Review: Replay: The History of Video Games

There are many books about the history of the video game industry. In fact, Replay: The History of Video Games (ISBN: 9780956507204) one opens up with a quote from former Sega of America head Michael Katz where he asked the author “Why are you writing another book on the history of video games?” – a quote which perfectly summed up my initial feeling upon hearing about the existence of this book.

Author Tristan Donovan quickly stamps out any notion of this being just “another book by” casting a wider net. Where previous video game history books have mainly focused on America with a little bit of Japan, Donovan brings Europe and post-Internet expansion South Korea into the picture to give the book a more balanced view of the history of games development. Donovan claims that the book has a global focus, but you will find nary a tale of pre-Internet expansion South Korea, the piracy dominated Middle East or the Tectoy fortification of Brazil.

Replay goes a lot further back than Kent’s Ultimate History in tracking the origins of video games, but also examines other technologies that helped establish the medium such as computers and television. Rather than just focusing on the work being done by Americans, Donovan takes us to the Festival of Britain, where the first device remotely resembling an electronic game was first demonstrated. It’s somewhat amusing to read that the inventors of these early game devices felt that they lacked any practical value and were a waste of people’s time.

From here, the book follows the more traditional history model of following the work of Ralph Baer, the Computer Space gurus, the beginnings of the arcade industry and the rise of Atari, but just as it seems to becoming a hollow retread, Donovan breaks away and brings us into the world of the home computer. This is an area where past gaming history books have almost entirely failed to acknowledge. The Spectrum enjoys the lion’s share of the attention, but the Apple II and Amiga get their share of attention. Donovan also goes into detail about the rise of the home coder and the European development scene.

At some points in the book, there is a near information overload – Donovan is sharing the history of so many threads in the development of the industry that it can be a little difficult to follow when he continues to jump between them.

The book falters around the rise of Nintendo and Sega. Like so many other gaming books, the author just begins to rush to the finish, not particularly covering any aspect of the post-1990 history of the home console industry in satisfying detail. Little attention is given to the development of Sega’s Mega Drive add-ons, the Nintendo-Sony-Philips debacle, the rise of the PlayStation, the failure of the Saturn and Dreamcast or Microsoft’s entrance into the industry. It is challenging to get companies to elaborate on modern history, but there are books out there (Game Over, Nintendo Magic and Opening the Xbox) that do exactly that. Donovan’s attention seems to be diverted to the PC at this point as he covers the rise of user created content from games such as Doom, Quake and The Sims and the development of MMOs.

By the time we hit the 2000s, the book starts to read like a list of bullet points. Little time is spent with any particular issue – one gets a sense of the fact that the author felt these issues needed to be addressed, but was simply out of time or pages in which to discuss them. Most of the attention gets directed towards the rise of Grand Theft Auto, the increasing importance of narrative in games, the adventure game resurgence and the rise of the indie game. The book then ends abruptly and launches into a wholly unsatisfying “gameography” which attempts to give readers an idea of how particular game genres developed. The section lacks sufficient explanation of what Donovan was trying to achieve, not to mention justification for the way in which he has constructed these genre pathways. The other supplemental section is a hardly-definitive listing of video game and computer hardware.

Replay: The History of Video Games is a book of two halves. The first half is a wonderfully constructed trip through the origins of the video game and the early development of the arcade, home console and home computer industries and their associated games. The second is a lightspeed trip through the last 25 years of video game history with many of the important issues barely touched on or overlooked. Donovan does a great job of detailing the development of particular genres and exploring the history of games in regions omitted by other history books (though there are many areas the book still ignores), but it just seems like he ran out of time. Worth reading for the first half alone, but you can’t help thinking about what might have been.