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Saturday, August 6th, 2011
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Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (Vintage)

by Tom Bissell

Next-Level Theories

A review by Nathan Weatherford

Tom Bissell has played a lot of video games over the course of his life. Luckily, this obsession has clearly not hurt his writing or sense of humor. Throughout Extra Lives, Bissell ably intertwines intellectual questions and uproarious anecdotes from his experiences playing video games and his interactions with those who make them. The result is an in-depth look at the struggles that go into both developing and playing these games (which are taking up more and more of our leisure time -- and income), as seen through the eyes of someone who has an appropriately uneasy relationship with his own particular version of this obsession.

While Bissell makes it clear that he has been playing video games since childhood, all of these essays deal specifically with games that have come out in the last 10 to 15 years. Video games have obviously made giant evolutionary leaps from the days of playing Donkey Kong in the arcade, and, indeed, many of Bissell's musings on the subject would not have been imaginable at the outset of the video-gaming era. What was once a potentially frustrating and challenging pastime -- whose main requirements were an ability to memorize patterns and be quick on the joystick -- has now become capable of transporting us to massive worlds, enveloping us in gripping storylines, and scaring us as much as (or more than) any horror film. In Bissell's mind, there's no question that video games have become their own art form. But, what this particular art form does that no film, book, or painting can do is still up for debate, as is how best to navigate the various conceptual pitfalls specific to the form.

One struggle at the heart of modern video game development that I found quite fascinating is the tug-of-war between narrative and ludonarrative. The narrative in video games is the overarching plot that guides the player through the game, usually dispensed through cut scenes in modern games. The ludonarrative is the part of the story that is created through the player's own gameplay. Here's the conundrum: give the game too much narrative, and the player will lose interest quickly, since they didn't buy the video game to watch a movie that they have absolutely no control over; but, at the opposite end, with too much ludonarrative, it's impossible to maintain any coherent dramatic arc or emotional investment in characters. And if this balance wasn't enough to contend with, there's also the possibility of the narrative and ludonarrative being in direct conflict with each other.

Bissell mentions an essay by Clint Hocking (current creative director at LucasArts and former creative director for Ubisoft Montreal) in which Hocking coins the term "ludonarrative dissonance" in reference to the video game Bioshock. In Hocking's opinion, Bioshock's gameplay promotes self-interest above all else (i.e. siphoning life out of innocent characters to make your own character that much stronger in the game, enabling you to progress through the game that much more easily), but its narrative constantly presents selflessness as the guiding theme of the story. Thus, as the game's character, you are compelled to act selflessly in the narrative, regardless of how selfishly you act in the ludonarrative that you're creating as you play -- a basic aesthetic hypocrisy that constantly distracts from the world of the game, and a hypocrisy that not only doesn't but can't exist in books or films. My respect for the careful art of video game development increased exponentially after learning about these and myriad other constraints inherent to the field.

But Extra Lives contains a great deal more than philosophical ruminations about video games (and I promise that Bissell explains ludonarrative much more effectively and hilariously than I have here). Bissell has conversations with some of the best video game developers in the field, tells stories about his personal experiences losing himself in games such as Grand Theft Auto IV and Fallout 3, and has constant internal arguments about whether or not the extraordinary number of hours he's dedicated to these and many other games over the years have been worth it -- and if not, why he keeps feeling compelled to lose himself in them time and again.

Both a highly informative survey of the modern video game world and a refreshingly honest look at one man's trials and tribulations with the medium, Extra Lives is a thoroughly engaging read, one that inveterate gamers would do well to put their controllers down for -- and one that could occasion newcomers to pick up those controllers for the first time.


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