Review of Tom Bissell. Extra Lives. Why Videogames Matter, Vintage, 2011, 256 p.
Man has expressed himself through art ever since pre-historic times. The earliest art forms found in caves were by primitive man who used grass and mud for paint and chiselled flint as a painting utensil.
Since then, man has learned to express himself in art in more complex ways and has even accomplished far reaching levels; the works of artisans and maestros of art have left a notable patrimony.
Today, we live in a “technological” era, and it is interesting to observe how art is influenced by new technological novelties or instruments. On the dawn of the PC, “The Times Literary Supplement” carried out a study to see if writers had changed their writing style since abandoning their typewriter for a word processor. The results found that sentences and paragraphs tended to be abbreviated or shortened. Authors had (in most cases) unconsciously adapted to the needs of the word processor; the word processor screen is smaller than the classic A4 paper sheet format. The fact that few writers were aware of this change proved Marshall McLuhan’s theory that it is the instrument that is the real message, that not only influences the way we communicate but also the world itself in which we communicate.
Videogames is the symbol itself of the potential a technological instrument has; it is something which captures human imagination and is both powerful and extremely versatile. It is a form of interactive expression, which for the first time in history (thanks to electronic and personal computers) has introduced a non-linear and non-passive model of communication for the users.
Electronic and personal computers have brought about an interactive form of expression quite unlike written texts and audiovisual formats have ever done before. Participation is active and enjoyment is subjective because there is a selection of options i.e. scenarios and roles that the ’inter-actor’ creates and re-creates each time the games starts. Consequently, readers and spectators have been substituted by “inter-actors”. The inter-actors create the scenario and “write” the play as the game goes along. In short, the inter-actor creates the games just like the game creator, only it is the inter-actor who re-writes his own version each time he plays a new game.
The language used in videogames is the same we use on the Internet: links and connections are all full of meanings and available at our fingertips. Videogames had used this language twenty years before the Internet was created. It was not until 1991 when Tim Berners Lee created the first website. Videogames, on the other hand, have long since used highly sophisticated language to complement and enhance texts, pictures, sound tracks in a multimedia context.
Hypertexts were developed in videogames and have brought about a true linguistic culture; grammar, syntax and appropriate vocabulary used for “play” purposes. Yet, through this form of entertainment, a wide and constantly growing public has been influenced and educated over the last decades.
Nowadays, in Italy, 1 out of 2 families owns a videogame; a figure which exceeds 1 billion euros per annum. Consequently, videogames are certainly not just toys, accessories or even mere evasive instruments. Moreover, in commercial terms, they have made an impact which has not yet been fully examined today.
In Tom Bissell’s book entitled “Extra lives”, translated in Italian with a somewhat unhappy title “Voglia di vincere”- A desire to win gives an insight into the intriguing and disturbing world of videogames through the eyes of “inter-actors”. The original title refers to the main difference between real life and simulators in videogames. In all the games, the player is a protagonist through his own avatar (a common term used after the film of the same name directed by James Cameron), i.e. the role the player takes on and manoeuvres in the game. No matter how much the simulation may seem realistic, there is always a moment when the player realises that it is all a “fantasy”. Normally, this is when the player makes a mistake or “dies”. In videogames, death is only a “faux pas” (unlike real life!) where you can go back to the beginning and start all over again and again until you move on to the next stage or level.
The first videogames were rather bare and scant in appearance yet not as different as the later editions in terms of language and structure. Previously, you could “come to life again” and even earn “extra lives” as the total of your points rose. From a conceptual point of view “extra lives” was an extraordinary gift because it gave you “technological immortality” in order to reach a superior level and gain a “superhuman” status which in no other way you would ever achieve.
Bissell describes this example as a metaphor of the videogame world and to a large extent he is right as this world is extremely fertile in terms of potential and volume.
For the title mainly reflects the writer’s viewpoint. His aptness for writing is amply illustrated when he describes what for him has been long path of addiction. He describes the endless time spent immerged in various digital scenarios under the influence of cocaine, which made scenarios seem so real because he was the protagonist in them all. “Extra lives” is told by a “survivor”, someone who has broken free from a kind of slavery or better, Ulysses who lands on Ithaca.
Not only this, “Extra lives” refers to a world which over time has moved from an individual venture to a colossal entity where vast resources have been used to guarantee their success. It shows how before videogames became a collective socio-economic phenomena, it was simply a solitary adventure based on creative ingenuity. Its exploits and contradictions made a generation feel almost omnipotent when they made and invented products from a similar technology; something which many had never experienced before.
Throughout the book, there are conversations with game creators, who talk about the infinite possibilities (just like in videogames) they have explored over the last twenty years; their ability to make interactive games work and, more importantly, a commercial success. Behind all this is the talent and professionalism of young men who work together to realize a multitude of components in the games. An “AAA” registered game (more commonly known as a blockbuster) can cost up to $50 million. Each detail is taken into account: graphics, interaction, lights and special effects in an effort to produce a high quality product.
However, it is only in this “world” where you will meet so many men under 30 years old who have found the gold at the end of the rainbow. The downside is that they have to produce sales and money.
In spite of all this, Bissell addresses, in my view, the other side of this phenomena. How much effective quality corresponds to the energy put into the making of these games? Bissell says if we look at videogames from the perspective of a film or book enthusiast, the delusion is immense. It is true to say, there exists an intrinsic difficulty in transforming a videogame into an “interactive” story. A story, experienced in first person, gives the player the possibility to choose (with the available options) what to say and what to do from stage to stage in order to go ahead in the game. The term “ludic-narrative discord” gives a perfect example of this. Jonathan Blow (one of the most talented videogame creators interviewed in the book) explains that the two essential components of the game; the challenge and the story, are in contrast with each other. The challenge is the essential feature of the game; it is what allows you to guide your avatar to the best in order to reach high points. The story, on the other hand, helps you to explore the alternatives as you go along. Blow states that the story and challenge have a structural conflict which is so eradicated that the creation of “convincing” stories in videogames is virtually impossible.
Ironically, it is the ludic component of videogames, the obligatory challenge which all undermine the final narrative aspect. Blow sought for a videogame to become a true and proper interactive story. He created Braid and was able to show that if one reasons with cultural maturity, one can reach high levels of originality and thus make a product which could have the same consideration of an appreciated book or film. Braid seems just another SuperMario,but on closer inspection it is a reflection almost metaphysical on love and time.
The reality is that the majority of game creators of interactive stories generally meet difficulties because cultural and commercial interests interpose.
Yet, it is the abyss between “product” and “text” that must be overcome if videogames are to really grow. Past and present commercial strategies has been worked so far but in order to make profits in the future, serious consideration (or compromise) should be made on this issue. Touch screen technology is ever prevailing and as popularity and formation grows there will be more space for videogames in the future. If a compromise were to be found then videogame creators would become more competent in the narrative feature and would leave behind the slipshod aspect the interactive stories have today.
Despite the underlying problems, I think we can be more optimistic than Bissell. If we look at games like Fallout, Skyrim, L.A. Noir and Mass Effect they show (albeit slowly) we are on the right road to interactive stories.