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Books  |  Reviews

Tom Bissell: Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

[Pantheon Books]

June 8, 2010  |  8:00am
Tom Bissell: <em>Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter</em>

Celebrated journalist does some videogame soul-searching

In April, legendary film critic Roger Ebert doubled-down on an assertion he first leveled in 2005: "Video games can never be art." His unflinching blog-post dismissal stung gamers the world over, eliciting countless rejoinders. A friend of mine summarized the ensuing fallout quite nicely: “Never have so many gamers expended so many words insisting they don’t care what a film critic thinks of them.”

Tom Bissell’s newest book Extra Lives goes out of its way to avoid such taxonomical hair-splitting. The author is less concerned with defining games than with weighing their emotional impact and capabilities as a vehicle for storytelling. “Anyone who can tell you what a game is, or must be,” he warns early on, “has seen advocacy outstrip patience.”

Bissell’s writing portfolio encompasses everything from literary criticism to fiction to history to memoir, but he’s a travel writer at heart. His debut book Chasing The Sea recounts journeys through Uzbekistan, to which he returned several years after his initial visit in 1996 as a Peace Corps volunteer.

There’s a theme of compulsive, Kerouacian movement running through Bissell’s entire oeuvre, and Extra Lives is no different. Only now, the author’s explorations find him not only moving around the globe—Talinn, Las Vegas, Rome—but also through richly imagined digital worlds as far-flung as postapocalyptic Washington, D.C. (Fallout 3), war-ravaged African savanna (Far Cry 2), and human-colonized outposts in the starry cosmos (Mass Effect).

The beauty of travel is that it not only illuminates the world we move through, but the interior world we’re forced to consider as we encounter people, places and customs that chafe our sense of what’s proper. Bissell stresses that this sort of catalytic bewilderment occurs also in videogames.

He recounts an experience he had playing Ubisoft’s first-person shooter Far Cry 2. The mercenary character he controlled got into a firefight with two militiamen in the waist-high grasses of the African savanna. Bissell dispatched one of the aggressors, but could only manage to wound the other, who continued firing potshots from where he lay bleeding in the grassy cover. If Bissell didn't take drastic measures soon, his character was toast.

Far-Cry-2.jpg

“When I had put enough distance between us, I lobbed a Molotov cocktail into the general area where the supine, dying man lay. Within seconds I could hear him screaming amid the twiggy crackle of the grass catching fire. Sitting before my television, I felt a kind of horridly unreciprocated intimacy with the man I had just burned to death…. The game may reward your murderous actions but you never feel as though it approves of them, and it reminds you again and again that you are no better than the people you kill. In fact, you may be much worse.”

Extra Lives is the first truly indispensable work of literary nonfiction about society’s most lucrative entertainment medium. Bissell’s commentary is marvelously astute and his enthusiasm for games makes even his words on the printed page feel positively backlit. Any breathless adoration for the medium he doles out, however, takes on additional weight because of his willingness to admit when a game falls on its face.

In his chapter about the widely admired Fallout 3, he calls the inclusion of a greaser-style youth gang in the game’s 23rd-century setting “the working definition of a dumb idea.” He also refers to moments of “tofu drama” and bits of dialogue so wooden that they “make [Twilight author] Stephenie Meyer look like Ibsen.” The game’s creative hiccups pain Bissell, but they do little to diminish his overall appreciation.

Lives’ crowning moment arrives in the final chapter, “Grand Thefts.” Bissell delivers a harrowingly unguarded account of a period when he was addicted to both cocaine and Grand Theft Auto IV, burrowing through the boilerplate family-values rhetoric to explain why he finds the game such a towering creative achievement: It’s the player’s unexpected kinship with the protagonist Niko Bellic, a Serbian immigrant just off the boat in Liberty City (the game’s fictional NYC) and looking for a fresh start.

“Niko was not my friend, but I felt for him, deeply. He was clearly having a hard go of it and did not always understand why. He was in a new place that did not make a lot of sense. He was trying, doing his best, but he was falling into habits and ways of being that did not reflect his best self. By the end of his long journey, Niko and I had been through a lot together.”

[Read a lengthy excerpt from Extra Lives' chapter on Grand Theft Auto IV here.]

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