July 21 2010 12:00 AM

Insightful ’Extra Lives’ takes video games very seriously


Video games — fare for the alienated and dateless? Sure. Catalyst for the disgruntled? Debatable, although those Columbine shooters did love “Doom.”

Certainly video games are not the type of leisure activity worthy of a man of letters — or are they?

In his previous books, Tom Bissell explored the Vietnam War and life in the former Soviet Union. In his latest, “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter,” Bissell steps into what many consider to be childish fun. Not so, argues Bissell, who sees contemporary games as being just as important as novels or films.

The reaction to “Extra Lives” has been mixed. “Critics have expressed dismay as to how one can be literary and a fan of video games,” Bissell said, adding that he used to experience some degree of cognitive dissonance when he, as a published author, would sit in front of the television, controller in hand.

He doesn’t feel that way anymore. “Games and reading are two different kinds of storytelling,” Bissell says. “I don’t want to devalue either one of them.”

The inspiration for the book came from an article that Bissell wrote — in The New Yorker, of all places — about the game “Gears of War 2.” The piece, which is a chapter in the book, not only discusses “Gears,” but also the history of gaming. Bissell explains that early games could not be analyzed critically, simply because they lacked substance.

For instance, the original "Super Mario Bros." (a classic) really didn’t have much to it. A princess is kidnapped and you, as Mario, must step on many a koopa in order to get her back. What do we know about Mario? Not much, other than he is a plumber.

Today, plots are more in-depth. Characters are more developed. In other words, the video game is now worthy of the type of critical analysis previously reserved for films and novels.

Bissell spent six months writing “Extra Lives,” which reads more like a series of essays than a complete book. Each chapter deals with a different game, providing a detailed analysis and occasional interviews with the games’ designers.

Some of the games profiled include “Far Cry 2,” “Mass Effect” and “Fallout 3,” although Bissell does provide some analysis of older titles such as “Metroid” and “Resident Evil.” All of the aforementioned are what are referred to as “AAA” games, or big-budget blockbusters. These types of games provide the bulk of Bissell’s analysis, but he does devote an entire chapter to lesser-known “art games.”

Reading this book will enhance the gamers’ lexicon by introducing devices they previously didn’t know. In Chapter 3, Bissell introduces the terms “framed narrative” and “ludo-narrative” and explains why game designers find creating a harmony between them so vexing.

Readers may be enlightened when Bissell points out intellectual references that most gamers would normally miss, such as explaining how “Bio Shock,” a firstperson shooter set in a dystopian underwater city, is really a critique of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. Will this book have gamers running to their local library? Probably not. But then again, how many people studied Gnosticism after seeing “The Matrix”?

The book’s final chapter is a very personal one, in which Bissell describes long sessions playing “Grand Theft Auto IV,” fueled by cocaine. Bissell gives the previous “Grand Theft Auto” games high praise, although his main criticism is that the characters were superficial criminals.

In the fourth installment, the character Niko has substance and a compelling story. “Niko was not my friend, but I felt for him, deeply,” writes Bissell. “By the end of his long journey, Niko and I had been through a lot together.”

To feel this way about a character such as Holden Caulfield is natural and by no means unique. But to feel this way about a character in a video game is almost unheard of.