Books You Should Own: Trigger Happy
Posted on 3rd Apr 2009 at 13:32 by Alex Watson with 16 comments
Fourth Estate, 2000
The importance of criticism in relation to the actual art or products it discusses is matter of debate and criticism itself. Elvis Costello was neatly and completely dismissive of the very idea of music journalism, declaring that ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’
Still, it was, in part, the traditions of music writing – and Rolling Stone in the 60s and 70s – that video games writers turned to when they wanted to redefine the point and purpose of games criticism. New Games Journalism was a reasonably successful attempt to widen games writing’s remit and claim a role for it that was bigger than just slapping 9/10 scores on run-of-the-mill sequels and churning out breathlessly keen previews (and it’s also what we here at Bit-Tech practise, at least if you believe Wikipedia).
Before the debate over New Games Journalism, though, was another of my favourite books about computers: Steven Poole’s Trigger Happy. Originally published in 2000, Trigger Happy isn’t subtitled ‘The Inner Life of Videogames’ for nothing. It’s a conscious attempt to push writing about games beyond identikit phrases ‘good graphics’ and ‘great playability’ ‘interesting gameplay’ – and if anything, to think about what words like ‘gameplay’ really, actually refer to.
Trigger Happy takes in the history of games, tracing their development from the late 70s onwards and contemplating what the future will bring for them. Poole is well-read and not afraid to show it: the bibliography lists Plato, Wittgenstein and William Gibson, while the title page mixes epigrams from T. S. Eliot alongside Lara Croft. The writing is enthusiastic and ebullient, weaving gaming concepts together with music, film and philosophy and literary theory.
There are times when this results in empty posturing - "If film, as Jean-Luc Godard said, is ‘truth, twenty-four times a second’, then modern videogames are lies that hit the nervous system at two and a half times the frequency," Poole writes, which reads well, sounds exciting and has as much specific meaning as the average U2 lyric.
For most of its 262 pages, however, Trigger Happy contains some of the most compelling, convincing and thoughtful writing about games you’ll ever read. Academic though his background may be, Poole knows and loves his games, and when he gets hands on, he’s very perceptive, as in this description of camerawork:
"Videogame camerawork was developed in order to enable the player to see the action from the most useful angle... Cinematic camerawork of the kind that is immediately noticeable or stylish, however, often depends for its effect on hiding something from the viewer, not letting you see everything. When the detective mounts the staircase of the Bates house in Psycho, Hitchcock deliberately chooses a very tight shot on his hand moving up the banister, inducing tension through dramatic irony, as we know what awaits him at the top of the stairs, although he does not. But there can be no dramatic irony in videogames, because dramatic irony depends on a knowledge differential between spectator and protagonist – yet in a videogame the player is both spectator and protagonist at once. Film manipulates the viewer, but a game depends on being manipulable."
When you read that, it seems remarkably obvious that there is a huge and perhaps unbridgeable gap between films and games – despite the fact that many games try and ape classic movies, some successfully (Metal Gear Solid), some less so (the latest Silent Hill, for instance).
I like it because it strikes to the core of what I personally find so exciting about games – the idea that they are both a simulation of strange new worlds, but also a commentary on what we can, and can’t do, in the current one:
"On a very basic level, Pac-Man and Lara [Croft] do in fact share one important attraction. If you swing the joystick to move Pac-Man around his maze, he opens and shuts his mouth automatically while on the move. If you press a button to make Lara walk forward she walks in a fluid, hip-swinging motion that is the result of hundreds of frames of painstaking digital animation. These are both examples of how characters give us videogaming pleasure: through a joyously exaggerated sense of control, or amplification of input. All you do is hold down a button, and you get to see this wonderfully complex, rich behaviour as a result. This is one very basic attraction of all types of interactivity, and it also seems to be a near-universal pleasure among humans in the modern industrialised world. Why do people enjoy driving cars? Amplification of input: you just lower your foot and suddenly you are moving at exhilarating speed."
The book was published in 2000, so it’s interesting to see which predictions came true and which were wildly wide of the mark. Dreamcast nostalgics will thrill at a book that comes from a time when Sega weren’t just about churning out rubbish Sonic games, and it’s curious to see how negative Poole is on PC gaming. This is a book from the pre-World of WarCraft/MMO era.
Trigger Happy is out of print at the moment (although there are lots of copies on Amazon Marketplace), but you can download it for free as a PDF from Steven Poole’s site.
Incidentally, while Trigger Happy missed out on MMOs, Poole himself has plenty to say on them, and the curious way that ‘work’ is so crucial to something that is ostensibly, fun.