Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Consider The Gamer

What can I say about Tom Bissell's new book Extra Lives? I feel utterly unqualified to judge it as a work of criticism, as a personal memoir, or as a critical manifesto. Or maybe it's more that I almost feel over-qualified, as though any thoughts I have about the book might as well have come from within it.

Maybe that doesn't even make sense. Though I'm pretty sure that other games writers/bloggers who have read the book know what I'm trying to say. Then again, I'm actually not going to assume that all of our readers are already aware of Extra Lives. So it is to that casual reader that I wish to say, with strong posture and forceful delivery:  

"You should buy this book."

To make my case, I could point you to any number of glowing, big-league reviews that will greatly help justify your purchase. Or I might direct you towards the incendiary excerpt about cocaine and Grand Theft Auto IV that The Guardian ran a few months ago. Or best of all, I could suggest that you listen to Michael Abbott's latest Brainy Gamer Podcast with Bissell, which might be the most relaxed and enjoyable hour of video game nerdery I've ever had the pleasure of downloading.

But since I just linked you to all that stuff, I guess I'll share my thoughts about the book instead.

Over the course of Extra Lives's 201 pages I never lost the feeling of relief that finally, someone with Bissell's extraordinary writing ability has turned towards gaming. There is no precedent for the depth and grace with which he illuminates gaming's big-picture questions, as well as the smaller, darker corners where the medium actually lives. What's more, Bissell's gift for words both inspires me and gently reminds me how much my own writing can still be improved.

In addition to sharing his own experiences, it's a relief to see that Bissell has devoted his sizable menagerie of similes and metaphors to the task of describing the experience of play. His recounting of a harrowing fight-or-flight moment in Left 4 Dead comes off like a grizzled war vet describing his battlefield exploits, perfectly capturing the "We were in the shit, man" feeling that makes that game unique. Of Mass Effect's control scheme, he offers the hilariously spot-on observation that "throwing a grenade at a platoon of geth with the "back" button feels as fundamentally mistaken as using the volume knob on your car stereo to roll down the driver's-side window." Perhaps best of all is an early chapter detailing his first encounter with Resident Evil (also published in issue #0 of Kill Screen); it is as gripping and visceral an account of the act of play as I've encountered.

At times it seems as though every page contains at least one turn of phrase that demands to be shared. I read the entire book with my pencil at the ready, underlining my favorite paragraphs like a bizarro-world copy-editor. Perhaps even better than the gameplay descriptions are the throwaway asides about gaming culture, like when he notes that Knights of the Old Republic is "known, in vaguely neanderthal vernacular, as KotOR" or points out that "rarely has wide-ranging familiarity with a medium so transparently privileged the un- and underemployed." Amen, brother.

Another highlight is the chapter "LittleBigProblems," which takes an unflinchingly sympathetic look at the many artistic and creative disconnects that exist within the games industry. Even there, Bissell's comfort with grey areas wins out and he cuts designers some slack, noting that after all, gaming "began as an engineering culture, transformed into a business, and now, like a bright millionaire turning toward poetry, ha(s) confident but uncertain aspirations toward art."

I found Extra Lives to be reminiscent in many ways of the late great David Foster Wallace's nonfiction collection Consider The Lobster. Bissell shares Wallace's relentless observational skills and mastery of the painfully personal aside, and as Wallace does so often and so effortlessly, Bissell makes a regular practice of showing us the ugly side of a thing so that we might better understand its true beauty. But although Extra Lives is in large part a book about dark things in dark games, it is also brimming with joy. It's the sort of book that inspires oversharing; if only we all could talk about our sad, solitary moments with Tom's eloquence!

I'll avoid that here, but I would like to say say that I identify more than somewhat with his descriptions of the challenges posed by an artistic lifestyle. There is a lonely separateness that accompanies creativity; the act of building art is often an isolating, consuming undertaking. I can certainly attest firsthand to the powerful role that video games can play in that process, and so too can Bissell. That he does so with such courageous precision inspires in me both relief and gratitude. And beyond that, it simply inspires.

