Wednesday, September 28, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: EXTRA LIVES by Tom Bissell (2010)

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter
by Tom Bissell

Published by Pantheon Books in 2010

"As incomprehensible as it may seem, I have some how spent more than two hundred hours playing Oblivion. I know this because the game keeps a running tally of the total time one has spent with it. I can think of only one personal activity I would be less eager to see audited in this way, and it, too, is a single-player experience."
                                           --Tom Bissell

Tom Bissell is a video game junkie. No question. He is also a very smart and articulate writer, and, like William Burroughs with heroin, he writes about his addiction, his master, with obsessive zeal and even offers up some brilliant critical insights into video gaming as addiction, as a multi-billion dollar industry, as an art form just now being broadly recognized as such, and as a path to self-destruction. His book Extra Lives is an entertaining and disturbing mixture of memoir and journalism. He combines descriptions of his experiences playing video games with interviews with some of the most successful game designers currently working to create an intriguing dialectic between a subjective confessional narrative and a critical consciousness aimed at picking the minds of video game designers and theorists, and exploring what it is that we seek when we play video games.

What is it that we seek when playing video games? For Bissell, it would seem that his title says it all: more lives, more life, we want to crawl into some other identity, usually one that is heavily armed, and essentially immortal and indestructible. Sure, you get killed all the time in games, but then you just go back to your last save point. Video game death is almost never permanent.

But Bissell is also looking for quality stories and characterizations, and he makes the case that video games are in a kind of renaissance in terms of games' capacities for deep stories, open-ended game play, and sophisticated characterizations. Video games are now capable of visual spectacle above and beyond what's possible at the cinema, that earlier, cruder form of virtual reality. Moreover, video games allow you to take control of the action. The player is totally in control.

Except when those arbitrary cut scenes kick in, and then you have no choice but to follow the plan laid out by the game designers. Bissell asserts that this tension between freedom of play and the coercive demands of an overarching narrative that intrudes on the illusion of freedom and empowerment one experiences while gaming is one of the key hurdles video games must overcome in order to achieve . . . but Bissell doesn't resolve the tension. He merely illustrates it.

But if one stops to consider what he's suggesting, he's basically calling for video games to be able to offer completely free-form, endlessly variable experiences. The ultimate merger between the demands of narrative in the literary sense, and what Bissell refers to as ludonarrative, which could be characterized as the the story which grows naturally out of the act of play, would basically be an extra, or second, life. It's a paradox. It's a mindfuck.

Think about it. Gaming is absorbing because it is an escape. And the more detailed and graphically and aurally impressive games become, the more we want to play them. But if a game were to totally replicate the free form experience of being alive, it would include massive amounts of minutiae which might destroy the gaming experience, to make it so demanding that it would cease to be fun. Even if the game was a fantasy experience including magical powers and heroic deeds it would be work to keep up with it. And then you would go looking for some other form of escape . . . to escape your escape . . .you 'd need not just a second life, but extra lives.

It makes me think of the Konami code: up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, START.

How many lives does the obsessive gamer require?

And talk about a warped sense of entitlement. It's not enough that our high tech civilization gives us such advanced amusements, but now we expect them to substantially or even completely replace our meatspace lives. But maybe there's something to this. If we all just stayed home and became absorbed into virtual existences, maybe we'd be less inclined to drive fossil fuel powered vehicles and engage in real world wars of adventure and folly. Of course, the electricity expenditure would go up, but where are people driving to, anyways? There are no jobs to go to. Most people are overweight, out of shape, and disinterested in meeting face to face.  Now, everyone works from home as the ultimate hi-score warrior, conjuring up second and third and fourth lives from the digital void. Game on!

Bissell's logic is that of the junkie chasing the ultimate high. The junkie who has come up against the outer limits of his accumulated chemical resistances. Bissell doesn't hide the fact that being hooked on video games has come at a high personal cost: a damaged work ethic and seriously strained, perhaps even broken, human relationships. Bissell is to be commended for being up front about this aspect of gaming addiction. He isn't exactly apologetic, but he does acknowledge the rather steep downside of his devotions.

