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Copyright

Title: The Medium of the Video Game
Editor: Mark J. P. Wolf
Publisher: University of Texas Press
Copyright: 2001
ISBN: 029279150X
Pages: 224
Price: $19.95
Rating: 56%
There is an entire class of books that are intellectual dissections of the videogame, all written for people who don't play videogames. And I have to wonder: Who are these books written for? Will people who can't tell a Playstation from a gas station really be inclined to pay for a book that spends about half its time discussing things that are blatantly obvious to anyone who's ever picked up a joystick?

Put another way: If you've never seen a movie, are you going to start by reading two hundred pages on camera angles?

That said, this book has some redeeming features - but there's a lot of ground that will be too dense for those who don't know videogames, and too redundant for those who do.

Mark J. P. Wolf is a professor of communications - and he's not only the editor, he's the author of five out of the nine essays in this book. He comes from a film background, and ultimately he's trying to do a noble thing with his essays - he's trying to catalogue the various approaches that videogame designers take to approaching technical limitations. Filmmakers have struggled with similar limitations for years, and their attempts to get past the confinements of the screen have consistently led to more interesting cinema. For example, filmmakers only have a small section of screen to work with, so they had to develop shortcuts: The pan, the close-up, cutting from scene to scene...

Film students routinely dissect how a director chose to present a scene - what cuts, pans, and shots did he chose to use in order to capture the moment? But what they don't do is sit there, listing off approaches on their fingers: "Jump cut - close-up, another close-up - and a zoom!"

What students try to do is to figure out how these elements contributed to the effectiveness of a film. We all know that quick cuts from place to place can create suspense, and slow, sweeping pans across landscape create a feeling of serenity - and it would be fascinating to take that approach to videogames. After all, videogames started with the simple and story-free Pong and have evolved into sweeping love stories like Final Fantasy X; how has this changed people's approaches to play? Do people get more attached to the iconographic Pac-Man - or does the fully-rendered, raspy-voiced reality of Solid Snake draw them in deeper?

Sadly, Mark is the student who's checking off the styles of cuts. He lists over eleven approaches that videogame designers take to approaching "hidden space" - space that cannot be seen on the screen - but they're all listed as if they're equally effective. A first-person shooter like Doom has a totally different feel to it than the overhead perspective of Berserk, even though both games are about a man running through a maze, shooting enemies - and yet this is barely mentioned. As such, these chapters have all the excitement of reading an annotated grocery list.

In addition, even though it was published in 2001, the book seems to stop paying attention to videogames somewhere in 1998 - Myst is mentioned frequently, but Half-Life - a revolutionary game that took the concept of storytelling to levels that the videogame industry has strived to match ever since - is not mentioned once. The Sims, which has sold over eight million copies and caused gamers to develop unprecedented attachments to their on-screen representatives, is only mentioned in passing. Whereas games that vanished without a trace, like Dactyl Nightmare and the Virtual Boy's Mario game, are referred to on numerous occasions. This creates the rather odd impression that most of the significant advances we see today were created in the 1980s.

The last three chapters lend some insights into the videogame industry, and they're very worth your while - even though one of them was written ten years ago. The first, an essay on the creation of the first videogame museum, has some fascinating discussions on how games created so recently can feel like ancient history - as well as some great anecdotes of trying to find machines that, at the time, were considered little more than junked merchandise. The second, a musing on why videogames and computers can suck away hours of your time in a way that books and movies cannot, has many witty insights - and considering that it was written in 1988, it has some extremely prescient comments on what the videogame industry was to become. And the last essay discusses the death of storytelling; all of our myths are videogames. And why not? After all, when you have the choice of hearing about the brave knight who saved the princess or becoming the brave knight, which would you choose?

(For those of you paying attention, yes there are nine essays - the first one is the obligatory "history of videogame" chapters, and it does what it's supposed to do.)

This is a book that really has three must-have reads - one of which has been published elsewhere. The rest of the book is a sad misunderstanding; The Medium of the Video Game wants to investigate the videogame as "an artistic medium," but it fails to understand that art is not about the act of creation, but rather about the art's effect on the viewer. As such, it spends a lot of time telling you how, but never asks "why."
 

William Steinmetz, MCSE and A+-certified, worked as a chainwide buyer for Waldenbooks for five years, picking out only the best computer books to send into malls across America.  He currently works as a freelance writer, doing reviews for Amazon.com and editing various websites.  He likes Magic: the Gathering, roleplaying, and other ridiculously geeky activities.