Video game art books aren't just a pretty face. While a collection of concept and promotional art is a nice treat for hardcore fans, the best ones go beyond the superficial and also tell the story of how a game was made.

Maybe not the nitty-gritty of its entire development, from bugs to sound design, but from a fan's perspective they cover the most important stuff, like how the worlds they want to visit were imagined, and how the characters they love were designed.

There are plenty of good ones out there, from Ballistic's (sadly) short-lived series on Sony's games to Udon's range, but if you want the best, there's only one book to get.

And it's going to cost you.

In 2004, Prima published a book called Half-Life 2: Raising The Bar. It is, to this day, the best video game art book ever published, not just for its subject matter (it also covers the first Half-Life as well as development to that point on Team Fortress 2) but for the way it went above and beyond what was required of a book that could have been just a load of pretty drawings.


Even now, over a decade later, no art book from a major studio has given fans such a detailed and thorough look behind the scenes at how a game is made. Sure, there are nice pictures of the expected stuff—the design process for things like Gordon's HEV suit and the Combine uniforms—but there's so much more.

There are images and information on whole cut sequences from the game. There are records of the original script for City 17's backstory. There are even internal emails showing how all of Valve was roped into the decision on what kind of glasses to stick on Dr. Breen's face.


But it's the stories that really make it. Aside from just pictures, Raising The Bar is full of awesome little anecdotes about the game's development, like how early Combine designs were influenced by Hayao Miyazaki, how playtesters screamed the first time they had to escape the tenement building and how the face model for Eli was a homeless man Valve found looking for work on a nearby street.

It's the kind of stuff that turns a fan into an obsessive, and it's a damn shame more studios and publishers don't give folks this kind of access into how the creative sausage was made.


Now for the bad news: the book has never been reprinted. If you missed out in 2004, and want to get one in 2015, a used copy will sell for around $150. A new copy? You're pushing $400.

That's a lot of money, but then, if you want the very best, sometimes you have to be willing to pay for it.


The Bests are Kotaku's picks for the best things on (or off) the internet.