Extra Lives: Are Games the New Novels?

June 28, 2010 § 4 Comments

From our friend, the fine writer and editor and occasional Brevity contributor Steven Church:

I’ve just finished reading Tom Bissell’s new book, Extra Lives, and while I don’t have any real desire now to play games, I do feel like I understand them better as a truly amazing, terrifying, and sublime intersection of art, science, and entertainment. Thanks in large part to Bissell’s work, I can respect games for what they are and feel less of a need to try and justify them in comparison with other art forms. Combining personal experience, critical analysis, and interview, all filtered through a critical voice as linguistically rich, smart and funny as any I’ve read since David Foster Wallace, Extra Lives manages to teach without being didactic, to make you laugh, wonder, and even worry over your author as character. This book is no mere memoir of game-love, nor only a critical analysis of games—though it contains both of those–but also a deftly handled meta-analysis about the challenges and pitfalls of creating narrative realism in art.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I’ve never played any of the games Bissell discusses (save for Pac Man, Tempest, and other “classic” 80’s games mentioned in the few gaming history lessons). I’ve never felt any kind of affirmation, pleasure, or sense of accomplishment from a video game. I don’t particularly care whether I win or lose or accomplish the game’s authorial goals. Put simply, video games don’t often engage my competitive engine—which at times can crank like a V-8.  But more to the point, games also typically fail to engage me at the level of art. This is essentially Bissell’s dilemma in the book, a dilemma that, honestly, I didn’t worry too much about before reading Extra Lives. I’ve had several students in recent years write compelling essays about games or gaming, but I wasn’t terribly concerned about video games mattered or not; and perhaps the best compliment I can give Bissell’s book is that I now believe they matter as much if not more than many other forms of art, and that they may be on the verge of a kind of artistic experience far more complicated and sublime than we can even imagine.

I realize that my basic problem with video games is in many ways my problem with most contemporary plot-driven fiction and film. I get bored with the plot-fueled narrative, preferring instead the imagistic, visceral sting of a short-story or the digressive, consciousness-driven explorations of an essay; and suspect this may be a big part of the reason I’d get bored with narrative video games as well. They just aren’t essayistic. Almost all action in games—even the most “open” games like Grand Theft Auto IV—appears to be fundamentally purpose and plot driven. Games are not (like Tom’s book) digressive, fragmented and irrational or lyrical. They are, by design, the product of authorial purpose, and mostly linear progression—all of which are things I can appreciate but which I don’t necessarily seek out as an artistic (or entertainment) experience. As Bissell points out, more frustratingly for me, video games are still struggling with rudimentary elements of narrative craft—flashbacks, back-story, dialogue, characterization, non-verbal communication—that any literary writer has already mastered, internalized, and, in some cases, rejected intentionally in favor of other, more nuanced, experimental, or obtuse techniques of storytelling.

Though he doesn’t say this, the implications for me of what Bissell artfully reveals in Extra Lives, is that games are the new novels of American culture—perhaps the most advanced, complicated and still-evolving form of escapism as entertainment. “Whoa!” you might be saying, “You’re making some awfully big assumptions there, Mr. Essay Pants.” And you’d be right. I am assuming that novels are essentially artful escapism; and furthermore that video game creators (not an individual, as Bissell points out, but a “guild” of creative people) are dealing with many of the same questions of novelists, in addition to a host of other technological, aesthetic, and ethical concerns that most writers never have to consider, all in effort to create a narrative experience that is very much like a real experience. Bissell focuses much of his analysis on how the newest generation of games has evolved to implicate the gamer/reader emotionally, to make them feel conflicted, troubled, elated, or frustrated, which is of course what most novelists are aiming to accomplish as well. Bissell’s analysis of the dissonance between frame narratives and ludonarratives is fascinating and compelling often because it speaks to challenges not just for video games but for writers as well; and one wonders, after reading Extra Lives, if emerging novelists are considering this question as seriously as emerging video game creators.

What I like best about Extra Lives is perhaps what will bother other critics—that it dallies and dithers around, digressing and regressing, spinning us around in a truly essayistic examination. It expounds and expands. In addition to affirming many of my concerns about video games and the limits of conventional narrative, Extra Lives also manages to accomplish what video games (and apparently, cocaine) cannot. It comes to you. Mostly eschewing any kind of heavy-handed overarching frame narrative (i.e. some kind of addiction memoir, or redundant critique of the inherent violence in games and their effect on children) in favor of Bissell’s own beautifully messy ludonarrative of consciousness, Extra Lives is an open game-field spanning the divide between audience and subject and it speaks to you. Before you even realize it, you’re engaged in a conversation and an exploration of why video games matter (a question you, too may not have considered seriously), and an exchange of ideas and journey through Bissell’s hurly-burly brain that will leave you where the best nonfiction books leave its reader and perhaps where video games cannot yet leave you—enlightened.

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