I’ve been playing a lot of video games lately.  So as a break, I read a book about video games: Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.

I hope the subtitle wasn’t Tom’s idea, because he doesn’t even address it.  It’s a set of ruminations on what makes video games compelling, with special focus on Fallout 3, Resident Evil, Left 4 Dead, Gears of War, Braid, Mass Effect, Far Cry 2, Grand Theft Auto, and Fable II. 

Bissell is some kinda literary author, and the overall theme of the book is how a very intelligent and arts-oriented guy ends up playing hundreds of hours of video games and tries to figure out why.  His somewhat baffled enjoyment is the book’s strength and weakness.  He thinks a lot of aspects of games are stupid and cheesy, and sometimes he lays this on a little thick.  But it makes him go deeper into what works for him in games, and it’s fun to see what he thinks about games I’ve played (and the ones I haven’t, he makes a good case for trying). 

Writing about games, people seem to focus on one of three things: the gorgeousness of the game, the gameplay mechanics, or the story.  Some linear combinations of these things work, some make for a great game, and no one knows the formula.

As an artistic guy, Bissell keeps coming back to story, but he recognizes that the dialog and cutscenes of games are often their weakest element.  The model of “movies intercut with long stretches where the player goes from point A to point B usually shooting dudes” is terribly clumsy and anything that gets away from it even slightly tends to excite the critics. 

Bissell tells a great story about Left 4 Dead… a story about a particular Versus game.  Playing against a very competent team of zombies, Tom’s team was nearly decimated– three of them were down, and Tom bolted for the saferoom.  His teammates abused him to the point where he decided to see what he could do to save them; only of course the murderous zombies had respawned.  He burst out of the saferoom and took down three specials in a few seconds.  Managed to revive a teammate who killed the fourth.  They revived one of the others and made it to the saferoom.

It was an epic end to the round and definitely a tale to retell, and as Bissell recognizes, it’s not a story told by the developers.  It emerged from the game and the actions and capabilities of eight human players.  And really, it has all the elements of the best art: terror, a pragmatic selfishness, shame, redemption, catharsis.  The emotions were real, and perfectly in sync with the game situation.  And none of this could be done in any other medium.

Is that the future of games?  I don’t know, but the lesson I take is that criticizing games’ explicit story elements is a bit misguided.  Some deconstructionists take the meaning of a book to live entirely in the reader’s journey– the author doesn’t matter.  I think this goes way too far when it comes to novels, but it’s much more true of video games.  Maybe it’s significant that player was once a word for an actor and now refers to the consumer of the video game.  Audience is way too passive a word for what that person does.

Bissell has acesss to game insiders, and some of these sections of the book are revealing.  80% of the production of a game, for instance, is building the physics and rendering engines, the character models, the textures, the combat mechanics, and so on.  The ‘story’ elements are often added last, by people who’ve moved up or over from programming.  So in some ways it’s remarkable that we get some compelling stories at all.