Book Review: Extra Lives

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

By Tom Bissell

Published June 8, 2010

Pantheon Books

240 pp.

ISBN 0-307-37870-5

Reviewed January 13, 2011

The medium of video gaming has always been a lightning rod for controversy, from the violence levels of “Mortal Kombat” to the sex scenes of “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” but in the last year two debates have raised the stakes in new ways. In April Roger Ebert, the grand high priest of film criticism, expanded on his earlier opinion that video games could never be art, delivering an in-depth argument that instigated so much debate online that he was later forced to admit he wasn’t qualified to make that statement. Second – and with far wider consequences – the state of California has taken its case for regulating the sale of video games to the U.S. Supreme Court, with a ruling still pending that could either cement games as a truly legitimate media or drive a stake through the industry’s growth.

Whatever your stance on either of these issues, there’s no disputing video games have become something more than quarter sinks for arcade-goers or time-wasters for the underachieving. In terms of technology, interactivity and storytelling, the potential for video games to do something more has never been higher, and these debates prove it’s time for a serious look at where this medium is going. And it’s for that reason that Tom Bissell’s “Extra Lives” should be required reading for anyone even remotely concerned with the discussion: it’s a well-rounded analysis of several of the most influential games of the last decade, a book that shows the most devoted of fans can also be the most incisive of critics.

Bissell takes several of the most popular titles from the last decade – Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV, BioWare’s Mass Effect and Capcom’s Resident Evil amongst others – and breaks them down in loosely connected essays that are equal parts specific criticism and broader industry analysis. His experiences in each game are discussed in detail, covering how well they tackle issues such as storytelling, character development, violence, immersion and problem solving. The book also incorporates stops at game developers’ offices and profiles of some of the industry’s most outspoken figures, including Gears of War mastermind Cliff Bleszinski and Braid auteur Jonathan Blow.

Fittingly for his topic, Bissell avoids a dry academic tone and goes through these games in a journalistic tone that blends research with personal experience. His analysis of each subject is engaging in how he express his reaction to games (he praises the immersion of Resident Evil‘s “shock of the new” and cites it as the first video game that had “gone straight for the spinal canal”), and also has the unsparing edge of the professional game writer (the game has a story that“collapses wherever thought arrives”). It’s criticism accessible to both the fans and the scholars, and one that’s willing to treat the medium seriously – I can’t think of any other source that can quote Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” in analyzing the plot of GTA IV.

And Bissell is nothing if not serious about his video games: as he illustrates in often unflattering detail, his gaming habits regularly hover on the obsessive wavelength. He admits in the opening chapter he missed all of Election Day 2008 because it overlapped the release of Fallout 3, and unapologetically cites 80 hours logged in Mass Effect and 200 in Oblivion. The final chapter equates his gaming with an addiction, as months of cocaine abuse was intertwined with endlessly playing GTA IV. Running through the money and opportunities lost, it’s entirely possible to see him as a poster child for the anti-gaming associations (and this coming from a 20-year gamer who has 80 hours of his own in Fallout 3 and Oblivion, and whose Xbox gamerscore is verging on 30,000 at time of writing).

But Bissell is no slack-jawed shooter fan taken in by gaming’s basic flash and violence – rather, he’s a researcher who’s fascinated by how something so basic as shooting zombies can stir him so mentally and emotionally. When a game has problems (poor vehicle sections, badly written dialogue) he weighs just how much they throw him for the experience, and when he finds a gaming theory unsettling more often than not he goes straight to the designers for an explanation. He treats the topic seriously, and by extension you take his arguments and emotions seriously, so when he reaches a conclusion on a factor like the choices made in Mass Effect‘s penultimate story mission his concluding passage resonates deeply:

“Thus the game took my own self-interest and effectively vivisected it. I literally put down my controller and stared at my television screen. When games do this poorly, or even adequately, the sensation is that of a slightly caffeinated immediacy. You have agency, yes, but what of it? It is just a game. But when a game does this well, you lose track of your manipulation of it, and its manipulation of you, and instead feel so deeply inside the game that your mind, and your feelings, become as seemingly crucial to its operation as its many millions of lines of codes. It is the sensation that that the game itself is suddenly, unknowably alive as you are.”

Even when its chapters feel a bit unfocused (many were published as magazine features and profiles and as such don’t quite form a whole), passages and opinions like these still manage to hit one as definitely as an unexpected sniper headshot in a Halo deathmatch. “Extra Lives” is full of these well-fleshed thoughts, and for this clarity and depth it’s earned a place on the top shelf of books written about this continually evolving medium. It’s impossible to say where gaming is going in the coming years, but it’s certainly going beyond what we expect, and it’s people like Bissell we should be listening to as it develops.

Extra Credit:

  • For demos of Bissell’s work, previously published chapters of “Extra Lives” can be found online in their original formats at The Guardian and The New Yorker.
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