'Extra Lives'

A Book About People Like Us

by Rick Dakan

26 August 2010

Readers who have never played a game in their lives should come away with some sense of what all the fuss is about and why people like us spend so much time playing games.

There have been a few memoirs from thirty-something video game players in the last couple years, and I’ve avoided them all. It’s a weird quirk of mine, the result of some toxic mixture of envy and sloth and pride on my part. It’s sometimes hard to make myself read books that I wish I had written myself or that resemble the kind of book that I might someday write. Well, I broke down and finally read one of them, Tom Bissel’s Extra Lives. Actually, I listened to it on unabridged audiobook, read quite effectively by the man himself. I’m afraid to say that all my fears were justified: Extra Lives is every bit the book that I would have loved to have written about my own relationship with video games and then some. My version for instance would never have had a section on playing Grand Theft Auto IV over and over again while doing cocaine, and thus, would’ve been the poorer for it.

Bissel, a novelist and reporter who has lived around the world and been embedded with troops in Iraq, has written a very personal guide to the world of modern day video games. It’s readily accessible to readers with no more than a passing knowledge of games, making it an ideal choice for passing on to that skeptical or dismissive loved one who just can’t seem to understand why you spend so much time in front of your Xbox 360. Thanks in part to Bissel’s vivid second-person descriptions of what it emotionally feels like to play games like Resident Evil, Bioshock, and Far Cry 2. Readers who have never played a game in their lives should come away with some sense of what all the fuss is about and why people like us spend so much time playing games.

That understanding might not come with support or approval though. Bissel is uncompromising and sometimes even too raw in his assessment of how he’s wasted a great deal of time on games, some of which he doesn’t even like very much. I can imagine that naive reader coming away thinking, “80 hours for just those handful of great moments? That seems crazy.” And maybe it is crazy, although I think that the ratio of bad to mediocre to good in movies, books, TV, and music is just about on par with those qualities in video games. I am, as ever, opposed to bigotry of one leisure form over another.

Extra Lives is more than just Bissel’s own musings on his relationship to Niko or the wasteland of Fallout 3. He did a lot of real reporting for this book, traveling to studios like Ubisoft Montreal, Epic Games, Bioware, and also to the DICE conference in Las Vegas to talk with some of modern gaming’s luminaries. From the grating but intriguing Jonathan Blow (of Braid fame) to the thoughtful, hardworking guys up in frigid Alberta at Bioware, Bissel’s interviews give much needed and very interesting insights into the world behind the games. The conversations focus more on how the designers think about games and the problems with trying to tell a story in this young medium rather than on nuts and bolts matters, and I found all of them interesting and some quite thought provoking.

Throughout it all, Bissel’s true nature as a gamer shines through. I heard pieces of myself in every paragraph of introspection in the book (don’t worry, there aren’t an overwhelming number of these). I did not agree with all of his judgments and conclusions, but I could always see that he came to them honestly and thoughtfully. It’s refreshing and maybe even comforting to read a book that both takes gaming seriously and yet doesn’t fall down on its knees in fanboy devotion. Extra Lives isn’t the book I would have written, it’s better.

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