Extra Lives (review)

Extra Lives
What I love about Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter is Tom Bissell’s ambivalent relationship with video games. This is a book by an enthusiast, yes (aren’t most books?), but he also hates them sometimes:

I was then and am now routinely torn about whether video games are a worthy way to spend my time and often ask myself why I like them as much as I do, especially when, very often, I hate them. Sometimes I think I hate them because of how purely they bring me back to childhood, when I could only imagine what I would do if I were single-handedly fighting off an alien army or driving down the street in a very fast car while the police try to shoot out my tires or told that I was the ancestral inheritor of some primeval sword and my destiny was the rid the realm of evil. These are very intriguing scenarios if you are twelve years old. They are far less intriguing if you are thirty-five and have a career, friends, a relationship, or children. The problem, however, at least for me, is that they are no less fun.

And that’s the thing. I’m reminded of Daniel Mendelsohn once again, from How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken:

Strange as it may sound to many people, who tend to think of critics as being motivated by the lower emotions: envy, disdain, contempt even… Critics are, above all, people who are in love with beautiful things, and who worry that those things will get broken.

And Bissell is definitely a critic, and a very good one. He gets really annoyed when video games don’t try hard enough, or try to do things they really aren’t made for. Here he is in the midst of talking about Fallout 3 and other open-world games (the genre at the core of the book) in general:

The art direction in a good number of contemporary big-budget video games has the cheerful parasitism of a tribute band. Visual inspirations are perilously few: Forests will be Tolkienishly enchanted; futuristic industrial zones will be mazes of predictably grated metal catwalks; gunfights will erupt amid rubble- and car-strewn boulevards on loan from a thousand war-movie sieges. Once video games shed their distinctive vector-graphic and primary-color 8-bit origins, a commercially ascendant subset of game slowly but surely matured into what might well be the most visually derivative popular art form in history.

The art comparison comes up a lot. Here he talks about the idea of surrender and participation in art, which gets right to the core of video games’ special offering and really, really difficult challenge:

When I watch a film, the most imperial form of popular entertainment—particularly when experienced in a proper movie theater—I am surrendering most humiliatingly, for the film begins at a time I cannot control, has nothing to sell me that I have not already purchased, and goes on whether or not I happen to be in my seat. When I read a novel I am not only surrendering; I am allowing my mind to be occupied by a colonizer of uncertain intent. Entertainment takes it as a given that I cannot affect it other than in brutish, exterior ways: turning it off, leaving the theater, pausing the disc, stuffing in a bookmark, underlining a phrase. […] Playing video games is not quite like this. The surrender is always partial. You get control and are controlled. Games are patently aware of you and have a physical dimension unlike any other form of popular entertainment.

And later, tying in with Mass Effect, he talks more about the control that video games offer. It’s not just kinetic/spatial; it can be moral:

Games such as Mass Effect allow the gamer a freedom of decision that can be evilly enlivening or nobly self-congratulating, but these games become uniquely compelling when they force you to the edge of some drawn, real-life line of intellectual or moral obligation that, to your mild astonishment, you find you cannot step across even in what is, essentially, a digital dollhouse for adults. Other mediums may depict the necessary (or foolhardy) breaches of such lines, or their foolhardy (or necessary) protection, but only games actually push you to the line’s edge and make you live with the fictional consequences of your choice.

There’s one excellent extended passage—seriously: exciting, edge-of-your-seat writing about a video game—where he talks about a particular moment of Left 4 Dead heroism. I’ll let you find the details in his book, but it’s followed up with this sharp comedown experience:

I then realized I was contrasting my aesthetic sensitivity to that of some teenagers about a game that concerns itself with shooting as many zombies as possible. It is moments like this that can make it so dispiritingly difficult to care about video games.

Delightful sometimes. Infuriating sometimes. That’s video games for you. I haven’t really played video games since I sold my dearly beloved PlayStation and Dreamcast. This book made me miss them.