intended to piss people off and blow people away with its violence. It's not an incidental mechanic. It's not even misunderstood by players. 

Movies like Salo: 120 Days of Sodom or A Serbian Film aren't trying to be oblique about their intentions. They are trying to say - look at this crazy shit we filmed, it's intended to fuck with you. 

The problem with the argument that people don't correlatively kill after playing games is it's an attempt to deny that anything is wrong or could be wrong with exploitative violence in games. Yes, there's violence in films. But you can make violent, hateful, misogynistic films that deserve criticism or just to be burned. 

So the issue that violence in games causes violence in real life, yes, statistically disproven is not the entire point. The issue is that explicit, exploitive violence in games could still nonetheless be wrong on a critical / cultural level. It's not that violence shouldn't exist in video games - instead, just that if you're going to blanket defend it, then own what's there. I have no problem defending violence against demons in Doom, but that does not mean that I can or will defend a game like Hatred

With these two parts and the initial stated purpose of VG:TM, it really saps from the more basic informative aspects and the film feels unsatisfying at the end. I went from, wow video games are neat to uh, okay, I guess video game violence should be okay because it doesn't CAUSE violence, and closed with, those new products are cool, I suppose. 

This film, like so much of literature about gaming generally, smacks of immaturity on the topic. It is possible to write serious discussions of gaming, game culture, history of games, violence and expression in games, but a bunch of people sitting around saying that stuff is neat is ultimately unspecific and uninteresting. When additionally defensiveness is the key component in multiple sections in the film and even within the stated purpose of the film, there isn't much to say that's interesting since the narrative is focused on a straw man. 

The missing opportunity here is making a film that makes games interesting and enriches those who are gamers in their subject matter. Narrative ingrained with its subject matter has been absent from so much of gaming literature, and those who finally take on the challenge will deserve their coming success. 

Turning's Cathedral

George Dyson's Turing's Cathedral is not particularly about Turing, rather instead about the work created out Turing's accomplishments. Specifically the book focuses on the Institute for Advanced Study and the construction and operation of the ENIAC/ MANIAC. John Von Neumann, for whom the Von Neumman hardware architecture is named, is the core persona throughout - lobbying for the IAS to devote funds to the construction of computers, assisting with wartime ballistics efforts, and corralling the brilliant minds who would put time in on the MANIAC for all manners of research. 

Dyson's book is exquisitely researched and for fans of technology history, this book is more a straight history with the IAS computer research as the thematic background. If you really want detail on the lives of early computing pioneers, the book provides in spades, but does not spend a tremendous about of time dealing the machines themselves. Some of the more interesting parts about the book are the surrounding small details such as the necessity for a complex air cooling system to keep the computer running and the constant tension between the IAS and its computer scientists, who were treated unfairly since they weren't studying a pure science as compared to the researchers at the IAS.

Turing's Cathedral would be a strong recommendation for anyone interested in the personality and climate surrounding early computer science work, particularly if Cold War or World War II politics are of interest to you. As I said above, since the book doesn't focus too much on the machines themselves, if you're just looking for technology history, it can probably be better found elsewhere. 

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie

Up front I'll just say two things - I am a huge AVGN fan and I did not care for his movie.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie goes out of the basement and follows the Nerd as he sets out to review the Atari 2600 E.T. (called EeeTee in the movie for obvious reasons). The journey is wrapped up in a promotion by game company Cockburn Industries (really?) to help sell their purposefully shitty game EeeTee 2, since, thanks to the Nerd, bad is good. On the trip, the Nerd becomes the taget of a government conspiracy, ends up in Area 51 and so on until a climactic battle ensues and the Nerd finally reviews E.T.

For an independent film and Rolfe's first effort at a feature length movie, the team did a great job, especially considering a lot of the work was done through a network of fans working simultaneously on different parts of the film via the Internet. But aside from just having to photograph a movie, Rolfe and his crew wrote a script that feels cohesive, every scene has a point, and the plot actually builds to something big and meaningful within its own world. 

My first thought though is - I really don't want to see the Nerd in some epic plot inside the real-ish world. The Nerd always worked great inside a temporary artificial universe where the Joker, Jason, and Freddy Krueger are real, and the NES Robotic Operating Buddy attempts to take over the world. These are fun because they take something that's maybe a 100x100px sprite and turn it into to something real, and something from the Nerd's imagination, something that he can punch and take out his aggression on. 

