Why Extra Lives Matters, and Why It Doesn't Matter More

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.

Comments

For those unfamiliar, what the hell is "Extra Lives"?

Haha, good point. I added a link to the book's Amazon page.

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. It's 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.

I think your conclusion here is really the rub of it. From the sounds of it the book isn't really aimed at the informed gamer, and that's just fine.

I would wonder how it will get the uninformed to pick it up though. It's interesting that your uncle found it, but what are the chances that someone like your brother or father, or my father, will pick it up?

I had the same reaction when I heard him on Michael Abbott's Brainy Gamer podcast. He seems to be selective in choosing games that support his points, and I thought he had somewhat arbitrary reasons for saying that Red Dead Redemption and Mirror's Edge had good stories, and that Assassin's Creed 2 had a bad story.

His statement that GTA4 makes perfect sense to him when he's off his tits on drugs doesn't really make me like GTA4 any more.

I have been . . . kinda wanting . . . to read this book for a while. Based on this discussion, I will probably continue to . . . kinda want . . . to read it.

Rob: I think I read this from a little different perspective. I saw Extra Lives as more travelogue than criticism and Bissell as more tour guide than academic: http://is.gd/gmAB3

Your point about the book having something of an identity crisis is well-taken, but again, it does come down to audience, doesn't it? Even in the passage you quoted, I picked up hints that Bissell is going out of his way to assume an explanatory tone meant to feel inclusive to readers less familiar with games. Which signaled to me that I ought to cut him some slack if he's re-treading familiar ground.

I wonder too about the pressures Bissell faced in convincing his publisher to give the green light. He's freely admitted that had it not been for his success as a "mainstream" author, Extra Lives would never have seen the light of day. To what extent do you think this tension impacts the book?

I think part of this stems from the fact that there aren't many books about games yet, so perhaps the author felt the need to lay more groundwork than he would if he were working in a medium with a lot more extant discussion of the topic.

DudleySmith wrote:

I had the same reaction when I heard him on Michael Abbott's Brainy Gamer podcast. He seems to be selective in choosing games that support his points, and I thought he had somewhat arbitrary reasons for saying that Red Dead Redemption and Mirror's Edge had good stories, and that Assassin's Creed 2 had a bad story.

His statement that GTA4 makes perfect sense to him when he's off his tits on drugs doesn't really make me like GTA4 any more.

Well, the controversy over the quality of GTA4 aside, which is a whole different 400-page flamewar, I think that given the first-person, personal nature of the way this book talks about games, arbitrary selection of games that are meaningful to Bissel himself and discussion of those games that revolves more around his own interaction with them than objective evaluation (if such a thing even exists) is appropriate.

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.

Because it's just those damn console games that are stupid, right?

Your criticism is valid, though. Even within the auspices of console gaming, that's a fairly limited cross-section of gaming.

I disagree with him about Resident Evil, although it's a thought-provoking idea. I don't think you can lay the blame for gaming's general disregard for intelligent stories at the feet of a single game. Gaming has always had its fair share of stupid, vacuous narratives and character designs. In 1996, the year Resident Evil was released, gaming also saw the release of Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, Command & Conquer: Red Alert, Tomb Raider, and Diablo. None of those have remarkable stories with thoughtful and mature characters, but all of them were every bit as successful as Resident Evil.

kincher skolfax wrote:

Rob: I think I read this from a little different perspective. I saw Extra Lives as more travelogue than criticism and Bissell as more tour guide than academic: http://is.gd/gmAB3

I'm pretty sure that I've seen Bissell himself say (maybe on the Brainy Gamer podcast?) that he wanted to write about games as a travel writer writes about a foreign country - an account of visiting an unfamiliar place, painting it vividly for the reader so they can understand the value of someday going there themselves.

Obviously, that trick will be less effective if, for the reader, it isn't an unfamiliar place but somewhere they already know well. I really enjoy reading Bill Bryson's travel books, for instance, but when I'm reading about a place I've already been, the enjoyment is certainly more nostalgic and comparative than it is gripping or revelatory.