This downside is illustrated by his adventures playing Grand Theft Auto IV while coked out of his mind with a buddy. They made a point of playing GTAIV while coked-up. Sometimes the Scarface poster isn't enough.

Bissell comes across as a guy who is seeking unusual, obsessive, and dangerous experiences. He was in the Peace Corps for a stretch until he dropped out, he's worked as an embedded reporter in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has burned through relationships with women at a rapid clip, and he has also Hoovered large quantities of cocaine with a friend while fanatically playing Grand Theft Auto IV. His consciousness seems to be divided between the here and now and some sort of idealized zone of continuous peak experiences. As a reader, I was captivated by his engaging, intellectually substantive, and humorous writing style, but I also wondered what it must be like to be friends with this guy. I would imagine his friends and family worry about him and his well-being. I hope he gets a handle on his appetites. It would be a shame to lose such a talented writer.


I've talked mostly about the personal side of Extra Lives. But the book isn't all druggie confessional narrative. Bissell went out and interviewed a some of the people who were instrumental in creating games such as Mass Effect, Far Cry 2, Braid, and Fable 2. These are all excellent pieces of reportage and analysis, and the most I can say is read them for yourself. They are most enlightening.

But something about this book really got to me.

 Tom Bissell  writes the single best obsessively detailed description of the experience of playing the original Resident Evil  for PS1 that I have ever read. It is also the only obsessively detailed description of the experience of playing the original Resident Evil that I have ever read, but sometimes you just grok a winner when you're in the presence of one, you know? Bissell breaks down that epochal game's technique: its deliberate pacing, the Mystery Science Theater quality voice acting, the camera angles which obscure as much as they reveal and create anxiety and make you wonder from which direction the enemy will strike, the sinister ambiance of the scoring and soundscaping, and then he goes one better: he creates a brilliant interpretation of why the controls for the very first Resident Evil game kinda sucked. In Bissell's view, the clunky controls augment the terror, the anxiety, the suspense, and function in a way antithetical to the first person shooter games which were then, and still are, all the rage.

In an FPS, you want responsiveness, you want to be able to mow down the enemy, reload instantly, and move quickly to avoid being surrounded or cornered, but in Resident Evil the player character can't just shoot from the hip. You gotta press the button to draw your weapon, then you gotta press buttons to position your character to aim at the enemy, and there's no goddamn cross-hair! There's no on-screen targeting icon to indicate whether you're actually locked on to the zombie or hunter or giant spider or undead attack dog--all you can do is hope you're pointing in the right direction and fire at will. In an FPS, the design of the controls facilitates fluidity and fast paced play. In Resident Evil, you are forced to be deliberate with every step you take, each hallway you choose to explore, every shot fired because you're unlikely to survive too many full-on encounters with the enemy, and the supplies of ammunition are severely limited.

And then there's the typewriters and those ink ribbons. In order to save the game, you gotta find an ink ribbon, and then you gotta get to a room with a typewriter. Every time you save, you use up an ink ribbon. The supplies of ink ribbons are not unlimited, so saving your game becomes as much a part of your strategy as how you use your ammunition, whether you choose to fight every monster you come across, or beat a strategic retreat.

Bissell describes all of this brilliantly, capturing the mindset one evolves to survive in such a dire gaming scenario, and how such games frustrate and addict those who play them in equal measure. As I read Bissell's description, I thought back to when I first got a PS1 and how one of the first games I got was Resident Evil. Most of my Christmas vacation was spent plugged into that sinister mansion. Hours passed like seconds. I played from three in the afternoon until seven in the morning, woke up at five p.m., played 'til seven or eight in the a.m., and I went a week without seeing any sunlight. In Florida. And Resident Evil wasn't all fun. It made me want to pull my fingernails out, just to try and jack myself back into real life with some overwhelmingly agonizing act of self-torture. It made me scream and swear and invent new uses for the words fuck, shit, goddamnit, and mother long before I had ever read a David Mamet play or watched an Angry Video Game Nerd video. It fucked with my patience and my sleep cycles, and it also hooked me like few other things. Playing Resident Evil gave me some idea of what it was like to be a junkie.

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