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Engaging With Ebert: Games as Art

In 2003, the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert reviewed the film Gigli, praising the movie and talking about how the dialogue is “the sort of thing moviegoers are probably going to want to memorise.” He later went on to describe how the lines spoken by Jennifer Lopez, which are often regarded as being some of the most degrading and sexist uttered in modern film, are acceptable in what he later referred to as “the Sex and the City generation.” Coincidentally Gigli is frequently cited as the worst film ever made and an example of modern cinema at its most dire. But despite the fact that Gigli seems largely irrelevant to the world of videogames, Ebert’s comments in regard to this film do highlight an important issue: he is, in many ways, out of touch with the current generation of media. He fails to understand what constitutes acceptable dialogue in a modern female lead, just as he fails to understand what constitutes a modern videogame experience. Nowhere is this clearer than in his recent response to a TED talk given by president of thatgamecompany Kellee Santiago in which he outlines his reasons for why “no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.”

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Roger Ebert is not at fault here simply for expressing his opinion – the points he addresses in his article are fair ones – he is at fault due to the principal way that he conducts his argument against games as an art form. He is a critic, and like all critics it is intrinsic to his job to be critical. In other words he must analyse and evaluate whatever his chosen subject matter is. Yet it is curious that in his response to Kellee Santiago he invokes a considerable degree of the latter, and almost none of the former. He openly admits that Santiago cannot cite a “video game that will deserve my attention long enough to play it” yet simultaneously comes to the conclusion that the games she puts forward are nothing short of “pathetic.” He has entered a debate assuming that modern games provide the same experience that they did in the eighties while failing to conduct any proper research into how the medium, and indeed attitudes towards the medium, have evolved over the years.

“He is, in many ways, out of touch with the current generation of media”Yet nonetheless, Ebert’s initial claim that “no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers” is very true. There is no game in existence than can compare in any capacity to the artistry of works such as Paradise Lost or Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and Ebert is right in being careful how he responds to his detractors: anyone who claims that Braid compares to these works in any capacity is seriously misguided. We need only look at the liberties that Dante’s Inferno takes with its source material to see what a gulf exists between ‘traditional’ artistic media and videogames. But the sad fact is that this game seems to represent the pinnacle of the industry’s ambition in adapting literary masterpieces: don’t expect to see a faithful scene-for-scene RPG adaptation of Othello coming out on PS3 any time soon.

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Regardless, Ebert should have quit while he was ahead. His close engagement with Santiago’s talk, while interesting to read, makes one regretful that he does not engage so closely with the games he is discussing. In short, Ebert’s core argument is based on the fact that you can “win” a game. In effect, games are distinct from art not just because they are interactive but because they have “rules, points, objectives and an outcome.” Ebert is no doubt thinking in terms of Pong and Space Invaders; his idea of a game is an extremely narrow one, and anything that deviates, he argues, “ceases to be a game.” Perhaps Ebert, and even Santiago herself, should dwell more on the definition of a videogame, rather than on the definition of art itself, as that seems to be one of the key issues here.

“Ebert should have quit while he was ahead”Generally though, and due to the lack of a comprehensive definition at hand, let us assume that there are only two key requirements for a videogame to be a videogame: it must be interactive and it must contain some kind of motivation to play it, or as Ebert puts it “objective.” Despite what Ebert seems to think, games are not unique in containing some kind of goal; we read a novel to finish and understand it, we listen to music to be moved by it in some fashion and we look at paintings in order to understand and gain something from them. Indeed, Ebert’s claim that art cannot contain ”rules, points or objectives” is rather questionable. In simple terms a book contains rules that govern our enjoyment of it; just as you cannot proceed in, or enjoy a game if you do not adhere to its rules, you cannot proceed with or enjoy a book if you attempt to read it upside down. Yet according to Ebert you do not “experience” a game, you merely aim to “win” it. This opens a whole can of worms in regard to what it truly means to experience art, and Ebert does not go to any lengths to explain this distinction between “experiencing” and “winning” something.

