Salvatore Pane

Tag: Extra Lives

What Do You Talk About In Class? Art. Obsession. Tom Bissell. Power Structures.

I’m not sure if this is of interest to anyone on the entire planet, but I’ve been thinking about composition a lot recently and figured I’d post something in-between editing my ever-expanding rant about 1998’s stealth game classic Metal Gear Solid. This post is going to be about teaching, bitches.


My boy, RR, looking all fly and shit.


For those unaware, I was pretty much terrified of entering the classroom this fall. I spent the weeks leading up to the first day pacing my room a lot and imagining myself standing at a podium, droning on about something like Kanye West, and a student standing up and screaming at me. Telling me to go fuck myself. That I didn’t know anything and his parents hadn’t scrimped and saved for 20 years to have their child listen to some skinny nerd in a striped cardigan rant about George Saunders.

Luckily, that hasn’t happened (yet). In fact, I’ve discovered that I really, really like teaching. Anyone who knows me is aware of the fact that I can’t shut up. Put a cup of coffee in me and I will ramble for hours. Teaching college is a job where I’m expected to talk. A lot. And guess what? These kids have to listen. In fact, they’re paying to listen! That’s awesome.

The first half of the semester has gone pretty well, but I think I hit my stride during a recent unit in my comp class on art/obsession. I thought I’d share some of it with you. Obviously, class discussion is a HUGE component of this course, and there’s no way I could share that. But I think sharing course materials and assignments is really valuable. I spent a few hours this summer just looking through old syllabi and it really helped refine my thinking on fiction workshops and comp classes. So, without further nonsense on my part, here’s what my comp class read for the art/obsession portion of the course. Keep in mind, this was over maybe two weeks. We discussed each piece pretty heavily.

1. “Can a Woman Be a ‘Great American Novelist'” by Meghan O’ Rourke

2. Kellee Santiago’s Video Games Are Already Art Presentation at USC

3. “Video Games Can Never Be Art” by Roger Ebert

4. “Grand Thefts” by Tom Bissell

Here’s the assignment after two weeks of discussion:

Essay #4

Unlike previous essay assignments in this course, this time you will have a choice. Below, are three options for Essay #4. There is no bonus or penalty for choosing one of them over the other two. All three will be graded exactly the same way.

Option A (4-5 Pages)

“I woke up this morning at 8am fully intending to write this article. Instead, I played Left 4 Dead until 5pm. The rest of the day went up in a blaze of intermittent catnaps. It is now 10pm and I have only just started to work. I know how I will spend the late, frayed moments before I go to sleep tonight, because they are how I spent last night and the night before that: walking the perimeter of my empty bed and carpet-bombing the equally empty bedroom with promises that tomorrow will not be squandered. I will fall asleep in a futureless, strangely peaceful panic, not really knowing what I will do the next morning and having no firm memory of who, or what, I once was.”

–Tom Bissell in “Grand Thefts” culled from the essay collection Extra Lives

The nature of obsession is laid bare in Tom Bissell’s essay “Grand Thefts” originally published in The Guardian. In the span of a few years, Bissell went from being one of the most promising writers of his generation to snorting cocaine in Las Vegas before 30 hour Grand Theft Auto binges. But throughout his essay, Bissell never condemns or praises his dual obsessions: video games and drugs. Bissell writes, “There are times when I think GTA IV is the most colossal creative achievement of the last 25 years, times when I think of it as an unsurpassable example of what games can do, and times when I think of it as misguided and a failure. No matter what I think about GTA IV, or however I am currently regarding it, my throat gets a little drier, my head a little heavier, and I know I am also thinking about cocaine.” He takes a more complex view. He sees how games and even drugs have altered his reality in a pleasurable and even desirable way, yet Bissell also becomes aware of the danger he’s in, of how precariously he dangles over the edge.

For this essay, write about an obsession in your own life. Obviously, we do not expect you to be addicted to cocaine or Grand Theft Auto, but has there been a time in your own life when you felt the majority of your time and even thinking taken up by something other than yourself—say a sport, lover, TV show, video game, family member, getting into college, etc. etc.? Like Bissell, lay bare this obsession on the page. Also like Bissell, do not come to a simple conclusion. We’re not looking for, “I was obsessed with playing football, and my grades suffered. Therefore, football is bad.” Tom Bissell takes a complicated view on his subject. He sees that there are immeasurable pros AND cons regarding his obsession. You must find these pros and cons too. You must look inside of yourself, inside of your obsessions, and yank out that complexity.

