The fun is back!by Lars Konzack
Racing the Beam shows how the technical limitations of the Atari Video Computer System called for game design creativity during this early epoch of video game design. The book demonstrates how the game designers of the 1970s and early 1980s invented new features and displays in game design that are nowadays taken for granted. The book is concerned with six different Atari VCS cartridges and does this with prime examples of videogames for each cartridge.
Racing the Beam is part of a new series from MIT Press called Platform Studies. Instead of dealing with abstract video game studies, they want to delve into the practical possibilities and limitations the game designers were dealing with when designing for the Atari VCS. According to the foreword the book series focus on a single platform or a closely related series of platforms; technological rigor and in-depth investigation of how computing technologies work; and an awareness of how computing platforms exists in a context of culture and society, being developed based on cultural concepts and then contributing to the culture in a variety of ways - for instance, by affecting how people perceive computing.
Nick Montfort, an Associate Professor of Digital Media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Ian Bogost, an Associate Professor in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Founding Partner, Persuasive Games LLC, are both up for the task. Nick Montfort is also the author of Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction and coeditor of The New Media reader, while Ian Bogost is author of Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames and Unit Operations: An Approach to Video Game Criticism. Both researchers are known for their impact on videogame studies during the last decade.
The book is structured around seven video games each representing different genres and/or technical innovations of the Atari VCS. While a lot videogame theory has been mostly concerned with generalities, this approach looks at specific videogames. They have delivered what video game studies have been lacking for some time thorough analysis of specific videogames on specific platforms. This is hopefully a starting point for further videogame analysis and what is more it is a good start.
The acknowledgements of the book are mainly directed at people from game development, emulations of videogames, video game platform studies and videogame criticism. This is followed by the Atari timeline from 1972 to 1982. This timeline is not only useful but crucial to put the Atari VCS into perspective and to get an understanding of the book.
The first Chapter, Stella, explains the different types of Atari VCS that were developed in the 1970s and early 1980s and how cartridge-based video game consoles was different from the arcade cabinets played in bars, lounges and arcades. Furthermore, comprehensive insights are offered on Atari VCS programmers struggled to squeeze their creativity into the limits of their technology. Within these hardware limitations the programmers managed to create new videogame design features. As the authors point out:
“So much was possible on the Atari VCS, and not because it was a powerful computer. It wasn’t powerful at all. Rather so much was possible because the machine was so simple. The very few things it could do well - drawing a few movable objects on the screen one line at a time while uttering noises using square waves and noise- could be put together in a variety ways to achieve surprising results.” (p.15)The videogame Combat was sold with the Atari VCS with the model number CX2600 in 1977. Since the Atari VCS was the first cartridge-based system to be sold with a joystick controller it was obvious that the game should be based on a joystick videogame from the arcades. Accordingly, the videogame Tank was turned into Combat. This chapter directs its attention to how the computer memory and hardware was different from the technology that was used in the Tank game and how the programmers dealt with these issues. But most important was that Combat showed what could be done with the new Atari VCS.
“What the cartridge really contributed was a compelling demonstration of the Atari VCS an advertisement for the system’s two-player capabilities and its ability to pack many game variants into a single cartridge. Combat showed that the system could be enjoyed by many people, and that through difficult settings and variants, people of different ages and aptitudes could play against each other enjoyably.” (p.42)The next chapter deals with what was a whole new videogame genre at the time. Of course at that time lots of games contributed with new ideas. But the adventure genre was quite different focusing on a tale rather than action. The limits of the Atari VCS meant that the text adventure simply could not be done. In transferring the 1976 text adventure made by Don Woods and Will Crowther, the Atari programmer ended up designing what was later known as action adventure.
The authors show how the makers of the Adventure in the Atari version had to rethink the genre in order to make it work. Everything, apart from the manual of course, must be represented with a graphical user interface in which there is no place for text information. The main problem is how to represent a virtual space. Games at the time were only one screen (Wolf 2001). In order to come overcome this problem the character in the game moved to new screens as the game progressed. Today there is nothing new to this concept but at the time it was very odd and had to be explained carefully. Likewise, the programmer had to find a way to pick up equipment and use these items, creating similarly new features. The authors clarify in detail how this game was developed and how much influence it had on later action adventure games as regards to movement, handling items, and getting lost in the game. They also tell about the famous videogame Easter Egg created by Warren Robinett.
