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Inventing the paint: An interview with author Tom Bissell


If you were to grab a pen and paper right now and write a list of people who treat video games with respect as a legitimate medium, as something other than a mindless button slapping, your list would look something like mine. Video game bloggers, video game magazine editors, video game programmers, video game designers, and a portion of video game players. Essentially, people already knee-deep in the industry. The rest of the universe sees games as simplistic murder simulators with the emotional relevance of an episode of Jersey Shore.

But donít put that pen away yet. You can happily pen another name onto the end. Novelist, professor, Gugenheim Fellowship and Rome Prize winner, avid gamer, and all around polite gentleman, Tom Bissell.

His book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, just arrived on shelves this past June and I, personally, have already read it twice. Within itís pages, Bissellís travel writing background and slew of intricate questions paint a unique perspective of the inner workings of our favorite developers, like the powerhouse that is Bioware, the ďbachelor futurist” team at Epic Games, and the ineffably inventive Jonathan Blow among others. Mixed with his multi-faceted personal experiences with video games, ranging from unbridled joy and discovery to the troublesome and addictive, Extra Lives takes a legitimate approach to our favorite pastime with a respectful and critical eye.

After annoying friends and family by reading lines from various chapters, I contacted Tom and he was kind enough to give me an interview and answer a few questions. We talked about the nature of the industry, the question of art games, and some of the many excellent games discussed at length in his book.

Right out the gate, an easy one. What games have you played since the book came out that have just floored you?

The first game I played after finishing the book was Dead Space, which I absolutely loved. I don't know why I didn't play it when it came out. I should have. It's terrifying, it's beautiful, the zero-G sequences are incredibly cool, and it had a twist in the end I didn't, for once, fully expect. It's one of the best horror games I've ever played. I shouted out in panic many times while playing it. I also played the two Uncharted games, which are fantastic on-rails experiences. I normally resist--theoretically, at least--on-rails games, but when they're done really well, I'm pretty much putty in their hands. Demon's Souls blew me away: never have I felt a greater sense of accomplishment after finishing a game. It left me feeling as drained as a lanced blister. Finally, I'm playing Limbo right now, which is the most atmospheric and creepy little thing ever. I love how it takes the most childlike genre (the side-scrolling platformer) and makes it feel like a distinctly adult nightmare. I'd defy anyone to look at Limbo and deny that games are not capable of providing a first-class aesthetic experience.

Any games on the horizon that are looking right up your alley?

Well, I'm a sucker for Gears of War, so I'm looking forward to the third and final iteration of that series. LittleBigPlanet 2. Whatever Jonathan Blow is doing next. Dead Space 2, I guess, though I'm really worried they've made Isaac an action hero, which would be a disastrous move, in my opinion. Fable III, because my girlfriend loved Fable II and I want to play it through with her. That new Jenova Chen game looks kind of amazing.

I think we can skip the Ďgames are/arenít art debate.Ē But, on the topic, there are a number of self-proclaimed ďart gamesĒ out there. Do you think thereís a problem with designers that seek out the title of ďartĒ rather than just create an experience and leave it up to the player to decide?

I think most of the best designers are pretty much doing that, though, aren't they? I can't think of anyone out there right now saying, "This is art." Some designers are most interested in formal innovation than others, of course, and some designers may chafe at the "art" question while others embrace it, but I think self-consciously arty games are the least of the game industry's problems right now.

I often think non-gamer friends of mine will love a certain game, but sometimes find them doubtful and critical when I show it them. Why do you think some people are so tentative about giving video games a chance?

One reason may be that so many games are still so hard to pick up and just start playing without requisite game-playing experience. To play well you have to understand, reflexively, all this other stuff that gamers pretty much get at a dermal and/or lizard-brain level. Games are nothing but pretty pictures--if that--unless you're playing them. To get games you have to play them yourself.

You spoke at length in your book about video games like Resident Evil, which is arguably so popular because it rewrote what players thought games could do. In this day and age, do you think thereís still sufficient ground to be broken in that way?

Absolutely. I'm waiting for games that are a little more patient, a little more content to allow things to unfold slowly, a little more appreciative of character and all the many complications of character. I'm also excited to see future game designers attempting to create involving gameplay that revolves around something other than physical confrontation. I loved Heavy Rain for that reason. Trying to find your kid in a crowd? That was amazing. I wish games would try to explore more *human* situations like that. Innovation can come at you from all manner of unexpected angles. Too often, I think, we gamers think of innovation along the extremely limited lines of enemy types and weapon possibilities. Demon's Souls use of multiplayer was a revelation. Flower was a revelation. Red Dead's multiplayer Free Roam Lobby was a revelation--and that's just stuff from the last year. There's a million nooks and crannies games can still find innovation in.