And that's the key - the imagination necessary for early games is part of the experience and part of the creative opportunity of AVGN generally. We play the game, but we're also playing in our own conception of the game. AVGN is about sharing in Rolfe's frustrated perspective, which theoretically is partially our own. 

So when it comes to the movie, we lose that opportunity. Some of the heart and play are lost in making the Nerd a fully fleshed out character who has a job, car, friends and can be manipulated by corporate assholes. But the truth is, if you are going to make a movie, you have to expand the world beyond the basement. And so, I get it. 

But with the play and exasperation gone, the identifying characteristics of the Nerd have to go bigger to fill in the gap. This is namely the Nerd's foul mouth. Look - I love cursing, I love hearing people think of beautifully expressively obscenities, such as - "This is worse than buffalo shizz. It's a combination of shit and jizz" - but all of that can't just be obscenities and outrageous analogies done because screen time needs things that sound funny. That's what a lot of the Nerd-ish language is in the film, and the observant fan may have noticed that some of the rants are from previous episodes. 

Consider Super Pitfall, one of my favorite of the Nerd's reviews. The line that always cracks me up is simply "Fucking Assholes!" The Nerd is ranting about a simple beginner's trap and after going on about how the developers should have just started the game this way, this simple insult perfectly embodies how he and I feel about this type of bullshit. That's all you need for obscenity to work. However, in the movie, the rants are referencing something that we're not seeing like the memory of a game or are too many words forced for the current situation. Either way, it's not fun and is distracting at worst. 

Still, compared to a lot of movies, at least the dialog is not meaningless or random or wandering even if it doesn't match up the Nerd's reviews. The same could be said of the action scenes, which are mostly done with small miniatures and simple pyrotechnic effects. They fit in the movie, however, they just don't work or feel that impactful. Sure, throw a crazy military dude in there and you're gonna get explosions, and that's about as motivated as the action scenes feel. 

I'll hand it to Rolfe and everyone who participated - if you want to make an epic movie, don't feel constrained that you need a Peter Jackson-sized budget to do it - just go for it. It's no surprise that Rolfe has said that Make Your Own Damn Movie by Lloyd Kaufman (who also appears in the film) is his favorite film book. I also happen to be a fan of this book. In it Kaufman, who runs Troma Entertainment, advises that filmmakers to make the movies that they can, in any way possible. Only have some Hot Wheels and your script calls for a high speed chase? Well, you're good. 

While this approach may lack polish, if it still tells a story you care about, then that's what matters. Otherwise, the story would never get told at all. Heartwarming as that sentiment is, I'm not sure Surf Nazis Must Die needed to be told, but to each his own. Going back to AVGN: The Movie, this ideal holds throughout, and there's a certain charm to low-budget films that are built by creative people, and that's where all this excess of dialogue and action gets in the way. 

Rolfe, while known for his rants, also has a lot of heart and love of gaming, and even within his rants, there's a voice and appreciation for the young gamer. It exudes a writer who really knows his topic and has found meaning in it. That above all is what was missing in the film. 

As pathetic as it sounds, I've enjoyed the Nerd videos because I've never really had anyone to talk with games about, particularly ones from my youth. Sure there were kids who I played games with, but to me they were never just things to be won, but worlds to inhabit and an experience in themselves. I don't doubt that other kids around me felt this way, it's just that it's a hard subject to articulate when you're young. 

However, I had a lot of anger at games as well, because I did and still do mostly suck at them, and I took this as a personal failing. Watching the AVGN, and in particular the Castlevania and Ghost N' Goblins episodes, it's apparent I wasn't the only one who felt this way, but also still loved the thing that was torturing me. 

It's an awkward situation to handle - you're playing shitty games because you love gaming, you want to enjoy them. Rolfe never states this directly in his Nerd character, and this underlying current is part of what makes the character so endearing and sympathetic. 

Outside of the Nerd character, Rolfe has had several other videos, where he mostly takes on film, that really pull on a thread that's unique to adults his age - the process of going through things you love that are difficult to share with anyone who didn't experience it but are also very corny and cheap. Rolfe's video store re-creation in his home is fantastic example.