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But if we consider these two elements, namely interactivity and motivation, (despite Ebert’s claims, not all games must be winnable) to be the only core requirements of the most basic definition of a game, then it raises a number of interesting questions about other accepted art-forms that utilise similar elements to games. Hypertext fiction is perhaps something both Ebert and Santiago should not have overlooked in their arguments. As a type of interactive fiction it represents a literary form not too far removed from the text adventures of old. This type of fiction appears in both published and electronic forms by telling stories in a completely non-linear interactive manner, with the more pop-culture oriented Choose Your Own Adventure series of hypertext fiction differing from videogames in nothing more than their medium of textual delivery. Furthermore, we can extend such comparisons to earlier works of art. Hans Holbein’s 1533 painting The Ambassadors is noteworthy here for its use of an anamorphic skull which invites the viewer to reconstitute an otherwise distorted image by altering their viewing angle – or, in basic terms, by interacting with the painting in some other capacity than as a completely passive viewer. M. C. Escher, on the other hand, with his employment of geometrical mathematics that entice to viewer to solve an unsolvable riddle makes one wonder: if he were born in current times, would he have been a level designer?

There are countless other examples of interactive art, some of which are videogames in all but name, but the ones I have provided show that art, in all of its forms, has never been an entirely passive, linear medium. Perhaps Ebert is right in one capacity though: maybe games are held back by the fact that they are structured in such a way to provide solid gameplay first and foremost. The reward that something like hypertext fiction provides when interacting with it is a continuation of the narrative. Generally the quality of writing, and the attitude of ‘gameplay above all else’ in videogames today forbids them from relying on the same system (Yet simultaneously, one must ask: what attribute is Final Fantasy VII remembered for most; its gameplay, or its story?)

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The most artistic game, then, is inherently useless by today’s standards unless it provides a solid gameplay experience, and this is where Braid comes in. Although often regarded as a piece of artistic gaming, and presented by Santiago as an example of such, it arguably represents the problem with artistic games, and not the solution. Ebert is right in doubting it, although he does not do so for the right reasons, claiming that its time-travel feature (which is, in and of itself, not original in games) “negates the whole discipline of the game.” Again this highlights his ignorance in regard to modern games in general. But Ebert’s comments aside Braid itself seems to be a failed example of the developer attempting to represent a powerful message through the use of a single unoriginal gameplay mechanic. Santiago claims that Braid “explores our own relationship with our past” – yet, if this is the case, why does it force pretentious and ultimately insipid nuggets of plot down your throat between chapters in an attempt to achieve cohesion between plot and gameplay? Ebert himself picked up on this; in what may well be his most apt comment he claims that the game “exhibits prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie.” Apart from its distinctive art-style and time-travel mechanic then, Braid represents nothing more than an interesting, if devotedly pretentious, platformer. Simply put, just because a game is marketed as artistic, does not instantly equal success in that field.

“Braid represents nothing more than an interesting, if devotedly pretentious, platformer”Flower, also put forward by Santiago, represents something quite different. On paper its gameplay – blow a petal around a field and make it touch other flowers – sounds hopelessly dull by today’s accepted standards of what makes a good game. Despite this though, it still manages to be one of the most interesting and enjoyable gaming experiences in recent memory. Yet whereas Braid always relies on its conventional gameplay as its core appeal, Flower relies on the audiovisual interactive experience it provides as a whole. The feel of the game, the visuals, and the thematic elements of its subtle plot all combine to make an experience that transcends the merits of technically proficient gameplay. Indeed, it can be argued that Flower represents what Braid was attempting to do; to show – not tell – a story through its harnessing of various stimuli, including gameplay. Rez accomplished a similar feat back in 2001; on the one hand it is a very simplistic shooter, yet it gains its appeal from the unique audiovisual experience it provides and the story it depicts through its gameplay alone. Again, however, Ebert misses the point, asking completely inane questions about Flower: “Is the game scored?… Do you win if you’re the first to find the balance between the urban and the natural? Can you control the flower? Does the game know what the ideal balance is?” While Flower is certainly not high art, it certainly raises interesting questions about what truly makes a game enjoyable, and whether or not the current gameplay-centric attitude towards games in the industry is to blame for Ebert’s attitude, not just his own lack of first-hand experience with the medium.

