Commentary — September 21, 2010, 6:14 pm

Talking with Tom Bissell

Tom Bissell is the author, most recently, of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, just out from Pantheon. His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Cinema Crudité: The Mysterious Appeal of the Post-Camp Cult Film,” appeared in the August issue. Senior editor Donovan Hohn asks Bissell to explain the mysterious appeal of video games.

Your subtitle, “Why Video Games Matter,” points to a certain anxiety that runs through the book. You write, “all of us want the reassurance that we are not spending absurd amounts of time on something without merit.” That anxiety interests me. I mean, writers who write about baseball, say, or film, no longer seem to need that kind of reassurance, though they might have in the past.

The biggest problem facing the video game, as something to talk about critically, is not that most of them are pretty wobbly as works of art; it’s that even excellent, thoughtful games are virtually impossible to explain to people who’ve had no experience with the medium. Anyone can watch a film. Anyone can read a book. The average person might not come to the most learned, considered place critically, no, but you make someone play a game who’s never played one before, and it’s just terribly, terribly awkward and depressing. You have to learn how to play them, and adults don’t like to learn new things, usually—especially something that most people assume are toys for children or man-children. So yes. The subtitle. I kind of regret it, in a way, because a lot of people said I only made the argument as to why games mattered to me—a comment that gets the blue ribbon for stupidity, because how else does one make the “meaning” case for something if not personally?

The last video-game console I owned was an Atari. And yet, although I don’t feel a great urge to test drive the games you write about, I did like reading about them, just as I liked reading the last piece you wrote for Harper’s (“Cinema Crudité: The Mysterious Appeal of the Post-Camp Cult Film,” August 2010) but haven’t bothered to see the film you were writing about, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. In both the Harper’s piece and Extra Lives it seems to me that what you’re really investigating as a critic is the nature of storytelling.

From “Cinema crudité: The mysterious appeal of the post-camp cult film“:

What does it say about contemporary American culture that the Rocky Horror Picture Show of our time is not a likeable exercise in leering camp and butt-shaking grooviness but an earnest melodrama distinguished by what it is unable to provide? Why are so many people responding to a megalomaniacal feat of formal incompetence? Is it the satisfaction of seeing the auteur myth cruelly exploded, of watching an artist reach for the stars and wind up with his hand around a urinal cake? Some viewers of The Room clearly relish this aspect of it, but others come away from the film strangely exhilarated. In an entertainment culture in which everything from quiet domestic dramas to battling-robot fantasias is target-audienced with laserlike precision, The Room descends as bereft of familiar taxonomy as a bat from Mars. In an entertainment culture in which bad and good movies alike have learned to wink knowingly at their audiences, The Room is rivetingly unaware of itself or its effect. In an entertainment culture in which “independent filmmaking” is more calculated stance than accurate accounting of means, The Room is a film of glorious, horrifying independence.

That’s exactly right, I think. What interests me, storytelling-wise, about something like The Room and a lot of video games is how bad or wrong they often (in The Room’s case, always) get it, and how weirdly absorbing a narrative work filled with what you or I would call mistakes can often be. However! A lot of video game storytelling is phenomenally good: BioShock, Portal, Left 4 Dead, Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect. And there’s a whole gamut of storytelling/narrative strategies in those games. That’s the most exciting thing about video games right now: watching a medium sort of figure out its guiding principles.

Is the video game a storytelling medium? I’m thinking here of Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, his notion that the challenge of game play is at odds with narrative progression. That’s his reservation about trying to make video games tell stories. I have another: Doesn’t the participation of the player make any complicated notion of character impossible? Of character and perhaps of plot? Imagine if you made a video game of Macbeth. You could outfit him with superficially characterizing details—armor, a really cool dagger, lines of dialogue, a nervous tic, all that. But if the game allows you to make the character Macbeth butcher his wife instead of King Duncan, then the plot suddenly becomes arbitrary and the character is no longer a character. He’s a puppet.

