‘The Comic Book Story of Video Games’ features technical expansion of video game history suited for gaming enthusiasts

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Jack McGowan/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

From the occasional “Angry Birds” indulger to the professional “League of Legends” player, the population en masse — regardless of age, gender or ethnicity — has long been infatuated with the pixelated alternative universes of video games. Yet the history of the long path from basic programming to the current eighth generation of consoles remains an obscure lore of sorts, whispered solely among gaming nerds and programming enthusiasts.

The result of a collaboration between nonfiction author Jonathan Hennessey and new-coming illustrator Jack McGowan, “The Comic Book Story of Video Games: The Incredible History of the Electronic Gaming Revolution” explores the progression of gaming from its most primitive, strictly hardware days to its more recent mind-bending iterations.  

Hennessey, whose previous nonfiction graphic novels have ranged in subject from the Gettysburg Address to the history of beer, tackles the ambitious goal of retelling the evolution of gaming with a generous amount of historical context — the novel begins just prior to the events of World War II, linking wartime technological advances to the origins of the modern video game development in the United States and Japan.

Moving chronologically from the advancement of the most basic cathode-ray games to the infamous console wars between Nintendo and Sega more than 50 years later, the novel eventually meanders its way to the code junkies and hacking savants who advanced personal computing far enough to produce the more familiar PC, PlayStation and Xbox platforms that gamers know and love today.

Straying from the comic adventure promised by its title, however, “The Comic Book Story of Video Games” features a strong emphasis on the history behind the evolution of gaming rather than the act of gaming itself. In fact, it’s not even until halfway through the novel that the reader is introduced to “Pong,” what many consider to be the first arcade-style commercial video game ever produced.

Instead, the first half of the novel seems to set the scene for the development of video game technology with arduous details about World War II technology and computing advances that, though undoubtedly essential to the progression of video games, simply bog down its readers before they even reach the core of the history.

While this in-depth exploration of primitive video game history, filled with technical terminology around lesser-known gaming machines, may entice the seasoned gamer, it seems to come at the expense of a more detailed discussion of modern gaming consoles, which only receive a brief nod over the course of the novel in comparison with their more basic ancestors. The novel also fails to delve into the woes of current gaming history, leaving the rise of obscure gaming genres such as survival horror and next-generation consoles such as virtual reality gear, out of its discussion. The four generations of consoles that have developed over the past 25 years have advanced gaming culture so far beyond its origins that their omission certainly displaces modern gaming.

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Reprinted with permission from “The Comic Book Story of Video Games: The Incredible History of the Electronic Gaming Revolution,” written by Jonathan Hennessey, illustrated by Jack McGowan, copyright© 2017, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Yet “The Comic Book Story of Video Games” wins the reader over with a personal approach to the figures behind the video game revolution. The novel profiles legends from the father of computer science Alan Turing to Nintendo genius Shigeru Miyamoto, exploring the collective contributions of programmers and video game designers stemming from the first line of code.

From start to finish, “The Comic Book Story of Video Games” features stunning illustrations by McGowan that manage to give the novel a distinct art style that remains consistent even as the story jumps through history. Through its reconstruction of beloved video game characters, from Vault Boy to Sonic the Hedgehog, McGowan’s art manages to pull readers through the narrative even when the story itself becomes detail-heavy and overly technical.

Overall, “The Comic Book Story of Video Games” chronicles each interlude in gaming history with immense detail that any seasoned video game enthusiast is sure to appreciate. A fun read full of interesting and well-researched information, along with fun facts about the development of video games as a cultural phenomenon, the novel presents an intriguing journey from wartime technology to addictive in-home entertainment.

“The Comic Book Story of Video Games: The Incredible History of the Electronic Gaming Revolution” is available at Barnes & Noble.

Manisha Ummadi covers video games. Contact her at [email protected].