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Author Tom Bissell Details His “Extra Lives”

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

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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.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.