I was pretty surprised with this one. I honestly didn't think I'd like it. I thought it'd be just another cash in on "nerd culture" and "gamers," pandering to 12 year old kids with an Xbox LIVE subscription. And to be perfectly honest, at times it does feel slightly like that. Only slightly though, and fortunately there's a lot more good here than there is bad.
The first thing you must understand is that Extra Lives
is by no means a strictly academic or ludological work. There's far more books about video games that are more thorough and explore games as a medium in much more depth. What Extra Lives
is, and what it does mostly well, is a mix of accessible video game analysis, accounts of video game experiences, and autobiography.
Why do video games matter? It's not an easy question, and this book gives no easy answers. But what it does is show the potential, ambition, and excitement that games hold. The video game as a separate art form is becoming more and more accepted and will only get more and more impressive. And if that doesn't make video games "matter," then I don't know what does.
A lot of the stuff Bissell discusses in here is stuff I'm already very familiar with, like the inherent unnaturalness of cutscenes, or the conflict between challenge and story, or the difficulties in "writing" a game. Bissell isn't exactly breaking new ground here, and a lot of what he says is little more than parroting other people, Jonathan Blow especially. But I still found it worthwhile to see my thoughts articulated by someone else, and it helped me better understand a lot of the beliefs I hold about games.
There is, of course, some things I disagreed with in here, but every bit of it was still interesting. The main games of focus in this book are almost all popular, blockbuster games, like Fallout 3, Mass Effect, Far Cry 2, Grand Theft Auto IV
, etc. But the analyses of each game are consistently insightful. I've a completely new perspective on Left 4 Dead
after reading this.
Bissell provides good descriptions of gameplay. He conveys the feel of a what it's like to play certain games better than most trailers do. So it's certainly not necessary to have played all the games that are discussed. Indeed one doesn't even have to be much a gamer at all to enjoy this.
Finally we come to the autobiographical elements of the book. Bissell often gives brief insights into his life; you'll discover he was in the Peace Corps for a very short time, he's a casual marijuana user, and when he was a kid he and his friends used to play an awesome game called "Who Can Die the Best?" in which "one boy would announce the type of weapon he was holding... and then use it to kill the other boys around him. Whoever dies 'the best' (that is, with the most convincingly spasmodic grace) was declared the winner by his executioner and allowed to pick his own weapon, whereupon a new round commenced." Pretty fucking awesome, huh?
The autobiographical elements are fine; they give the book a personal feel rather than an academic one. I mostly ignored them. However, the last chapter, which deals with the Grand Theft Auto
series, overdoes it a bit. He talks in great length about his frequent problems with cocaine. I understand the parallel he was trying to make between games and drugs (albeit it wasn't a very good parallel), but it ended up just being him talking about cocaine for far too many pages, turning from casual ludology to drug memoir. The last chapter was by far the worst, and hurt the book significantly. (For comparison, in every chapter I highlighted something on nearly every other page. In the last chapter I think I highlighted only one thing.)
All in all though I'm very pleased with Extra Lives
and I'm glad to have read it. If anything it serves as a nice primer to more serious and academic game studies, which will surely be my next venture.
If you're looking for (very) entry-level ludology, look no further.