So I take it as a blessing that a writer of Tom's caliber has gifted us with a collection of works of such clear-eyed compassion and towering tolerance for ambiguity. Extra Lives is a triumph, a book steeped to saturation in an abiding love of gaming, gamers, and of language itself. I simply cannot recommend it highly enough.

But God, enough from me already. Go buy a copy!


Bruno Dion said...

I am making my way slowly through this book during the breaks at my job and it is really good.

I'm only at the start of Littlebigproblems but so far I am really impressed at both the way he talks about games with the amazing attention to details you'd get in a really good travel book and at the portrait he made of Cliff(y B)leszinski.

He really opened my eyes to layers of GoW that I never imagined were there.

Tom Bissell said...

I just wanted to tell you that it is responses like this that make writing seem worthwhile, and important. If there's no you to respond in this way, there may as well be no me. Thank you.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Tom - I find myself at an uncommon loss for words. Thank you man.

Bronte said...

Thanks for this, and for the brilliant article at The Guardian.

I will be buying the book this evening.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Bruno - glad to hear you're liking the book, too. Jason's review at paste (linked to in post) also makes the travel-writing comparison, and I agree it's apt. And not just in-game travel, but real travel! Thanks to the chapter on Mass Effect, I now know not to plan to vacation in Edmonton.

I agree about Cliff(y B)lezinski (hee) - the more I read about him, the more I respect him. Brilliant, imaginative game-maker. I'd love to meet him someday.

Bronte - very cool! Happy to have pointed you towards that Guardian article. It so harrowingly describes a place that I think many of us have been at one time or another, with one vice or another. Hope you dig the book as much as I did.

Jay said...

Not to get too book-club specific, but I perused the Guardian excerpt again (since you made it so handily available) and picked up on a really nice juxtaposition that I hadn't noticed the first time around.

TB notes that, "The driving force of both (GTA) games is the gamer's curiosity: What happens next? What is over here? What if I do this?" suggesting a means to satisfy some of our most primal urges- a call to arms to embrace our Freudian id and let it run wild in the streets.

Skip ahead to the aftermath and by the end of the chapter, in a seemingly defeated tone, he ponders "What have games given me? and proceeds to go down a list, crossing off the previous idealistic notions he had about the medium. TB ultimately concludes that, "...maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough." Sure, this self-reflexive analysis is exaggerated by his own, actual narcotic endeavors, but I believe within this epiphany lies a certain kind of maturity and self-actualization that appears at odds with the initial, immature driving force behind the games themselves.

So what happens when we try to resolve the two? When this game, this bloody sandbox of unmitigated pleasure and debauchery, points its trigger finger back at us? I might argue the same thing that happens when we stare at Van Gogh's The Starry Night or read Kafka's Metamorphosis; we are challenged to reinterpret the world around us, and by extension our own personal context and identity within it, in light of this new information. We employ our ego to revise our sense of self to fit the data.

Thankfully in this case, that doesn't involve becoming a literal car-jacking serial killer, but it does beg the question why the attraction (or more accurately why the obsession), and why do I identify/sympathize with a criminal? Short answer, because that criminal is YOU. Long answer, well, that's basically the existential dilemma. Sorry to get so esoteric on the subject but if that's not art, hell, if that's not life, I don't know what is.

I can't wait to read the rest!

On a lighter note, I enjoyed re-reading that excerpt even more this time around with Red Dead Redemption in the back of my mind alongside the gallery of previous Rockstar games. Here's to hoping for an afterward on that subject in the paperback version.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Jay - yeah man, that line of thinking is one of the most provocative in the book. If the games we so enjoy point back at us, given the nature of these games, what exactly are they pointing at?

It's the kind of (mostly) uncharted waters that the book gets at regularly, though much of the early chapters are more journalistic in nature than the GTA IV bit, which comes at the end. It's stimulating stuff; I'll look forward to hearing what you think of the rest of the book.

It's funny that you mention an afterward - there actually is an appendix in which Tom begins by saying that since writing the book, he's played so many more thought-provoking games (and then makes a second note to note that since writing that first note, he's played so many more thought-provoking games, heh)... it's pretty funny.

Tom and Michael actually talk about RDR a bit on the latest Brainy Gamer podcast (linked to in post). It's really a great conversation, and I recommend checking it out.