It was summer in the suburbs, and I was staying up until 4 am most nights. Not insomnia, not getting high in the basement, not driving my mom’s car with my new license to Noon Hill to chug cans of Keystone—no, I was alone in my bedroom playing Final Fantasy X and I could not stop. The characters are all fairy tale simple, the plot preposterous, even the title is vaguely oxymoronic. (Though not as bad as Final Fantasy X-2, my favorite titled thing anywhere.) I played and played and played and ached for it when I wasn’t. And so 4 am, me, eyes ablear, absorbed in a fantasy world, finally!
Tom Bissell knows. In Extra Lives, his new book about video games, he writes of a similar experience: “I would be lying if I said Oblivion did not, in some ways, aggravate my depression, but it also gave me something with which to fill my days other than piranhic self-hatred. It was an extra life; I am grateful to have had it.” Rarely have I read and thought “Finally!” more often and with such vigor. And, sure, the highbrowed will say there’s no art in absorption, and parents just won’t understand, but Bissell’s book—which aims “to explain why video games matter, and why they do not matter more”—does so in smart, sharp, funny prose. It’s the first best book on the power and potential (often frustratingly unrealized) of the video game as a new medium for stories. Maybe even art.