Wednesday, April 17 2024

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

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

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

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

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.


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