Monday, 14 March 2011

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

Although the subtitle Why Video Games Matter suggests a gamer-pleasing polemical defence of videogaming culture, Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives is, for a significant majority of its length, anything but. Through nine chapters Bissell probes various facets of gaming, highlighting the good points whilst repeatedly returning to what appears to be the book’s central theme: a desire for games to be even better (to reflect, in his own words, “deeper human motivations”) and, more specifically, for games to employ narrative in a way that genuinely works, and one which is also unique to the interactive qualities of gaming.

It’s a challenging argument, though I can’t help but think how differently Extra Lives would have read had the likes of Red Dead Redemption and Heavy Rain (etc etc) been released during its writing. In a way their existence is an acknowledgment of Tom’s argument that games should push at the boundaries of narrative; the games that interest him the most are those “that choose to tell stories”, and this is reflected in the games he does elect to focus on, with the likes of Braid, Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2 coming in for close examination and conditional praise.

However, this emphasis on the narratives of games creates its own problems, and leads to a number of debatable points. One of these is the contentious claim early on that “comparing games to other forms of entertainment only serves as a reminder of what games are not”. You could of course spin this around to suggest that comparing films to games in the context of delivering a story can also remind us what games can do so well (the emotional investment of Mass Effect 2, for example); invariably the highlights of Extra Lives are those sections in which Bissell recounts his personal experiences playing certain titles, and the emotions evoked as a result. For example, his description of playing Resident Evil for the first time is among the finest pieces of videogaming writing I have ever read, and will chime with every gamer and their own moments of digital epiphany. A careful intersection of memoir and gaming history, it’s a style also replicated to great effect in later passages on Left 4 Dead and Mass Effect.

My earlier criticism is not to suggest that I am oblivious to gaming’s faults, but personally I have long since become accustomed, nay expectant, to the peculiarities of most mainstream game design, inconducive as it is to effective storytelling – their clumsy tutorials, barely-considered characterisation and teenage-friendly aesthetic. As Bissell neatly surmises when concluding his Resident Evil chapter, “Most gamers do not care because they have been trained by game designers not to care”. I have to confess to being one of those gamers, but then neither do I start watching a film or begin to read a new book with the expectation that the worlds and characters contained therein will represent the pinnacle of evocation and emotional engagement. It’s why when a Limbo or an Uncharted 2 does appear, I’ll play it with a wide-eyed wonder that comes with re-discovering the true magic of a medium. Not every game can feel rich or fresh, and the fact that the majority of all games are idiot-friendly wastes of plastic isn’t an indictment of an entire industry. Bissell certainly doesn’t suggest this, but it’s a point worth making all the same.

Following this introduction of his main focus on narrative, Bissell’s subsequent case studies examine the reasons videogames may suffer when compared to other media, as well as what they can offer which is unique. There’s the issue of delivered narratives versus those that are found (framed versus fluidity, or ‘ludonarratives’), whilst in the chapter on Braid there is an acknowledgment of the conflict whereby “stories are about time passing and narrative progression. Games are about challenge, which frustrates the passing of time and impedes narrative progression”.

The debate is one fraught with all manner of tensions, many of which are touched upon in Extra Lives: those between the common singular vision of a storyteller and the collective process of making a game, between the demands of story and the mechanics of play (which is what, after all, make a game) and the difficulty for videogames of achieving a level of realism so often integral to the “deeper human motivations” touched upon at the beginning. Although Extra Lives doesn’t posit any firm conclusions on the matter, it doesn’t really need to. By setting up some of the key arguments this book could likely emerge as a key reference point as more titles challenging the aforementioned contradictions emerge.

Despite the engaging manner in which such important theoretical factors are raised, there is still a faintly disquieting tone winding through the book, one of pessimism at what the majority of videogames represent and the gulf between them and where they should, in the mind of this writer, be. It’s a discontent that is understandable, but frustrating given that Bissell’s writing is at its most illuminating when, as in the already-discussed Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead passages, he allows himself to focus more on the positives of his engagement with particular games. A little more acknowledgment that sometimes it’s okay for games to ‘merely’ offer unreconstructed escapism wouldn’t have hurt.

Escapism is in fact the key theme of Extra Lives’s startling final chapter about Grand Theft Auto IV, one that was also published in full by The Observer last year*. Of this era’s major releases it’s GTAIV that continues to polarise opinion like no other. Personally I stand on the side of the fence in which GTAIV is held up as the flawed masterpiece of this generation, an ambitious example of everything Tom Bissell presumably wants videogames to be. Its far-reaching HBO-aping narrative arc, the new-found emphasis on solemnity and the regular interruptions from NPCs were three of the factors that some gamers cite as an example of the wrong direction in which Rockstar took their most iconic of franchises, but its these design decisions that Bissell finds most interest in.

He begins by somewhat uncomfortably detailing his videogaming-led descent into an unproductive stupor, losing interest in literature as his obsession takes hold. GTAIV, then, becomes something of a symbolic nadir (or peak, depending on how you look at it) of Bissell’s dependence – troublingly the drug-like metaphor would be apt were his marathon sessions playing GTAIV not supplemented by a steadily rising coke habit. Bissell takes his first line as GTAIV loads, ultimately coming to the realisation that what video games have in common with cocaine is that “they have no edge. You have to appreciate them. They do not come to you”.

It’s a miracle, given Bissell’s disintegrating lifestyle at the time, that he can recall and discuss GTAIV with such intelligence – or maybe it is in fact the drug that allows him to deconstruct GTAIV with this clarity. Regardless, the chapter is excellent because not only is it amongst the best writing on the subject of such a monumental game** but it perhaps inadvertently ties up some of Extra Lives narrative threads. In one passage Bissell writes: “While moving through the gameworld, I did my best not to hurt innocent people. There was no ludonarrative dissonance for me, in other words, because I attempted to honour the Niko of the framed narrative when my control of him was restored”. This was for me one of the biggest strengths of GTAIV – go along with the gravitas, spend enough time with Niko, and you end up treating him as a cipher, projecting your own behaviour and morals onto Niko’s in-game, non-mission actions.

Extra Lives is a frequently illuminating, fresh approach to video games, and a book that would be worth reading by anyone with even a passing interest in the medium. That it doesn’t spend its 200-odd pages merely placating the conscious of millions of gamers is to its credit. It demands we ask serious questions of the medium, however difficult they may be. Video games do matter, then – but almost as much for what they could one day become, as for what they are now.

*You can read the entire chapter, entitled ‘Grand Thefts’, here.

**He also gives the most succinct analysis of the Grand Theft Auto series as a whole: “Most games are about attacking a childlike world with an adult mind. The GTA games are the opposite”.

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