Thursday, March 31, 2011

Book Review: Extra Lives by Tom Bissell

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell

Extra Lives: Why Video Games MatterAny adult who’s ever played a game from start to finish should read this book.

Tom Bissell is one of us. He's not a game developer or game reporter. He's a grown man with a job, a family, and adult responsibilities. And he plays video games. A lot.

And like us, he often feels the need to explain his passion for games to dubious contemporaries who consider them glorified children’s toys. He lives through sneering dismissals at dinner parties and even a threatened “revocation of vagina privileges” from his girlfriend. And yet he continues to play obsessively. Why?

As he wrestles with this question, he looks into his own interactions with the preeminent games of recent years, including Grand Theft Auto IV, BioShock, Oblivion, Left 4 Dead, and more. Bissell is a professional journalist, so he deftly intersperses his analysis with interviews of the top developers in the industry: Peter Molyneux, Cliffy B, and even Jonathan Blow.

The result is a pleasant tour of some great games, cut with a sometimes painfully personal look at how games help us cope with and hide from reality. He not only ponders what draws us back for more, but how games tell stories in ways that are both superior and inferior to other media.

Early on, Bissell writes:
In the world of Fallout 3, heavily armed Super Mutants prowl the streets, two-hundred-year-old rifles remain functional, and your character can recover from stepping in front of a Gatling gun at full bore by drinking water or taking a nap. All of which is obviously preposterous, but Fallout 3 plays so smoothly that you do not even want to notice.
This observation gets to the heart of the classic story vs. gameplay argument. He concludes that good gameplay can overcome a weak story, but not vice-versa. That rings true the more I think about it. I’ve plowed through wretched dialogue and acting, ridiculous missions and contrived situations, but I cannot abide a poorly thought-out controller scheme.

Preposterous use of a hydrant
Bissell brings a great deal of himself to the book. He ties games to various times and situations in his life. He's not afraid to admit that he's hidden in a game world to avoid dealing fully with a new, frightening situation. He even describes his own cocaine use in conjunction with Grand Theft Auto IV.

Strangely, this deeply personal confession left me flat. It's interesting enough on its own, but he does not tie it closely to the game, or to games in general, to make it feel relevant. I expected some discourse on game addiction, but that was not forthcoming.

Recommendation: Read it.

It's a fun trip through the highlights of the last four years or so. There's enough behind-the-scenes dope to feed that part of your brain, and enough validation to keep your spirits up the next time you discover that you've spent over 200 hours on an RPG. (I'm looking at you, Skyrim!)

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Check out more Shame Pile reviews, if you're so inclined.

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