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Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matterby Tom Bissell
from Chapter 9
Once upon a time, I wrote in the morning, jogged in the late afternoon, and spent most of my evenings reading. Once upon a time, I wrote off as unproductive those days in which I had managed to put down “only” a thousand words. Once upon a time, I played video games almost exclusively with friends. Once upon a time, I did occasionally binge on games, but these binges rarely had less than fortnight between them. Once upon a time, I was, more or less, content.
“Once upon a time” refers to relatively recent years (2001-2006) during which I wrote several books and published more than fifty pieces of magazine journalism and criticism—a total output of, give or take, 4,500 manuscript pages. I rarely felt very disciplined during this half decade, though I realize this admission invites accusations of disingenuousness or, failing that, a savage and justified beating. Obviously, I was disciplined. These days, however, I am lucky if I finish reading one book every fortnight. These days, I have read from start to finish exactly two works of fiction—excepting those I was not also reviewing—in the last year. These days, I play video games in the morning, play video games in the afternoon, and spend my evenings playing video games. These days, I still manage to write, but the times I am able to do so for more than three sustained hours have the temporal periodicity of comets with near-Earth trajectories.
For a while I hoped that my inability to concentrate on writing and reading was the result of a charred and overworked thalamus. I knew the pace I was on was not sustainable and figured my discipline was treating itself to a Rumspringa. I waited patiently for it to stroll back onto the farm, apologetic but invigorated. When this did not happen, I wondered if my intensified attraction to games, and my desensitized attraction to literature, was a reasonable response to how formally compelling games had quite suddenly become. Three years into my predicament, my discipline remains AWOL. Games, meanwhile, are even more formally compelling.
It has not helped that during the last three years I have, for what seemed like compelling reasons at the time, frequently upended my life, moving from New York City to Rome to Las Vegas to Tallinn, Estonia, and back, finally, to the United States. With every move, I resolved to leave behind my video game consoles, counting on new surroundings, unfamiliar people, and different cultures to enable a rediscovery of the joy I once took in my work. Shortly after arriving in Rome, Las Vegas, and Tallinn, however, the lines of gameless resolve I had chalked across my mind were wiped clean. In Rome this took two months; in Vegas, two weeks; in Tallinn, two days. Thus I enjoy the spendthrift distinction of having purchased four Xbox 360 consoles in three years, having abandoned the first to the care of a friend in Brooklyn, left another floating around Europe with parties unknown, and stranded another with a pal in Tallinn (to the irritation of his girlfriend). The last Xbox 360 I bought has plenty of companions: a Gamecube, a PlayStation 2, and a PlayStation 3.
Writing and reading allow one consciousness to find and take shelter in another. When the mind of the reader and writer perfectly and inimitably connect, objects, events, and emotions become doubly vivid—realer, somehow, than real things. I have spent most of my life seeking out these connections and attempting to create my own. Today, however, the pleasures of literary connection seem leftover and familiar. Today, the most consistently pleasurable pursuit in my life is playing video games. Unfortunately, the least useful and financially solvent pursuit in my life is also playing video games. For instance, I woke up this morning at 8 A.M. fully intending to write this chapter. Instead, I played Left 4 Dead until 5 P.M. The rest of the day went up in a blaze of intermittent catnaps. It is now 10 P.M. and I have only started to work. I know how I will spend the late, frayed moments before I go to sleep tonight, because they are how I spent last night, and the night before that: walking the perimeter of my empty bed and carpet-bombing the equally empty bedroom with promises that tomorrow will not be squandered. I will fall asleep in a futureless, strangely peaceful panic, not really knowing what I will do the next morning and having no firm memory of who, or what, I once was.
The first video game I can recall having to force myself to stop playing was Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which was released in 2002 (though I did not play it until the following year). I managed to miss Vice City’s storied predecessor, Grand Theft Auto III, so I had only oblique notions of what I was getting into. A friend had lobbied me to buy Vice City, so I knew its basic premise: you are a cold-blooded jailbird looking to ascend the bloody social ladder of the fictional Vice City’s criminal under- and overworld. (I also knew that Vice City’s violent subject matter was said to have inspired crime sprees by a few of the game’s least stable fans. Other such sprees would horribly follow. Seven years later, Rockstar has spent more time in court than a playground-abutting pesticide manufactory.) I might have taken better note of the fact that my friend, when speaking of Vice City, admitted he had not slept more than four hours a night since purchasing it and had the ocular spasms and fuse-blown motor reflexes to prove it. Just what, I wanted to know, was so specifically compelling about Vice City? “Just get it and play it,” he answered. “You can do anything you want in the game. Anything.”
Before I played Vice City, the open-world games with which I was familiar had predictable restrictions. Ninety percent of most open gameworlds’ characters and objects were interactively off limits and most game maps simply stopped. When, like a digital Columbus, you attempted to journey beyond the edge of these flat earths, onscreen text popped up: YOU CAN’T GO THAT WAY! There were a few exceptions to this, such as the (still) impressively open-ended gameworld of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which was released in 1998. As great as Ocarina was, however, it appealed to the most hairlessly innocent parts of my imagination. Ingenious, fun, and beautiful, Ocarina provided all I then expected from video games. (Its mini-game of rounding up a brood of fugitive chickens remains my all time favorite.) Yet the biggest game of its time was still, for me, somehow too small. As a navigated experience, the currents that bore you along were suspiciously obliging. Whatever I did, and wherever I moved, I never felt as though I had escaped the game. When the game stopped, so did the world.