Certainly I think the book works far better for me as an account of games Bissell has "been to" and why the audience might want to go there too than it does as any sort of critical analysis or even history of gaming. He's trying (as I read it) to give specific examples of why games matter to him, not trying to present a comprehensive defense for the medium. The title could obviously lead one to believe that the latter is the goal, though.

kincher skolfax wrote:

Your point about the book having something of an identity crisis is well-taken, but again, it does come down to audience, doesn't it? Even in the passage you quoted, I picked up hints that Bissell is going out of his way to assume an explanatory tone meant to feel inclusive to readers less familiar with games. Which signaled to me that I ought to cut him some slack if he's re-treading familiar ground.

I wonder too about the pressures Bissell faced in convincing his publisher to give the green light. He's freely admitted that had it not been for his success as a "mainstream" author, Extra Lives would never have seen the light of day. To what extent do you think this tension impacts the book?

It does come down to audience, and I am open to the possibility that this book really isn't for someone like me. On the other hand, I feel like guys like us are the people most like to read it, so this remains a problem. I think a lot of other outlets have reviewed this book from that perspective, but that's not really a perspective I can assume while discussing Extra Lives or while reading it.

Admittedly, he's up-front about all this stuff in his introduction, and he's aware that the choices he made or had to make will rankle some readers. So it's not like he was unaware of these shortcomings. But the fact remains that I got much less out of this book than I had hoped.

And I think it harms the book, not just for guys like me but for anyone who reads it. I'm not kidding about Bissell's sheepishness throughout the book. Again, writing for that mixed audience of videogame enthusiasts and his more mainstream, literary readers, he is often quick to point out the silliness and dumbness of the games he's praising. The back-handedness frustrates me, because he's one who selected topics that he'd have to be back-handed about.

That is, of course, a big part of the tension you bring up. He goes for accessibility, and keeps his gaming and non-gaming friends in mind throughout. But I think that drives the book to kind of a safe, but less interesting perspective. Yes, it's a bit of a travelogue, but the author sometimes strikes the pose of a guy who is slumming it, and a large part of that is due to the places he chose to take us.

Just reserved this at my library. Some things that the article made me think of:

Once a book is written about a formerly fringe subject it is suddenly attracts the attention of the mainstream. Why is this?

The author said that without his former mainstream success this book would not have been published. Also, there have been a number of "video game" books in the past decade that have seen mainstream success. However, most of these have been written at a high level (as Extra Lives has). Is the public ready for a book to be written about games that assumes a deeper level of knowledge about games and games history and can such a book be commercially viable?

There's a struggle with this book in part because of that subtitle, which may be more properly understood as "How some videogames can matter" or "how videogames matter to me." I agree with Rob that a lot of this is old ground for me. I do, however, have an urge to pick up a copy to lend out to non-gamer friends.

Switchbreak wrote:

I think part of this stems from the fact that there aren't many books about games yet, so perhaps the author felt the need to lay more groundwork than he would if he were working in a medium with a lot more extant discussion of the topic.

I don't think that's as true as you may suspect. They're just not books on the NYT list.

Ravenlock wrote:
kincher skolfax wrote:

Rob: I think I read this from a little different perspective. I saw Extra Lives as more travelogue than criticism and Bissell as more tour guide than academic: http://is.gd/gmAB3

I'm pretty sure that I've seen Bissell himself say (maybe on the Brainy Gamer podcast?) that he wanted to write about games as a travel writer writes about a foreign country - an account of visiting an unfamiliar place, painting it vividly for the reader so they can understand the value of someday going there themselves.

That's valid, but it always makes me think more about Rossignol's This Gaming Life instead.

wordsmythe wrote:

That's valid, but it always makes me think more about Rossignol's This Gaming Life instead.

Read it for free right here.

http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text...

This Gaming Life is a book I at one point intended to read, but have not yet.

Do you recommend it?