Option B (4-5 Pages)

“I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art. Perhaps it is foolish of me to say ‘never,’ because never, as Rick Wakeman informs us, is a long, long time. Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.”

–Roger Ebert in “Video Games Can Never Be Art”

Over the last few weeks, we’ve talked a lot about what exactly constitutes art and who gets the right to proclaim that something isn’t art. Meghan O’ Rourke, in her article “Can a Woman Be a ‘Great American Novelist’”, made the claim that only white males are allowed to have their books considered art because of an unconscious bias on the part of the mostly white male book reviewers. O’ Rourke argues that writers like J.K Rowling and Jodi Picoult are not considered artists in the same way that author Jonathan Franzen is because they are women and not because of the quality of their work. Similarly, Kellee Santiago claims in her YouTube video presentation that Roger Ebert is wrong, that video games can be art, and in fact, already are art. Ebert’s response essay, “Video Games Can Never Be Art” very much defends his position. And of course, in class we discussed how there are some critics in the art field who believe that EVERYTHING is art. Take, for example, Pittsburgh-native Andy Warhol’s beloved 1964 project Brillo Boxes.

For this essay, you must come up with your own definition of art and argue for its validity using examples and logic just like O’ Rourke, Santiago and Ebert. In our society, what constitutes art? Do you take the hard-line view that only so-called “great works”—the classic novels and poems and paintings and operas—should be classified as art, or do you feel that everything—a sock, Transformers 2, the New York Knicks, a double cheeseburger—should be considered art? What is your stance? Prove it. Where do you draw the line?

Secondly, do you think that the specific people who have the ability to declare things art or not—Roger Ebert and the other critics who love Jonathan Frazen for example—in any way mimics the social power structure that governs our lives? Who in this society has power, and how do arguments about what and what is not art reflect that struggle?

Option C (1200 Words)

Pick Option A or Option B, and instead of writing your response in Microsoft Word, instead write your response on a WordPress blog. However, we’re not looking for an essay that simply exists on the internet. If you’re going to use a blog, you must embed its unique aesthetic features into your essay. You must use links, videos, and pictures in an organic way. If you choose this Option, there has to be compelling reasons throughout the text for why you’ve chosen to do a blog entry over a more traditional paper.


Culture Death Match #2: Tom Bissell vs. Sarah Vowell

What’s that? You read Culture Death Match #1 in which Amy Whipple and I talked Batman and Golden Girls and you’re dying for more? BEHOLD! Amy Whipple and I chat up Tom Bissell, Sarah Vowell, and who is assigned writerly authority and why that is exactly. It’s like a thousand Christmas mornings up in this bitch.

Earthbound: The Best Meta-Satire of 1994?

(Note: this is the first in a series of posts examining formally interesting video games. Check the second–about 1998’s Metal Gear Solid–here.)

Last month, Oscar Villalon wrote a piece on The Rumpus echoing Tom Bissell’s sentiments that many members of this generation do not catalog their lives by albums or movies, but through video games. Of course, I made a few remarks in the comments section. One responder said that while interested like Bissell in thinking about the new narrative opportunities afforded by video games, she doesn’t actually want to play them. In fact, she wouldn’t even know where to start, and instead, she offhandedly hoped that somebody would make a gaming mix tape for those whose only introduction to the form is Tetris.


I thought that I might cover a couple video games over the next few months with the same literary lens I’ve been using to look at comic books. And the first one I’ve decided to go with is Earthbound, a 1994 release for the Super Nintendo. That should come as little to surprise to Earthbound veterans, but I’m imagining that most people who read this blog, even some gamers, aren’t aware of this relatively obscure game. The first thing we have to talk about right out of the gate is the box.

The box is bigger than my head.

That shit don’t mess around. And when you’re a ten-year-old boy wandering around the local Electronics Boutique, that giant face-sized behemoth is going to stick out. The box is so big because the game comes with its own strategy guide and a John Waters-esque pack of odorama gross out cards. Imagine me in 1994 utterly captivated by this box, so foreign, so alien, the sleek golden curvature of that figure on its front practically demanding a purchase.

