Should you choose to darken the doorstep of your local bookstore and query the pretty, yet tantalizingly brainy, girl behind the counter wearing the Lisa Loeb glasses as to where you might find the 2006 Gamer's Tome of Ultimate Wisdom, an Almanac of Pimps, Orcs, and Lightsabers, not only will you probably not be going home with said girl's phone number, but, you might also have trouble finding this text among the rows and rows of political punditry and Dean Koontz novels. And, that turns out to be quite the loss on your part, because for as unwieldy and overtly nerdy as the book's title may be, its content, wit, perspective, and insight on the gaming industry is both encyclopedic and pleasantly readable. Though hard to pigeon hole, perhaps we may call it the first video game coffee table book or bathroom reader, the loose structure and meandering topical nature of the Tome's framework actually makes this the kind of book you can pick up, flip to any page, and casually read articles both entertaining and enlightening. It is the appetizer sampler platter of gaming literature, home cookin' buffet of topics, nay a smorgasbord of information, links, trivia, hints, reviews, editorials, biographies, company profiles, resources, and more. Much more. Best of all, it is delivered through the genuine and unmistakable lens of the true gamer with all the vernacular and idioms of one eminently versed in gaming without seeming trite, boorish, or demented.
And, this may very well be the first and last book of its kind.
A revamped follow-up to last year's 2005 Gaming Almanac, the Tome dispatches with much of what didn't work in the previous edition, while bringing a fresh perspective and voice from author Bill Abner. Largely dismissing the almanac format of last year's work, which, though well intentioned as a structure, came off as out-of-date and often inexplicable, and adopting more of a retrospective approach, this year's structure dramatically improves the overall delivery.
The Gamer's Tome works vaguely by splitting sections into months instead of chapters and revisiting the highlights of that month, for example E3 is discussed in the May segment, and the bulk of 360 games in the Holiday segment. However, should you try to scry the why -- that assonance, that's poetry there folks -- behind putting the Home Networking page in July or the 10 worst PS2 games in April, you will likely come to the same conclusion that I suspect the author did: why not?
The Tome is ultimately a collection of short essays on a variety of gaming topics trying as best it can to find a suitable structure, and to get too caught up in the seeming randomness of that structure is to lose sight of the forest through the trees. The articles, essays, and comments themselves are so interesting and informative that if you're worried about why the piece on gaming lingo is in October, then you're missing the point.
The substantive value of this book is directly tied, in fact, to its overwhelming multiplicity. It is not so isolated in tracking only the AAA titles from the biggest publishers of just the last dozen months or so. Certainly the freshly ended year had a lot of new games, new systems, and big titles to discuss, and the Tome does not fall short on that front, but at the same time it's nice to revisit a classic like Archon, Interstate 76, or Master of Magic, uncover a new and intriguing Indie title, or read about a game that I would have never otherwise like Down in Flames a WWII dogfighting game with a card based battle system, all just for the sake of an interest in gaming diversity.
What is particularly refreshing on a deeper content level, is the way in which Abner treats his content and reader with an honesty that is surprising in a book that could have easily become 200 pages of PR bullet points in lesser hands. Abner is honest and unapologetic in his opinions, praising games like Psychonauts that simply didn't get enough press, and levying fair criticism to blockbuster critical darlings like Gran Turismo 4 if he feels the mainstream praise wasn't entirely deserved.
This is, in many ways, a book very much targeted to the same consumer demographic as our own site, specifically a group of people probably offended at being termed a consumer demographic. In all seriousness though there is a maturity and intelligence in the content delivered that could have been easily trivialized. This is a book for people with a passion for gaming, who were around for the classics and have their own stories of where they were the first time they played Doom, or how big their phone bill was from using a BBS, or how excited they were the first time they upgraded from 14.4 to 28.8 modem.
The final word on the Tome is that it is a companion to gaming itself. I'm hard pressed to turn to any page and not find interesting, readable, and clever information. For example, I had no idea that there was a 13 episode Zelda cartoon series in 1989, or that the Resident Evil series is loosely based on the Japanese horror film Suito Homu, or that Hearts of Iron is banned in China for "distorting historical facts", or that there is a Master of Magic clone project to make the game playable on XP, or that the first coin operated video game was actually Computer Space and not Pong, and all those tidbits of info are offered along with much more within the first ten pages. The book serves as a satisfying reminder of the best days I've had playing long forgotten games, the titles worth looking forward to in the coming year, the hidden gems of lesser known titles, and both the good and bad of the gaming culture.
Frankly, this is the kind of gaming writer and gaming book which deserves more attention than it's likely to receive, and it is tragically a book clearly without the full confidence of its publisher. Where the 2005 Gamer's Almanac enjoyed full color pages and images on a high quality paper, this year's Tome suggests a lack of faith on the part of Que publishing, which has diminished the quality of the final printed product while, as irony would have it, issuing a better conceived and written book. Images appear muddy and indistinct in grainy black and white, a disappointing development in a book that addresses next generation systems. The paper quality is not as good, and the page layout and graphics aren't as polished.
In the end The 2006 Gamer's Tome of Ultimate Wisdom is a surprisingly accurate name. It is nearly bursting with gaming lore. Though lacking somewhat in a universal coherence that ties one article to the next, and more disturbingly in the low quality of the physical product, once you immerse yourself into the variety of articles and their clever, conversational tone, you'll probably forget about those minor troubles. The Gamer's Tome may be described as a niche product, but it is written by someone deeply connected to that niche, and like minded gamers will be missing out by not picking it up. The 2006 Gamer's Tome of Ultimate Wisdom is a book I'm likely to enjoy time and again.