Single-player experiences are a near-infinite source of expression and narrative power, thanks to the designer being able to actively drape the story around the player. Do you think thereís any of this same power in multiplayer experiences?

It's a different kind of power, I guess. It's a competitive power, a socializing power, a "Hey, my friend and I did it together!" power. It's not what I find particularly mind-altering about games, and not really why I like to play them, but multiplayer has something very compelling about it. For me, though, the multiplayer experience often feels really hollow. I got really, really good at Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer over Christmas--at one point, I won 21 free-for-alls in a row--but I never felt very good about myself at the end of a multiplayer session. I could have spent that time reading or writing. But when I play a single-player experience through, I almost never feel like I've wasted my time, because if I'm not enjoying the game, I stop playing it.

Like most gamers, you spoke highly of Biowareís Mass Effect. You gave it an entire chapter from your book. Iím dying to know what you thought about the sequel.

I liked the sequel quite a bit, but not as much as the first one. I felt that dutiful "fan service" thing creep into the game too often. Everything in the first game felt so new and different and interesting. That world was just breathtaking on initial contact. I recognize that the second game is in many ways "better"--or at least more streamlined--than the first, but a lot of it felt familiar to me, and not as interesting. BioShock 2 struck me in the same way. I liked it a lot--a few sequences were as good as anything in the first game--but you only get to experience Rapture for the first time once. For me, that's the best experience: a new world, brilliantly realized, and I'm wandering through it.

Farcry 2 was one of those nebulous games that didnít quite hit the market like it should have, but a few fans completely swear by its expertly done open-world design and huge player freedom. You seem to feel this way too. Why do you think it didnít take off like other big-name titles? Is too much freedom in games a bad thing?

I don't know. I think it sold 2.5 million copies across its three platforms, which is a lot of games sold. I think it's probably too slow-moving for a lot of gamers, and involved too much driving from one mission point to another. I personally loved moving through that world, but I understand why other people didn't. I'd say the reason it didn't become a huge megahit had more to do with its relatively slow first couple hours more than anything. A lot of people I know said they couldn't get past the first two hours, and put it aside. Thus they never even got into why the game was so goddamned great.

I've played it through seven different times by now, and seen different stuff everything I've played it. But maybe you're on to something with the "too much freedom" angle. It gave you such a big space and so little direction as to how you were supposed to do anything, and I think a lot of people just charged into missions blowing shit up, rather than taking their time and figuring out the best, most elegant ways of accomplishing their task. But anyway--and I say this with all due respect--who cares that it didn't take off like Halo 3? I still say it's the best shooter ever made, and a lot of people agree with that. That ain't nothing.

Finally, being up front, Iíll admit that I still wince a bit when I say the words ďIím a gamerĒ aloud around people that donít game. Do you think the medium will get to a place where I wonít have qualify that statement with a lengthy explanation of what itís like to play Shadow of the Colossus?

Eventually, all the people who sneer at gaming will be dead, and we won't have to deal with them or wince in shame anymore, because even people who don't game will by then understand that this medium has something interesting and compelling about it. I give this process about another decade to come to full fruition. Though it would help if so many of the people who do game seriously weren't such small-minded weirdos about it. I'm looking at you, 80 percent of Kotaku commenters....

Besides writing Extra Lives, Tom Bissell has penned a number of critically acclaimed books. When he's not getting published and contributing to major literary outlets, he teaches fiction at Portland State University.
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About AwesomeExMachinaone of us since 6:13 PM on 07.28.2009

Twenty four years ago I was adorable. Now I'm inquisitive and hilarious.

I have a plastic tooth to replace one lost in a mosh pit during my more ridiculous high school years. I speak shitty German and I ride a bike. My Xbox gets so much use, I'm sometimes embarassed. But I'm unemployed, so my time is spent writing blogs on the internet, reading good literary fiction, and playing video games.

In the grand scale of things, I'm a late-bloomer. My parents banned all consoles from my house as a kid. See what you've done? Now I game constantly to make up for years of lost time.

I won't list my favorites, because you've probably seen ten lists like it before me.

There's a life-sized Boba Fett standee in my living room.

No Clip Series:
Grand Theft Auto IV
Fallout New Vegas
Red Dead Redemption

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Inventing the Paint: An Interview with Author Tom Bissell
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Teh Bias: Critical Errors at Surface Level
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We Are Destructoid
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Being a Coward on Purpose
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Xbox LIVE:The Disco Pony
PSN ID:The Disco Pony


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