Extra Lives Review

Tom Bissell’s latest work, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, doesn’t include much discussion on the subject of why video games matter. This has very little weight on the text itself, but I think every reader should be aware of that fact before opening a copy. Extra Lives is about Bissell’s fascination with videogames and videogame developers, and about his own experiences playing games. The basic point of the book is, well, I can’t really say. Any central thesis has gone far over my head because as far as my reading comprehension extends I couldn’t find any real point to the book. Each chapter is tied to the others by the fact that it’s about videogames. Videogames: that’s basically the point of the book.

It's like... some sort of life.... it's an... EXTRA Life!?!?!!!

Is it a good or a bad book? What’s it’s Metacritic value? I can’t say because I didn’t learn anything. The problem with me reading a survey of videogame pop culture is that I already passed that class. Bissell spends time explaining things such as who CliffyB is (I’m never going to stop calling him that), what Metacritic is, what Mass Effect is, the opening cut scene of Far Cry 2, and a multitude of other facts every gamer should know. The book’s vocabulary includes terms like: industry, Star Wars, and fuck. If you want to read a book about the videogame industry and all of its popular icons then Extra Lives is indeed comprehensive. I however could rarely bring myself to care deeply about what it has to say.

Where Bissell isn’t rephrasing Clint Hocking’s blog posts his personal stories are, in my opinion, the cream of his book. For one thing they feed most directly into the title of the book, both his “extra lives” metaphor as well as indirectly the open question of why videogames matter. Bissell brings new life to Resident Evil in “Headshots” (originally published in Kill Screen) where he relives the first few moments of the game. I loved the original RE and his writing made me love it again. His tragic parallel addiction to cocaine and Grand Theft Auto 4 (a story originally published in The Observer) succeeds because it’s a real, honest narrative. That makes his humdrum descriptions of what a Grand Theft Auto game is forgivable. Easily Bissell’s biggest weakness is in describing games themselves. It’s downright awful when he summarizes a subplot in Mass Effect into a simple SVO sentence and follow it up with praise of how incredible the writing is. I guess we’ll just have to take his word on that.

I can’t endorse any of the opinions expressed in Extra Lives, such as the idea that Goldeneye is one of the finest games ever crafted and that BioShock is one of the first games without contrived, binary moral choices. But there sure are a lot of opinions packed in that book, and most of them are shared by a lot of people who aren’t me. I make it a point not to judge books too harshly by their viewpoints because I realize that a lot of these viewpoints are shared by lots of people who aren’t me and could very easily be reading this review. So if you are not me then you will probably enjoy reading Extra Lives far more than I have, but even if you are me then it won’t completely waste your time. Overall I’ll give it an 8.8 out of 10. The biggest problem was that the graphics sucked.

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13 years ago

Glad to know the book reads with some heart. I was afraid that the cocaine addiction story was a portant of a book full of wild stories and scandal.

Don’t worry about having dissenting opinions on anything either, though I will say that in regards to Goldeneye, it may not be one of the finest ever crafted, it is at least one of the finest happy accidents. The details of its development, as well as some of the concpets Rare tinkered with at the time, are quite incredible.

Cunzy1 1
13 years ago

I felt the same reading the book ( a lot of video game-inspired or related books) that the authors spend a lot of time explaining games and gaming terms for a fictional audience of people who don’t play games who buy video game books in a (in my opinion) vain attempt to be of wider appeal.

When I read them, I skip the pages of descriptions of games I have played and I also skip the descriptions of games I haven’t played. Another thing I find jarring is when an author uses a game I don’t particularly like (or never heard of) as a central tenet for a whole chapter, normally RTS-or similar PC games.

Still, I’m just glad there’s more out there to read than there used to be and some of it is interesting if not informative.

I don’t agree with much of what Bissell has to say about GTA.