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Publisher's Summary

Tom Bissell is a prizewinning writer who published three widely acclaimed books before the age of 34. He is also an obsessive gamer who has spent untold hours in front of his various video game consoles, playing titles such as Far Cry 2, Left 4 Dead, BioShock, and Oblivion for, literally, days. If you are reading this copy, the same thing can probably be said of you, or of someone you know. 

Until recently, Bissell was somewhat reluctant to admit to his passion for games. In this, he is not alone. Millions of adults spend hours every week playing video games, and the industry itself now reliably outearns Hollywood. But the wider culture seems to regard video games as, at best, well-designed if mindless entertainment. 

Extra Lives is an impassioned defense of this assailed and misunderstood art form. Bissell argues that we are in a golden age of gaming - but he also believes games could be even better. He offers a fascinating and often hilarious critique of the ways video games dazzle and, just as often, frustrate. Along the way, we get firsthand portraits of some of the best minds (Jonathan Blow, Clint Hocking, Cliff Bleszinski, Peter Molyneux) at work in video game design today, as well as a shattering and deeply moving final chapter that describes, in searing detail, Bissell’s descent into the world of Grand Theft Auto IV, a game whose themes mirror his own increasingly self-destructive compulsions. 

Blending memoir, criticism, and first-rate reportage, Extra Lives is like no other work on the subject ever published. Whether you love video games, loathe video games, or are merely curious about why they are becoming the dominant popular art form of our time, Extra Lives is required listening.

©2010 Tom Bissell (P)2010 Random House

Critic Reviews

"A scintillating meditation on the promise and discontents of video games....Bissell excels both at intellectual commentary and evocative reportage on the experience of playing games...If anyone can bridge the aesthetic chasm between readers and gamers, he can." ( Publishers Weekly)
"Bissell explores not just his own affection for video games but also the games themselves. What separates good games from bad? Where do video games fit on the sliding scale of art?....Not just for gamers, the book should also appeal to readers who have some serious questions about the nature and impact of video games." ( Booklist)
“Bissell successfully dissects key aspects of the medium with razor-sharp sense and artfully crafted analysis. A thought-provoking, thorough, and ultimately personal study of the industry and its denizens.”(Cliff Bleszinski, design director, Epic Games)

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What listeners say about Extra Lives

Average Customer Ratings
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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Video Gaming - Far more than just virtual bullets

This book is a refreshing look at game design from a player's perspective. The author rightly points out that gaming critique now is now solely limited to whether a new game is entertaining enough to be worth spending some money. If you've enjoyed any PC or console game for dozens of hours you've wondered why is this particular form of game play so uniquely fun? The author explores the answers using many major titles (but will invariably miss some of your personal favorites). He confesses a bias for console games (a controller over a keyboard) as an avid PC gamer I found the distinction not pertinent to book's themes. He poses many excellent questions: What is the nature of storytelling in a video game? How much and what impact do good writers have on a story? Should the game's story drive the player or should the game design allow the player to drive the story? What are the possibilities of open-ended story telling? (as opposed to cut scenes/cinematics) which the author and game designers view as limiting at best. He describes major titles, so one can understand the features that were overlooked by above mentioned limited critical perspective. This includes a notorious car jacking series (which I've smugly avoided as trashy) describing the many details of the extraordinarily rich virtual world it creates. Another recent gaming flop, the latest in the an FPS series set in landlocked Africa, instead of its previous tropical setting, (the latest panned by many as poor) is described for its completely unscripted physics and unique character/NPC interaction. He covers the skills to needed to complete the now outdated 2D scrolling games (i.e. why they were so fun in their day) but mainly describes role playing & shooter games as well as few obscure but completely unique and award winning games. If you haven't explored every single last major video game franchise at the very least you'll learn of new unique gaming experiences to be had.

6 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Interesting, even for a novice...

With the exception of a handful of hours at Goldeneye and Super Mario Galaxy, I haven't played video games since the days of the SNES. Sometime last year, I saw what kids these days were playing and was quite frankly was scared. Not because of the super violence in them. But because the apparent limitless entertainment possibilities of them seemed to threaten my business - movies - with obsoleteness. I've been looking for a book about video game aesthetics and with this I finally found it. The narration is personal and casual - making me wish that more authors did their own narration instead of hiring "professionals".

