Thursday, June 17, 2010

Confessions and Extra Lives

(This piece was originally posted at Ditching Otis.)

I have a confession to make. I’m not an unbiased reader of Tom Bissell. I have a not-entirely rational investment in writers from my alma mater, and Bissell’s background comes tantalizingly close to neglecting to fail entirely to overlap with my own. He graduated from Michigan State a year or two before I started attending. He worked on the campus literary magazine that wasn’t the one I worked for. He has longstanding acquaintances with the older MSU writers whose books I obsessively collect, catalog, and for the most part do not read. I had lunch with him once when he visited campus and he was friendly and interesting without leaving the impression that he was working harder than he should to like you or make you like him. He signed my copy of his collection of stories (which I had actually read) and included his email address.

I have a second confession to make. Tom Bissell is the reason that I write about video games. While trawling the interwebs I stumbled across a piece Bissell had written about the game Dead Souls which spiraled out to consider the role difficulty plays in video games. Bissell used Dead Souls as a way to talk about the complaint that recent generations of video games, with in-depth tutorials, frequent save points, and repetitive game play minimized in favor of cinematic cutscenes, lack the level of challenge found in the earliest console games, which demanded split-second reflexes and/or hours of repetitive “grinding” in order to raise characters to a level sufficient to defeat the monsters guarding the next area to be explored. I knew that Bissell was going to be a game writer worth following when it became clear that he was not entirely nostalgic for the days of difficulty über alles.

I have a third confession to make. Tom Bissell is the reason that this column is titled “Diary of a Casual Gamer.” Bissell includes his Playstion Network and Xbox Live usernames in the author bio of his new book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, and when he accepted my friend request (don’t read too much into that gesture—one doesn’t make such information so broadly available if one is disinclined to accept such requests), it was brutally clear just how much homework I had to do to even be able to really even participate in the conversation. I have trophies (markers of progress) from six PS3 games (one of which I don’t even own). Bissell has trophies from 18, and it’s pretty clear from his writing that Bissell’s PS3 receives substantially less use than his Xbox 360, a console he has purchased no fewer than four times in three different countries. (Seriously. Page 160.)

I have a fourth (and hopefully final) confession to make. Bissell discusses a wide variety of games in Extra Lives. I have played almost none of them. Happily, this in no way adversely impacted my enjoyment of the book.

Bissell’s book is subtitled Why Video Games Matter, but more than a philosophical or aesthetic treatise, Extra Lives is an embodiment of the pleasures of close observation and careful description. I chuckled in moments of recognition—Bissell’s initial reaction to the overwhelming number of buttons on the original Playstation controller “(seventeen!)”—and allowed myself to follow Bissell through the twists and turns of games I’ve never played (and probably will never play). I’m pretty sure that Bissell has an opinion on the relative merits of the Xbox 360 vs. the PS3, and it’s somewhat striking that he claims to own a GameCube and not a Wii, but Bissell wisely avoids such debates, and casts an ironic eye on the possibility of a final qualitative distinction. At the end of the chapter "The Unbearable Lightness of Games," Bissell writes:
I once raved about Left 4 Dead in a video-game emporium within earshot of the manager, a man I had previously heard angrily defend the proposition that lightsaber wounds are not necessarily cauterized. . . . “Left 4 Dead?” he asked me. “You liked it?” I admitted that I did. Very, very much. And him? “I liked it,” he said grudgingly. “I just wish it had more story.” . . . I then realized I was contrasting my aesthetic sensibility to that of some teenagers about a game that concerns itself with shooting as many zombies as possible. It is moments like this that can make it so dispiritingly difficult to care about video games.
Coming at the end of a chapter in which Bissell has shown how the cooperative features and brilliant interactive design of Left 4 Dead actually creates narrative moments by forcing players into situations where their choices really seem to matter and create tangible (if entirely contingent) outcomes, the manager’s criticism is especially damning. Left 4 Dead, according to Bissell, creates experiences—I abandoned my group, because they were all dying and it seemed better for me to survive, but through shame and peer pressure, I was coerced back into the game and was able to save my teammates—but he is forced to concede that experience is not always the same as story. Given the way that open-ended gameplay is at odds with the sort of authorially-determined story that we’re familiar with from novels and film, Bissell is rightly and fascinatingly conflicted over whether making video games “matter” means arguing that they offer narrative possibilities equal to (if different than) those offered by film and literature, or casting an entire outmoded idea of narrative aside in favor of an entirely new set of possibilities.

Extra Lives doesn’t answer this question (and it probably wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun to read if it thought it necessary to do so). One of the underrated (or at least under-discussed) pleasures of video games is to watch a better gamer than oneself in action. (In this way, video games might be considered in analogy to sports as much as other forms of narrative.) This is one of the pleasures of reading Extra Lives as well.

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