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Title: Trigger Happy
Author: Steven Poole
Publisher: Arcade
Copyright: 2000
ISBN: 1-559-70539-6
Pages: 256
Price: $25.95
Rating: 87%
Trying to write a book on the state of the rapidly-evolving videogame industry is like snapping a photo of a bullet; by the time the camera clicks shut, all you're looking at is a trail of smoke. Steven Poole knows this all too well and takes a different tack, eschewing the usual lists of early videogames to try to get at the heart of why we love videogames, and what makes them tick. In the end, though, it's the eighteen-month manuscript-to-book process that betrays Steven and even though he gives it his best effort, the bulk of this book still showcases the aging PSOne as the height of technology, inadvertently leaving some gaping questions as to what Steven would think about the games being released today.

In other words, it's a very intriguing picture of some extremely pretty smoke.

Still, the book raises some good points, even if the onrush of technology causes it to feel like half a book. Steven doesn't just want to ask how videogames were created - he wants to know why good videogames are good. Why do some game glue you to your seat and your joypad, leaving you with bleary eyes, twitching fingers, and a solemn promise that you'll quit right after you get that next level - and why do others stay on the shelf, unplayed and unloved? It's not an easy question, and Poole attacks it from all viewpoints, taking a rather James Burkian-style approach; if we look at videogames from every available aspect, perhaps a wider truth will become self-evident.

Among other things, Trigger Happy discusses how today's videogames are shaped by technological limitations, pointing out how the elaborate "superdeformed" look of today's cartoons - large heads, squat bodies, bulging eyes - was created out of necessity, back when low-resolution graphics forced programmers to create Mario-style creations that were little more than a hat and suspenders. It dissects the illusion of reality in videogames, showing you rather definitively the narrow line between something that feels real and is real - sure, lasers are technically narrow beams of light that are invisible unless they reflect off of smoke, but invisible laserbeams make it hell to aim straight or dodge. And why don't people really want to create a storyline in their videogames? After all, the game technology is available for an interactive novel that changes as you make choices - so why do most consumers and programmers still prefer the Japanese model of uncovering portions of a premade, unaffectable story as the game goes on?

In other words, what makes a videogame good?

Poole dances from topic to topic in loosely-defined chapters, zipping back and forth in videogame history to make his points much like a travelogue writer would. He's an engaging writer with a vast stockpile of anecdotes and observations to draw from, making this a perfect "pick up any chapter and read it" book.

Sadly, there are questions that are left unanswered, mainly because the book was written before they could be. Poole goes on about the need for freedom in a videogame and how the illusion of reality is critical; one wonders how deep he could dig into some of today's triumphs of game design, like Grand Theft Auto III or Metal Gear Solid 2, or to get his take on storytelling in the celebrated Saving Private Ryan simulation level of Medal of Honor. When I was done, I turned to the back of the book, hoping there was a last-minute appendix to see if there was an update; sadly, there was not.

In fact, the only thing that you can really hold against Trigger Happy is the constant intrusion of the author; Steven Poole has an irritating tendency to continually show off exactly how educated he is. Some paragraphs feel like an exercise in SAT vocabulary justification as Poole uses twenty-dollar words where a ten-cent one would do. And when he starts bringing in obscure literary and historical references for the fifteenth time - "It is hardly surprising, though obscurely disappointing, that no one has tried to make a videogame out of Nabokov's Pale Fire" - you have to restrain the urge to track Steven down and smack him.

This is a book of random anecdotes, told by someone who knows what's interesting. In the end, all that holds this book together is the overarching theme of videogame design, namely - what is a good game? By the end of Trigger Happy, you won't know the answers - no one does, except for maybe game design master Shigeru Miyamoto - but you'll have a much firmer grasp on the questions.

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 and editing various websites.  He likes Magic: the Gathering, roleplaying, and other ridiculously geeky activities.