Interview: Tom Bissell

Hope You Die the Best: Interview with Tom Bissell, author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

(Evil Monito, 12 May 2010)

Tom Bissell’s spare, modern apartment in Portland, Oregon, bows to the needs of avid gamers (his girlfriend joneses on them, too): a widescreen TV, a comfortable couch, and minimal furnishings beside alphabetized bookshelves of every book you meant to read if you weren’t slacking off playing video games. But you can be sure Bissell has read them all. Bissell, my former writing teacher at Portland State, offered to show me some of his favorite games.

As a novice player, I’d dead-ended with Donkey Kong in the 1980s. I went through the newest versions of BioShock,Left 4 DeadGrand Theft AutoHeavy Rain, and Flower as if at a wine tasting. I was so inept it felt like I was spitting in a cup, mostly dribbling wine down my chin. I got a buzz, though, when Bissell made Niko Bellic, the (possibly) Serbian carjacker of Grand Theft Auto IV, commandeer a helicopter in Manhattan. Niko flew toward a skyscraper, as if echoing the macabre path of 9/11’s UA Flight 175. “Watch this,” Bissell said. Niko exited and fell 80 or more stories. When I had the controls a few minutes prior, Niko’s car had blasted over pedestrians. “Did you run her over?” Bissell had asked. “Not on purpose,” I said.

In the mythology of dreams you can’t dream your death. In this dreamlike game, Bissell and I fell with Niko, like it was my bad karma. The camera angle hovered above, with no super-hero powers to rescue him. He gathered speed and splatted on the pavement. It was a curious feeling to change from a perpetrator of mayhem to a willing victim, and to lose so satisfactorily. I thought, “I want to play this one again.”

EM: How does this book read to someone who doesn’t have a lot of game experience? It seems like you’re trying to write it for people who might not be into games.

I wanted to make a case for games for people who weren’t convinced by them. And for people who were, I wanted to tell them why their case isn’t as strong as they think. Video games rose up at the same time that traditional media outlets collapsed, so there was never a strong culture of critical writing about video games in magazines.

EM: I feel like video games are a generational thing. You’re trying to appeal to snooty intellectuals who would never play them.

I’m trying to make those people maybe think twice before they dismiss them. I might not win the argument, but I’d like to make the case. There are smart people involved with games, and important, weird ideas in games: What does it mean to have a character you control and at the same time observe in a story? Who decides to help you and who decides to leave you when you’re fucked (as with cooperative shooter games like Left 4 Dead)? There are really interesting social dynamics.

EM: I went back to a book you’d assigned:How Fiction Works by James Wood. He writes about the “contagion of moralizing niceness” in fiction criticism. You’re saying right now you’re more drawn toward video games than fiction. Do you believe it’s good to experience harsh things in video games?

I’m not necessarily more drawn to games than fiction. Not every game is violent in the same way. Some games are violent in a way that makes me sick. Some games are violent in a way I find very interesting and thought-provoking.

EM: Much like fiction.

Much like fiction and movies. I’m sick of the military first-person or third-person shooter, where you just go in and kill ’em all. That dynamic bores me to death. If I were a parent, I can imagine letting my children play certain kinds of violent games, and not others.

EM: In watching my son play with his action figures, it’s obvious human nature has this violent core to it—

The games I’m interested in are about chaos and violence, just like in my actual life. My fiction is dark and violent. The people making video games all seem to be interested in violent stuff—I don’t know what that says. I suspect that there are a lot of reasons for this; the first is that no one has figured out in video games yet—though Heavy Rain tries—of how to make interactivity revolve around something other than physical confrontation. (In Heavy Rain, you can click on floating words to determine the main character’s choices as he pursues child kidnappers. Bad things often happen, but there are also tender surprises.)

EM: I also went back to another book you assigned, interviews with the film editor Walter Murch. He said, “Your chances of happiness are increased if you do something that is a reflection of what you loved most at around nine to eleven years old.” Does the interest in games go back to your childhood?

I’ve always played games, but never so much as in the past few years.

EM: Did you play violent games as a kid?

Oh, yes, I was a very violent kid. In the book I wrote about the game I used to play, “Who Can Die the Best?” (Bissell and his friends took turns choosing imaginary weapons with which to kill each other; the object was to die with the most flair). Part of that has to do with having a father who was in the Marines. I knew violence touched the life of my father in a very intimate way, but I didn’t have any way to engage with that.

One issue with video games seems to be guilt—that to intellectuals, games are a waste of time. Yet the people who play video games the most wouldn’t view their hobby as a waste, just as fishermen might not regret their time standing with poles in the air, hooks in the water. The cliché of a male outsider writer is his alter ego—the fisherman, hunter, soldier, crook, drug dealer, brawler, pimp, drunk, explorer, pilot—but never the creepy basement dweller, the video game player. Writers feel the pressure to write, and any non-writing activity requiring sitting, staring, and manual manipulation—small motor movements—seems too close to writing.

EM: The book often mentions how long a game takes. I kept marking as I was reading: 30 hours, 80 hours… Is that particular to you as a writer, since as a writer if you’re not writing, what are you?

In game reviews, how long it takes you to get through is always thrown around. But I think you’re right. I’m supernaturally aware of the time—that’s 36 hours I could’ve spent writing.

EM: Is the tracking of time your intellectual part criticizing your entertainment part?

No, I would hope those two parts of me are not divided. I would hope they’re drinking a piña colada together on the beach of my mind. I write fiction and I want it to be as entertaining as hell. I don’t think there’s any dichotomy between those two things. In fact, if you want someone to read one of your stories you have to realize your competition. You need to populate your fictional world with interesting shit in a world where we’re bombarded with other media. You have to bring out of fiction what is unique to fiction. Likewise, this is the challenge I put to all contemporary video game designers: recognizing what it is that this medium does especially well. We know lots of things video games do badly, and why we keep designing games that way only highlights how bad those things are.

EM: Like dialogue?

Not dialogue, but old-fashioned, character-based storytelling—it’s not what games do well.

EM: I can tell you take pleasure in describing scenery, such as with Far Cry’s “anciently knobby rock hills ringed with tonsures of greenery.” Do you ever feel like when you’re in this video game world you could be spending time outdoors?

I’ve traveled all over the world—I’ve climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, I’ve been in two wars, and I’ve walked across Spain. Video games exist along this continuum of experience.

EM: Do you ever play like you’re playing for the designer? You’re a Catholic boy, right, so do you feel the designers are looking down on you?

There are certain moments when you play a game and find a hidden area or a secret thing, something that the designers put in there for the really diligent or really observant. And what’s so wonderful about games, when you’ve found something that most people who’ve played the game have never found. You feel like you and the designer are passing each other in the hallway, and you exchange this glance. You feel this incredible sense of recognition and empowerment.

EM: In Michael Chabon’s recent book of essays, he writes, “The truth is that in every way, I am squandering the treasure of my life… Most [days] you just ball up and throw away.” How are video games a valuable part of your life? You’re keeping track of time spent on them, but it’s not guilt about how long it takes you, right?

There’s also a strange pride in how long it takes. I spend lots of time racking up achievement points and trophies, and you compare the stuff with the stuff your friends have done.

EM: The number of hours spent on a game is a form of pride, as in “I ran a marathon”?

Yeah, I ran a useless marathon that did absolutely nothing for me.

During the interview, two strangers in overcoats opened the unlocked door to Bissell’s condo. They walked in without saying anything to us, then they thuggishly exited.

Bisell: What the fuck was that about?

EM: That was weird. Kind of like Heavy Rain.


Photo by Trisha Miller


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