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Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 8, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Grand Theft Auto IV is both a waste of time and the most colossal creative achievement of the last 25 years, according to this scintillating meditation on the promise and discontents of video games. Journalist Bissell (Chasing the Sea) should know; the ultraviolent car-chase-and-hookers game was his constant pastime during a months-long intercontinental cocaine binge. He's ashamed of his video habit, but also ashamed of being ashamed of the dominant art form of our time; by turning the eye of a literary critic on the gory, seemingly puerile genre of ultraviolent, open-ended shooter games, he finds unexpected riches. Bissell bemoans the uncompromising stupidity of their story lines, wafer-thin characters, and the moronic dialogue, but celebrates the button-pushing, mesmeric qualities and the subtle, profound depths these conceal—the catharses of teamwork and heroism in the zombie-fest Left for Dead, the squirmy moral dilemmas of Mass Effect, the mood of wistful savagery suffusing the rifles-and-chainsaws-bedecked denizens of Gears of War. Bissell excels both at intellectual commentary and evocative reportage on the experience of playing games, while serving up engrossing mise-en-scène narratives of the mayhem. If anyone can bridge the aesthetic chasm between readers and gamers, he can. (June 8)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Might as well get this out of the way: Bissell is addicted to video games. So much so that he pretty much missed the last presidential election because he was playing a new and highly anticipated game. Here he explores not just his own affection for video games but also the games themselves. What separates good games from bad? Where do video games fit on the sliding scale of art? A video game, Bissell tells us, is a form a self-surrender, but a different form than, say, a movie. We have no influence over what happens in a movie, but we do in a video game. In playing a video game, we are, in a sense, the authors of the stories we’re acting out. Bissell explores the key elements of video games: dialogue, character design, voice performance, visual appearance. Do the best games approach something akin to virtual (or perhaps alternate) reality? Not just for gamers, the book should also appeal to readers who have some serious questions about the nature and impact of video games and their increasing popularity. --David Pitt
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While it is fairly easy to describe the subject and nature of Tom Bissell's Observer article (a writer becomes addicted to video games, and analyzes why he became so) the subject and nature of "Extra Lives" are much harder to pin down. It is essentially video game criticism -- an analysis of its gameplay mechanics -- but it is also attempts to explore if video games can become great pieces of art and literature. As someone who both likes to read and who likes to play video games with literary pretensions (Final Fantasy VII, Warcraft, Starcraft, etc.) I was intrigued by the book at first, but soon found it too mired down by its own literary pretensions.
Part of the problem for me -- and to be perfectly fair to the author -- is that Tom Bissell is almost completely focused on first-person shooter games (I prefer role-playing games or real-time strategy), and I've never played any shooter games. That said, I found it disappointing that there wasn't a much eclectic mix of video game genres in this book. While Tom Bissell introduces us to some great video games I was surprised that he didn't mention Blizzard at all -- a great video game company whose products are just as memorable and exciting as Grand Theft Auto and Bioshock.
However, each chapter also ties somewhat loosely into his life during the periods in which he was playing these games, but none, save for the very final chapter, go into great, or interesting detail on his life during those periods. By the end of the book we are reminded of places in which his video game habit resided, along with his being, but we have hardly any reference point as to what was happening in his life at that point, besides what games he was most consumed by at the time. I enjoyed the final chapter the most, as it not only delved into his finely provoked game critiques, but also into his personal life and how games intersected with it in both destructive and fascinating ways.
If you begin reading this book with that final chapter in mind (as it is a big part of the description on Amazon), you're going to be disappointed in your expectations for the rest of the book. If you enter into it expecting a thoughtful, insightful, and introspective piece of games criticism, you most likely will not be disappointed. Even if you disagree with many of his points, as I often did, it's still worth a read if you're a fan of games and a student of games criticism.
I wish he'd spent more time talking to more indies than Jonathan Blow. Even in 2010 and before there was lots of great stuff happening in the indie scene. I suspect it's because he didn't play indies and that would've broken from the memoir-ish aspects of the book.
Throughout the book Bissell, by turns, loves video games and hates them and is proud of them and picks at them and plays them and tries to get away from them. This guy loves video gaming, clearly. He also has no idea exactly why and (spoiler alert) the book does not give a clear answer. However, I think that's a strength and a startling bit of honesty: this book is not going to be able to tell you why this art matters to you. That's your answer to give. This is his. No objective truths here because there is no such thing. The currency of mattering is emotion.
Bissell focuses a lot on narrative and whether or not games with narratives work. Clearly they don't, he'll say. Then he'll provide a bit of narrative that worked. But, boy, that dialogue was terrible. But this voice acting in this other game was great. All these things are true at the same time of virtually all games. The most successful video games of all time have terrible formal structures or are super violent or racist or whatever. And we love them.
The other reviews exemplify the ambivalence that Bissell displays in the book perfectly.
One review talks about the storyline for Mass Effect like this: "...without a doubt a sci-fi story worthy of classic status regardless of medium..." but ends the review by saying "...[s]o why do games matter? They really don't." Which is it? Mind-expanding classic or light entertainment?
Another review says the book is "entirely too academic" but "There is no sociological umbrella theory at work here, just Tom Bissell's own experiences." Again -- which is it? Did you want to position games in some higher-level framework, or didn't you?
So, be warned. No answers, lots of ambiguity, more of a memoir than an instruction book. But, I think, also a great introduction to how deeply meaningful games can be for someone who doesn't quite "get it".
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