While I can appreciate that Troma films and other shlock are part of Rolfe's youth and fit well within the appreciation of what makes his other content so great, the Nerd fits in a different genre than what makes good shlock. The Nerd video's cheap effects are not because of shlock, but YouTube and After Effects done with zero budget made for the internet. 

My point with all of this talk of heart and fit is that while Cinemassacre made decent film, they lost a lot of what makes the Nerd great in the process and the film took priority to the character it's about and what people love about him.

I'd like to see more of what Cinemassacre can do making feature length films. I think they are talented and invested enough to make things happen, and even get others excited about filmmaking on a low budget. But my personal recommendation, whatever that is worth, is to go for something that hooks into the threads of heart and childhood joy that made their other videos so fun to watch. 

Atlassian Summit Post-mortem

Okay, I'll admit it - I'm an Atlassian fanboy. I really enjoy their products (which I introduced to my company), I think their culture is awesome, I follow their blogs and lectures, and a lot of what they do I try to emulate.

Which is why going to the Summit was so tough. 

First, while I am a fanboy, I'm never a giddy fan, in any space. So going to summits is always awkward, because I'm around a bunch of people who are geniunely excited to be there - they clap at every product update, answer "MORNING!" when the first presenter says "Good morning everyone," and they wear their lanyard everywhere. I'm just not that guy. I don't have judgement who are that guy or girl. It's just not me. I get that that's part of the excitement of going to these type of things, but maybe I need a crew to go with and a couple of whiskeys before I get in that mode. 

Second, I've been told that while Atlassian may exude cool and awesome culture we never properly hear about the jerks and late nights explosions. While I believe that's fair about any company, I don't believe that's really the case with Atlassian and furthermore their culture or at least what they say their culture is meant to spread the pain and expose warnings as soon as possible. In other words, I have this perception if shit goes pear-shaped, it's not so bad as other places. With that I'll say - I make this concession to them knowing it could be not true.

Third, and finally, I saw a lot of good companies running great software and producing things in a very short time. And shit - I want to be doing that too. It's not that I'm not producing software, it's just that for every good that another company, group or whatever is doing with Agile and Atlassian products, it all the more reflects back on my own failings. It's a good thing, but it was a lot at once, and with every - "Oh man we should just do that" - it must be tempered with the reality of running a software team.

I certainly wouldn't mind going again, Atlassian does a great job putting together good sessions, but with a team. And maybe a more exotic location than San Jose. 

Mechner's Journals

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:

  1. You have to feel in control of the thing you're supposed to be in control of.
  2. You have to be able to control the form of your attacks - have a strategy. 
  3. 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.  

My FPS Engine and Masters of Doom

I really thought there'd be more to it. But running through a quick raycasting coding demo (something new to me, but always wanted to know how it work), I was soon able, after a couple of duh bugs, to get a running Java application spitting out a random wall grouping. 

Reminiscent of my first FPS game I played, Wolfenstein 3D, and the same idea that powered the raycasting technology that's the cornerstone of the book Masters of Doom.

I had thought that doing the coding would provide some insight into the book - like loads of Pernot while reading A Farewell to Arms. In both cases, it doesn't really help. There's plenty of summaries out there in the world of this book, so I wont' waste time summarizing except to tell the uninitiated that it's a history of id Software and its rise and collapse under the watchful and egotistical eyes of John Romero and John Carmack. 

This isn't to disparage either thing. I had a great time and learned a lot about modeling vision within an FPS raycasting system that was not altogether evident just reading through the code (my own Ahaa's found in the commented code). The book itself is well-written and is an adventurous story. Particularly one of young people who have discovered something incredibly powerful and are not sure what to do with themselves. I'm sure I would have been even less mature and more vindictive at their age. While, I'm still obviously less intelligent. 

Consider this - I collect a lot of cookbooks, and there's a moment of discovery in making a recipe you never have or even in making a recipe that puts better flavor into what you already know. There's a connection there too, between the cookbook writer and yourself (except if you're watching Julie and Julia, that is bullshit!). However, in there is labor in that process. You have to earn the work, and, well, sacrifices must literally be made. 

