Monday, 6 February 2012

Book Review | All Your Base Are Belong To Us by Harold Goldberg

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Through the stories of gaming's greatest innovations and most beloved creations, journalist Harold Goldberg captures the creativity, controversy - and passion - behind the video game's meteoric rise to the top of the pop-culture pantheon.

Over the last fifty years, video games have grown from curiosities to fads to trends to one of the world's most popular forms of mass entertainment. But as the gaming industry grows in numerous directions and everyone talks about the advance of the moment, few explore and seek to understand the forces behind this profound evolution. How did we get from Space Invaders to Grand Theft Auto? How exactly did gaming become a $50 billion industry and a dominant pop culture form? What are the stories, the people, the innovations, and the fascinations behind this incredible growth?

Through extensive interviews with gaming's greatest innovators, both its icons and those unfairly forgotten by history, All Your Base Are Belong To Us sets out to answer these questions, exposing the creativity, odd theories - and passion - behind the twenty-first century's fastest-growing medium.


I love books, and I love video games, so it was a pretty safe bet that I'd love this book about video games. As luck would have it, however, I'm not a gambling man, because as it happens... not so much.

On the one hand, Harold Goldberg is just about as mainstream as successful critics come: he's written for the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Wired, Esquire, Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone. On the other, unlike the vast majority of his contemporaries, he's taken a particular interest in video games, which is to say a medium of entertainment often absent an invite to the party simply because of its newness, and deemed unworthy of the considered column inches that could and should be devoted to its development. Harold Goldberg begs to differ, citing fifteen years of experience reviewing video games for various illustrious publications, and a stint as editor in chief of Sony Online Entertainment during the era of EverQuest.

So you know. If there's an author capable of composing an entertaining and even-handed history of video games, if not an all-encompassing one, Goldberg is as good a candidate as any. His dedication to the ever-evolving form is self-evident; his passion for play is plain. And thankfully, it translates. This is a real relief, because I'm sorry to say there are enough problems with All Your Base Are Belong To Us otherwise that a dismissive or even a disinterested attitude would have been the last scant nail in what is already a bare-bones coffin.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves with such graven imagery. First, of course - before death - comes birth, and Goldberg's short study of the medium's teething years sets the scene for the forthcoming contents perfectly well: we learn of Pong and its immediate predecessors, of the Magnavox Odyssey and the meteoric rise and fall of Atari. The roving spotlight falls on Ralph Baer and Nolan Bushnell, and in its introductory chapters All Your Base Are Belong To Us narrates the tale ably, if somewhat abruptly. Goldberg doesn't so much paint a picture as rough out a sketch of video games' ground zero, but potted histories need not be completely comprehensive, and anyway there have been whole books devoted to just this period; go read those if that's what you're after.

Goldberg has his sights set rather wider, so in All Your Base Are Belong To Us these chapters are merely a means of setting the scene... of establishing a context to place subsequent industry bigwigs and auteurs in. You could say this section is a sort of tutorial.

You could, except the book's later levels are hardly so challenging or complex that they require such instruction. This, I think, is the great failing of All Your Base Are Belong To Us: for all its ambition, ultimately it achieves very little. For the greater part they are well put, but Goldberg's arguments and assertions are pedestrian at best, and sometimes seem so amateurish that it can be hard to reconcile the author of this rather selective record - a man with a veritable wealth of experience in and around the industry, as a gamer, a game-maker and a games journalist - with the highlights of his minibio. Presumably he's had an exceptional editor in the past.

Incredibly, there's a sense, as well, that Goldberg, for all his professions to the contrary, still thinks of video games as the preserve of pimple-ridden children and stunted stoners. Specifically his imagery when attempting to describe the experience of playing the games this book is all about are borderline insulting. Discussing The 7th Guest, one of the earliest attempts at horror in the genre, he asserts that you - the player - will "shiver, thinking your goose bumps will pop like acne." Later, in a chapter ostensibly about the development of Bioshock, Goldberg's penchant for awkward metaphor gets the better of All Your Base Are Belong To Us: "In the early part of the century, the videogame industry was growing as fast as pot under a grow lamp."

Is that so, sir?

Of the book's twenty-odd chapters, a handful - bunched up together in the book's third third, which is when the medium finally comes of age in the author's eyes - stand out. Particularly noteworthy are the two devoted to Sam and Dan Hauser, the camera-shy masterminds behind Grand Theft Auto and the Rockstar seal of quality, whose few words are characteristically canny. In fact these softly-spoken giants of gaming - the Wachowskis of the industry - are so incisive that they cast rather a shadow over Goldberg's equivalent observations. Often the reader feels as if there will be some shining insight around the next corner, but the princess is almost always in another castle, and the final boss is a flash in the pan. That said, "Under the Gun: The Kids in the Sandbox" and "Rockstar Gets Pilloried" make for fairly fascinating reading, and not only because access to infamous visionaries aforementioned is so sporadic.

All Your Base Are Belong To Us is quite an ambitious book, and credit to Goldberg where it's due - first and foremost for attempting such a grand and admirable endeavour. Unfortunately he wholly mishandles it. The bite-sized chapters are appealing until you realise how little depth they allow for, and in lieu of any actual analysis, these practiced anecdotes are all fluff and no substance. All Your Base Are Belong To Us might make a fine primer for someone with no prior knowledge of the industry - though even in that case Goldberg's arbitrary milestones tell an incomplete tale, if not actively misleading then strangely selective - but there's practically nothing of note in here for someone who is interested in video games already, and I ask you: who else would read a book with a title based on a meme based on an Engrish phrase from an obscure Sega sidescroller that barely made it outside of Japan?

Game over, man. 


All Your Base Are Belong To Us 
by Harold Goldberg

US Publication: April 2011, Three Rivers Press

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