I want to like Tom Bissell's Extra Lives more than I do. He's a great stylist, and there are a number of passages in this work that I deeply envy. Few writers can describe what it feels like to play a game as well as Bissell, and I think he does a great job of making the appeal comprehensible to non-gamers.
But I am a resident of the country he is describing, and this is territory I know extremely well. I won't deny there is value in hearing my own familiar pleasures described by a superb writer. His treatment of Resident Evil is more vivid than memory. Likewise, he really brings out the shabbiness and sadness of Grand Theft Auto IV and uses it as a comfortable platform to talk about his own relationship with dislocation and drugs. For the most part, however, Bissell is describing streets where I already know every last cobblestone.
All of which confuses me as to the book's intent. My hope is that someone who didn't know gaming well could read this book and get something out of it, but it's dangerous to start making claims about imagined audience members. All I know is that I've enjoyed reading a lot of great games criticism, and Extra Lives rises only fitfully to that level. The rest of the time, it is familiar stories from familiar games.
Maybe that's what killed my interest in this book. Bissell's subjects are almost universally AAA titles from the last several years, and he's not interested enough in criticism to break new ground on any of them. His journey through gaming takes him to Fallout 3, Resident Evil, Left 4 Dead, Gears of War, Braid, Mass Effect, Far Cry 2, and GTA IV. He talks to developers like Cliff Bleszinski, Clint Hocking, and Jonathan Blow. Interesting men, certainly, but they are also designers whose views I've already heard on most of the topics Bissell is discussing.
As someone who writes about games a fair bit, I know I am guilty of the same flawed methods. You use familiar examples because more people will get the references, and relate better to your point. But most of these games have been done to death within very recent memory, and Extra Lives is too often just another rehash of those same topics. What's frustrating about this, beyond the sense of redundancy, is how easy it is to imagine Bissell writing amazing things about other games. If his greatest success in this book is to translate the experience of a game into prose, then surely we could both gain more from seeing how he treats less well-known games.
For instance, not only does Bissell provide an evocative and hilarious account of the opening of Resident Evil, but he also gets serious toward the end of that chapter as he explains one of the game's more unfortunate and enduring legacies. For all that Resident Evil opened players' eyes to what a game could be, it also went a long to way to making the juvenile and obnoxiously stupid acceptable.
But the success of the first Resident Evil established the permissibility of a great game that happened to be stupid. This set the tone for half a decade of savagely unintelligent games and helped to create an unnecessary hostility between the greatness of a game and the sophistication of things such as narrative, dialogue, dramatic motivation, and characterization. In accounting for this state of affairs, many game designers have, over the years, claimed that gamers do not much think about highfaluting matters. This may or may not be largely true. But most gamers do not care because they have been trained by game designers not to care.
Next to that observation, his later passages on explosions and the moral culpability of Far Cry 2's protagonist, or the experience of losing a squad mate in Mass Effect, seem washed-out and tired. Bissell is better when he's bringing up games that perhaps haven't received the discussion they deserve, or whose relevance is in danger of being forgotten.
It's also a bit frustrating to spend the book in the company of an author who admits he is not a PC gamer, because he ends up short-selling gaming's intelligence. A portrait of gaming that dwells on a game like Resident Evil but never addresses anything in the Looking Glass Studios lineage, for instance, is bound to be a distorted one. A game about "Why Video Games Matter" needs to get beyond the blockbusters of recent memory. These are important games, but not as important as the ones that might play on a writer's own idiosyncrasies, the ones that he embraces completely and can champion without the sheepish, shamefaced deprecation to which Bissell so often resorts.
Still, it may be that this book isn't for me, but for guys like my father and his brother. I first heard about Extra Lives from my uncle, who had caught wind of it through the literary publications he reads. He's not remotely a video gamer, but he's interested in the medium. Its foreignness appeals to him, and he wants to know more about how people react to it. I like to think that Extra Lives will de-mystify games for such people, and go some way to explaining why kids like my cousins and me gave them so much of our lives. Bissell has a knack for finding the words to express things that I spent a lot of my childhood struggling to explain, or even understand.