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Tom Bissell's 'Extra Lives': What should videogame criticism look like?

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At the beginning of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Tom Bissell lists a few reasons why videogames have mostly eluded critical analysis. Games take forever to finish (if they even have a finish). They skew young, male, and stupid. The pace of innovation instantly fossilizes everything. “Game magazines publish game review after game review,” Bissell writes, “but they tend to focus on providing consumers with a sense of whether their money will be well spent.” Are videogames even an art worthy of careful consideration, or are they just a commercial product? Is reviewing a videogame like reviewing a toaster, or a car? And if so, who wants to read my semiotic analysis of the Ford Focus?

Putting aside the Great Art/Not Art debate, let’s assume that videogames are just “things” that are worth analyzing. After all, no one involved with the making, distributing, or viewing of Jonah Hex would call it Art, but it still merits a review, just like every other bad movie, TV show, book, and shameless junk-pop album. That brings us to the more intriguing question: What should videogame criticism look like? Bissell’s book offers plenty of tantalizing possibilities.

At times, the author’s style edges towards memoir, à la Jonathan Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist. That’s especially true of his closing essay, which parallels the addictive qualities of Grand Theft Auto IV with the marginally more addictive qualities of cocaine. Bissell’s chapter on the original Resident Evil reads a bit like a traveler’s guide to a digital landscape. His analysis of Left 4 Dead is basically first-person sports writing, as if Joe DiMaggio had written “The Silent Season of a Hero” about himself. Other chapters mix in extended interviews with game designers. (A couple of these designers happen to be the most shameless self-promoters in the industry, but that doesn’t make what they have to say any less intriguing.)

Bissell implicitly seems to suggest that every videogame requires its own particular form of criticism. An independently produced game like Braid lends itself well to an auteurist analysis, something that would seem ridiculous if applied to a multimillion-dollar RPG. (There is a popular myth among gamers that Braid was created in response to a breakup, which is not something anyone will ever say about Halo 3.)

Like every great work of criticism, Extra Lives has some blind spots, one of which is a doozy. It feels like a remarkable oversight for a book subtitled Why Video Games Matter to largely avoid discussing Nintendo, the company that popularized the medium and is still creating some of the most popular videogames ever. Of course, Nintendo games also fall outside of Bissell’s narrative-focused analytical style: the company makes bright, bouncy games with zero plot complexity and no character development.

Mario never pauses before a boss fight for a lengthy soliloquy about the nature of warfare. Legend of Zelda‘s Link never says anything. Donkey Kong just wants his bananas. And Kirby is a flying marshmallow with a mouth. By comparison, Fox McCloud’s bare whiff of psychodrama – in StarFox 64, he’s avenging his murdered father – makes him seem like Nintendo’s Hamlet.

But those characters are also more memorable, and feel more genuinely original, than characters in games with a greater narrative focus. Even though Metal Gear Solid‘s Snake and GTA IV‘s Niko carry five tons of emotional baggage, in many ways they’re just imitations of cinematic and literary character types. Whereas the gonzo simplicity of Mario – he’s a plumber, he saves the princess, he’s got a mustache – feels utterly unique to the medium. Nintendo’s best franchise players are a combination of folktale icon, mythic god, Pop Art artifacts, and cross-cultural avatars. And they’ve remained famous for almost three decades, and impressive trick when you consider the endless zombie parade of fallen gaming mascots like Crash Bandicoot and Alex Kidd.

Still, Bissell’s book isn’t meant to be comprehensive. It’s a deeply personal work, as entertaining as the videogames it profiles. (Reading Extra Lives is the only thing that got me to turn off Red Dead Redemption all month.) It’s also the first book about videogames that non-gamers can actually enjoy, and it’s stuffed to the brim with brilliant throwaway observations. Like the author’s comparison of the platform gaming genre to Egyptian hieroglyphics. Or his description of how the videogame industry “began as an engineering culture, transformed into a business, and now, like a bright millionaire turning toward poetry, [has] confident but uncertain aspirations toward art.” Or this semi-existential riff on geographic memory in video games: “I am frequently startled by how well I remember certain game-worlds: which crater to look in, which turn to take, which corner has an enemy around it, where to pause to reload… I was once able to find my way from London’s Trafalgar Square to the British Museum based solely on my experience of playing Team SOHO’s open-world driving game The Getaway.”

The most exciting thing about Extra Lives is Bissell’s relentless curiosity about the unique property of videogames: You don’t merely watch or listen, but participate. In that sense, writing about videogames should probably be as expansive, thoughtful, and infuriating as writing about life itself.