Third-Person Shooters

I spent most of last week in Halifax, Nova Scotia, so I didn’t have an opportunity to blog.* I was able to get some reading done, though: I left with Tom Bissell‘s Extra Lives, a collection of personal essays, reporting, and essays on video games, and Karl MarlantesMatterhorn, a hefty novel set during the Vietnam War. The two have a lot to say to each other, it turns out. Both to a large extent wrestle with the same question: How do you tell a story about combat without boring people?

The first time I heard about Extra Lives, it sounded like the worst-case scenario of the stunt-memoir trend: Bissell, a talented reporter and fiction writer, had apparently squandered a great deal of his time and talent in recent years snorting coke and playing Grand Theft Auto IV. True enough, he had: The Guardian excerpted the relevant chapter from the book last March. But Bissell’s book isn’t a story about morals and addiction—or even Bissell himself, really. It’s a story about story: It’s a study about how the people who create the console games Bissell favors struggle to create compelling guiding narratives while also giving users an opportunity to create their own compelling narrative as they play.** Both the former and the latter (also known as the “ludonarrative”) tend to fall short for Bissell; rare is videogame that can deliver the same satisfactions for him as a film or novel, though he’s more fascinated with game designers’ limitations than critical of them. He writes:

For me, stories break the surface in the form of image or character or situation. I start with the variables, not the system. This is intended neither to ennoble my way of working nor denigrate that of the game designer; it is to acknowledge the very different formal constraints game designers have to struggle with. While I may wonder if a certain story idea will “work,” this would be a differently approached and much, much less subjective question if I were a game designer. A game that does not work will, literally, not function.

For Bissell, the compromises designers must make to get a game to “work” can be a seemingly endless source of frustration for him as a gamer. Games that are too overtly gruesome and random can feel pointless, but games’ “cut scenes,” in which characters talk in an effort to give the game some movie-like gravitas, can feel hacky and ham-fisted. (Even the story of Bissell’s beloved GTA IV is only “pretty good for a video game, which is to say, conventional and fairly predictable.”) To that end, Bissell makes a point of discussing a few games that attempt to upend the typical game model. The most interesting one—the one I’d be most interested in taking a crack at myself—is Braid, a time-warping, save-the-princess journey that seems built to avoid giving players the familiar lizard-brain pleasures of killing combatants, or even putting your own life at risk. The deliberately counterintuitive structure of the game is exactly the point. As Jonathan Blow, the game’s designer, tells Bissell: “People want to have an interesting story, but what they mean by that is this weird thing that comes out of copying these industrial Hollywood process. The game developer’s idea of a great story is copying an action story. Isn’t it a little obvious that that’s never going to go anywhere?”

Well, it only goes so far. The dullest section of Extra Lives is a passage in which Bissell relates an extreme act of heroism he performed in the multiplayer zombie-apocalypse game Left 4 Dead. The emotions he felt in that moment, he writes, “were as intensely vivid as any I have felt while reading a novel or watching a film or listening to a piece of music,” he writes. But description of how he pulled it off dies on the page; it’s a string of this-happened-and-then-I-did-this sentences. I’m not sure if this is Bissell’s failure, though, or an occupational hazard of writing about war and violence. Here’s a passage from Marlantes’ Matterhorn that I think represents the problem:

The sawed-off M-60 stopped firing. The belt had run out. Vancouver dived for the side of the trail, and Connolly rolled over into it on his stomach. He let loose on automatic just as an NVA soldier emerged from the wall of jungle to finish Vancouver off. Connolly’s bullets caught the NVA soldier full in the chest and face. The back of the man’s head exploded. Connolly rolled over again, fumbling wildly for another magazine. An M-16 opened up on Vancouver’s right, almost on top of him, the bullets screaming past his right ear. The another M-16 followed almost immediately to his left. Vancouver was crawling backward, along with Connolly, as fast as he could. Connolly was pushing a second magazine into place, shouting for Mole. “Gun up! Gun up! Mole! Goddamn it!”

The hallmark of Matterhorn is its extreme plainspokenness. Marlantes avoids metaphor, similes—anything that might smack of “literary” writing, actually—presumably because doing so would risk romanticizing or prettifying war, the last thing the author wants to do. In fact, the novel is probably as much dialogue as description. I’m a little more than halfway through and intend to finish it, but not because of I’m enjoying combat scenes like the one above. It’s a study in flat-footed prose, from the bullets that scream (what bullets always do) to the head that explodes (what heads always do when they’re shot at in war) to the soldier’s “Goddamn it!” (what solders always say when they’re shooting screaming bullets at exploding heads in war).

For the most part, Marlantes’ keep-it-simple strategy is to the book’s benefit. But if Matterhorn were strictly a novel about combat, it would be an utter failure. A war novel needs something besides fighting, and Matterhorn has the benefit of multiple threads about race, the everyday lives of Marines, and, especially, how flaws in the command structure trickle down to the soldiers, sometimes fatally. Is there a game about organizational failure in command structures, and how those failures trickle down? Can there be?*** Novels and more ambitious films seem uniquely capable of capturing human interaction with that kind of scope, in a way that (in Bissell’s reckoning) videogames largely don’t. The games he describes tend to live at the level of the exploding head, or at least need to return there regularly. The game that finds (has found?) a way to integrate the way people struggle to relate to each other, not just fight against them—that’s the game that competes with the novel.

* So I wound up feeling like a crummy host late last week, when M.A. Orthofer cited this blog as an example of one of many places where efforts at engaged criticism are happening online—contrary to Nation literary editor John Palattella, who recently lamented the death of the book review and bemoaned the web’s inability to fill in the gaps. More later, maybe, if I can think of a way to address it that doesn’t feel like preaching to the choir.

** If I sound a little tin-eared talking about videogames, there’s a good reason: I don’t play them, at least not the console games Bissell discusses. That’s not a value judgment; it’s just that there are only so many hours in the day for so many cultural pursuits. I mean, I’m certain that I’ve spent more hours in the past year on my favorite futzing-around web-game site than I’ve spent watching plays or seeing live music.

*** To perhaps put the question another way: What would the videogame version of The Wire look like? What would I, as the player, get to do?