Friday, December 17, 2010

Extra Lives

My apologies, I missed the boat on our pre-New-Year's daily-posting resolution: I was out of town.  But on the way home, on the bus, I finally got around to reading Tom Bissell's terrific Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.  Tom is a superb and versatile writer, and he's the perfect one to have written on this subject for a popular audience--it's funny and self-deprecating, yet it investigates something very important: the fundamental nature of our relationship to narrative.

Though the book is a bit rambling--many chapters feel as though they were written to stand alone elsewhere--Bissell never strays very far from this thesis, which is that narrative is gaming's biggest problem.  Not that the narratives aren't good enough--which, if you'd played even the very best military shooters, you'd agree they probably aren't--but that they're narratives borrowed from other forms of art, particularly Hollywood films.  Video games, Bissell argues, need to find their own kind of stories, based not in authored narrative but in the mechanics of play.  Through interviews with industry thinkers and detailed descriptions of games, he makes a great case for games as art, even as he proves that they haven't yet really figured out how to be art.

There's also some great memoir-y stuff, including a chapter that describes Bissell's cocaine-fueled devouring of Grand Theft Auto IV, and many very fine descriptions of the places where games are made and the characters who make them.

It's almost enough to make me want to go out and buy an Xbox 360.  But I think I'll stay married instead.


Z Cole said...

I want to read this book even more now than I did when I first heard about it a few months ago. Since then, I got an Xbox 360, by far the newest console I've ever owned.

But am I a gamer? You'd think so. I read articles about games, and am always talking about games with my friends. But when it actually comes down to, you know, actually *playing* most of the popular titles I become ever frustrated or bored quickly quickly.

Because I kind of suck. If there's no "You can never die, even if someone throws an Abrahms tank at your head" cheat I die again and again, and before too long the game ends up feeling like a chore.

I'm also frustrated with story lines in games. Lately, I've wondered why these developers even bother to weave stories in. Oftentimes the narratives are so lousy that you're compelled to skip the cut scenes entirely. Just my two cents.

jrlennon said...

Tom comes down pretty hard on cut scenes. You definitely need to read the book!

Sung said...

I think Valve's Half Life was the first game of its kind AFAIK that eliminated cut scenes altogether, and it's probably why it's one of my favorite games of all time (and many other's, too). I think the reason why cut scenes were so prevalent in the older games is that technology and budgets just weren't there to integrate it smoothly into gameplay, but that's no longer the case.

I know what you mean, though, Z Cole, regarding giving up. I'm the same way -- half an hour is about my limit for 90% of the titles out there. The only games I play semi-regularly are the sports games on the Wii.

Are video games art? Whatever you do, don't ask Roger Ebert!

- Sung

rmellis said...

How many games are actually art? Will a video game have to lose the "game" in order to be art? Maybe Bissell has addressed this, but it looks like I'll have to overcome my kindleaversion to read JRs copy of the book.

Sung said...

Rhian, in my opinion, video games have been art for quite some time. I'd make the argument that the gameplay itself is art and everything else is not (i.e., as Bissell says, an imitation of an existing art form like movies). For example, in the Nintendo game Super Mario Galaxy, there are levels in there that are so ingeniously created, so meticulously crafted, with the music and the sound and the graphics but most of all, the gameplay, that they elevate the experience to something beyond what's on the screen.

I think this talk about games and art stresses our own definition of art. For me, art is anything that speaks to me in an evocative, emotional way. Good art will provide many repeat thrills, and some games absolutely do that.

Case in point: Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the novel, and also the Infocom text-based game, and I'd think almost everyone who has been exposed to both versions would agree that they are each, in their own way, works of art.

In the beginning, we only had simple games like Space Invaders and Pac-Man, which required dexterity and/or rote memory recall to finish. Now we have games like Crayon Physics, games that are so creative that to not call them art would be a shame. There's nothing else in the world that's anything quite like that game, and I think that's a remarkable achievement.

- Sung

jrlennon said...

I think what games lack, at this point, is an accepted cultural context. Part of the way we write novels comes from what our culture is expecting of the novel. Games are still new--they don't know what they are yet because we haven't decided what they are.

Bissell's book, by the way, has grabbed my novel-in-progress and is steering it in a new direction. Exciting.

Sung said...

Yup, I think you're right on. I personally think games know exactly what they are; it's our culture that is failing to recognize them.

Video games = Waste of time. That's been the given paradigm since...forever. Since the first geek slipped a quarter into the Pong machine. And yet when we go to the museum to look at a painting by Degas, it's not a waste of time. Says who? Says society. Because staring at an impressionistic ballerina is an accepted act of culture, by culture.

I can only speak for myself. Whether I'm spending time staring at a van Gogh or playing BioShock, as long as I'm learning and feeling and understanding more than I did before, then I'm having a relationship with a work of art.

- Sung

Yetsuh said...

If you didn't see it- you might also be interested in the recent piece in the NYT about the American Academy in Rome. Bissell spent much of his year in Rome playing Xbox and talks about "Extra Lives" as having come directly out of that freedom.

When I read this I have to admit my reaction was a nasty cocktail of disgust and anger. Having always dreamed of a year at the Academy (in the same way one dreams of, say, owning an island in the carribean) I thought: How the !#$#@! does this !#@$@# get away with spending his year there playing Call of Duty!!!

So- deep breath- very glad to hear that his time in Rome might have led to a strong book. The piece is here: