Video Games Do Matter: Questions for Tom Bissell
Aside from a short trip down the rabbit hole with Sid Meier's world-building sim Civilization III back in the late '90s (see below), I've largely let the last two decades of video game culture pass me by. Not really out of distaste or even disinterest--I think in part I was (and still am) afraid of what would happen if I let myself get swallowed by the machine. Would I still be a functioning member of society? Would I ever read a book again? Nevertheless, I could tell from a distance that things were developing there in a way that went beyond the arcade games and fat-pixel consoles of my youth. I remember meeting Austin Grossman after his first novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible, came out to great acclaim and being surprised to hear that he considered video-game writing his real art form.
So I immediately perked up when I noticed Tom Bissell's new book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter on the horizon. Bissell's is one of my favorite bylines to see: he's a superb reader and critic, but equally driven to get out and engage directly with the world, which has made his books Chasing the Sea and The Father of All Things compelling amalgams of reporting, history, and memoir. No matter what he's writing about (even Tommy Wiseau's The Room in the current Harper's), you always get the feeling that something is at stake for him in the outcome: he's putting himself on the line. And though you might not expect it from a book on the narrative aesthetics of video games, that's the sense you get from Extra Lives too: he's found himself drawn hungrily into the worlds the games create, and it matters to him deeply to understand why (and to imagine how those worlds could be made even more compelling).
He came by our offices a few weeks ago to talk about the book, and it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable discussions I've had in some time. The book had me convinced of the potential value of this form of storytelling, but talking to him made me even more so. If it was even conceivable to bring an Xbox into my house, I'd probably be playing GTA IV right now instead of typing this... (I also got to take his picture in front of one our office ornaments: a blown-up copy of his NYTBR cover review of Rory Stewart's The Places in Between, a book that's one of my favorite discoveries of my time here. In my memory I had always given myself credit for sussing it out alone, but it may well have been Bissell's excellent review that first turned me on to it, as it did for so many other readers.)
You can listen to our interview in three parts below, or read the full transcript after the jump:
Amazon.com: When we say "value," we're not talking about the sort of increases-your-eye-hand-coordination argument that's often made in favor of video games. This is really an aesthetic claim that you're making.
Bissell: Yeah, I think there's a number of games, maybe not many, certainly not as many as I would like, but there are a number of games that have really given me a first-class aesthetic experience. Sometimes that experience is very kinetic and intense, sometimes that experience has been flummoxing and troubling, and sometimes the experience has been mainlined joy. Games can enchant, they can disturb. There's just some really first-rate storytelling experiences out there for people.
The problem that games have is that you have this rather large stumbling block of the interface. It's a tough thing for people that are conceptually inclined to think that maybe there's something interesting going on here, but to give them a controller and ask them to figure out what is essentially a foreign language is tough. It's a hard thing for people to overcome.
Basically every argument that we hear made against the video game experience has been made against any new popular medium that has emerged. You look through history at the people that have opposed--like the rise of the novel in the late 1800s. People warned young women about spending all of their time out of sunshine and without meeting young men, wasting their time reading these frivolous romances. And their talking about books by, like, Thackeray and stuff like that, you know? So this stuff is so obviously cyclical, so obviously born out of ignorance that the people have for the medium's value. Every medium that manages to mean anything to people develops its own traditions and its own integrity and its own authenticity, and games are already an authentic aesthetic experience for millions of people. Some of those people have a slightly more considered view of the form than others, but that doesn't mean they're all without value.
The kinds of games I'm interested in, or the kinds of games I want to be interested in, are games that push the form forward, and are slightly more inclusive of the human experience, let's say. I don't know--I enjoy my time playing games, until I don't, and then I stop playing.
Amazon.com: A little background on you: you started as a fiction writer mainly, and worked as an editor, you've written two semi-autobiographical nonfiction books, you've lived in Uzbekistan and Estonia and Las Vegas and Vietnam and Portland. Is it safe to say that you're restless?
Bissell: I'm someone who likes novelty, who seeks out the unfamiliar, so in a certain sense my interest in games just grows out of that. Games are really the only entertainment experience that gives you a preassembled world in quite the way that games do. Novels give you a preassembled world, but the entry into that--novels give you lots of things that nothing else can, this is not to diss novels at all. I love fiction like a brother. But there is something about the game experience, of being in a world that is disinterestedly functioning around you, that you don't get from other mediums. And it's the thing I love about the medium the most.
Amazon.com: Yeah, when you think about yourself inside of a novel--people often talk about how the reader helps complete a novel. But the game player helps complete the game in a very different way. What's your sense of yourself in a book, or inside a game?
Bissell: Well, novels are one of the most vigorously interactive art forms of all. There is no novel without a reader. The reader is the casting director, is the director, the camera, and the writer is kind of the lens, let's say. And that's a great feeling too. You know how when you stumble across something in a piece of fiction that you've thought a lot about but you've never been able to put into words exactly quite that way, and that feeling of recognition you get, the psychological joy of feeling someone as they leap off the page and become a real person, that feeling of telepathy that you get from really great fiction. That's all stuff that only fiction can do, and it's all stuff that makes fiction fiction.
But there is also stuff that only games can do. And one of these things is this feeling of being in a world, or playing a story, and you're observing a character that you're also controlling. People misunderstand this aspect of the game experience more than any. People assume that people play games for this childish power fantasy in which you inject yourself into the game world to triumph over a monster. That is not how I, or a lot of the serious gamers I know, view these experiences. We view these experiences as interactive. You're not in the story yourself. You're controlling a character in it. To me games are sort of like acting in a way. You try to behave in ways that this character, as you understand him or her, wants to behave. That's a cool thing, and it's a kind of interactivity that only artists have been able to enjoy. Video games are bringing that sort of experience to civilians, and I love that about games. And so there's this feeling when you have a great game that you're inside the story and you're actually maybe even changing it from moment to moment. And obviously games can't really do this to the degree that we want because technologically it's just too difficult. Games create the illusion of agency, and if they manage to do a particularly skillful or elegant job of communicating the illusion of agency, then that is a feeling that you have that you're no longer--the wall between what the fiction is and the reality just kind of slips away and you're not holding a piece of plastic, staring at a flatscreen. You're riveted into the world. And that's what games do that I find really beautiful and really promising.
Amazon.com: Speaking of seeing yourself as a character in a game, I think when you get to design your character you usually choose to be a woman.
Bissell: I do.
Amazon.com: Which actually I find myself choosing when I play games too. It's like "Madame Bovary, c'est moi," as a gamer?
Bissell: I just did an interview and someone said, "Oh, you just like doing that 'cause you like looking at hot women." And I actually got a little mad, because it's not about that at all. What it does for me is it actually adds an additional layer of fiction onto the fiction. So the thing that I like about games is controlling and observing a fictional character. Making the character a different gender that I am actually puts one additional degree of remove for me. It's a way to intensify one of the core pleasures of the gaming experience for me, just being. There's nothing really genderishly subversive about it. There's nothing transsexual about the urge--there's nothing sexual about the urge. It's just an additional degree of intensification of what I find to be the core pleasure of the game experience.
Amazon.com: I'm sure you could look at fantasy in the same way. The word "fantasy" has so many negative connotations, but fantasy literature or fantasy games--being an elf, it's not that you want to be an elf, it's that being an elf is so clearly different from you, and there's a pleasure in that.
Amazon.com: You've played games all along--
Bissell: I had a lull, from about 22 to 28. I sort of dropped out.
Amazon.com: When you were a literary person, developing as a book person?
Bissell: Yeah, I think so. Games just stopped being interesting to me. And then, you know, I started playing games with friends, usually played social games, shoot-em-ups, stuff like that, beat-em-ups, just games that you play with your friends and throw popcorn at each other while you're playing. And then in like 2006-2007, some games started coming out that I felt were really formally and conceptually interesting, really sophisticated, really cool. And then that's when I guess the seeds of this book were planted. I thought, this is new, this is storytelling of a sort that has--it was drawing from film, it was drawing from previous games, and it was creating something that felt to me really new.
Amazon.com: I want to talk about a couple of those games, but one thing I thought, as not much of a gamer, but who played a lot of games back in the 80s--
Bissell: Tell your Civ story--[a reference to a tale I told him earlier, one my wife enjoys reminding me of, about the time we were visiting New York and I spent untold daytime hours playing Civilization III in the basement of my friend's bar with nothing but a bag of bialys at my side while she and her friend toured the world's greatest city. But I built cities!]
Amazon.com: Well, I was going to go further back than that. I was in a retro video game bar the other day, playing some of the games I used to play, and what I loved, and that I don't see that often now, is really abstract video games. I loved that you brought up Tempest [in the book], which I consider one of the most--I'm terrible at it, but I consider it incredibly beautiful, and because of its abstraction. It seems like games have gone towards realism because they can now, but I'm curious where you think that side of gaming--does it live, these days, or is it all about creating the most realistic world that we can.
Bissell: No, there's still tons of games along the abstract, Tempest line, and I like playing those games. There's a game called Spacedraft Space Giraffe that's on Xbox Live that's really fun, that I like. There's a few others. There's a game coming out called Limbo that is a little bit more abstract--it's a platformer but it's really dark and weird. But the hard thing is those games are hard for me personally to write about. I don't know how you write about Tempest, other than saying, "This is trippy and weird and I want to keep playing it." It's like one of the things I've been saying during the media for this book is that for me, it's easier for me to write about "The Last Supper" than it is to write about a Rothko painting. That doesn't mean I think "The Last Supper" is a better painting than the Rothko painting, but it means for me I can't really discuss the Rothko painting because I just don't think in those terms. And there are people who can write about abstract art really well. I'm not one of them. I have a hard time writing about abstract video game playing, which isn't to say I don't enjoy it.
Amazon.com: Which leads to another question I had: you talk a lot about storytelling--and some of the deficits of storytelling--in video games, and a lot of it comes back again to the writing. The writing is often terrible and has historically been an afterthought. Part of me thinks, well, why should writing even matter in a game? Maybe it should be like the monolith in 2001: aliens aren't going to look like us, they're going to be this totally different, incomprehensible thing. And maybe games--why do they need to be like novels, why do they have to have writing at all?
Bissell: They don't. And there's probably really valuable game experiences that you can work out of that model, absolutely. For me, the kind of games I'm most interested in are traditional storytelling experiences. Which isn't to say "traditional" in the way that movies work, or the way that [novels work]. I understand that those traditional characteristics of narrative are completely unworkable in the video game medium. But the thing I long for in the gaming experience is a story in which everything the characters say to each other feels beautiful, or true, or surprising. And the way people interact with each other doesn't feel like an nth generation Xerox of an action film. And even you can have action games that have characters--so often in games I feel like when designers get to a character that feels like a movie character they're like, "We're done! Great! We made a shitty imitation of a character from an action film." And that just frustrates the heck out of me as a gamer. I just don't feel like anybody ever--not anybody, there's lots of people who do this--but I feel it's much more rare for game designers to strive for a conceptual originality around things like character and things about, like, how interesting dialogue is allowed to be in games.
So this is my argument: If you have a game that's, say, a shooter--I like shooters--if you have a game that's about shooting everybody, the scale is sort of tipped toward the shooting. And the talk, and the banter, and the "story" in the shooter game is going to stink because all of the juju has gone into making the shooting exciting. Well, how about a game in which the scale were the opposite? A game that had shooting elements, with characters that were incredibly interesting and compelling, and that if one of these characters was hurt, and if you make it an irrevocable part of the game mechanic that if you lost one of these people throughout the game, they were gone, well then the shooting feels that much more tense, really. Doesn't it? A game that involves shooting that didn't involve these set-piece battles that have a beginning, middle, and end and then a blast of music at the end of it.
These are the kinds of game experiences that I think are really cool to think about. And that's why I'm just frankly desperate for better, more dramatically skillful storytelling in games. It's not that I want games to have more story, because no one wants story-heavy games that have no gameplay. Gameplay is the central aspect of the game experience. But if you're going to have a game that does tell a story, tell the best, most sophisticated version of it you can, in ways that are appropriate to the medium. That is what I champion, and that is what I long for as a gamer.Amazon.com: Let's talk about a game you love: Grand Theft Auto IV, a legendary, notorious, beloved game. What did you love about it, and when did you stop loving it?
Bissell: What I love about Grand Theft Auto IV, more than anything, is that it's funny. It's really funny. And the satire is pretty sophisticated. When you listen to the radio stations, for instance, and you're driving around. I love the sense that there's like six hours of music on these 13 different radio stations in Liberty City. I don't know if it's 13 or maybe 16. It's a lot anyway. And the feeling that, you know, you've just jacked a car, you've lost the cops, you're driving down the street, you're going over the Algonquin Bridge from Algonquin into Broker, and the Who comes on: "Pinball Wizard," or "The Seeker"--"The Seeker"--and you're listening to "The Seeker" and the sun's going down and you just have this feeling of "My God, this is a world," and everything just sort of clicks into place, and you just feel this beautiful flow, this transcendent feeling of, the game has just done something beautiful, and it didn't do it because it was scripted, it did it because of the systemic opportunities that the game allows players to play around with and experience. And so the experience is mine. It's mine, that's not anyone else's.
And the characters are great. They're funny, they're savage, they're terrible, they're brutal. And I love the story even though as a piece of storytelling it has a lot of the problems that a lot of game storytelling does. I just like this character of Niko Bellic, this guy who's just basically a thug but has some better angels of his nature, and I love the game's theme of "Can he overcome his nature?" And playing the game and finding out if he can, and then at the moment of truth realizing that you're given the power to determine whether or not he can, at a difficult moment. That's a great gaming experience, really is. It's really powerful. And if people are unwilling to entertain how that could be powerful then I don't really have much to say.
Amazon.com: But it's a game that you eventually had to say goodbye to.
Bissell: I was playing this in the aftermath of my last book, The Father of All Things, that underperformed commercially in a way that felt kind of heartbreaking. And I sort of retreated into the darkness for a while, and one of the things I brought with me--I was living in Estonia, and I was first doing a little bit of cocaine and then soon enough I was doing a lot. And then soon enough I was doing a lot and playing a lot of GTA and spending absurd amounts of time by myself. And the game just kind of became the place that I went. And the great thing about it is that the game also helped me out of that place, and I kind of figured out somethings about games, and myself, and compulsion while playing it. The game almost ruined me, and it fixed me.
Amazon.com: The book itself, it has elements of criticism, of reporting, of memoir, and there's a bit of an addiction memoir arc. I think of people think of video games as being addicting in their own way, and it was very interesting, that interplay between the drug and the game: that the game has some aspects of the drug, and clearly they feed off each other, but yet the game is different from the drug.
Bissell: Yeah, and I don't want to condemn either. I'm not interested in demonizing drug abuse. Not to say I want to champion it, but I think there are all sorts of reasons people do those things, and I think lots of people abuse drugs more or less responsibly. I turned out not to be a person who could.
Amazon.com: At least when GTA was in the room.
Bissell: At least when GTA was in the room. But "addiction" is not a word I use anywhere in that piece. To me that doesn't seem like an accurate word to represent the quality of my experience with either of those things. Maybe it is, to other people, but to me it doesn't feel like that word fits.
Amazon.com: "Compulsion"? Is that a better word, at its worst, I guess?
Bissell: Yeah, maybe. And there's an element of transcendent self-destruction. I don't want to ennoble it, but a lot of those elements are what make you write, frankly. We're all composed of black and white strands that wrap around each other.
Amazon.com: So how do game playing, and writing, and reading--how do those fit in your life right now? You mention in the book that you read a lot less than you used to, partially because you're playing games.
Bissell: I do. Yeah, I'm not going to dress this up. I'm not going to deny this. I just read Nick Carr's book, The Shallows, and I think he's right, he's absolutely right, that electronic media makes you less able to engage with dense, literary work. Period. It's not a positive thing, it's not a negative thing. It's a thing. And my literary inclinations have survived, certainly, my increased gaming interests. But they're not the same. They shouldn't be the same. I don't really have a good answer to this, other than that I'm waiting to see how this works out. To be perfectly honest, I'm more interested in the video game medium, theoretically, than I am in fiction. Right now. I am. I fully anticipate that will at some point change. But right now I'm just more interested in this medium, for its potential and for what I could possibly do in it, and how I could possibly direct it as a critic or as a person who's writing a game himself now. I find that exciting. I still love fiction, I don't want anyone to misinterpret this, but at this point in my life I'm going to go down this path and see where it goes.
Amazon.com: Yeah, I feel like the novel has this place in our culture--a lapsed place maybe--as the grail that a storytelling artist should follow, but even in your career as a writer you have written nonfiction, after starting off mainly writing fiction. Was that a similar path for you, that you wanted--you've written novels that haven't been published--
Bissell: I sure have!
Amazon.com: --but the subjects that actually maybe drew you even more strongly were actually nonfiction, and then games--these different ways of telling stories that aren't the one we're supposed to be drawn to the most.
Bissell: Yeah, I'm like a--when it comes to story consuming, I have satyriasis. I like them in every way they come. I like nonfiction stories, I like fiction, I like video game stories. I just love stories, and I'll take them any way you want to give them to me. I still write short fiction. I still write short stories a lot. I'm much more interested in the short story than I am in--I don't even know if I will write a novel. I like short stories to write. Oh hell, I'll probably write a novel some day, but I write nonfiction books and I write stories. That's just what I do. And that's kind of a tough marketing nut to crack.
Amazon.com: They're all tough.
Bissell: They're all equally tough. I don't know. I love the novel. I think the novel is the supreme achievement of the human mind, probably. Really, I do. I do believe that. And my having been able to publish one certainly doesn't change that opinion. In fact it probably only intensifies it. But I think games are a completely viable medium to tell stories in. And stories that are not meaningless. They're not mindless.
Amazon.com: The book has two different endings. There's the main part of the book, which ends with your chapter on GTA. It's almost cathartic--you feel very wrung out after that chapter, as you probably did. But then you have an afterword, which is mainly an interview with Sir Peter Molyneux, a game designer. And his last line is not bittersweet in any way: "We are going to have real life. We are going to have real characters. We are going to have real drama. We are going to change the world and entertain in ways that nothing else has before." Do you feel those two--the bittersweet, exhausted side of the story, and then this totally wide-eyed, can't-believe-we're-on-the-cusp-of-this feeling as well?
Bissell: It was important to me to end the book that way because I hate starry-eyed game champions. I think it's an unviable position to have, because the only way you can really accept a medium on its own terms is to acknowledge every single color in the prismatic span of it. And so games led me to a dark place, and yet I look ahead and see what games I'm interested in are trying to get to, and it looks like Oz to me. And I want both those things, and I wanted the book to have both things, because how can you see anything unless you're looking at the whole thing?