One of my favorite books on computers is The Elements of Computing Systems. I loved discovering how a processor actually works, how memory gets used, and how to build an OS from scratch (yes, yes, start with the universe, ha ha). But I know in reading it that I'm at an elementary school level. It doesn't sap my enjoyment of learning, but I won't be there with the chef as in my cookbook example sharing the same thing. 

Likewise in coding a raycasting FPS engine, I am so far behind, even within the narrative of the book which covers the development of Quake, that while I love the learning, I don't feel empowered. True, I don't need to fuss around with OS/2 memory management anymore, but more importantly, I can make a game like it if I want to using Unity. However, with cooking you can't substitute - you need to learn the recipes, otherwise, you won't be able to cook like the chef ultimately. 

So does the same thing hold true for coding in the steps of the greats? Are we able to say, "Look, learn this, skip Unity for now, and then go ahead." ? Do we respect that type of thinking as coders anymore, particularly within game development?


Writing about games is hard

This last week (sometime in July of 2014) I finished the fourth release from Boss Fight Books - Galaga by Michael Kimball. My intent with this book was honestly to wash the taste out of my mouth from reading their second publication Chrono Trigger (by Micahel P. Williams), but unforunately this recent book didn't help much. 

Writing about video games as a serious medium is no longer in its infancy, but it is, to some degree, a stumbling toddler who has a tendency to hit their head against table ends. There are great books on games (and everying surrounding them), such as Masters of Doom, The Platform Series, and, shit, even Ready Player One for all its plot ridiculousness still makes playing with gaming concepts and literature fun. Boss Fight upholds my analogy and they commit one key failure that makes it so - they want gaming and gaming literature to be taken seriously without actually writing content that would make it so. 

I'm going to look at both these books as a group because they share a lot of the same critical problems. 

The biggest issue is both authors associate their respective games with something that on human level that is emotionally jarring and has nothing at all to do with their games. Williams talks at length about the Fukashima disaster (if the unnecessary amount of Japanese text in his footnotes wasn't an indication, he spent some time in Japan); Kimball intercuts stories of his abusive father.

I have no problem with trying to connect large ideas, themes, however you want to put it with games. What I do have a problem with is putting things physically next to each other in paragraphs and assuming that the reader will associate meaning with your argument with something obviously meaningful. Abuse and disaster make us feel things automatically. These books' main threads do not. 

Take Williams summation of the Fukashima disaster within a chapter titled "The Day of Lavos." He draws a comparison with your first quest in the post-apocalyptic 2300 AD to retrieve some seeds for survivors of doomsday and the 2011 tsunami: "We [Williams was a resident of Fukashima for a period] are the people of Chrono Trigger's 2300 AD. All we can do is plant our seeds, work to nourish and encourage them and how they will grow into something beautiful, useful, alive." As much as I love Chrono Trigger, this is a ridiculously dull comparison and flat insulting to the people of Japan. 

Think I'm just being harsh? Let's try another example off the top of my head: "We sacrifice part of ourselves, like Mario, every time we hit the question blocks with our heads. Will it be a 1-Up, or a just a single coin we risked our lives to obtain. Either way, it's chance we always take. A chance to grow, to gain new abilities, and to take one further step forward to the goals of our hearts, and those we take responsibility for." See how much that sounds like bullshit? The symbolism and the activity is not equivalent to what I'm trying to associate it with. 

Earlier in the chapter "Life by the Book", Williams equivocates his game's strategy guide and "strategy guides for life." Stating earlier that games teach us "No matter how high your station in life, you can always be knocked down", he sets up "well-highlighted Christian devotionals" and "the book version of a bowl of chicken soup" as examples of these aforementioned guides. First, games are meant to be balanced, and Chrono Trigger especially is.

While games do sometimes make twists that reset us to lower position part way through the game (Chrono Cross is a great example), we nonetheless come out on top. Second, Christian devotionals, self-help guides, and so on are not akin to a guide that just flat says "the power tab" is here. It's a glib way of looking at life if you think the Bible and Chrono Cross Strategy Guide are peers. Maybe he meant A Purpose-Driven Life or something, but the point still stands. Life is unbalanced, life can knock you down, and life doesn't have definite answers. Strategy guides in fact are antithetical to these guides for life. Instead of just going out into something as small as a video game and trusting you can win, you cheat. Warren's Purpose-Driven is trying, in his own way, to give people the tools that he believes will do exactly the trusting and exploration guides remove from games. 

