Britsoft: an oral history [Book Review]

Britsoft

If you’ve ever done any filming, you’ll know that you always end up with way more footage than you can use. This was the problem facing the producers of From Bedroom to Billions, a documentary charting the rise of the videogames industry. They conducted hours and hours of interviews, but were limited in how much could be included, whilst still keeping the film to a watchable run time. Potentially, this meant a lot of excellent footage being lost.

Thankfully, they came up with an excellent solution: produce a companion book. – Britsoft: an Oral History, published by Read Only Memory. The book publishes hundreds of additional excerpts from the transcripts of those many hours of interviews with some of the leading lights of the early games industry (Jeff Minter, Rob Hubbard, Mel Croucher, the Oliver Twins)

Let’s start with a few practicalities. This is a monster book, Published in hardback and coming in at well over 400 pages, it’s big and chunky. Yet, it’s surprisingly light. I’m not suggesting that you’d necessarily want to lug it around in a bag all day, but unlike many hardbacks of similar size, it’s comfortable to hold and read. It’s also incredibly well made. The paper feels a lot thicker and more luxurious than many books of this kind and the glossy paper used for the book’s images really help them stand out.

Indeed, design on the whole is excellent. Despite being fairly small, the text is mostly readable and the excerpts cut into variable, but sensible sized chunks. Each is well edited so that even if it talks about something you have read in one of the previous contributions, it builds on it and adds something new, rather than just repeating what has already been said. A few more subheadings to divide the interviews up into different subjects wouldn’t have gone amiss, but this isn’t a major gripe.

This use of excerpts means the book lends itself to being read in small chunks. There’s certainly nothing stopping you from reading it all in one go, but I’m not sure you’d get the best out of it that way. The book even offers two ways to read it. You can, of course, read it sequentially, in the manner of a traditional book. However, Editor Alex Wiltshire (former editor of Edge magazine) has come up with a rather ingenious second way.

Each entry starts with the name of the programmer being interviewed At the end of the entry is a number, which tells you the page on which you could find that person’s next contribution. So, if you wished, you could go through the entire book just reading the memories of one individual before going back and doing the same for the next person, effectively making the book a series of mini autobiographies. I didn’t read the whole book in this way, but I did try it for a couple of entries and found it an interesting way of tracking how the industry changed over time from the perspective of one person. 10/10 for inventiveness!

As you might expect, the book contains some fabulous illustrations – photographs, magazine adverts, cover artwork etc. – which instantly transport you back to the 80s and 90s. Whilst I would have liked a few more (and more evenly spread throughout the book), they did help to break up the text and give a more visual element to what is a fairly text-heavy book.

Most of the things I didn’t like about this book relate to one single element: the use of notes. Firstly, I felt that there were too many, with even relatively short entries often having two or more notes. Secondly, I thought they were often superfluous. If, for example, the interviewer made reference to the arcade game Donkey Kong, there were would be a note reminding you that Donkey Kong was an arcade game released by Nintendo in 1981. Now, I accept that some of these notes were informative and told me something I didn’t know, and also that they were there to make the book accessible to more casual readers. Even so, this book probably has a particular core target audience and I think you could assume a certain basic level of knowledge. Personally, I found the frequent use of notes distracting.

In addition, notes were printed in a smaller font than the main text (as you might expect) and were a garish green colour. For ancient gamers like me (who experienced childhood and adolescence during the period in question), they were horribly difficult to read, even in a good light and with my glasses on. In the end I just ignored them and focussed on the main text.

Notes woes aside, this is an excellent volume which complements the documentary perfectly. It’s well-constructed, contains an excellent selection of quotes and anecdotes and works well both as a standalone book and a companion piece to the film.

Available to buy from Read Only Memory books for £30, I’d definitely recommend this one for your bookshelves.

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