In its opening pages, Making Videogames states that it’s no coincidence that Super Mario 64 “characterized its virtual camera as a videographer flying on a cloud.” The games are made up of shots and angles, with every element and backdrop carefully chosen to make the player feel like they’re really part of the scene, or at least to make the gameplay as efficient as possible. Duncan Harris and Alex Wiltshire, the creators of Making Videogames, become Lakitu, floating around 12 games and taking the best shots – choosing the most beautiful, moving and demanding ones to produce. Torn from the context of gameplay, with no sound cues or interactivity to accompany them, Making Videogames recontextualizes these still images as art, before analyzing them through different lenses to understand what contributed to their creation and what drives them.
But it’s not just a photography book. Making Videogames examines the designs of 12 games, from the impressionistic painterly style of Disco Elysium to the realism of Grid. It tries to understand why the art decisions were made as much from a gameplay perspective as an aesthetic one, and the devs also offer their perspective on why they made the art decisions they did and on how the results were obtained.
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Hardspace: Shipbreaker, Control, Paper Beast, No Man’s Sky, A Plague Tale: Innocence, Disco Elysium, Return of the Obra Dinn, Grid, River City Girls, Thumper, Half-Life: Alyx, and SOMA are all concisely discussed but informative chapters, each bringing a different perspective on how video games are made, from solo developers to massive studios, from hyperrealism to pixel art. I won’t list exactly what each chapter covers, but it’s safe to say that the authors found the perfect angle for each included game. Some might say it’s easy to capture the hyperrealism of Grid or the virtual reality of environments for Alyx, but each game was chosen for a reason, and the glimpses of each will be surprising. When there are literally millions of games, picking the perfect 12 is no small feat.
This 250-page tome is as much a preview of development as it is a coffee table book with pretty pictures – and it is a coffee table book with lovely images, with each featured game focusing on a different aspect of visual design. Control is about lighting, No Man’s Sky is about the math of procedurally generated environments, and Return of the Obra Dinn is about the difficulties of solo development. For a book that’s dripping with style, there’s plenty of substance, too. Making video games is less about making worlds and more about creating textures, directing lighting and implementing clever techniques. It doesn’t really deal with how to make a virtual world come alive, but goes into great detail about how to create a video game world.
Maybe I should have been warned by the title, but it really is a book about manufacturing Games. I mistakenly expected him to celebrate them, especially those with stunning vistas and painstakingly crafted details, and I won’t go any further. I was expecting pages of panoramas from Red Dead Redemption and creature designs from God of War. I thought it would be a picture book. But it’s so much more. Although it has images, and those images are vital to its premise, they are not the main focus. I found myself turning page after page to read the developers’ ideas, only flipping through the chapter afterwards to grab the accompanying images. The images themselves take on new meanings after learning how the developers scraped a texture of rust off the surfaces of a giant spaceship or how the artists went to town with their abstract ideas when they arrived on the coast. .
It’s my job to know about games, and this book showed me how little I understand about game development. It felt like I was on my first day at Gamer School, and I was the know-it-all sitting in front of the class with my hand in the air, practically scraping the ceiling, wanting to soak up every retail. In another life, Making Videogames might have been a regular A5 treatise on developing gaming environments – that’s if the Harris skipped the epic spreads of supermassive space stations, slick race tracks and 1-bit pirate ships . It would be worse for him, but it would still work, so great is the depth and precision of the writing. Everything is informative and concise, but never confusing, which is impressive considering the technical details that are explained and explored.
It’s an interesting decision to separate the developer quotes from the Wiltshire storytelling, a decision that I think stems from the fact that it’s intended to be a centerpiece on the coffee table rather than a book of non- standard fiction to read cover to cover. Flip through virtually any page and you can choose what to dive into. Of course, the images grab you first, and then the big letters in the developer quotes give you context, how that effect was achieved, and why it was important or hard to do. Interest piqued? Read the fine print for the author’s insight, no doubt drawn from hours of interviews, to break down the details of what went on behind the scenes of this plan, and why. I enjoyed absorbing it all, poring over every word, but I’m unlikely to when I read it again, and people won’t take it for a quick glance either. The separation of interview quotes from the author’s voice is smart, and I feel like I’ll respect that more the more I dive into it.
And it’s a book to dive into and out of. I might have been embarrassed if I had invited a guest over to my house and left a playbook on the table. “Oh sorry, this is the fifteenth Halo novel; it’s for research,” I explained hastily. Or: “Apologies, I was just reading an article about the Darkspear Rebellion” – the apologies would come in droves and fast. But not this one. Not only would I proudly display this volume, but I would encourage guests to flip through it, read it, and hopefully enjoy it, whether they like games or not. At the very least, they would come out after seeing some incredibly pretty pictures. I recommend you do the same.
A critical copy of the book was provided by the publisher.
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