EDIT: Oh, it's free. Well I guess I'll find out for myself then!

ClockworkHouse wrote:
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.

Because it's just those damn console games that are stupid, right?

Your criticism is valid, though. Even within the auspices of console gaming, that's a fairly limited cross-section of gaming.

I disagree with him about Resident Evil, although it's a thought-provoking idea. I don't think you can lay the blame for gaming's general disregard for intelligent stories at the feet of a single game. Gaming has always had its fair share of stupid, vacuous narratives and character designs. In 1996, the year Resident Evil was released, gaming also saw the release of Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, Command & Conquer: Red Alert, Tomb Raider, and Diablo. None of those have remarkable stories with thoughtful and mature characters, but all of them were every bit as successful as Resident Evil.

But which of those games had the master of unlocking and a Jill sandwich?

Honestly, though, I never played through any Resident Evil before 4, but I'd place more blame on more things than just unintelligent stories on that game and the like of which you mentioned. Of course, most of it all is part of the story delivery, like the voice work, and grammatical prowess.

But games like Duke Nukem shouldn't be blamed for being unintelligent when they were always meant to be that way. I'm looking at it in the same way that we have Dumb and Dumber in movie space.

Resident Evil and C&C:RA, I think do need to carry blame for their poor execution that over time became accepted norms for their franchise when they were not originally meant to go in that direction.

mrtomaytohead wrote:

But games like Duke Nukem shouldn't be blamed for being unintelligent when they were always meant to be that way. I'm looking at it in the same way that we have Dumb and Dumber in movie space.

The contention was that the Duke generation made it acceptable to produce and market stupid games--games that reveled in immaturity and relished ignorant and unexamined play. Dumb and Dumber certainly has that flavor, but it didn't set the precedent.

wordsmythe wrote:
mrtomaytohead wrote:

But games like Duke Nukem shouldn't be blamed for being unintelligent when they were always meant to be that way. I'm looking at it in the same way that we have Dumb and Dumber in movie space.

The contention was that the Duke generation made it acceptable to produce and market stupid games--games that reveled in immaturity and relished ignorant and unexamined play. Dumb and Dumber certainly has that flavor, but it didn't set the precedent.

But are we really going to blame Duke for what System Shock 2 (so I'm told - or any RPG that's story driven) failed to accomplish? Plus, we have Starcraft that came out back then with a decent created world that in the end didn't matter so much as the legs of the game play mechanics. And maybe that's the reason for issue.

Isn't that 'copycat' motivation the same with pretty much everything how humans work? "Monkey see, monkey do". If one game is successful doing things a certain way, then it follows that others will try to copy them for a piece of the same pie, and you could apply the same to movies, books, tool use, etc. You see Resident evil coming out and make a pile of money, and another company comes out with something very similar but with enough changes that it's not a total rip-off. Most game companies, or game developer funding parent companies are motivated by making money, so rather than see the motivation as to make it dumb, but to have success with what they release.

Rob, it makes sense that you say Extra Lives shines only fitfully. It's really a string of essays rather than one cohesive book, and suffers for that. It does make it easy to pick out favourite chapters (RE, GTA4, and FC2 being mine), but add to that its narrow scope—all console and nothing older than a few years—and it does make it hard to recommend overall. But I still would, to anyone who hasn't played video games. There really isn't another book like it. Combine it with A Theory of Fun, and I think you've got a solid and accessible introduction to why we play and what it's like to play.

The Resident Evil point does bring up an interesting question about why game stories are so often rubbish. I think it's because many gamers don't really care about what makes a good story. The Grapes of Wrath isn't a great story because of the timeline of events that happens to the Joad family on the way to California. It's the interactions between the characters, and how they change over the course of the novel that's interesting. Otherwise, it's just a story of getting from point A to point B.

