Review of Matt Barton's book, Dungeons & Desktops (2008), from A K Peters, Ltd.

Bill Loguidice's picture

Dungeons & DesktopsI finally received my copy of Matt Barton's Dungeons & Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games, and it was definitely worth the wait. Similar to the popular Gamasutra articles Matt wrote and the book was inspired by, the book is broken up into various Ages, such as The Dark Age, The Golden Age, The Modern Age, etc., though in a greatly expanded fashion. This is a logical and effective means of organization and helps guide the reader through the progressively more sophisticated - though not necessarily better - CRPGs over the years.

There is plenty of theory and before you get into the meat of the book, exactly what is and what isn't a CRPG is discussed in great detail. For the most part I agree with the definitions and delineations of the various related genres (adventure, RPG, MUDs, JRPGs, etc.) and I believe this can be used as the basis for future works by other authors. In short, the reader gets a clear picture of what exactly the author means by "CRPG" in its many forms and why some of the other games - even though they might exhibit several RPG characteristics - really fall under another classification.

It's a fun, easy read with consistent pacing. There are no "dead" spots in the book and you are constantly looking forward to the next page. Matt has always balanced scholarly writing with a mainstream sensibility, and his reputation as the "Dennis Miller of Videogames" holds true here as well, with references to individuals like philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein sprinkled throughout the book. This approach works here as well as it ever has, providing some perspective for some of Matt's more original points.

While this book does not attempt in the course of discussion to catalog every CRPG ever made - and the fact that there have been many hobbiest and low circulation semi-pro works across hundreds of different platforms makes such a feat impractical - the vast majority of games worth discussing are all here, with a few nice surprises, like coverage of some of the games on the PLATO mainframe. In all, even the most jaded RPG enthusiast should find little to quibble about in the selection of games represented in the book.

Beyond being broken down into various Ages, the book further discusses individual games and series in each of these sections, in what some other reviewers have referred to as a collection of reviews. This is not exactly true, as the author is not reviewing each of the games as much as he's describing their components and what it does and doesn't advance in terms of the then state-of-the-RPG-art (in respect to the Age it's in). Nevertheless, based on the information, the reader can definitely get an idea of whether it's a game that he or she would like to play, so in that one way, it can act like a review despite it actually being a tool for the greater narrative.

So what are some of the downsides of this book? While there are hundreds of photos, some have come out too dark in the printing to make out details, which is disappointing as seeing the games and related items is a lot of fun. I also didn't care for the title screen of Ultima II being used rather than an in-game screenshot, particularly since the Ultima II title screen is repeated in the color insert (The color insert is tough to find because it's on thin paper stock, but it's definitely there!). Nevertheless, a high percentage of the images help enhance the narrative rather than detract from it and I'm sure the image contrast is something the publisher can fix in future editions of the book.

While we'll no doubt all have our personal criticisms of this work based on our own biases (what, obscure RPG y from obscure platform z is not there?!), one fact remains--this book is very, very hard to put down. For my money, that makes any minor criticism a non-factor in regards to the greater good of the overall work. So, kudos to my videogame brother for the accomplishment and if you have even the slightest interest in RPGs or video or computer games in general, buy this book!

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Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
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RetroGaming Radio again

Shane Monroe also mentions it again (a clarification from last month's) around the 25 minute mark in the latest show, March 2008: http://www.retrogamingradio.com/theshow/listen.php?current=1

He also mentions the Atari 2600 Gamasutra article - at least in the show links. I was unable to find it in the show...



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Calibrator
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Joined: 10/25/2006
Book arrived today

I ordered it late from Amazon-UK - together with a photo book called
"Phantom Shanghai" (I'm not affiliated, but very impressed by it) among
other things.

The book:

First, a remark about the cover as this is the first thing one notices.
It's a great and very fitting motif as dragons are often the ultimate
adversaries - or NPCs - in CRPGs and it's high quality artwork.
Another great thing about it, is that the sky color wraps the whole book
which gives it a feeling of integrity. Great choice.

But the protective cover is removed quickly and the book gets opened...

