This is What I’m Talking About

I’ve been listening to author Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter on my way to and from work. Sometimes, I need a small break from the metal music, you know. In the book, which I think is pretty great, Bissell discusses video games in arguably the most intelligent way anyone has ever attempted to discuss video games. Primarily, he focuses on the argument of whether or not video games can…CAN, not SHOULD…be classified as art — a topic we could probably debate for hours on end. Unless, of course, we agreed with each other; I suppose there wouldn’t be much to debate in that case.

But in writing (or talking, since this is an audiobook) about a variety of different games and what they mean to the medium, Bissell interjects little personal tidbits about his own gaming experiences. These are my favorite parts on the book. One particular passage on the subject of platformers, one of my favorite genres of games, caught my ear. A few posts ago, I attempted to define why I loved platform games so much. Naturally, I did a crappy job of it. But Bissell handled the task with the ease of master:

Those who imagine all video games to be a variation on the platformer formula are, in
some ways, more correct than not. Conceptually speaking, the platformer may be the most archetypal video-game genre. A role-playing video game takes its core inspiration from tabletop games such as Dungeons & Dragons, while the first-and third-person viewpoint of many other games comes straight from the language of film. A platformer, on the other hand, has very few traceable antecedents, and those it does have–the static, sideways storytelling of Egyptian hieroglyphics, say–feel very distant indeed. Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. are designed with ant-farm intricacy, and the objects that govern their worlds–cheerful industrial jetsam such as impractically tiny elevators and glowingly magical hammers; Venus-flytrap-inhabited pipes and small sinister turtles fishing off clouds–have an overwhelming aura of not being able to exist elsewhere, in any other world, real or imagined. The platformer world is one of bright, dynamic, interrelated flatnesses, and when I am playing a great platformer I sometimes feel as though I am making my way through some strange, nonverbal poem.

That sums up my feelings nicely…and with much more flair than I’m capable of producing.

Of course, I’m acutely aware that just two posts ago, I wrote at length about how much I disliked poetry. So, favorably comparing platform games — something I love — to poetry — something I less than love — may seem a little counterproductive in making my argument. To that I say, “Shut up.”


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