Enslaved is a recent example of a game that seems to understand this problem. That game's story is really about the interaction between Monkey and Trip rather than their journey to Trip's village. To some extent, all single player games have to have A to B stories, because otherwise you'd just be traipsing through the same levels over and over again, and that's not good game design. However, developers tend to make characters that are stereotypes at worst and caricatures at best. The other option is to make the plot so convoluted that it'd take a PHd program to figure out what's going on, much like Metal Gear Solid and the latest Resident Evil games.

As far as Bissell's book goes, I have read it, and enjoyed it. Sure, much of the ground wasn't new, but Bissell writes about it in a way that others don't. The GTA IV chapter (which I read on the internet or possibly in Kill Screen before reading the book) is an excellent example of interweaving personal experiences with playing games. I still have memories of certain records that I used to listen to while playing Minesweeper and Solitaire when I first got a PC. Whenever I hear those songs, or play those games, I think of the other. For Bissell, it just happens to be cocaine and GTA IV.

Gravey wrote:

Rob, it makes sense that you say Extra Lives shines only fitfully. It's really a string of essays rather than one cohesive book, and suffers for that.

That's a common problem with a number of game books out there. Makes it hard to sustain the implied thesis of "Why Videogames Matter."

wordsmythe wrote:
Gravey wrote:

Rob, it makes sense that you say Extra Lives shines only fitfully. It's really a string of essays rather than one cohesive book, and suffers for that.

That's a common problem with a number of game books out there. Makes it hard to sustain the implied thesis of "Why Videogames Matter."

I thought Grant Tavinor's The Art of Videogames did a lot stronger job as a book as a whole, but obviously from a very different angle. I don't begrudge Bissell for republishing earlier articles in the book, but yeah, when each chapter immediately forgets every other chapter and can't build on them, it does make it weaker.

padriec wrote:

Is the public ready for a book to be written about games that assumes a deeper level of knowledge about games and games history and can such a book be commercially viable?

I think one problem is how we define "deeper level of knowledge" when it comes to gaming. I don't think Bissell is certain his readers have every played any of them. That's probably a safe assumption about a good many of the people who grab Extra Lives on the strength of his name.

I suspect a good many books in this vein are written for an audience that has barely played games, if at all. If memory serves, Rossignol's This Gaming Life is less about games and more about the people and cultures that have grown up around them. He's telling stories about people.

What I'd like to see are more books that at least assume readers play some games, and are familiar with the forms that are out there. Because if you can make that assumption, it's just so, so much easier to have a better discussion. I look at books of film criticism and film history and even if I haven't seen half the movies in question, I can learn so much just hearing about them in the company of a good writer. And that writer can trust that I have enough basic knowledge to follow along. The result is a better book, and I like to think that has a better chance of being commercially viable.

The other piece of the puzzle, I think, is more game reviews in mainstream publications, and better reviewers. I read just about every critic in The New Yorker because they're very good, even if the subjects don't always grab me. Same goes for a few other outlets. It'd be nice if some game reviewers joined their ranks. It might get non-gamers following the field.

Did any of you read the Nicholson Baker article in The New Yorker? It was also rewritten explicitly as a travelogue sort of thing but written by someone who had never actually played a video game. He's more generous to video games than I might have expected, and some of the writing is nice. I think that reading it as a gamer, though, it does feel rather flat and vacuous. There aren't any glorious revelations in there for me. But what most interested me in reading it was the idea of getting inside a head that has never experienced a video game and seeing what impressions games make on a virginal (and older) brain, especially one who seems rather open and is good at writing.

It's an interesting companion to the Bissell book. I'd highly recommend the little 15 minute podcast that goes with it atThe New Yorker web site. His appreciation actually seems a little warmer and more genuine in the short interview than the long article.

Thanks, Hang. I'll have to check that out.

Have folks read Vintage Games? Great book for rabid gamers and those newish to the hobby.

Here is the link for their promo podcast for the Baker piece. Unfortunately the article requires a subscription or finding an old copy. The podcast is probably adequate.

I also bring this up in relation to the Bissell book because I recall reading it often as if trying to imagine it from the perspective of a nongamer. I would be interested to know how that audience responded.