So what’s the premise? Earthbound is about a group of kids who band together to fight hippies, eat cheeseburgers, break up Heaven’s Gate style cults, beat people up with frying pans, put their souls into robots, and ride the Loch Ness Monster. It’s a Japanese Role Playing Game, and for anyone not unspeakably nerdy enough to know what that is, JRPGs are text based narratives where your only method of interaction is steering the avatar (the figure the player controls onscreen) and selecting actions from a text box. Think Myst fused with Dungeons and Dragons. And up until 1994, these games for the most part followed the same formula. Dragons and magic and swords and castles. Plucky young hero watches his village destroyed by an evil empire, then has to fight them to save the world.

What’s so noteworthy about Earthbound is that it takes place in the present (199X to be exact), and the avatars are average kids with yo-yos and baseball bats for weapons. They drink soda, not potions, to repelnish their health. They get money by using their fathers’ credit cards in ATM machines, not collecting golden coins from fallen enemies. They fight crazed neighborhood dogs, not dragons.  They pal around with the Blues Brothers.


In 1994, this blew my fucking mind.

The aforementioned would be enough to make Earthbound noteworthy, just one in a line of excellent JRPGs released during the Super Nintendo era. But what pushes Earthbound over the edge from obscure gem into groundbreaking classic is the fact that it’s a satire, and it’s actually funny. Most people who play games acknowledge the fact that they’re funny. But games are rarely intentionally so. Games get chuckles when they have awful translations, not because of in-game jokes. Earthbound breaks that rule repeatedly. Sometimes you discover a trinket called “Insignificant Item” that does absolutely nothing. Other times you knock at someone’s door only to hear the hushed quotations of Beatles’ lyrics. If you approach a character called The Annoying Old Party Man you get one of these two messages: “The Annoying Old Party Man/Reveler grumbled about today’s youth” or “The Annoying Old Party Man/Reveler lectured you”. Mr. T makes a cameo. Sometimes, when fighting hippies, the game literally gives you this message: “The New Age Retro Hippie used a ruler! Now he can measure things more easily!” I’m not doing the game’s humor justice, because text can’t do the game justice. Its combination of offbeat soundtrack, Norman Rockwell-cum-Nintendo visuals, and insane story and dialogue in tandem are what make this game so truly bizarre and set apart from all the other deadly serious RPGs.

And did I mention the meta aspects of the game? Earthbound begins when an alien named Buzz Buzz (yes, Buzz Buzz) crash lands in the protagonist’s sleepy American town and explains to the young boy that he’s the inheritor of an important prophecy. This is typical JRPG crap, but Earthbound plays it off with style. Buzz Buzz alerts the player that he is critically injured and about to die, but after hearing his speech about what the game is about, he tells you he can explain it again if necessary, and in fact, can explain it an infinite amount of times despite being only seconds away from death. Multiple times throughout the game, the action will stop and a character onscreen will call to you (the real life sitting at home player, not the avatar) and ask you to take a picture of the avatars. At one point, they even ask you for your real life name and hint that they’re curious to know about the person who’s controlling them (again you) like a god-like figure in their 16-bit “lives”. And in the finale, the game asks you to send all your good karma to the protagonist so that he can defeat the final boss.


So meta. SO META!

And the ending? The ending. There’s no cut scene that finishes the game. The player has complete control and you’re free to roam around the massive game world where people thank you for playing or offer investment opportunities or chide you for missing school. There’s no true end other than turning off the power. And in 1994 this was truly memorable shit. Earthbound was the first game that made fun of itself for being a video game. Earthbound was the first game whose characters understood that they existed in a video game world, and they frequently commented on that fact.

I can’t imagine many people are going to rush out and play Earthbound after reading this (unless, like me, they’ve already played through it countless times). But like Bissell argues in Extra Lives, I think it’s important for the literary set to look at games and think about their narrative potential. They require a level of active participation that a book can never have (and that’s not a judgment on either medium). Bissell focuses much of his work on newer games, but my only true access point to gamer culture is fueled by nostalgia. Earthbound is the first game that truly made me aware of the storytelling capabilities within the video game, the first that made it clear that not everything had to follow the tired and culturally outdated “save the princess” plot line. And when I open up my Earthbound strategy guide and smell my Master Belch odorama card? Yeah. That’s a straight snort back to what it feels like to be ten-years-old again.

This reference is not lost on ten-year-olds.

Do I lose my writer card if I call Earthbound the Infinite Jest of 1994 Super Nintendo Japanese Role Playing Games?

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Review (Essay?) About Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives

Guys. This is easily the best review I’ve written. At three pages, it’s more like a mini-essay. As Amy Whipple would say, I have a lot of feelings about Tom Bissell’s meditation on gaming, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.