Everything about both ideas are wrong and don't connect. 

Kimball is more forgivable. He weaves a story of his growth as a Galaga player and growing up more generally, which, as I mentioned, does involve abuse. He rightly states that video games were an escape, were a safe place, and were one of the few places where he felt he could express himself and feel strong. I don't think any of this is disagreeable and I don't doubt that most kids, especially those from bad homes, would agree its what they really got out of games. Kimball unfortunately draws these simple and fairly obvious points out for the entire book (albeit a small one) and is somewhat vague about his abuse. Not to say that an author should draw out painful memories to up the emotional connection, but it gets redundant and I'm also at a distance from the discussion of abuse because of the nebulous descriptions ("wrestling"). 

Second problem shared by both books, a bit less serious, is both the authors spend time more time simply describing the gameplay, Kimball more than Williams. If the attempt is to bring in an audience who may not be familiar with the game, it fails as the game play descriptions are incredibly boring and don't really serve as good descriptions in the first place. For folks who are familiar, it's already a waste of their time. It'd be one thing if the gameplay descriptions were actually related to some point being made, but they're aren't. Want to know what Galaga looks like when reading a book from an independent publisher that just publishes books on games? I'd suggest spending 2 seconds searching on YouTube:

Finally, Williams and Kimball, despite devoting what I imagine is a decent chunk of their personal life to these books, don't actually appear to take their subject seriously.

A small beginning of this is how neither author appears to make any effort towards speaking with the games creators (Kimball does have second hand interviews, Williams a few spatterings of quotes). Neither of these guys claim their books are journalism, but the few bits of sources are actually interesting, and provide valuable background to why the game is the form that it is. As I said, that may not be the point, but don't tease us with interesting quotes and then waste time on gameplay descriptions. 

The larger missing seriousness is both author's lack of respect for their readers's interest in their topics

Kimball's book is a disjointed mess of one paragraph sections called "stages" that go for the entire book. I get it - it's stylish. However, I can't get engaged as a reader if every 15 seconds, I'm forced to jump to a new section. Furthermore, he never keeps his sections consistent. He goes from abuse, to gameplay, to friends he played with, game history, to abuse. I can't get emotionally engaged in any of it, and even if I tried, I would be immediately pulled away. I get it - this is stylish, but it's also annoying, because I actually want to care, but Kimball won't let the readers, because, you know, style. On top of this, Kimball makes several things up and then pages later reveals they weren't true. These are pointless things as well, mainly fan tributes to the game. I, and perhaps others, are interested in reading about games, we take a it seriously, so can we just get on with it?

While I've already criticized Williams for what I think are at best grasping at straws, his most troublesome statement comes at the end of the book:

"I've tried to make this book a Gate Key, but in doing so I have become the gatekeeper, opeing some doors to you and obscuring others behind false walls. I do not apologize for this."

What the fuck is this guy talking about? Honestly, I'm willing to believe I missed something here, something went over my head, so please tell me at This sentence in the penultimate paragraph makes no sense at all. At no point was there any revelation or feel of his control as a gatekeeper to any level. I can only guess the doors he obscured were the ones leading to better and more interesting thoughts about the game. But not apologizing? What does that have to do with anything written? When do author's apologize for the entirity of the thing you just read? What level of arrogance is required to speak to your reader's in this way? Just write a book, state your opinions, draw connections and walk away. Don't create an illusion about yourself in the last paragraph to some personal ends. No one cares

These books are frustrating and in the end, Boss Fight maybe doesn't need stronger writers, but better editors. I don't doubt that Kimball and Williams could have written fairly enjoyable and enriching books had they been pushed by a proper editor to cut the bullshit parts, focus on real deliverable insights and acted like what I believe Boss Fight hopes to be - a publisher that shows how games can touch us deeply and emotionally, make us better people, and open us to new worlds.

3 Game Books I Just Finished

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. 

Codename: Revolution

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. 


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