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Bissell’s Extra Lives

A key step in the development of any art form is the parallel development of a viable school of criticism of that form. A sophisticated audience produces a connoisseurship that in turn establishes the standards by which new work can be judged.

Video games, not to give ammunition to the Roger Ebert school, have yet to achieve that step. There’s the redoubtable Yahtzee Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation, of course. But too many learned critiques of games still boil down to: kewl.

Nonetheless, strides are being made. Tom Bissell’s 2010 book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter is the first essential work of video game criticism. It covers a battery of titles and dives into many of the critical questions facing the medium. What constitutes a good game? What is the appropriate balance between story and play?

Bissell is a writer with genuine chops and a hardcore gamer. I have issues with some of his choices and his love of adverbs (“glowingly magic hammers,” Tom? Really?), but on the whole Extra Lives is a vital assessment of the medium that will be hailed as a landmark. Some thought-provoking bits from the book:

“For many gamers (and, by all evidence, game designers), story is largely a matter of accumulation. The more explanation there is, the thought appears to go, the more story has been generated. This would be a profound misunderstanding of story for any form of narrative art, but it has hobbled the otherwise high creative achievement of any number of games.”

“A good game attracts you with melodrama and hypnotizes you with elegant gameplay. In effect, this turns you into a galley slave who enjoys rowing.”

“Authors had their say in static moments such as cut scenes, and gamers had their say during play. There is no doubt that this method of game design has produced many fine and fun games but very few experiences that have emotionally startled anyone.”

Riffing on Braid designer Jonathan Blow’s complaint about the “‘importance’ gigantism” in games: “I know I have saved the world so many times in video games that lately I have felt a kind of resentful Republicanism creep into my game-playing mind: Can’t these fucking people take care of themselves?”

“Video games … are indisputably richer than they have ever been in terms of character and narrative and emotional impact, and anyone who says otherwise has been not playing many games. Unfortunately, they began in a place of minus efficiency in all of the above, and anyone who says otherwise has probably never done anything but play games.”

Bissell recently reviewed Dead Space 2. I like his take on the Midi-Chlorian Error, i.e., confusing that which has not been explained for that which must be explained, and on the consequences of providing the wrong answer to an unnecessary question. He’s well on his way to becoming the Pauline Kael of video games.

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