By Michael Mendis
Author: Tom Bissell
First Published: 2010
Length: 242 pages
This next entry in the G&G Reads series covers Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell. Bissell’s goal in this book is to explain to his readers what he finds both fascinating and frustrating about games, predominantly as it regards a game’s narrative and storytelling, but also through some of the core game mechanics that he has interacted with during his years of playing different games. Each chapter tends to focus on one or two games (though he makes passing references to a variety of others when applicable), as well as interviews he has done with prominent game developers.
For those unfamiliar with the games that Bissell talks about (or with gaming as a whole), Bissell does a good job explaining the details of a game in a way that anyone can understand. His critique of the games he has played (whether he is talking about a game’s narrative aspects like storytelling and character development, or core mechanics of gameplay) is quite honest; while he is eager to recount the thrilling and fascinating experiences that attract him to games, he also doesn’t shy away from pointing out where games fall short. He often compares his experiences with games to his experiences with other forms of art (such as movies and books), even as he recognizes the challenges of comparing such different media. Most of the games he covers in the book are story-driven games (such as Grand Theft Auto, Resident Evil, and Mass Effect), as that is the aspect of games that he enjoys the most, but he also makes reference to other types of games throughout the book.
Interviews are also prominent throughout the book, and they provide a fascinating insight into the world of game development at many different levels. Bissell spends time with developers of big AAA titles (such as Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski and Mass Effect writer Drew Karpyshyn) as well as indie games (Braid creator Jonathan Blow), and the variety of opinions shared by these developers help give the reader valuable insight into how professionals in the game industry approach their craft. Topics of discussion in these interviews include not only some of the details of game writing and development, but also perceptions among industry leaders regarding how gaming has grown and changed over the years.
Overall, Extra Lives is an excellent book that provides an interesting window into one person’s experience playing games, and into the some of the nuts and bolts of game development and the game industry as a whole. Whether you are a dedicated gamer who is already fascinated by this subject matter, or a non-gamer who wants to know more about this hobby and why it is so popular in today’s society, Bissell’s book is a great read. The only note of caution I would give is that this is not a good book for young children; some of the games described in this book are quite violent, and while Bissell does not write in such a manner as to intentionally shock or provoke the reader, he doesn’t mince words when describing some of the graphic material he has seen in games, either.