Blowing a zombie’s head off with a sniper rifle is one of life’s simple pleasures. But is it art? Though videogames have become a massive industry, bringing in tens of billions annually and occupying more than an hour of 8- to 18-year-olds’ time each day, the medium still struggles for recognition from cultural critics. In Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, author and game critic Tom Bissell plumbs his years of button-mashing to make the case that games are, in fact, a legitimate creative medium—but one that needs to be evaluated by its own standards, not those of fiction or cinema.
This is not the writing of a fanboy. Bissell is harshly critical of bad games, and even the bad parts of games he largely admires. Of BioShock, one of the games most commonly regarded as approaching the level of masterpiece, Bissell says he still “would hesitate to call [it]…a legitimate work of art.” For a theory-heavy book that tosses off references to blog posts with titles like “Ludonarrative Dissonance in ‘BioShock,’ ” Extra Lives is surprisingly accessible to nongamers, raising basic questions about what it means to experience art in different media. Bissell recently spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Nick Summers about the way videogames have changed the art of storytelling, as well as new business models for the industry. Excerpts:
SUMMERS: You write that an early, very influential game for you was Resident Evil—but that it “showed how good games could be” and at the same time “showed how bad games could be,” too. What did you mean by that?
BISSELL: I meant that it showed how evocative, how immersive a videogame could be. It showed the really interesting ways that videogame storytelling could work; it could suck you in; and at same time, the dialogue, storytelling, and characterization were just so hideously clumsy. It was evocative of everything a game could do—if someone had taken the time to learn any of the finer points of dramatization.
So it sort of gave game designers permission to be bad?
People say about game stories and characterization and narrative: “It’s just a game. That’s not why we play games.” And in one sense it’s true. It’s very clear that games can’t handle narrative the way a movie does. So my view is, I don’t want game stories to be good the way movie stories are good; I want game stories to be good in the way games tell stories. Game designers for a long time just copied these Hollywood storytelling processes and went nowhere. Now I think we’re starting to see a lot of designers say, “OK, none of that stuff worked. Let’s start again and figure out the ways of storytelling that are native to this medium.”
You write that a lot of progress in game development has been in reaching new heights of realism, but that it might be a dead end—like, if you realistically blow someone’s arm off, no one wants that. Does that mean that a lot of the history of videogame progress has been a waste?
I don’t know. I think that’s a completely open question. I wouldn’t presume to know where the path is going to go. But I do think that as much as I like games like Uncharted 2 that give you this really interactive, cinema-like experience—as much as I like that school of game design, I do think that’s a dead end creatively. As one of the guys in my book, Clint Hocking, says, the best that that kind of game can be is as good as, or slightly better than, a movie. He’s more interested in a game experience that doesn’t feel like a movie. Can there be an experience that surpasses movies? And I think there are a zillion ways to do that game. Realistically, nonrealistically, it’s completely open territory.
In part of your book, you write about public-relations reps who are bigger control freaks than their military counterparts and coders who drive Ferraris. What other crazy aspects about the world of game-making did you want readers to know about?
The secrecy is a big one. I really have no clue what purpose that serves at this point, but everyone in the industry seems to accept it. Also: how smart a lot of these people are, how thoughtful they are about design decisions, and how seriously they take the aesthetics of the medium. The medium does have rules and principles, and they are really interesting.
The subtitle of the book is Why Video Games Matter. Do you think you make your point?
I think games will take their place beside fiction and filmmaking as a standing member of the storytelling alliance—as long as enough people like Clint Hocking stick to their guns and decide to do stuff that satisfies them creatively, more than satisfying their company’s bottom line. If enough people maintain their fierce individuality as artists, the games will be like film [economically]—they’ll have a popular commercial side, and a more interesting artistic side. Although, yeah, it could just become a big toy factory.
Is one problem that games make too much money? That it’s so easy to make millions with crap that no one takes time to make quality stuff?
That doesn’t feel quite right to me. But it is right in the sense that it’d be hard to go before the board of some game company, which publishes, say, Modern Warfare 2—which I think is a creative failure but is the single most profitable entertainment property of all time—and say to the board, “Yeeeah, we want it to be different, because we aren’t feeling fulfilled creatively.”
Should the major studios be funding more artistic, indie-game shops?
That’s probably where a lot of the creative fire and the really formally ambitious stuff will be—in smaller games. I do think there’ll always be a few big triple-A game designers who just aren’t interested in doing Modern Warfare 2. I take it upon myself as a game consumer, and as someone who thinks and writes about games, to support those [more artistic] games at every possible opportunity. We as thoughtful videogame consumers can try to create the world we want to live in, by courting the designers that don’t want to do, you know, Modern Warfare 12.
Braid is a game that you lavish praise on when you write, “Its puzzles are not just difficult but meaningfully difficult”; it “feels like art,” “like a poem.” Yet Braid was created by one guy with a vision. Should the big studios be more like Braid? Can they?
So many studios these days are in such economic trouble that it’s hard to imagine the people in charge wanting more Braids in the world. I just don’t know how that happens. I know [Braid creator] Jon Blow is making another game right now, and I hope it’s hugely successful.
Some big developers that have been renowned for their experimentalism and their interest in innovation now seem to be more interested in making more profitable games. And I think that’s kind of a disaster. For instance, Deadspace 2 is coming out. I loved the first Deadspace. It’s a beautiful game. And I’ve heard that in the second one, they’re trying to correct all of the things “wrong” with the first one—by, for instance, having cut scenes. I hope to God that’s not true. If someone looks at a game as beautiful and heart-poundingly intense as Deadspace and figures out ways to “fix” it because it wasn’t commercially successful, I don’t think there’s any hope at all for any of us.