Vintage, $16.95, ISBN 978-0-307-47431-5
Popular Culture, 2011 (Reissue)
Extra Lives – subtitled Why Video Games Matter – is Tom Bissell’s very public platform to out himself a big-time video game enthusiast. Playstation, XBox, and PC – you name it, he’s done it, usually after doing a line or two of Colombia’s finest. Of course, this is also an attempt at humorous but intelligent breakdown on why video games have arrested the attention of people all over. It’s all about why video games matter, in other words.
The problem with such books like this one is that, popular culture often moves too fast for publication dates to catch up. So, despite the fact that the trade paperback of this book was reissued only a year after its publication in hardcover, and this trade paperback version contains about 40 pages of new material, some of the games referred to in this book have already past their expiry date. Mass Effect is one glaring example: the chapter Mass Effects talks about both the appeal and weaknesses of this game, but in 2010, the sequel had already been released. While the basic content of the chapter still holds – I agree with his views about that game, except that I actually preferred Mark Meer’s deadpan voice acting of the male Commander Shepard to Jennifer Hale’s rather theatrical slurring-snarling – the fact that the author did not mention the sequel, must less expound on the virtues and weaknesses of that game against those of the original game, makes this chapter seem like one of those outdated articles one stumbles upon on the Web once in a while.
As an examination of the appeals of video games, Mr Bissell name drops plenty of popular examples: the Fallout series, the Grand Theft Auto series, and the Resident Evil franchise, just to name a few. There are noticeable glaring omissions such as fighting games and real player strategy games. While this is perhaps an understandable reflection of the author’s preferred games, the exclusion of such genres also seems suspiciously like a conscious effort by the author to push forward his own views on the neverending content-versus-gameplay argument.
On the topics that are covered, however, Mr Bissell opts to go the anecdote route, focusing on a particular game or game franchise in each chapter and explaining the strengths and weaknesses of these games. Along the way, the casual reader may get a good glimpse into why the author is willing to spend long hours hunched over a console and trying to get his character to skewer zombies with a barbecue knife. On one hand, he presents an intelligent look at many aspects of the highs and lows of gaming. On the other hand, he also reinforces the stereotype of video gamers, especially in the final chapter which is basically a story of how Grand Theft Auto IV was the catalyst for a beautiful relationship with cocaine. And here I thought my use of root beer and chocolates to spice up my video game sessions was excessive, heh. Perhaps a few lines would have made the endings of Mass Effect 3 bearable?
Extra Lives is a pleasant read, often humorous and insightful at one go. I really like the brief insight into the creation of the game Braided, for example, and the author’s meeting with Drew Karpyshyn in Bioware Edmonton. It is when the author starts waxing lyrical about the gameplay aspects of specific games that I begin to wonder. I know these games, familiar with many of the ones Mr Bissell uses as case studies, so I can follow him well. But I suspect that a non-gamer reader may end up wondering what Mr Bissell is talking about. I’d like to think that his writing is clear enough to get across to all readers, but still, I’d hesitate to recommend this book to such a reader. And as a gamer, I actually wish that the author has cut down on the personal reminisces and focus on the fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the game creation and evaluation process. From Chun-Li to Commander Shepard, from Kratos to Kabal, from the Grey Warden to Diablo, from Jill Valentine to Nathan Drake – I know video games are fun, so yes, tell me more of that fascinating stuff that I don’t know.
Extra Lives is a fun read – serious but not-too-heavy – for video game fans. For everyone else, though, it may be smarter to read a chapter or two first at a bookstore before deciding whether to take it home.