Monday, August 24, 2015

Game Development Studies reading list, Fall 2015

In the vein of "Platform Studies" or "Code Studies", we might consider a "Game Development Studies" ("Console Studies?") -- a field of research investigating the technical and material aspects of video games, from early prototypes to production code to distribution. How have various processes of game development changed over time? How does that influence what games are, or how they are perceived?

Here are six books that, I think, do much of that work:

10PRINT (Nick Montfort, Patsy Baudoin, et al) focuses on the generative capabilities of the Commodore 64, while Racing the Beam (Ian Bogost, Nick Montfort) focuses on the technological context of the Atari 2600. These are great and important texts that have established a lot of the methodology in this field, but they are also about really early consoles, and it's really difficult for younger people (e.g. me) to appreciate the throughline from that era to today.

So maybe what we need is a little more timeliness. I AM ERROR (Nathan Altice) uses the same types of analysis to investigate the classic NES console, but also has the benefit of supplementing it with cultural analysis about translating between Japanese and US contexts. This is also where Dreamcast Worlds (Zoya Street) is at its most powerful, exploring the complex interplay between Sega Japan, Sega of America, and Sega Europe, and how these different cultures influenced development resources and engineering decisions.

But those stories are about corporate intrigue in what we might call the triple-A game industry, which doesn't really feel contemporary with the current (but waning?) "Indie Moment" in games right now. So it's also important to talk about early proto-indie developers who clustered around ZZT (Anna Anthropy), a very moddable game engine by a then-nascent Epic Games -- or the avant-garde commercial indie sensibilities and material contexts that led to Jagged Alliance 2 (Darius Kazemi) and its commentary on US-Canada geopolitics.

I distinguish this type of research from work like the classic Masters of Doom (David Kushner), which is less interested in the technical-material and more in the "great men" of Carmack and Romero, or Myst and Riven (Mark J. P. Wolf) which, to me, reads like a meticulous wiki and isn't really critical of what those games are, or how they were made and what that means.

By being critical, I don't mean taking a hate-play shit on a game. It's OK to love something, that love is usually what enables a writer to commit so deeply to thinking about something.

However, this love also needs rigor, it needs to be a tough love that you challenge and deconstruct. 10PRINT argues that Commodore 64 had a lot of engineered limitations, Dreamcast Worlds argues that Sega corporate culture was dysfunctional, and Jagged Alliance 2 is about why we can't make games like that ever again.

Many of these kinds of books are about the "losers" of today -- Atari and Sega are now essentially zombies that exist to accrue royalties, Jagged Alliance 2's double-A publisher-developer Sir-tech collapsed against its better-funded competitors, id Software has hemorrhaged Carmack amidst the debatable failure of Rage and other idTech4 games, and Cyan Worlds has struggled ever since Riven. In a way, maybe we can only construct history when that given history is over.

And if it feels kind of sad, maybe it's because that's what game development (and/or history) is.