Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Book Review: Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

I don't know what that cube-head thing is, but it scares the shit out of me Tired of chewing over the Great Games As Art Debate? So is Tom Bissell. In Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, he skips the grandstanding and gets to the point: he spent 200 hours immersed in the fantasy role-playing world of Oblivion. There’s a reason why.

The jacket blurb sells Extra Lives as an impassioned defense of “this assailed and misunderstood art form.” It’s wrong, thank god – Bissell is too smart to waste his time being defensive. Instead, Extra Lives is a memoir of the gaming life, a personal account of the sound, fury and theory behind an artform that is, in so many ways, still figuring out what it wants to be when it grows up.

Those picking up Extra Lives as a toilet-side diversion or inside-jokey bit of fan service will be disappointed. Bissell’s take on gaming is playful, personal and casual, but it’s whip-smart, sporting the critical chops of someone who publishes regularly in the New York Times, The New Yorker and Harper’s. No game, however beloved, gets a free pass. Fans of Resident Evil should expect to see the horror classic justly flogged.

“Without a doubt,” he writes, “Resident Evil showed how good games could be. Unfortunately, it also showed how bad games could be.”

It’s clear Bissell likes videogames, and enjoys gaming, but Extra Lives never shakes the ambivalence with which he writes about Resident Evil. The book’s penultimate chapter, “Far Cries,” visits the convention-mired and cliché-riddled world of first-person shooters, arguably gaming’s dominant flavor since the millennium turned. As the genre churns out increasingly reductive iterations, mistaking “realism” for lavishly-modeled geysers of blood, Bissell finds it less and less convincing:

“Death has become a way to inject life into the gameworld,” he writes. “Murder is vitality. For the shooter, slaughter is its north, its south, its east, its west, and nothing – no aesthetic cataclysm – has forced the genre into any readjustment. The shooter goes on as an increasingly sophisticated imitation of a dubious original idea.”

Far Cry 2 changed his mind (digression: Resident Evil is the oldest game Bissell chooses to discuss in any depth. No arguments on the art of Super Mario Bros. here). In FC2, you play a mercenary dispatched to a nameless, war-ravaged African country to kill The Jackal, a brooding arms dealer in the school of Colonel Kurtz. There are no cutscenes, a feature Bissell reveals to be a personal mandate of Ubisoft Montreal designer Clint Hocking. Gamers experience the euphorically lush African wilderness in perpetual first-person.

That’s the point, right? A first-person shooter should be an experience, not something scripted, dictated and marched along with the inevitability of a Tom Clancy novel. Accordingly, Bissell writes, Far Cry 2 is pure viewpoint, illustrated best when one of your fellow mercs is wounded on the battlefield, and the game gives you a choice: try to save their life with a precious syrette (your supply is limited), or put a bullet in their brain.

'BOOM, HEADSHOT' seems inappropriate I faced one such moment during my time with Far Cry 2. I tried to save my partner, plugging morphine syrette after syrette into his neck. He continued to gasp and gurgle. It wasn’t working. My options dwindled to the gun in my right hand, or watching him choke on his own blood; I shot him between the eyes. Instead of a mournful swelling of strings, the only soundtrack Far Cry 2 supplied was the steady downpour of rain in the jungle canopy above.

“What Far Cry 2 seeks to provide with depth is the actual, in-game experience of terminating a life or being the agent of its restoration,” he writes. “This is not a tragic decision, and it does not pretend to be. It is a way to lure you deeper into the gameworld’s brutal ethos.”

“Experience” being the vital word. Videogames go beyond offering spectatorship or voyeurism; they invite intervention. And some of the most successful games store their meaning not in narrative, dialogue or visual art, but in the mechanics of that intervention, the why behind the buttons and joysticks – what Bissell calls “the language of gameplay.” As an exemplar, he offers up Braid, a time-shifting platformer commonly help up as a paradigm of Games As Art.

hay guys games as art A side-scrolling, 2-D platformer, Braid has more in common with Super Mario Bros. than it does Grand Theft Auto. But unlike Mario, Braid doesn’t let its players die. Missing a jump doesn’t result in death and a punitive setback – instead, Braid lets players rewind the clock and try again. It forgives gamers, allows them to amend their misunderstanding, lack of foresight and judgment.

Paired along with the barest and most general of stories – a breakup – the ability to take back your mistake waffles between mechanic and metaphor. Braid suddenly feels a long way from Mario.

“[Designer] Blow filled the world of Braid with scaffolds of sneaky autobiography, which may be what provides it with its unusual melancholy and corresponding emotional significance,” Bissell writes. “It feels as though the person who created it was trying to communicate something, however nameless and complicated. It feels, in other words, a lot like art.”

But the videogames that ring truest for Bissell – and indeed, the moments where Extra Lives is most affecting – are personal and emotional. Mass Effect, an Iliad-scale sci-fi epic, presented moral choices so emotionally difficult that Bissell had to call his girlfriend for a consult.

(Her response? “You do know that you’re crazy, right?” I’ll wager anyone reading Extra Lives has had this moment. Probably several times).

In “Grand Thefts,” Bissell conflates his escape into the intoxicatingly open world of Grand Theft Auto III: Vice City with his addiction to cocaine. After a book of fleet, precise observations about the state of the art, this was hard to read. I’d read Bissell’s previous book The Father Of All Things: A Marine, His Son and the Legacy Of Vietnam three years ago while studying for my senior thesis, and it earned him an immediate spot on my shortlist of vital writers. Watching his retreat into the personless hole of marathon gaming – all needs, desires and ambitions sanded down by coke, his excellent mind all intake and no output – was heartbreaking. For anyone who’s ever binge-gamed until their eyes ache, it’s a harrowing read.

He emerged with a gem, though, a coda for what might be the founding text of gaming criticism. In videogames, experience is king – but this demands something from the player, something more than mere agency. Something like responsibility, perhaps:

“What have games given me? Experiences. Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories. Once I wanted games to show me things I could not see in any other medium. Then I wanted games to tell me a story in a way no other medium can. Then I wanted games to redeem something absent in myself. Then I wanted a game experience that pointed not toward but at something. Playing GTA IV on coke for weeks and then months at a time, I learned that maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough.”