This is the great bugaboo of people opposed to video games as a workable art form: that interactivity sabotages narrative meaning. I can see how that argument works, and I agree with it insofar as an interactive Macbeth would not be Macbeth. The counterargument is that video-game storytelling doesn’t really mean a Macbeth in which you can do whatever you feel like; the video game author has to give the player a limited number of choices and make it seem as though anything is possible. A video game Macbeth means a slightly more variable Macbeth, not an anything-goes Macbeth. I think that a sensitive, thoughtful game designer could design any number of affecting scenarios to play out within a Macbeth-like plot structure. But this is all citrus and cider, obviously, since, as Clint Hocking says in the book, the nature of drama as it is currently understood is that it is authored. Period. No one designing a game, I think, would have any aspirations toward something like Macbeth, which is a work of art designed to plunge inward. Games don’t do that very well. And maybe they don’t have to, any more than novels need to have great action sequences. One more word about interactivity: Actors interact with texts on stage, yes? They have a range of decision within a framework, and a lot of freedom to interpret that framework in ways they see fit. Video game players, I keep saying to anyone who’ll listen, are like actors. They’re performing. I try to make my video game characters behave in ways that feel like they, the characters, want to. Some of those choices might be fitting and some might be terrible. It’s all a matter of what your goal is. It may be trying to honor the intentions of the game designer, and it may be fucking with the intentions of the game designer. Both are legitimate ways to play video games. I view it as a problem inherent to games, but it also might be what makes games, games.

You’ve said that your favorite game designer is Clift Hocking, and I’ll admit that the game I’d most like to play is Far Cry 2, the one that you say best recreates that experience you’ve written about in your other books, of being a stranger in a strange land. “Video games are very good at using detail to induce awe,” you write, “but Far Cry 2 understands how smaller details cytoplasmically gather around a moody nucleus of place.” Maybe then the aesthetic experience of a good video game most closely resembles that of travel writing? A virtual odyssey rather than a virtual drama?

A guy named Kieron Gillen made the argument a few years ago that good video game writing would be, prima facie, travel writing. I didn’t know of his argument until I was well into writing Extra Lives, but I’m very pleased to think of the book as another travel book of mine, as opposed to straight criticism. The Far Cry 2 chapter is the one I’m proudest of, too, and the most travel-writingy, I think, so I’m glad you mentioned it. I like exploring. I like narrative fungibility. I like the feelings of loneliness that a really good, really thoughtfully conceived gameworld can subject you to. And of course that’s exactly what I love about travel, too. Someone asked me recently what I’d give up first: real, actual travel or video games. Of course the answer is video games, but I don’t want to undersell the intensity of the experience something like Far Cry 2 can give you.

Since I’ve never played the games you write about, Extra Lives certainly felt like travel writing to me. Again, though, I think I’d rather read about your trips to, for instance, the dystopic, zombie-infested land of Resident Evil’s Raccoon City than go there myself. But then again, I’m not sure I’d like to go to some of the real places you’ve written about—war zones, the post-apocalyptic landscape of the Aral Sea, a midnight screening of The Room. Has it ever occurred to you that the places you write about in the real world bear a suspicious resemblance to the settings of many video games?

I’ve thought about this a lot, actually. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the kinds of video games I love most are open-world games that stress exploration, unpredictability, and branching narrative possibilities. When I turn on a game I really like and have never played through before, and it gives me a rich and fully imagined world, with only notional ideas of which way to go or what to do, I’m in gamer heaven. And when I land in a new city I’ve never been to before, and have nothing to do but explore and figure stuff out, I’m in real-life heaven. Those feelings of potential and discovery are what I live for, both as a person and a gamer.

extra-lives-tom-bissell

You note how few games are funny, by which you mean how few are intentionally funny. For all the sentences you spend thinking about them, you also spend a great deal of the book mocking them—the awfulness of the dialogue, the “autistic” performance of the voice-over actors, the absurd ways characters interact. (Again, I’m reminded of your essay on Wiseau’s The Room.) Here, too, Far Cry 2 was an exception. In your telling, the absurdities that occur on that game’s war-torn African savannah credibly resemble life-like absurdities. There’s that scene—for me the most memorable in the book—in which you swerve your jeep to avoid a zebra and end up plowing both jeep and zebra head-on into an oncoming jeep-load of armed guerrillas. I don’t know whether to credit you or the game, but it read like a scene out of one of your short stories.