The world of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was also a fantasy—a filthy, brutal, hilarious, contemporary fantasy. My friend’s promise that you could do anything you wanted in Vice City proved to be an exaggeration, but not by very much. You control a young man named Tommy, who has been recently released from prison. He arrives in Vice City—an ocean-side metropolis obviously modeled on the Miami of 1986 or so—only to be double-crossed during a coke deal. A few minutes into the game, you watch a cut scene in which Tommy and his lawyer (an anti-Semitic parody of an anti-Semitic parody) decide that revenge must be taken and the coke recovered. Once the cut scene ends, you step outside your lawyer’s office. A car is waiting for you. You climb in and begin your drive to the mission destination (a clothing store) clearly marked on your map. The first thing you notice is that your car’s radio can be tuned to a number of different radio stations. What is playing on these stations is not a loop of caffeinatedly upbeat MIDI video-game songs or some bombastic score written for the game but Michael Jackson, Hall and Oates, Cutting Crew, and Luther Vandross. While you are wondering at this, you hop a curb, run over some pedestrians, and slam into a parked car, all of which a nearby police officer sees. He promptly gives chase. And for the first time you are off, speeding through Vice City’s various neighborhoods. You are still getting accustomed to the driving controls and come into frequent contact with jaywalkers, oncoming traffic, street lights, fire hydrants. Soon your pummeled car (you shed your driver’s-side door two blocks ago) is smoking. The police, meanwhile, are still in pursuit. You dump the dying car and start to run. How do you get another car? As it happens, a sleek little sporty number called the Stinger is idling beneath a stoplight right in front of you. This game is called Grand Theft Auto, is it not? You approach the car, hit the assigned button, and watch Tommy rip the owner from the vehicle, throw him to the street, and drive off. Wait—look there! A motorcycle. Can you drive motorcycles too? After another brutal vehicular jacking, you fly off an angled ramp in cinematic slow-motion while ELO’s “Four Little Diamonds” strains the limits of your television’s half-dollar-sized speakers. You have now lost the cops and swing around to head back to your mission, the purpose of which you have forgotten. It gradually dawns on you that this mission is waiting for you to reach it. You do not have to go if you do not want to. Feeling liberated, you drive around Vice City as day gives way to night. When you finally hop off the bike, the citizens of Vice City mumble and yell insults. You approach a man in a construction worker’s outfit. He stops, looks at you, and waits. The game does not give you any way to interact with this man other than through physical violence, so you take a swing. The fight ends with you stomping the last remaining vitality from the hapless construction worker’s blood-squirting body. When you finally decide to return to the mission point, the rhythm of the game is established. Exploration, mission, cut scene, driving, mayhem, success, exploration, mission, cut scene, driving, mayhem, success. Never has a game felt so open. Never has a game felt so generationally relevant. Never has a game felt so awesomely gratuitous. Never has a game felt so narcotic. When you stopped playing Vice City, its leash-snapped world somehow seemed to go on without you.
Vice City’s sequel, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, was several magnitudes larger—so large, in fact, I never finished the game. San Andreas gave gamers not one city to explore but three, all of them set in the hip-hop demimonde of California in the early 1990s (though one of the cities is a Vegas clone). It also added dozens of diversions, the most needless of which was the ability of your controlled character, a young man named C.J., to get fat from eating health-restoring pizza and burgers—fat that could be burned off only by hauling C.J.’s porky ass down to the gym to ride a stationary bike and lift weights. This resulted in a lot of soul-scouring questions as to why A) it even mattered to me that C.J. was fat and why B) C.J. was getting more physical exercise than I was. Because I could not answer either question satisfactorily, I stopped playing.
Grand Theft Auto IV was announced in early 2007, two years after the launch of the Xbox 360 and one year after the launch of the PlayStation 3, the “next-generation” platforms that have since pushed gaming into the cultural mainstream. When the first next-gen titles began to appear, it was clear that the previous Grand Theft Auto titles—much like Hideo Kojima’s similarly brilliant and similarly frustrated Metal Gear Solid titles—were games of next-gen vision and ambition without next-gen hardware to support them. The early word was that GTA IV would scale back the excesses of San Andreas and provide a rounder, more succinctly inhabited game experience. I was living in Las Vegas when GTA IV (after a heartbreaking six-month delay) was finally released.
In Vegas I had made a friend who shared my sacramental devotion to marijuana, my dilated obsession with gaming, and my ballistic impatience to play GTA IV. When I was walking home from my neighborhood game store with my reserved copy of GTA IV in hand, I called my friend to tell him. He let me know that, to celebrate the occasion, he was bringing over some “extra sweetener.” My friend’s taste in recreational drug abuse vastly exceeded my own, and this extra sweetener turned out to be an alarming quantity of cocaine, a substance with which I had one prior and unexpectedly amiable experience, though I had not seen a frangible white nugget of the stuff since.
While the GTA IV load screen appeared on my television screen, my friend chopped up a dozen lines, reminded me of basic snorting protocol, and handed me the straw. I hesitated before taking the tiny hollow scepter, but not for too long. Know this: I was not someone whose life had been marked by the meticulous collection of bad habits. I chewed tobacco, regularly drank about ten Diet Cokes a day, and liked marijuana. Beyond that, my greatest vice was probably reading poetry for pleasure. The coke sailed up my nasal passage, leaving behind the delicious smell of a hot leather car seat on the way back from the beach. My previous coke experience had made feeling good an emergency, but this was something else, softer, and almost relaxing. This coke, my friend told me, had not been “stepped on” with any amphetamine, and I pretended to know what that meant. I felt as intensely focused as a diamond-cutting laser; Grand Theft Auto IV was ready to go. My friend and I played it for the next thirty hours straight.
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