Chapter four is concerned with the attempt to transfer the videogame Pac-Man. The problem was that this kind of game wasn’t made for the Atari VCS at all. They, the game designers, had to be very creative and think outside the box to make it work. First of all the arcade machine running Pac-Man had been built to deal with Pac-Man, it ran three times as fast, had more computing power, and a lot more RAM. People were eager to play this game at home but quickly found out that even though the technical ingenuity had been imaginative; the final result was never close to what the arcade machine could offer. It became a disappointment, leading to the videogame crash in 1983.
Chapter five looks at a the videogame Yar’s Revenge that had impressive graphics and sound for its time. Inspired by a game named Star Castle the game development realizes that the controller set-up was radically different from the Atari VCS, so even though they had something that was well-tested and implemented, the game had to be rethought entirely. Again the authors take the reader into a journey of critical game design choices, showing how innovation and improvisation were necessary abilities in order to develop the game.
Chapter six goes on to present the game design of Pitfall. This game wasn’t made by Atari but Activision. The book tells the story about game programmers that left Atari because their effort wasn’t recognized in their pay check and how Activision was formed as a software business company. But it also tells about new software development practices. Games design before that had not distinguished between game design and game programming; it was the one and the same human being. Now they had to be a group of designers and programmers working together, leading to new ways of not only organizing the development, but on the game programming and design itself as well. They had to develop design philosophies and styles of programming in order to work as a team.
However, Pitfall is likewise a game that draws heavily on popular culture - not only other games but the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark as well. This leads to the final videogame presented in the book, bearing the title Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. It’s obvious were that game came from, and according to the book the first videogame based on the Star wars universe even though it is not the first videogame based on a movie.
The videogame Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back directs the attention towards a general discussion of how movies are transferred into videogames in the early epoch of videogame development and later on. They also tells the sad story about the horrible videogame E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial that if not directly responsible for the videogame crash of 1983 became the symbol of bad videogame design in which the focal point was solely on selling products instead of creating imaginative game experiences for the public.
In the light of this failure Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is shown as an example of how to do movie-based videogames. This game in fact set the standard for its time on how to make a compelling game based on an important action sequence in the movie; the take-down of the imperial walkers by the tiny, agile snowspeeder ship. Furthermore, the developers produced a soundtrack that with all its obvious limitations proved to be recognizable as the Star Wars theme.
After having presented the six different videogames and analyzed the advantages and disadvantages of the various Atari VCS machines, the authors go on to look at what happened after the videogame crash of 1983, discussing how the Atari VCS inspired future game consoles. The book finishes off with a short afterword on how to make platform studies, hoping that other researchers would like to delve into the specific problems and innovations of videogame platforms.
In conclusion, Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost is a worthwhile read if the reader wants to know how early videogame development took place and thereby get an understanding of how videogame development came into being what it is today. It shows how we have learned from their mistakes and skilled innovations. What makes it remarkable is that it stands out from game research in general by their insistence on geeting deep into the issues of early game design. It is not only historical interesting, but works an example of how thorough video game research ought to be done. Even so, I would prefer that the authors delivered a better understanding of how video games ideas came from fantasy and science fiction fandom and board- and role-playing game activities of the epoch.
Still, it is an important work and one can only hope that Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost will follow the trail they have stepped onto with this book. The authors really succeed in being timely by suggesting connections between the vintage software and nowadays videogames. Whether or not the reader is old enough to remember the days of the Atari they nevertheless encapsulates a time when all the memory space for a video game could be measured not in gigabytes, not even megabytes but only a few kilobytes, and they are able to present this without inappropriate nostalgia but in a fully relevant read.
Ian, Bogost (2006) Unit Operations: An Approach to Video Game Criticism. Massachusetts MA, MIT Press.
Bogost, Ian: (2007) Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Massachusetts MA, MIT Press.
Montfort, Nick (2003) Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive. Massachusetts MA, MIT Press.
Montfort, Nick & Noah Wardrip-Fruin (2003) The New Media Reader. Massachusetts MA, MIT Press.
Wolf, Mark J. P. (2001) “Space in the Video Game.” In: Mark J. P. Wolf (ed.) The Medium of the Video Game. Austin TX, Univeristy of Texas Press.