"Why are there no video game critics?" Chuck Klosterman asked in 2006. His Esquire column incensed hardcore gamers but went unanswered in pop culture, where the art form has failed to anoint a writer to bring its joys to the washed masses. Enter Tom Bissell, who takes a self-conscious stab at highbrow (but populist) video game criticism with Extra Lives.
Bissell, a New Yorker contributor, does not approach video games from a cinematic or literary perspective. He tackles them from within, as a player, and much of Extra Lives' nine essays consist of his second-person in-game narratives. "You step forward, experimenting... Squeeze the left trigger," Bissell writes of Resident Evil, immersing the reader in the game. His literary walkthroughs could only come from a gamer.
However, Bissell is a particular type of gamer: a first-person shooter enthusiast. He fetishizes the headshots of Fallout 3; he calls Grand Theft Auto IV, a first-person shooter not limited to shooting, "the most colossal creative achievement of the last twenty-five years." His preoccupation with shooters means that earlier games, among them Super Mario Brothers 3, are absent from Extra Lives, even though they would have shed light on the book's central concern: how an educated devotee of literary fiction could spend hundreds of hours in the hackneyed narratives of games. The answer is that games disavow narrative—they give a break from narrative—to create the conditions for ludonarrative, the story that the gamer creates as he or she plays the game. Thus, suggests media scholar Henry Jenkins in Dungeons and Dreamers, Brad King and John Borland's 2003 study, games are best interpreted not as films or novels but as dance.
Bissell only touches on these issues. He spends most of Extra Lives establishing his fractious, insular, and plaintively male voice. It's the voice of a person who likes first-person shooters. It's also the voice of our first video game critic.