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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.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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