Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Review of Extra Lives by Tom Bissell

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter
by Tom Bissell
published June 5, 2010

Tom Bissell has pointed out that the original subtitle of his new book Extra Lives was Why Video Games Matter—and Why They Don't Matter More. The snappier, more confident, sexier subtitle that actually appears on the book's cover belies a deep ambivalence that is detectable throughout the book, an ambivalence that, strange as it may sound, must have motivated Bissell to write the essays that comprise this book in the first place.

This ambivalence is a feeling I share, a sort of lingering fear that there's something wrong with this hobby of mine. Bissell reports that a friend's wife dismisses his Oblivion habit as spending time "with elves talking bullshit." It's true: a lot of games still haven't clawed their way past the elves/bullshit threshold, but honestly, they're no easier to put aside for that than their more deserving counterparts. Why is a hobby I love so much still so bad to me (and possibly for me) so much of the time?

However, it isn't the case that all games are still at the elves and bullshit level. As it happens, Bissell's book unfolds as sort of a question, posed really by the first three chapters, and an answer, albeit a cautious, complex, and a slightly open-ended one, presented over the course of the remaining six chapters. Although a fair amount of what is included has seen print previously elsewhere, the material in the book works well together, and it all conveys Bissell's argument, to the extent that he has one to make, quite well.

In the first three chapters, Bissell discusses in brief a number of games that, for one reason or another, belong in the "Why Video Games Don't Matter More" category. Some of the games, like Fallout 3, are recent games that provide incredible visual, aural, and gameplay experiences but are so poorly written and acted that it's hard not to score them as misses. I'll try not to quote too much; Bissell's prose, which is always sharp and serves his purpose equally well whether he's praising a game or bemoaning its existence (and he's a thorough enough critic that he rarely does one to the exclusion of the other), works best as it crescendoes over the course of a paragraph, and I don't want to do it too much of a disservice by divorcing it from its context. However, some of his comments on Fallout 3 illustrate wonderfully some of the doubts he has about the medium of games:

Vault 101 [the game's opening environment] even has a resident cadre of hoodlums, the Tunnel Snakes, whose capo resembles a malevolent Fonz. Even with its backdrop of realized Cold War futurism, a greaser-style youth gang in an underground vault society in the year 2277 is the working definition of a dumb idea. During the tutorial's final sequence, the Tunnel Snakes' leader, your tormentor since childhood, requests your help in saving his mother from radioactive cockroaches (long story), a reversal of such tofu drama that, in my annoyance, I killed him, his mother, and then everyone else I could find in Vault 101, with the most perversely satisfying weapon I had on hand: a baseball bat. Allowing your decisions to establish for your character an in-game identity as a skull-crushing monster, a saint of patience, or some mixture thereof is another attractive feature of Fallout 3. These pretensions to morality, though, suddenly bored me, because they were occurring in a universe that had been designed by geniuses and written by Ed Wood Jr.

At the same time, he plays Fallout 3, and many games like it, compulsively. Do you remember where you were when the 2008 presidential election was called in favor of Barack Obama? Do you remember the joyful, tearful moments that followed? Bissell does: he was in Talinn, Estonia, playing his first several hours of Fallout 3.

Games are a strange medium. Somehow, the demands for mature, challenging content we make of film and literature just won't stick to them; a bad movie or a poorly written novel is easy to walk out of or put down, but a game that is completely idiotic won't necessarily be easier to stop playing than one that's brilliant. The first section of Bissell's book argues that this creates a problem: game publishers can continue to produce mindless garbage that provides wonderful gaming experiences, and we will not be able to stop consuming it, because it will do wonderfully all the things that games seem to need to do. At the same time, games might never advance artistically, because none of these things has anything to do with "thematic, moral, or emotional intelligence." As long as games are formally sophisticated, nothing else really matters, not as things stand now.

In the remaining six chapters, Bissell presents a series of responses, or attempts at responses, to the problem he has introduced. The chapter entitled "LittleBigProblems," as I understood it, only offers a shrug, but most of the material in this section gives us reason to hope that games are getting better, and not just in, well, game-like ways. In Edmonton, Austin, and elsewhere, designers, honest-to-god writers, and talented actors like Jennifer Hale, "the Olivier of video games," collaborate to create high-quality RPGs for Bioware like Mass Effect, a game that, despite its shortcomings, seems to satisfy many of Bissell's more traditional emotional and dramatic needs in ways that a comparable game like Fallout 3 does not. At the other end of the spectrum is Ubisoft's Clint Hocking, who, to judge from the book's chapter on Far Cry 2, has rejected the idea of creating a narrative game with a strong authorial presence. Hocking's comments show how aware he is that his method of storytelling, which involves surrendering the role of author to the cooperative relationship between player and gameworld, is a risky experiment. He feels that films, novels, and plays—media that typically require a strong authorial presence—have taken traditional narrative as far as it will ever be capable of going in games. He says,

We can't go beyond [that point] using the tools of film or literature or any other authored narrative approach. The question is, can we go beyond it, way beyond it, to completely different realms, by using tools that are inherent to games? To let the player play the story, tell his own story, and have that story be deep and meaningful? We don't know the limit to that problem. It could be that the limit to that problem is stories that aren't nearly as good.

