Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Book Review: Tom Bissell, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

The subtitle to Tom Bissell's book is so ambitiously vague that it at first appears like something of a moot point when approaching the cultural history of computer gaming. The lengthy issue of Why Video Games Matter could possibly be segmented and approached in a veritable spiral of niches and areas of study - culture, technology, art, to begin with - without ever having to propose to your reader: This is why videogames matter. Such ambitions therefore seem admirably grand for such a modestly sized book. And yet when first starting the book it instantly becomes clear that such ambitions - or at least perceived ambitions - were never really intended.

Bissell's approach is enormously more accessible. It may seem like a criticism to stress that when one starts to read a book with such an ambitious subtitle to essentially disregard  it - as if it were, perhaps, simply a superficial addition - but in this case Bissell's book is more than its subtitle (as, well, most books are), and in fact approaches the subject in a refreshingly experiential and, in Bissell's own words, an "eccentric and, at times, starkly personal" way. He asks many questions of what games can achieve in terms of representation, interactivity, personal struggle and as a business but never comes to any solid or confident conclusions. Instead the book is more like a dissection of why games matter to Bissell himself - with regular and insightful tangents into the wider spectrum of Western culture.

This experiential approach lends itself well to videogaming - the actual act of which is perhaps more directly evident than say the act of reading a book -  and Bissell revels in this fact. Videogames here are not insular pieces of work but aspects of life; of everyday existence and important emotional states. Each chapter forms its discussion around episodes of Bissell's life, starting with missing Barrack Obama's election in favour of playing Fallout 3 and ending with a rather gloomy chapter on cocaine addiction and GTA IV.

These anecdotal accounts often effortlessly dovetail into serious discussions surrounding narrative games. His comical explication of how Fallout 3's setting and narrative betrays a certain dissonance which is present in many games, draws the conclusion:

Games have grown immensely sophisticated in any number of ways while at the same time remaining stubbornly attached to aspects of traditional narrative for which they have shown little feeling. Too many games insist on telling stories in a manner in which some facility with plot and character is fundamental to - and often even detrimental of - successful storytelling.

Similarly, his discussions with Jonathan Blow (creator of Braid) and Clint Hocking (Farcry 2, Splinter Cell Chaos Theory) provide several excellent moments of real theoretical insight. When discussing Braid and the popular insistence on naturalism in computer graphics, Bissell writes with clarity that, "many forgot that naturalism is not the pinnacle but rather a stage of representation."

It is the marriage of theoretical discussion with the personal, anecdotal accounts of playing computer games which is the books greatest strength. The chapter on Resident Evil is a perfect example of how Bissell manages to make comical and entirely relatable material - such as the wonky and strangely frustrating experience of playing the game  - also chime with ideas about game narrative and critical appraisal. Resident Evil, described as a "brilliantly conceived game of uncompromising stupidity",  also presents a paradigm for Bissell's central understanding of computer games; that they presently exists between these two positions of being both brilliant and yet dreadful, exciting yet clumsy.

Unfortunately this great strength of balancing anecdote with theory too often tipped in favour of the anecdote. The chapter on GTA IV is one example where reading of how Bissell apparently squandered literary fellowships in order to snort coke and play computer games is both horribly dismal (for those hard working writers who've spent many hours applying for such fellowships) and betrays a lack of any real argument or direction. Concluding that GTA IV is a bit like cocaine hints at notions of the destructive power of gaming but Bissell seems too strapped for either space or time to really make the leap or do the research. Instead the chapter rounds off with a meaningless comparison between his life and GTA IV's central character, Nico (they'd both been through a lot - though whether fictional hardships and grams of cocaine can really be equated is questionable).

In this respect Extra Lives falls under the same duplicity which Bissell witnesses in narrative games. At times the book is insightful, wonderfully written and accessible and yet at other times it can be frustrating and even slightly disposable. He skirts round issues such as violence and yet gives pages to his adoration of Cliff Bleszinski; gives several paragraphs to graphic representation yet fills a chapter with coke stories. Bissell captures the duality of approaching games seriously - that they can be both exciting and yet silly  - and gives us an account which describes this disconnect skilfully, though not without falling foul of the same dilemma itself.

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