Why I Wrote a Book About an Obscure '90s Computer Game

Many forces combine to shepherd a video game from conception to completion, but rarely are they acknowledged.
Screenshot from Jagged Alliance 2

Most popular writing about video games tends to be experiential, focusing on the relationship of the player to the game. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s worth recognizing that video games are often team projects that involve technical, artistic, financial, and managerial coordination. They’re similar to movies in that respect. And if you grab a popular book about a movie off a shelf, it might contain film criticism, but it's just as likely to delve into how the movie got funded, what the production process was like, and the lives of the people who made it.

Popular books about movies acknowledge the materiality of the medium and the many forces that combine to shepherd a film project from conception to completion. We need more of that in video-game writing, and I tried to do that in my most recent book, Jagged Alliance 2, by learning from one of my favorite pieces of writing.

In his 1996 book Aramis, or the Love of Technology, sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour tells the story of Aramis, a real, futuristic French public transit system that had massive financial backing in the 1970s but never got past the prototype phase. It’s a story that should be boring, consisting of government appropriations, Gantt charts, hardware failsafes, scope changes, and variable-reluctance motors. But Latour takes these dry topics and tells a mesmerizing tale blending ethnographic adventure, philosophical manifesto, and hard-boiled detective fiction. He weaves together marketing materials, technical documents, and interviews with engineers, managers, politicians, and money men. He makes bold claims about the process that makes technical projects move from fictional entities to real entities, describes the mechanisms by which they impact society, and posits the only theory of innovation I’ve ever encountered that doesn’t sound like snake oil.

Aramis prototype site in Paris (Smiley Toerist /Wikimedia Commons)

There have been a few books like this about video games. Dreamcast Worlds, by Zoya Street, declares its Latourian influences outright and is required reading for anyone who wants to claim an understanding of how video game consoles succeed or fail. Casey O’Donnell’s forthcoming Developer’s Dilemma is based on years he spent as an embedded ethnographer at video game studios, and reads like an homage to Aramis from its interleaved narrative down to its funky typesetting. But both of these books are derived from their authors’ academic thesis work. This doesn’t diminish the value of the books, but it does make them dense experiences, and a hard sell to your average reader with an interest in games.

So when I was approached by Boss Fight Books in early 2013 with a dream pitch (“write a short book about any video game you want, any way you want”), I immediately knew I wanted to write something inspired by Aramis—filled with interviews and technical details but also broad analysis of where the game fits into the larger culture. I wanted to make something that managed to be approachable not by reducing something to a simple narrative, but by zooming in and out between the lines of code, the individual developer, corporate power structures, industry apparatuses, and cultural institutions.

I had several games in mind, but I settled on an obscure 1999 PC strategy game called Jagged Alliance 2, developed by Sir-tech Canada. Yes, it’s my favorite game, but more importantly it has obscurity working in its favor. Game developers are notoriously secretive; I knew it would be difficult to get them to speak on the record about a popular game, even an old one, doubly so if any of the corporate entities who were involved in its creation were still around and able to file lawsuits.

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Darius Kazemi is a programmer, artist, and writer based in the Boston area.

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