"But you've got to find out," responds Bissell, and of course Hocking's reply is, "Yeah. I have to find out." Skeptics of the limited-authorship, player-driven model of narrative Hocking favors (such as, famously, Roger Ebert) would be well advised to read the chapter on Hocking and Far Cry 2. For Bissell, no stranger to the genre of the shooter, Far Cry 2 is a uniquely arresting game, "a shooter so beautiful, terrible, and monstrous that my faith was restored not only in the shooter but in the video game itself." What Far Cry 2 offers, it turns out, is a truly chilling commentary on the nature of violence that could not be conveyed through any other medium. That it should be presented in what is traditionally "the least politically evolved of all the video-game genres" is more than poetically satisfying. It is entirely natural, because the first-person shooter has long employed a set of conceits designed to convince the player that the image displayed on the TV screen or monitor is her actual point of view. The efficacy of these conceits is in evidence when Bissell describes the PTSD-like jitters he suffers after a typical night of shooter escapades. In other words, the kind of immersion these games try to create is especially suited to the kind of, yes, art Far Cry 2 wants to be, as the game exploits the genre's visual vocabulary not so much to enhance excitement as to underscore the player's complicity in the horrible things the game asks her to do.

The best thing about Bissell's style of games criticism is his facility at converting game experiences into words. What games deliver best, and this is why the dumb ones are pretty much just as compelling as the smart ones, is an experience of a particular kind—no two shooters will deliver precisely the same experience, nor any two RPGs, and so forth. The purest pleasures Extra Lives offers are its various descriptions of gameplay experiences, whether these are specific, as is the hilarious and frankly brilliant chapter on the notorious first Resident Evil game, or more generalized, as are portions of the Far Cry 2 chapter: "You will kill and do other unspeakable things. And you will do your best to ruin, burn, and otherwise destroy one of the most beautiful gameworlds ever created ... 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." Bissell makes the most of the time he has had to interrogate and consider his experiences; none of the games covered in any detail is much less than two years old, and some are a year or two older than that. His expertise as a writer as well as a gamer is an asset, since the experiences games provide are not easy to convey verbally, and it takes an articulate and self-aware critic to make that difficult conversion.

Overall, the book offers many possible solutions to gaming's great problem. All of these solutions are suggested by designers or are glimpsed in profiles of particular games. Bissell, for his part, seems mostly to act as a liaison between his audience and the creators or their creations; his descriptions of games feel more like a conversation with a friend about a shared gaming experience than a lecture delivered by an expert; his conversations with designers often give way to brief (sometimes not brief) digressions in which Bissell chews over what he has just been told.

It is impossible for me to guess what it might be like to read the book as a non-gamer. For me, the book was an involving, often pleasantly familiar, sometimes shockingly emotional primer on a fair portion of gaming's modern canon. The final chapter of the book actually left me feeling exhausted, but its coda perfectly captured many of the things I have often wished I could say to people who want to know what the value of games is:

I do know that games have enriched my life. Of that I have no doubt. They have also done damage to my life. Of that I have no doubt ... So what have games given me? Experiences. Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories ... Playing [Grand Theft Auto] IV on coke for weeks and then months at a time, I learned that maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough.

Extra Lives is, more than anything, a diplomatic account of what games are and what they may yet be. It assuages that gnawing ambivalence some gamers feel, and it shows that there's more to games than bullshit and elves. Video games do matter, in ways that are more lasting than numbers on ledgers, and the book shows that there is reason to believe that they will matter still more.

EDIT: I carelessly neglected to mention that Clint Hocking has recently left his position at Ubisoft, and in fact this has transpired in the interim between Extra Lives' going to press and its appearance on shelves. As a blogger with zero lead time between writing a review and publishing it, I could easily have included that detail in my review. Anyway, I'd like to wish Clint the best, and I can't wait to see what he has in store for us next.

The Tom Bissell drawing above is by Joseph Ciardiello for the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Not a recent Sunday Book Review, mind you, but one from 2008. But then, that probably doesn't matter much to you, does it? Sorry.