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.

Jagged Alliance 2 was developed during an inflection point in the history of game development. In 1997, when the team began working, the industry was transitioning from 2D graphics to 3D graphics. Video-game publishing was already big business, but the old mom-and-pop publishers like Sir-tech Canada were still holding on. The workforce was mature enough that there were lots of seasoned professionals, yet in many ways the industry still didn’t know what it wanted to be—a publisher might still commit a million dollars to an experiment, because who knew what would be successful?

As a result, Jagged Alliance 2 felt like a holdover from a bygone era even on the day of its release, an experimental 2D oddball amidst an increasingly homogenous group of 3D first person shooters. I expected that when I interviewed the developers that these tensions would be present when we talked about the business of game development. But I was surprised, and delighted, to discover that these tensions permeated every layer of the game, from deals with retailers down to letters from avid fans.

For example, series creator Ian Currie was the producer and a co-designer, in addition to being development director of Sir-tech Canada. At a modern big-budget game studio it’s unheard of for a single person to fill all three of these roles. But during this transitional period, it was acceptable to play with project budgets in the millions while playing loose with conventional development wisdom.

Typically it’s the job of the production department to keep the design department in check, as design is often concerned with trying to add more features while production is concerned with trying to make the game ship on time and on budget. When the producer and designer are the same person, there is nobody truly empowered to say no.

Given this, it’s not surprising that one of the game’s developers talks about Sir-tech as a place where “projects [took] four or five years instead of two or three years.” It’s also not surprising that the game is full of tiny features that would have been cut in a modern project. For example, when an enemy is gunned down, their body lingers forever. You can come back to an old battlefield after 30 days and find the corpses right where you left them, often with animated buzzards feasting on the remains. Each of the 60 playable characters in the game has their own custom reaction to this grisly sight, suited to their individual personality.

It is in details like this, whether in the construction of a technical artifact like the French public transit system at the heart of Latour’s Aramis or a strategy game from the 1990s, that we see the texture of how people and machines produce everything around us. It reminds us not just that the world is human-made, but also that specific historical and technical contexts opened imaginations or constrained possibilities.

I tried to write a video game book that emulates Aramis, and while it can’t hold a candle to the original, I’m incredibly happy with the results. I hope this helps other video-game writers see that a book that addresses the economic, technical, and material conditions of a video game’s creation doesn’t have to be a dry textbook affair.