Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Extra Lives

Paste Magazine, which to my dismay recently suspended its print run, isn't just an indie music rag--it's an indie book/game/movie rag too!  In their June/July issue, they reviewed an interesting-sounding book called Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.  I figured it had a colon in the title, so it had to be good, and in an overwhelming display of whiteness, I decided to check it out from the library.

In it, Tom Bissell recounts his experiences playing ten or so video games, giving his reaction to each and interspersing interviews with game designers, critics, and other video-game luminaries.  Finally, he tries to relate his experience with each game to some sort of social convention or human emotion, explaining why the game succeeds or fails as art.

Bissell's tales of playing through each game are by far the best parts of the book, especially if you're a gamer, and even more so if you've played the game he's discussing.  These anecdotes are hilarious, accurate, and instantly relatable to anyone who's sunk triple-digit hours into Oblivion or suffered the misfortune of listening to its dialog.

The book is weaker when it's trying to make connections or prove a point.  Bissell can't quite decide if he wants to apologize for his love of video games, defend it, or just revel in its geeky glory.  In truth, he takes each of those three positions depending on his audience--the same game he praises for being innovative and absorbing, he starts criticizing as soon as his girlfriend does too--and he loses some credibility to that constant change of mood.

About the only other flaw in the book is its style.  Bissell apparently has not learned the writer's lesson never to use a million-dollar word when a ten-dollar one will do (or however Strunk and White phrase it).  He has a propensity for inserting Latin phrases just to prove that he knows them, and his sometimes-creative, sometimes-baffling bending of the conventional usage of words makes me wonder if he's writing for gamers or for other writers.

Although Bissell at times tries too hard to suck up to the smugness of the art crowd, it's clear from reading his stories that he's a gamer at heart.  If you are too, you will certainly appreciate how Bissell memorializes your favorite games and sheds some light on their conception and production.

Currently listening: "Jackie, Dressed in Cobras", The New Pornographers

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