THE FIRST HOUR OF MY INTERVIEW with Tom Bissell is spent playing Dead Space in his Northwest Portland apartment. "I get very cocky when I play," Bissell says, confidently reloading his ammo as he prepares to dismember a trio of half-rotted space zombies.
"OH JESUS! JESUS CHRIST!" Bissell screams 15 seconds later, frantically fleeing from the aforementioned space zombies as both of us recoil in terror. It was at this point that Bissell's decision to have us play the game with his shades drawn and his sound system jacked up—which, I'd like to note, never seemed like a particularly good idea to me—becomes, quite obviously, a flat-out stupid one.
Dead Space is impressive, and impressively scary—but it's only one of many games Bissell is passionate about. An assistant professor of fiction writing at Portland State University, he's written a slew of award-winning books and is a contributing editor for Harper's. But it's his latest book that gave us an excuse to play Dead Space. Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter is Bissell's insightful, rigorous, and frequently hilarious examination of videogames. Featuring a piece originally published in the New Yorker ("The Grammar of Fun," in which Bissell profiles Cliff Bleszinski, the brain behind Gears of War) as well as "Grand Thefts," in which he explains how and why he once played Grand Theft Auto IV for 30 straight hours (Psst! Cocaine!), Extra Lives marks an entirely new way to think about, and write about, videogames.
"There has been a stigma about writing about this topic for people like me, who are, say, literary writers," Bissell says. "I don't think it's really been a viable thing to admit about yourself publicly that you spend huge amounts of time shooting necromorphs with a pulse rifle, y'know?"
In Extra Lives, Bissell examines games that aren't just fun and beautiful, but portend the future of an ever-growing medium. Between critical analysis and interviews with some of the industry's scary-smart developers, Bissell also offers surprisingly affecting accounts of his own experiences in games—from triumphs of heroism in Left 4 Dead to shocked sadness following an alien comrade's death in Mass Effect. "It's a weird kind of writing exercise," Bissell admits. "How do you take something that didn't happen and make it into something that's interesting and fun for someone for whom it didn't happen?"
Extra Lives is a book only someone like Bissell could have written. "I think my background as a fiction writer... makes me someone who maybe looks at videogame narratives slightly more complicatedly than people who might be inclined to dismiss it on the fiction side, or videogame people who think about it just as deeply, but [don't have] that narrative appetite," he says.
Before he loads up Demon's Souls on his PS3, Bissell notes that where videogames currently are—and where writing about videogames currently is—won't be the case for long. "To me, there's every sign that really interesting things are on the verge of changing," Bissell says. And when they do, people will experience and share their virtual experiences differently. "I believe that there is a real hunger about this sort of writing for this subject out there," Bissell says. "And I think it's really gonna behoove people to have, frankly, the bizarre, bug-eyed fanaticism to assume that their strange virtual experiences can be made into interesting, literary experiences for an audience."
For a complete transcript of our interview with Tom Bissell, go here.