The title of this book is Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. I normally wouldn’t begin a review with such a mundane sentence, but it is vital to understanding my reaction to the book. The eponymous question is never answered in this volume. The question appears to be an “excuse” for publishing the most self-indulgent essays I’ve read since some of my reviews on this site. At least, Bissell is honest about his bias against PC games. I can understand that. It’s very clear from the games that he has decided to cover that he is a total first-person shooter player. He knows platform games as the Ur-video game, but outside of Fallout 3, Braid, and Resident Evil, he waxed most prolifically about Left 4 Dead, Gears of War, Mass Effect, Metal Gear Solid, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, Call of Duty, and Grand Theft Auto—all, arguably, essentially first-person shooters. Yet, all of these are interesting accounts of his experiences in and impressions of the games while none of them indicate why the games might matter.
Indeed, it often seems as if the title should be Extra Lives: Why Video Games Don’t Matter. His prose is full of sneers like, “One might argue that critical writing about games is difficult because most games are unable to withstand thoughtful criticism.” (p. xii) Although he claims to have moved beyond an earlier essay that he quotes (“…no video game has ever crossed the Rubicon from entertainment to true art.” p. 35), he “hesitates” to call Bioshock “legitimate art” on the self-same page. He is even more condescending when it comes to game writing (predominantly speaking of dialogue) and the game press.
In terms of the game press, he quotes embittered developers as saying, “They don’t review for anyone but themselves” and “Game reviewers have a huge responsibility, and they abuse it.” (p. 73) The former having been leveled against critics in every field and the latter being something that is generally true. When I edited the premier computer game magazine (some have kindly called it the “gold standard” of PC game journalism—though that might have simply implied that my editorial style was anachronistic), I felt it was important to communicate what the game was like in order to let the reader make up his/her own mind. To do this, I tried to fit the right kind of reviewer to the right kind of game and to ensure that the reviewer at least acknowledged what the designers/development teams were “trying” to do in the way they made certain choices. Those choices might not have worked, but the reader would be capable of deciding whether those choices put her/him off or not. I didn’t feel like many of my competitors approached reviews in that way.
In terms of game writing, he refers to: Fallout 3’s dialogue as so appalling as “…to make Stephanie Meyer look like Ibsen.” (p. 9) and Resident Evil’s dialogue as “bad enough as written,” (p. 19). He claims that he will accept “crudities” in games that he would never tolerate in any other art form. There is a theme of the frustrated, would-be game writer that runs through the book. He continually asks the interviewees why they don’t use more writers or pay more attention to writers (with the exception of his discussion of Bioware and interview with Sir Peter Molyneaux of Lionhead in the appendix). It seems pretty disingenous for a writer to complain about the quality of writing when it is overtly clear that said writer, published in several “linear” modes, really wants someone to offer him a job.
My favorite quotation in the book is when Bissell describes the evolution of video game graphics. He writes, “…early video games such as Pong and Spacewar! Are, developmentally speaking, cave paintings, whereas Tempest and Pac-Man are something like modernism, albeit a modernism of necessity. Within the evolution of video games, no naturalistic stage between the primitivism of Pong and the modernism of Tempest was possible due to the technological limitations to which game designers were subject.” (pp. 99-100). About the center of the book, Bissell admits that video games have improved on almost every level—aesthetic, characterization, dialogue, and emotional appeal—but insists that games started at a degree of minus efficacy (pp. 86-87). He’s right on both of these counts, but his entire book puts me off because even his compliments are designed to set up his offensive sense of superiority over the subject matter he is covering. That is why I cannot recommend what could have been an important book. As a former game journalist, I can only say, “God forgive me for any occasions where I held my subject matter in contempt.”