Review: Extra Lives

Extra Lives by Tom Bissell

Being reared on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, both a wonderful game and a touching tragedy from the right angle, has meant that I’ve never doubted the idea of video games as an art form. I believe that any medium can be an art form, but I find that others don’t share my faith in video games; when I picked up this book from the library, I ran into an acquaintance who asked me if Extra Lives was similar to books trying to prove that fast food is good for you. Yes, we have a long, long way to go.

In Extra Lives, Tom Bissell offers a trim defense of video games as art, applying and adapting critical analysis to a long-form interactive medium unlike any medium we’ve had before. Games are good, Bissell says, but they could be better; how couldn’t they in an industry that overlooks story and narrative for gameplay and graphics? He looks at the history of video games (as Bissell says, there are very few art forms whose grand masters you can still call up), as well as his own experiences with gaming, such as how he spent Election Day 2008 playing Fallout 3 and his first encounter with a great game, Resident Evil.

I found Bissell’s application of critical analysis to video games utterly fascinating. Video games, as an interactive medium, cannot be reliably compared to any other art form–pacing as we know it from literature, for example, cannot exist in most video games, and many games have to start off with a tutorial to teach you how to play the game, something that would be, as Bissell points out, utterly unthinkable in a book or film. Most importantly, it’s an interactive medium. Bissell describes the conflict between those who make games and those who play games as a conflict between the framed narrative, the fixed story of the game, and the ludonarrative, the fluid way a player interacts with the world and subverts the framed narrative–the player might never find meaning in what the creator wants them to, and that, Bissell argues, has to be embraced if we want to make truly great games. Investigating why video game dialogue is so often clunky, Bissell shows us an industry where a collaboration is king and the technical people outweigh the writers for very necessary reasons. It’s a great look not only into games as a art form, but into games as an industry becoming rapidly aware that it can produce art.

Bissell is wickedly funny and very well-read, and makes that balance between humor and seriousness feel effortless. He flows smoothly from jokes about the androgynous cast of most Japanese role-playing games to presenting criticism that can apply to video games, such as Robert Hughes’ “shock of the new”. Extra Lives is very short, running about two hundred and one pages (with those last sixteen pages being a fascinating interview with Sir Peter Molyneux), and it’s engrossing throughout. While I love and enjoy video games, I was worried about how accessible this book was going to be for non-gamers, and Bissell solves that with his second chapter, “Headshots”, which details his first encounter with Resident Evil in second person and manages to relate the joys and frustrations of gaming, the joy of glimpsing a better future for games, and the frustration of seeing the industry remain in a rut. As I already believe in the power of games as an art form, I found Extra Lives to be a fantastic introduction to looking critically (on an artistic level instead of solely a technical level) at games; I think it might show non-gamers the light, as it doesn’t shy away from the violence and poor quality that pervades video games. (But, as one soldier puts it to Bissell, even chess is a simulation of war.)

Unfortunately, Bissell blows a crater in his argument and an otherwise amazing book when, in the last chapter (“Grand Thefts”), he reveals that he spent a few months playing Grand Theft Auto VI while on cocaine. To be fair, I’d rather someone be honest with me about their drug use rather than gloss over it, but I was put off when he started comparing games and cocaine. It ruins an otherwise great chapter about how Grand Theft Auto VI (which Bissell, a gamer to the core, abbreviates as GTA VI) uses its violence for satire and for emotional effect. There’s also a moment where Bissell visits the headquarters of a gaming company and, upon seeing several young women at work, makes a joke about them either being models or prostitutes. To be totally honest, that felt like having the door slammed in my face; up to that point, Bissell had been quite inclusive, readily admitting that he often plays female characters because he’s attracted to women and the like. The exclusionary binary created in that moment made me want to punch something.

Bottom line: Extra Lives is a trim defense of video games, applying critical analysis to games to give gamers a way to, well, critically analyze their medium of choice. Bissell is wickedly funny and well-read, but the book twists its ankle in the last chapter, where Bissell relates his coke-fueled Grand Theft Auto VI binges, as well as in a poor joke that brings up the extremely tiring binary of women versus gamers. Still, it’s well worth a read for gamers and non-gamers trying to understand this art form.

I rented this book from the public library.

2 thoughts on “Review: Extra Lives

  1. Pingback: The Sunday Salon: 2010 in Review « The Literary Omnivore

  2. Pingback: Review: Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers « The Literary Omnivore

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