He’s not here to talk about how crisp games look in popup or provide a laundry list of games we should buy. Instead, he tackles questions which most reviewers tend to overlook, such as how a game makes us feel while playing it, and how those feelings mesh or clash with the gamely themes. From the get-go, Tom dives right into his first extra life – playing Fallout 3. He and I shared the same fascination with minute details that typically get overlooked in most video game reviews, and sometimes by video gamers themselves.
He was amazed at the way the high-noon sunlight streaked across his sledgehammer’s wood-grained handle at Dupont Circle, whereas I mound myself slack-jawed at an extreme close-up on my character’s Uzi and being able to read the lettering on the safety switch, clear as day. One thing gamers can do exceptionally well is describe an initial experience of a video game with flawless accuracy, and Tom is no exception. He uses his next extra life on one of my favorite games of all time – Resident Evil. Ad to chuckle at his initial encounter with the hallway zombie as he recalled the fear of the unknown, the reflex action of mashing every button to stop the zombie from chewing on his collarbone, and the satisfaction of escaping its grasp. When think of Resident Evil, I always remember my initial reaction to the Cerberus dogs jumping through the window… Pure and utter panic! “Unaccommodating!!?!?! ” Tom takes the time to explain that while certain video games have lackluster stories, they can be enjoyed for many other reasons.
While the game Left 4 Deacon’s have much in the way of narrative story, it provides a unique gamely experience: the zombies never attack in the same place with the same number of cohorts. All too often, video games become a paint-by- numbers memorization game, and Left 4 Dead was designed to be just the opposite. Tom’s description of his multilayer experience was heroic, to say the least. Throughout Extra Lives, Tom interviews several people such as Cliff Blessing’s (the man behind Gears Of War), Jonathan Blow (a regular speaker at the Game Developers Conference), and Sir Peter Molybdenum (the man behind Fable and Fable II).
He takes the time to ask several thought-provoking questions, and shows us that video games have not only taken an evolutionary leap forward, but they are still evolving. The last part of the novel goes into Tom’s thoughts on the Grand Theft Auto rise. He explains that It’s not what the games ask your character to do which make them morally alarming, it’s having the freedom to do whatever you want. This section ended with Tom’s description of playing GTAG IV while doing cocaine.
Not what I was expecting, but it illustrated how hard it is to stop playing “just one more mission” for more than one reason. I always found it interesting how people raised such a stink over the GTAG series; and yet I never heard a whisper about all the folks who found ways to outright torture their SIMS characters. As far as negatives? Well, Tom clearly had more to say about several other video games, and I wished he could have added a few more chapters… But he made up for this by providing us his Oxbow and ASS gamer tags.
All in all, if you love video games and think they matter, you’re in for quite a treat with Extra Lives. Are video games art? Or, perhaps more importantly, is it possible for an author to write a book about video games that might appear interesting to someone who doesn’t play games and could care less about them? Reviewing a book about video games is kind of like review a book about sports. Most sports books are written for fans, and it is rare the sports book that even a non-fan can enjoy. The same holds true here.
If you have enjoyed playing video games at all, whether you are a hard-core bonbon or merely an occasional WI dabbler, you fall likely greatly enjoy this book. Bessel writes with a keen eye for the zeitgeist of the video game world, as well as a sarcastic sense of humor that should appeal to both the gamer and non-gamer alike. His descriptions of the artistic creativity and the “theory of play” that goes into the games, as well as the sublime experience actually laying will strike a chord. Bessel writes in an accessible style that can be followed even by those who are not versed in the arcane of the gaming world.
In addition to gamers themselves, would highly recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in creative development, as well as those who are friends (or relatives) of gamers and wonder how people can get so lost in these artificial worlds. Even if you have no interest in games, you might still find the book an interesting look at a how entertainment is created and what the experiencing of gaming is like for those He draws analogies between died games and art and asks (and answers) questions about how video games make the player *feel*.
He explains, in an entertaining and accessible way (to gamers and non-gamers alike) how narrative games add a dimension that is seldom found in other, similar art forms such as film or story – that of the player themselves and the ability of games to make a player feel something that is a direct result of a choice that they have made rather than their interpretation of what they are presented with Tom Bessel takes a sociological (and sometimes sociopath) approach to video game criticism.
Instead of dwelling on the technical details and lengthy descriptions of game strategies and gamely, he looks at how different types of games involve different sorts of interactions and how different interactions motivate different behaviors and relationships with the game (and perhaps other people). This isn’t a story of mindless button-pushing. I’m not a gamer, and that didn’t matter one bit throughout the book. Merely recognized some of the game names but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book. Treating video games as a legitimate art form works Out much better than I Hough it would.
Although he, as do many of the game designers that he interviews, admits that it’s a relatively new art still trying to figure itself out, there are many parts of the craft that are still in their infancy. How does a video game communicate ideas? What are the elements of the craft? What are the tensions between technology and storytelling? Can video games stand in for morality tales much like classic science fiction did? Each chapter goes through a different video game to show a different facet of the craft, and each game is an exemplar for some aspect of game play.