3 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Doesn't follow through on subtitle

Any additional comments?

An interesting, well-informed and very well performed book. Occasionally a little too subjective (as in off topic), but the biggest problem I had with the book was that very little of the content provided any evidence or compelling argument for why video games matter. For anyone looking for a glimpse into the gamer experience it might be very rich, but being well familiar with the gaming world already I felt let down by a lack of insightful commentary. Feels like a missed opportunity or maybe a book that was finished and published without enough reflection.

6 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Gamer or Not, Must Listen

Extra Lives is an incredibly interesting account of the authors personal experience with video games. It's not quite what I expected, but it was incredibly enjoyable.

2 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Ever Wonder about Video Games?

First, I am not a gamer. Second, I try to find books that inform me about subjects unfamiliar. This book will inform and excite those seeking to understand the attraction of games. It will inform people with family members and friends who spend hours, in the dark, competing with others on-line.

The book combines gaming history, psychology of gamers, programming, and the development of gaming as an art form.

The book is wonderfully written and read by Tom Bissel. It will keep the interest of anyone who listens.

5 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    2 out of 5 stars

Long Rambles to Fleeting, Inarticulate Points

That I originally had this shelved under sociology-psychology-ethics-and-medicine should explain what kind of book I was expecting when I picked this up and a lot about why I'm disappointed after reading it.

Extra Lives is - according to the subtitle, Why Video Games Matter - supposed to be about why video games do and/or should matter to players and/or the wider public. That is not what this book is about. Extra Lives is a rumination on the author's thoughts on and experience of playing various open world RPGs from a gameplay and a storytelling standpoint. Fleetingly mentioned in those lengthy stories and critiques are various points that I agreed with - that video games allow players to vent by letting them act as they would not in real life; that video games are a new artistic medium still evolving and finding its place; that, at their best, video games may allow for interactive stories - but they are not the center of the book even though they should be. These points, after all, are what the title promises the book is about. However, this is not the case and the book is worse off for it.

Though funny, Extra Lives would have done well with a good editor enforcing that, say, each chapter be about a point (an individual reason why video games matter) and the author use a story about a game to illustrate that point. 'Video games do interactive storytelling in a way that films/novels cannot as illustrated by my experience of playing Mass Effect, where being forced to kill a character of which I was very fond due to my previous choices in the game was extremely upsetting. Even worse, shortly afterwards was being able to save only one of my remaining squad.' A book written like that might have been a compelling read. If nothing else, it undoubtedly would have seemed far more coherent than the semi-articulate, rambling mess that some publisher let past their desk. This is not a book I would recommend.

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    3 out of 5 stars

Poorly titled book

This book wasn’t for you, but who do you think might enjoy it more?

If you like video game review anthologies, this is your book.

What was the most interesting aspect of this story? The least interesting?

The interviews with game designers were interesting, but I didn't expect and was uninterested in the psychoanalytical self examination that is the other main aspect of the book.

Which character – as performed by Tom Bissell – was your favorite?

There is only one character in the book, since it's basically autobiographical; the author. Yet he's still not my favorite.

If you could play editor, what scene or scenes would you have cut from Extra Lives?

I'd cut out all the left wing political statement nonsense.

Any additional comments?

This book will absolutely NOT give an argument of any substance for why video games matter. If anything it will give an implicit argument that they are equally as ephemeral as the different other drugs the author describes using in the book. I believe they do matter, but no self referential indulgent blather can possibly argue for that belief.

13 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
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    1 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

could not finish

I love most books on video games. This one isn't for me. Narration is annoying, writing is so so.

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Great!

A highly personal account of one person's relationship to video games. Lots of interesting thoughts and reflections. It definitely kept me entertained. Maybe not for everyone, but as an avid video game lover, this was a joy to listen to.

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Intellectual and motivating perspective of games

Must say more about words that come to mind that I feel described this book more than anything else; motivating, interesting, intellectually sound, grand perspective, enjoyable, entertaining, confusing, lost, found, encapsulating, thought-provoking view on not only games but art and a kind of autobiography journey of one man's experience in games and game culture.