Book Review: Extra Lives

January 13, 2011

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.

Back Shelf Review: Novel with Cocaine

May 13, 2009

(Editor’s note: After a reread I decided this book could use a more professional review, so it’s now been completely retooled from an earlier post. I don’t usually do this, but I like this book enough I wanted the review to measure up.)

Novel with Cocaine

By M. Ageyev

Published 1934, reprinted October 1998

Northwestern University Press

204 pp.

ISBN 0-810-11709-6

Reviewed May 13, 200

“Novel with Cocaine” (also translated as “Cocaine Romance”) is a book that is very much a historical curiosity. It is the only novel from mysterious author M. Ageyev, first published in the early 1930s in Paris and only rediscovered by chance 50 years later in a second-hand bookstore. Despite its obscure nature, it enjoys several distinctions: it was a favorite of John Updike, an influence on William S. Burroughs and it was even alleged to be the work of Vladimir Nabokov writing under a pen name (a notion Nabokov’s son has dismissed).

The accolades and comparisons are varied, but the novel justifies all of them. “Cocaine” is a startlingly well-done book, not overly long or convoluted in the manner of more well-known Russian novels, and also not as surreal and off-putting as some drug memoirs. After reading, it’s actually surprising that the book has not seen wider publication, as it fits easily into both of the previous canons with little difficulty holding its own.

“Cocaine” is the coming-of-age story of Vadim Maslennikov, a young man growing up in World War I Russia. As the war wages on and hints of what would become the Russian Revolution stir in the country, Vadim is fixated only on his personal development and the easiest way for him to reach what he sees as his rightful place in the world. Reflecting the title’s dual meaning, he seeks fulfillment in a serious relationship and, when his darker side drives her away, runs to the electric power of cocaine.

Vadim is an unlikable character from the start, a self-centered adolescent reminiscent of Alec from “A Clockwork Orange.” The first half of the book is filled with his own indulgences, desperate attempts to polish his image and maintain his sense of superiority. He shoves his impoverished mother away in public, looks for casual sex while recovering from syphilis and takes more pride in insulting classmates rather than speaking to them. Ageyev makes it impossible to like Vadim but never impossible to pay attention to him, exposing the insecurities and self-loathing beneath his preening.

Vadim’s faults are regularly on display, but they never ruin the novel chiefly because the quality of the writing outweighs them. From an almost ornamental description of Russia in winter to the almost foppish nature of Vadim’s cohorts, Ageyev displays himself as a craftsman in constructing his sentences. The novel’s descriptive passages are evocative without being overblown, and many of the passages border on brilliant (a particular favorite is Vadim’s trolling for sex, where “A woman who smiled at a look like mine could only be a virgin or a prostitute”). We also see a picture of the revolutionary Russian mindset, its educational and political reforms shown in the vicious intellectual character of Vadim’s classmate Burkewitz.

The chief place where the writing skill comes into play though is in the book’s titular narcotic, as one melancholy evening Vadim comes into contact with drugs and loses his “nasal virginity.” At this point, the book turns from a story of growing up to a drug-centric tale, and as such gains a new series of responsibilities. Whether the topic is heroin or mescaline or LSD or some cocktail of the above, an drug author needs to fill the same role as a pusher: gradually reel them in by showing the benefits of the drug, and then once they get comfortable let the horror of withdrawal sink in.

While it’s impossible to know just how much of “Novel with Cocaine” is based on the truth, Ageyev’s descriptions of the effects and aftereffects of cocaine are so frighteningly vivid it’s hard to imagine he wasn’t at least a casual user. Vadim’s first night captures the awkwardness of learning the ritual, the terrifying icy feeling of the first snort quickly turning into joy, the manic urges and periods of catatonia and fixation on rituals such as smoking cigarettes. It’s taut writing that pulls the reader into a nightmarish state, and is easily the book’s best section.

As Vadim falls into the inevitable madness of excessive cocaine use, Ageyev uses him to philosophize in much the same way he used Burkewitz earlier in the book to explore the Russian mindset. He speculates on the nature of pleasure and how it is tied to external elements, using it as a rationale for his continued drug use – a rationale that evaporates as soon as the drug wears off, leading him to delirious reflections on mankind’s bestial nature. It’s a starkly intellectual way to depict the highs and lows Vadim goes through, though it does nothing to make a reader feel sorry for him as the symptoms get worse.

It may be hard to pity Vadim as he is destroyed by faults entirely his own, but it is even harder to quit following the story to the bitter end. At varying turns frightening, evocative, romantic and deplorable, “Novel With Cocaine” is a well-constructed novel that will interest readers of various genres. While the identity of Ageyev may forever be a mystery, “Cocaine” keeps his name alive – as well as the hope that in some Paris attic exists a chest of his unpublished works.

Book Review: Ultimate Excursions

August 14, 2008

Ultimate Excursions

By Alan Gottlieb

Published January 2008


328 pp.

ISBN 0-977-41882-0

Reviewed April 23, 2008

Originally reviewed in:

Tim Lake, the main character of Alan Gottlieb’s novel “Ultimate Excursions,” is a character with little to recommend him – “asshole” is probably the most appropriate adjective. He shuns all social relationships, drinks enough scotch to fuel a van and is given to ranting after appropriate amounts of self-pity or cocaine. He doesn’t like himself and gives no reason to be liked, beyond being glad your life isn’t his.

Tim’s purgatory stems from a traumatic experience during a stint with the Peace Corps in Ecuador, when he saw a friend fatally overdose on cocaine in front of him. Agreeing to a cover-up by a Corps official, Tim is unable to move past his guilt and spends the next ten years simply existing, living on sullenness and wasting away in low-level reporting jobs.

So why is this life such a darkly captivating novel? Tim may be miserable, but Gottlieb gets deep into this misery to create an excellent character study, detailing it without being melodramatic. A disadvantaged character such as this is naturally opposed to the outside world, leading to priceless scenes such as a horrifically awkward dinner in a housing project and almost homicidal descriptions of his co-workers.

Tim’s life, and by extension the novel, takes a new direction when he is recognized by a former member of his Peace Corps team and is forced to reconnect with people and places he hasn’t seen in over a decade. He finds them turned into new-money yuppies or followers of alternative religions, with families or faiths startlingly different from what he expected.

This change of pace also allows “Ultimate Excursions” to expand in terms of narrative. Tim returning to the real world means he’s forced to interact with others, and like the housing project dinner they are all entertaining settings: a Florida bar with a hitchhiker, a Montana doomsday cult and a climax in South America’s alleys and jungles. Gottlieb loses some momentum when Tim rants to others – with so much inward focus stumbling is inevitable – but the sharp details and reactions more than restore it.

Special mention goes to Tim’s desperate attempts to feel anything, where he embarks on darkly vivid experiences such as watching cockfights on a heavy dose of cocaine and a Frisbee game on hallucinogenic mushrooms. Drug writing is easy to do poorly but Gottlieb’s is adroit, with short fast sentences for cocaine and swirling contemplation for mushrooms.

Though the ending doesn’t seem to provide Tim with full closure, this book is not about complete redemption – it’s about showing what forces people into the lives they’ve made and how hard it can be to break away. The ultimate excursion referred is not across continents, but the journey inside Tim’s head, a journey that makes a moody and utterly enthralling thriller.