Author Tom Bissell Details His “Extra Lives”

Author Tom Bissell Details His “Extra Lives” (photo)

Posted by on

Even the most sophisticated, verbally gifted gamer can find it daunting to explain the occasionally obsessive love affair with pushing buttons to the curious or skeptical. Parallels to the pleasures of other mediums can hard to draw, and the sticky preconception of what games are and who plays them don’t help either. While there have been books that cover the video game medium as a business or an entertainment phenomenon, not many have tackled the unique creativity and symbiosis that binds player, creation and creator together. “Extra Lives” attempts to do that.

The book, by Portland author Tom Bissell, looks at several major video game releases over the last few years — “Fallout 3”, the “Mass Effect” games, “Left 4 Dead” and “GTA IV,” among others — and talks about what makes them work as cultural artifacts. In his non-gaming life, Bissell’s written three acclaimed novels that have earned him the Rome Prize and, more recently, a Guggenheim Fellowship. He also teaches fiction writing at Portland State University.

But “Extra Lives” isn’t some dispassionate intellectual treatise. Bissell channels his own subjective experiences with each game into interviews and interpretations that form a larger conversation about how the medium understands itself. Here, Bissell talks about the medieval parallels to how video games get perceived today, what the acclaimed PS3 thriller “Heavy Rain” got right and why his girlfriend doesn’t need to read his book.

I’ll start off with a personal question: Did you write “Extra Lives” for your girlfriend? It just seems like the kind of book you hand somebody to so they can understand something they find impenetrable. (And I mean that as no slight on your significant other…)

That’s funny. I didn’t, because my girlfriend actually plays games with me and thinks highly of the medium’s potential. But I suppose I did write it for some theoretical girlfriend, or parent, or sibling, who wonders why on earth any self-respecting adult would want to play video games.

06042010_extralives.jpgYour jacket copy makes it seem like you treated your gaming as a dirty little secret. How accurate was that?

Meh. Not very. I mean, somewhat accurate. Only in about 2007 or so did it become clear to me that games could stand proudly beside other storytelling mediums, and that’s when I became more, shall we say, evangelistic in my position. Prior to that, I don’t know how enthusiastically I would have admitted that I game.

In “Extra Lives,” you’re writing about some of the most high-profile games in the last five years or so. How’d you get the access to these developers like Peter Molyneux and Clint Hocking?

My first piece about the industry was for the New Yorker — a name that obviously opens some PR doors for you. In writing that piece — which was about Cliff Bleszinski and Epic Games — I got to be friends with a publicist who works for Microsoft, and he set me up with a lot of other companies when I mentioned wanting to write the book. He really understood what I wanted to do with it, and supported it, and helped me greatly. So Mark Van Lommel, this one’s for you.

What made you pick these specific titles, studios and creators?

To be brutally honest, every game I wrote about was a title I either felt an intense connection to or one that was created by a company who agreed to talk to me. A lot of companies didn’t. Ken Levine, for instance, said no, which was a drag, because I very much wanted to write more in the book about “BioShock.”

What other games did you want to write about, but couldn’t fit in?

06042010_mirrorsedge.jpgI also wanted to write about “Mirror’s Edge,” which is an absolutely fantastic game. I think so, at least — I know many who dislike it intensely, and that was part of what I wanted to address. But DICE never got back to me. I also had a chapter about “Shadow of the Colossus” in there at one point, but it was pretty inert. I found that game impossible to write about, for whatever reason. Probably due to the intensely individualized nature of the experience it offers you.

Do you feel like you could’ve written “Extra Lives” ten years ago, when maybe game-makers where less self-conscious about the craft of what they were doing?

I couldn’t have, no. The kinds of games I’m most interested in are narrative games. There are a few reasons for that, but I think the two most important are the fact that I’m a fiction writer, and take storytelling methodology very seriously, and that it’s simply easier to write about game experiences that are framed around some kind of narrative. Ten years ago, that would not have been possible. There simply wasn’t enough narrative.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

Posted by on

Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

Posted by on
Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

Posted by on
GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.