Jaw-dropping graphics, engrossing action and . . . vapid storytelling.
Tom Bissell has purchased four Xbox 360 videogame consoles in the past five years. And he has given away three. In an attempt to kick his videogame habit, Mr. Bissell would bestow each recently acquired console on a friend or family member, only to run out and buy another one a short time later. No doubt Microsoft is gratified. We should just be glad that Mr. Bissell was able to drag himself away from playing “Grand Theft Auto” and “Fallout” long enough to write “Extra Lives,” his exploration of, as the subtitle has it, “Why Video Games Matter.”
Unusually for the videogame book genre, Mr. Bissell brings to his subject not only a handy way with a game controller but also a deft literary style and a journalist’s eye. He writes for Harper’s magazine and The New Yorker and is the author of the short-story collection “God Lives in St. Petersburg” (2005). “Extra Lives” is mostly a travelogue recounting Mr. Bissell’s journey, over the course of several years, through a series of immense, immersive videogames, such as “Far Cry 2.” It’s much less tedious than it sounds.
Mr. Bissell is so descriptively alert that his accounts of pixelated derring-do may well interest even those who are immune to the charm of videogames. Here, for instance, is his description of a scene in “Fallout 3,” a post-apocalyptic, role-playing shoot-’em-up game that mostly takes place in Washington D.C.: “I was running up the stairs of what used to be the Dupont Circle metro station and, as I turned to bash in the brainpan of a radioactive ghoul, noticed the playful, lifelike way in which the high-noon sunlight streaked along the grain of my sledgehammer’s wooden handle.”
He’s funny, too. In a section arguing that the artistic merits of videogames can’t judged by the worst of the breed, he writes: “Every form of art, popular or otherwise, has its ghettos”—for instance, “the crack houses along Michael Bay Avenue.”
But what makes “Extra Lives” so winning is Mr. Bissell’s sense of absurdity. He recounts a discussion with some fellow customers at a videogame store about the artistic merits of the game “Left 4 Dead.” The little colloquy continued until he realized: “I was contrasting my aesthetic sensitivity 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 videogames.”
Running through “Extra Lives” is a thread of seriousness. Mr. Bissell wonders why, despite their technical sophistication, videogames are so bad at telling stories. It’s a more complex question than you might think.
The best narrative art forms are necessarily authoritarian. In books, film or theater, the creator tells his story with near total control. In a certain way, the audience might as well not even exist. Videogames are participatory. And the fact of participation creates all sorts of problems for narrative authority.
Yet many videogame producers do aspire to tell meaningful stories. The game “BioShock,” for instance, attempts to explore the philosophical tensions within Ayn Rand’s Objectivism and to meditate on the costs of individual freedom—but with plenty of genetic mutants to splatter. The script for the game “Mass Effect”—that is, the on-screen characters’ dialogue, not the computer code—is 300,000 words. But to little avail. The stories just aren’t much as stories. Videogames seem “designed by geniuses and written by Ed Wood Jr.,” Mr. Bissell laments.
The most interesting person Mr. Bissell crosses paths with is Jonathan Blow, a videogame designer and a sort philosopher of the medium. Mr. Blow has spent a good deal of his life thinking about storytelling and the “dynamical meaning” of simply getting through a game. He believes that the central problem with storytelling in videogames is that the actual mechanics of playing a game—moving your character to jump over a barrel, or eat a power pellet, or punch an enemy—are divorced from the stories that videogame makers are trying to tell.
Like all games, videogames are constructed around rules. You can shoot this. You can’t shoot that. This hamburger restores your health. That sword gives you extra power. And so on. “Games have rules, rules have meaning, and game-play is the process by which those rules are tested and explored,” Mr. Bissell explains. And as Mr. Blow notes, if those rules are fake, unimportant or arbitrary, audiences sense it. And, let’s face it, assigning power to a hamburger is a little arbitrary. No matter how impressive a game is, in its rules-ridden immersiveness it will not be able to tell a coherent, meaningful story. The very nature of the medium, Mr. Blow believes, “prevents the stories from being good.”
As if to prove the rule, Mr. Blow designed a game called “Braid.” It concerns a young scientist who discovers how to go back in time and decides to use this power to revisit the period when he lost his great love. “Braid” is a meditation on time travel, choices and consequences. A crucial aspect of playing the game is the player’s ability, at any moment, to rewind the clock to undo his mistakes. It is “dynamical meaning” in harmony with narrative ambition. And because of it, “Braid” occupies a lonely place in the pantheon of videogames as something that approaches art.
When Mr. Blow departs the scene in “Extra Lives,” the book loses some of its sharpness. And toward the end reader interest may flag even more as Mr. Bissell’s videogame addiction merges unsettlingly with his cocaine addiction. Drug stories, like dreams, are interesting only to the person who has them.
Even so, “Extra Lives” is the most fun you’ll ever have reading about videogames. It may prove even more entertaining than playing them.
Mr. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.
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