Book review: Extra Lives: why video games matter

Extra Lives I just finished reading Extra Lives: why video games matter by Tom Bissell. It is a curious book: part gamer memoir, part behind-the-scenes interviews at various game studios and part ponderance on the medium of video games. Bissell’s love of video games is obvious and infectious and his reminisces about playing various games are entertaining. The fun of games is obviously primarily in the playing, but there is also satisfaction to be found in analyzing how they work and why they affect you the way they do. I am not sure that Bissell answers the question he references in the title though and the various chapters don’t form a whole that is greater than its parts. Anyone not already interested in games is unlikely to be converted by this book, but then again: these people would not be reading the book to begin with. Gamer enthusiasts who pick up Extra Lives will likely smile in recognition at well-worded observations, but are unlikely to learn anything new.

Being a writer, Bissell is mostly fascinated by the narrative possibilities and limitations of video games. You can tell a beautifully crafted, carefully paced story, but this will tend to severely limit the freedom the players have to create their own experience. The more you allow them to shape their own narrative, the more unforeseen variables come into play, meaning you have to loosen your grip on plotting and pacing. There is an ever-present tension between narrative control and player-induced chaos. The book doesn’t provide a solution to this conundrum, as there doesn’t seem to be one. Still, it is an interesting topic which resurfaces a few times and is discussed at length.

Conclusion: if you are a gamer who has a candle or flashlight at hand during a power outage, this is a very good book to keep you busy until you can fire up your pc or console again.

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