Extra Lives’ subtitle is “Why Video Games Matter”, which is sort of inappropriate because the text itself does a fairly poor job of making any kind of argument. The book is at its best in the early chapters, particularly the one about Resident Evil, exercising what is awkwardly called “The New Games Journalism”. Bissell unfortunately plays up to the stereotypes of gamers: underachievement, mixing real and artificial relationships and addiction (the tepid Grand Theft Auto IV chapter also details his addiction to cocaine).
The book is essentially a collection of essays, one of which was published in The New Yorker and which I complained about last year upon reading it for being too gee-whiz. His chapter on Braid falls for the same sort of fetishism, but the Far Cry 2 chapter which interviews Clint Hocking is surprisingly adroit at addressing what was unique about the underrated title.
If the thesis of the book is “Why Games Matter”, then it is only touched upon in a very meta way. Indeed, the quality of the prose in the book is vivid. If game reviews read like this, I’d be more apt to actually read them. A better subtitle might have been, “Why Games Are Trying to Matter”, because the pathetic swings at trying to rationalize his addiction leaves a sorry-feeling miasma over the whole book. But I don’t think the book was for me. It was for non-gamers. So perhaps I am unqualified to take his book as a softcore polemic towards the Eberts of the world.
I’m being hard on it.The book is entertaining at times and I found myself highlighting all over the early chapters for its more general insights.
Here, on my arch-nemesis, tutorials:
It would be hard to imagine a formal convention more inherently bizarre than the video-game tutorial. Imagine that, every time you open a novel, you are forced to suffer through a chapter in which the characters do nothing but talk to one another about the physical mechanics of how one goes about reading a book.
On Resident Evil and utterly stupid stories:
[It] helped to create an unnecessary hostility between the greatness of a game and the sophistication of things such as narrative, dialogue, dramatic motivation and characterization […] But most gamers do not care because they have been trained by game designers not to care.
On quantity of detail not being the definition of story:
For many gamers […] and game designers, story is largely a matter of accumulation. The more explanation there is, the thought appears to go, the more story has been generated. This would be a profound misunderstanding of story for any form of narrative art, but it has hobbled the otherwise creative achievement of any number of games.
When the author tries to dig deeper and find some interconnecting bonds, he fails. Perhaps the author is too ashamed of his addiction that he is desperately trying to attach meaning to it in oblique ways. Overall, the work is entertaining despite not really addressing a core thesis in a meaningful way.