All things said by Bill are true - especially the slightly dark screens.
Of course - color screenshots would be the ideal solution but how many would
(or could) pay for the book, then? (I know I would, but I don't impose my
preferences on others ;-)

The color section with eight screens is a joke, however, and only underlines
the problem with the pictures. My advice is to either enlarge this section or
drop it *completely* and use only b/w photos that are brightened up a bit.

Making the picture files available as downloads would be a good "solution"
for beginning CRPG enthusiasts or people not wanting to search the web.

The picture thing is also the only real negative criticism I can name as the first
chapter I read today (and the excerpts published lately) already show what is
the books major asset: It's immensily vivid and lively writing style.

One quickly recognizes that this isn't a vanity book of some self-proclaimed
expert on an obscure subject but a professional effort by a person experienced
in relaying knowledge to others.

The book appears to be very thorough - the introduction to the genre alone
shows this - and easy to understand for people without a deep gaming history.
The latter being entertained by the writing and the filling of some knowledge gaps.

I think that this is not only the first non-fiction book in a long time that I will read
from beginning to end but also that this may become a "CRPG bible" for budding
game designers and fans of the genre!

And I can assure Matt, that the Barton nose isn't that big a problem as is my own ;-)

take care,
Calibrator

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Matt Barton
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Joined: 01/16/2006
thanks!!!!

Thanks so much for posting your thoughts, Calibrator. It's hard to convey how eagerly and anxiously I've been waiting for feedback from people who have seen the book!

Calibrator wrote:

Making the picture files available as downloads would be a good "solution"
for beginning CRPG enthusiasts or people not wanting to search the web.

This has been a recurring criticism, and not just from Bill. It's doubly disappointing to me, firstly because it took me a long time and a lot of money to take the screenshots, and secondly because I think the pics add a lot of value. However, on a positive note, the publisher has assured me that if the book makes a second printing (it needs to sell something like 2,000 copies for that to happen), the problem will be corrected. I do intend to put the screenshots up for download soon, just haven't had the time. Also, please see that it's not a problem with all, only some of the images. I know that isn't any consolation to people who have the book.

I might note that, whenever possible, if I had a screenshot for a game that Mobygames didn't have, I uploaded one to them. They rejected some of them for various reasons (they are very picky about formats and resolutions), but they kept some of them. In short, you can probably find screenshots for most of the games on Mobygames if you're really curious.

I would have really liked to have a full color book; that would have been incredible. The only problem with that is the cost would have gone up exponentially. My guess is it would have been at least sixty, maybe eighty bucks. The only way something like that would be possible is if it was printed on a very large scale. I personally wouldn't pay that much for it.

Quote:

The picture thing is also the only real negative criticism I can name as the first
chapter I read today (and the excerpts published lately) already show what is
the books major asset: It's immensily vivid and lively writing style.

This is what I (humbly) think is the strength, too. As I mentioned above, you can really find good screenshots and so on simply by searching the net. Wikipedia and Mobygames has most of the "raw material." What I wanted to do was tell the story, identify patterns and trends, and just try to write a book that I would like to read, though granted I'm poorer than the average Armchair Arcader.

Quote:

The book appears to be very thorough - the introduction to the genre alone
shows this - and easy to understand for people without a deep gaming history.
The latter being entertained by the writing and the filling of some knowledge gaps.

And that's precisely the reason I did dedicate much more time and research to the earlier periods than the later ones. I know some people have criticized me for not dedicating more time to recent works, but it seems less germane since you can pick those games up and easily play them today. I was more interested in the roots and games I felt were particularly influential. It's kind of hard to say if a game like Oblivion or Gothic 3 will still be talked about ten years from now, but it's a safe bet that people will still be talking about Ultima or Dungeon Master then.

Quote:

And I can assure Matt, that the Barton nose isn't that big a problem as is my own ;-)

Well, you know what they say about us men with prodigious noses. :)

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Mark Vergeer
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Joined: 01/16/2006
Hmmm I got very curious about the book

Despite the fact the RPG isn't really my cup of tea - especially turn based - I might actually enjoy reading this book and appreciate RPGs a little more.



Editor / Pixelator - Armchair Arcade, Inc.
www.markvergeer.nl

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