From the subtitle, I'd feared that this would be a lengthy academic treatise, written by someone who's more interested in the idea of video games than the games themselves. Instead, this series of essays is a riveting reflection on the author's own love-hate relationship with games, as they alternately delight and frustrate him.
I share many of the author's views (and many of his favorite games). Fallout 3, for instance, is a game of awesome scope, allowing the player to walk anywhere in the post-apocalyptic D.C. area and talk to thousands of characters. But the game's second-rate writing serves as a frequent and painful reminder that there is little substance there, that you're ultimately exploring not a richly realized world but only a figment of someone's adolescent imagination. That doesn't mean it can't be addictive, of course. But it does set games apart from other forms of entertainment. Mass Effect is a great game in large part because it's as well-written as a big-budget sci-fi flick. That's the high bar. Why, Bissell constantly wonders, hasn't the standard for game narratives been pushed any higher?
Bissell is at his most interesting when he's describing his own game-playing experiences, uncynically highlighting sources of emotional resonance. It's refreshing to see such thoughtful reviews of games (though the A.V. Club comes close). I find him slightly less engaging when he switches into interview mode, as in "The Grammar of Fun," a profile of Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski that originally appeared in The New Yorker. These feel a bit too reverential, placing the game designers on a pedestal and inevitably skipping over the flaws in their works.
Still, all in all, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in current video games (almost every game mentioned in the book came out in the last 5 years). If you play them, it will change the way you frame your playing experience. And if you don't, it will make you understand what all the fuss is about.
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About the reviewer
Trevor Burnham (TrevorBurnham)
Whatever you're doing right now, I was doing it before it was cool.
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