Tuesday, June 5, 2012

"All your base are belong to us"

This is a book that I've had sitting around various locations (backseat of my car, hamper, bookshelf) for [what seems like] several years that I've really wanted to try to get through reading, but now that I've finally picked it up and read it to the back cover, I feel slightly disappointment.  It's kind of hard to put my finger on why I don't think this book lived up to expectations, but I will try.

The biggest thing that I find is that the title is (in my mind) completely deceptive. It references a pseudo-obscure reference that is meant to give people a chuckle, but the book doesn't follow through on that. It feels incredibly droll and slow moving and very rarely says something that is witty or funny. (The attempts at humor are borderline cringe-worthy, at best.) I guess from the title, I was expecting to get all these tiny nuggets of information about the evolution of video games, like the poorly translated Zero Wing, but there was little to none of that in this book.

So what is this book? Well, the subtitle is just about as deceiving as the title: "How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture" is a horrible misnomer about what this book even tries to be. It doesn't at all spend time talking about how video games (note the space there, book makers) conquered or even effected pop culture; instead, it spends nearly all of the book just talking about how specific companies were formed. At the beginning of the book, this makes sense: myself being relatively young, I had always assumed that Pong was the first "video game", so I greatly enjoyed learning about its predecessors and then eventually how Pong did slip into history.

But I was really expecting that type of angle to die off at about 1/3 of the way through the book. Instead it continued throughout the entirety of the rest of the book. I suppose the reason I got less and less interested is that as the video game market spread out, singular people and companies got less and less important. In the beginning, it's interesting and crucial to talk about the forefathers of the industry, but by the time Miyamoto comes into the picture, things are happening all over the place and you feel kind of robbed that the author spends so much time on this one person, or one game (Tetris). Granted, each chapter was interesting to an extent, but it just seemed much too chaotic to be considered a "book"; it seemed to lack a general thesis to which every chapter adhered to.

About halfway through the book, you start to call BS. It becomes just a random smattering of a detailed history of specific games or companies with no rhyme or reason. The very least that this book could be lacking would be a brief description of why a certain company or game was crucial to the way that gaming was changing. Goldberg does that occasionally mid-chapter, but he talks more like an advertiser than a historian or an interested party; he goes in in poetical speech about how this new game gave the player this new sensation in a way that they never could before and how the graphics or gameplay were so real and.....that's great, but what does it mean? How did it effect the market? How did it change the view of video games in the eyes of the general population?

One of the things I found most annoying about this book is what I just mentioned: his poetical descriptions. Maybe I'm being cynical, but there's really no point in attempting to describe what playing Everquest for the first time was or the graphics of Bioshock, because it was very, very specific and restricted to that time. When Donkey Kong first came out, people were engrossed. They were amazed at the quality of the graphics and the gameplay, the sounds, everything. Nowadays, people are not engrossed by it, and they really cannot understand what it was like to be engrossed by it because they never were. So I frequently found myself rolling my eyes when Goldberg spent several pages gushing on how amazing Everquest was, because they're just words to me. One sentence will sum it up just fine.
On the other side of the coin, if you have been engrossed by a game, reading it is pointless because you already know everything that he's saying! I found myself skipping parts of the chapter on Bioshock for that very reason: I've played Bioshock, I know the graphics and the world and the overall creepiness. Spending several pages to gush about it is just time that I could be reading about something new. I just felt like this book had way too much filler, but then I was really expecting something more intricate.

Towards the very, very end of the book Goldberg finally seems to get to something relevant: how the industry is/was changing. But it just seems so terribly rushed. It points out another horrid flaw that I saw in this book, which was pacing. It's not that I didn't find some of the earlier stuff interesting, but I felt like it really should have gradually transitioned over a period of time, spending about a chapter or two for each era. But instead, he tries to cover the "modern" era in just one chapter, focusing almost entirely on Nintendo. Actually, fanboying on Nintendo. Maybe that word is too harsh, but it was certainly the first word that came to mind when I tried to stomach the chapter on the Wii. I will grant that I am totally biased and so maybe my view on the matter is completely wrong, but somehow I never ever expected to read the words "Wii juggernaut". I'm having a hard time trying to summarize what I think is wrong with this chapter because...honestly, I think everything is so wrong. And it's not even that the info is wrong; I know that the Wii sold very well, but I also know that opinions of it are very very different than opinions of the PS3 or the 360. I know that, for a lot of people, the Wii is something that just kind of sits on their shelf that they'll get out every now and then, but their Sony or Microsoft system is what's usually humming; the Wii is just so cheap, you shrug and think "Why not?"
To me it just seems very inaccurate to look at the sales of the Wii and say that it is the most important of the current generation of consoles, especially in a book that is supposed to be written by an informed party! Instead he completely downplays the fact that the Wii doesn't have HD resolution, even DVD (much less Blu-Ray) playback, or decent online play. He mentions them briefly but just kind of stuffs them down because hey, the Wii is selling well, right? So it must be awesome.

Overall I feel that Goldberg just utterly and completely missed about 90% of the information that made it into this book. And it's not that I know the information that he left out that he should have put in; on the contrary, after reading this book, I don't really feel enlightened, I just feel frustrated. What about the death of Sega and Microsoft entering the ring? What about mobile gaming devices other than 2-3 pages briefly mentioning the original Gameboy? Does Bioshock really necessitate an entire chapter dedicated to it? What about gaming on tablets, phones, and other media? What about how PC gaming has been making a recent comeback; what about Steam?!?!

It just misses the mark in so many ways and if you check the Amazon reviews, you'll see that many people will agree with me. The strangest thing about this book is that it honestly did not seem like Goldberg seemed like he knew what he was talking about. He felt more like an outsider looking in that somebody who has apparently been reviewing video games for 15 years. By the end of this book, I did not have any sense of satisfaction, I was just glad that it was over and actually looking forward to an old textbook on AI that I picked up at my school computer lab. (That's how much enthusiasm I had for finishing this book.) I would not recommend this book to anyone and I'll probably honestly never read it again. There are some interesting stories and it's not horribly written in all places, but it's just not worth it; I feel that there are probably so many other books out there that do a better job than AYBABTU that spending your time reading it instead of them is just a waste of your time.

Here's the Amazon page for it. Don't buy it, dummy.
-Bry

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