The best part of that scene, and what was so affecting about it, was, as Clint Hocking (the game’s designer) pointed out, it wasn’t scripted. It was something that grew organically out of the systems they put into place. And it was wonderful: upsetting, funny, bizarre, intense. What other form of entertainment can do that for you? Provide a series of systems that you poke and prod and walk around in and explore, to the effect that, sometimes, you have something happen right in front of you that you made happen by virtue of being a virtually present within the system. You think about it long enough and your brain begins to melt, doesn’t it? It’s not storytelling, actually, but it allows a story to happen. That’s the kind of storytelling I find most exciting in games, in which systems are designed for storytelling events to occur, even though the events themselves are not written or planned for.

I have to ask about that last chapter, the most personal in the book. You write with great candor about becoming a habitual user of both Grand Theft Auto IV and cocaine. Critics of video games have often complained that, like slot machines and unlike more nutritious art forms, they can be addictive. Your experience seems to bear the allegation out. What does that last chapter imply about video games?

I hesitate to use the A word with regard to games. I’m not sure why. I also hesitate to use it to describe my relationship to drugs, which I have spent the vast majority of my adulthood more or less responsibly abusing. Cocaine has the nastiest potential for catastrophic abuse of any drug I’ve ever been attracted to, and games, I would say, have a similarly nasty potential for over-indulgence of any entertainment medium. The kinds of rewards games give you can be very insidious, and very addictive. But I’ve come to a point in my life where I’m much more able to walk away from a game I’m playing out of joyless compulsion. Times when I’ve been down in the dumps, or frustrated—games were very attractive to me, then. Which means that I was fleeing something else to play games, rather than being drawn into games by virtue of their addictiveness. So I don’t deny that games can exert a strange and sometimes unpleasant pull, but I also don’t want to blame the medium for my own compulsive attraction to them. I will say this, though: If I hadn’t done a lot of the things I’ve done, and traveled to all of the places I’ve traveled, and looked back on my life to find that I’d spent most of it playing video games, I have to believe that I would pretty much do anything to have that time back. If a game can give me something genuinely interesting and aesthetically compelling, though, I don’t begrudge the time I might spend on it, anymore than I would regret all the time I’ve spent watching movies. My demands with games now is this: Give me something back. When they don’t, and I realize I’m playing only to play, I put down the controller. Life, to coin a phrase, is too short.

Have you considered trying to design a game yourself?

I’m actually in the process of helping to write a couple of games, one of which is based on a popular movie property (though not a new one), and which has the potential to be mind-blowingly good, and another which is a comedy game, and a first-person shooter, that takes two very popular game genres and smashes them together. That’s about all I can say. Whether either one will come to fruition, I don’t know. But I hope they do. Video-game storytelling is still such open ground, and the idea that I might be able to put my money where my mouth is with regard to why so many games are badly written . . . well, it’s either going to be hugely rewarding or kick me right in the balls.

Can you describe your ideal video game, one that does not yet exist, that would fulfill the promise of the incipient art form?

I’d love to see a game in which problems were spread out before the gamer that did not have easy or even obvious solutions. A game in which decisions were largely irrevocable, and made you commit to the choices you make. A game in which characters seemed something more than nth-generation Xeroxes of action-movie heroes. A game that offered a world with no good guys and bad guys, but people with equally intricate and complicated belief systems. A game that left people stunned by the variety of human experience, in other words. A game in which not every obstacle was a puzzle or an enemy, but something spiritual, maybe, or moral, or personal. The problem is that none of this sounds very game-like, and it’s hard to imagine how you enable these kinds of experience within the reigning paradigms of game design. That’s either the problem or the challenge. I hope it’s the challenge.

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