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Exceptional writing on recent games

  • Jun 13, 2010
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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Trevor Burnham ()
Whatever you're doing right now, I was doing it before it was cool.
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Starred Review. Grand Theft Auto IV is both a waste of time and the most colossal creative achievement of the last 25 years, according to this scintillating meditation on the promise and discontents of video games. Journalist Bissell (Chasing the Sea) should know; the ultraviolent car-chase-and-hookers game was his constant pastime during a months-long intercontinental cocaine binge. He's ashamed of his video habit, but also ashamed of being ashamed of the dominant art form of our time; by turning the eye of a literary critic on the gory, seemingly puerile genre of ultraviolent, open-ended shooter games, he finds unexpected riches. Bissell bemoans the uncompromising stupidity of their story lines, wafer-thin characters, and the moronic dialogue, but celebrates the button-pushing, mesmeric qualities and the subtle, profound depths these conceal—the catharses of teamwork and heroism in the zombie-fest Left for Dead, the squirmy moral dilemmas of Mass Effect, the mood of wistful savagery suffusing the rifles-and-chainsaws-bedecked denizens of Gears of War. Bissell excels both at intellectual commentary and evocative reportage on the experience of playing games, while serving up engrossing mise-en-scène narratives of the mayhem. If anyone can bridge the aesthetic chasm between readers and gamers, he can.(June 8)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Books, Nonfiction, Video Game History


ISBN-10: 0307378705
ISBN-13: 978-0307378705
Author: Tom Bissell
Genre: Professional & Technical, Computers & Internet
Publisher: Pantheon
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