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So perhaps games can be a form of art. But while we can argue that every game has artistic elements – nobody is going to deny that the music in God of War, or the concept art of Metroid Prime does not require a certain artistry – the vast majority of games do not represent a deliberate artistic vision. Put simply, most games as a whole are not intended to be a piece of artistic expression and it is generally not the core intention of the developer to provide anything other than an enjoyable (and indeed financially profitable) gameplay experience. It is customary, though, for gamers to blindly defend every facet of their hobby from any kind of criticism and try to qualify it as the highest form of artistic expression in existence. But such a narrow view serves to only to prove the juvenile nature of the average gamer and turn the whole discussion into either a tedious exchanging of meaningless technical definitions of art, or a series of claims about all art being ‘undefinable’ and an ultimately personal ‘subjective experience’ often accompanied by testimonials of how gaming ‘changed such and such a person’s life.’

“The vast majority of games do not represent a deliberate artistic vision”IGN’s Mike Thomsen recently typified this issue with his gushy response to Ebert entitled Dad is Dead: Rebutting Roger Ebert. His article is partially at fault because it is replete with the kind of pseudo-intellectual name dropping pretentiousness that Dante’s Inferno panders to. Mentioning Beethoven in the same breath as Donkey Kong does little else than prove Ebert’s point that gamers’ desire to validate videogames as an art form is merely “to be able to look up from the screen and explain, “I’m studying a great form of art.” Thomsen seems to bring the argument to the other extreme, implying that every game is a piece of art in some way. It is worth noting here that if we do not consider every single book, or every film to be a work of art, why do games get this exclusive position? For Thomsen games “can be about love, the impossibility of relationships, the beautiful indifference to our individual life choices, urgent intimacy in the shadow of death, sexual anxiety, and confrontation with life choices to which there are no right answers.“ It’s an easy argument to put forward when dealing with games in a very literal sense; the “sexual anxiety” mentioned here could constitute nothing more than a confused teenager’s awkward response to kissing another boy in Bully, while the “confrontation with life choices to which there are no right answers” may merely be a contrived response to the countless insipid ‘moral choices’ that games like Infamous shoehorn into their gameplay. This thinking is clearly in the vein of Janet Murray’s claim that Tetris is a “symbolic drama.” In her book Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace she argues that Tetris holds narrative value within its very gameplay and that the game represents “a perfect enactment of the overtasked lives of Americans in the 1990’s.” Of course, such a claim seems to miss the fact that Tetris was neither conceived in America, nor in the 1990s.

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Nonetheless, Thomsen seems to adopt a similar idea, citing a personal example in which he claims that he played Fable II at a difficult time in his life, which in turn caused the decisions posed within the game to be all the more challenging for him. This act of qualifying games as art due simply to personal experience doesn’t work because it seems to regard literally anything as art: sweeping leaves from the pavement could be seen as having the same symbolic quality of Tetris, while any area of life can be found to have symbolic parallels to the difficulties we face. This does not necessarily make any aspect of life that impacts our emotions automatically artistic. The fundamental issue here though is that no matter what is said and done, Ebert has not played any of the games he is discussing. As Thomsen says, criticising them on the basis of mere visual representation is the “equivalent of dismissing a film after having read a dismissive essay about it.” Regardless of whether or not they are art, Ebert is not qualified to make any kind of criticism of these games in any other capacity than the visual. He is basing his comments on mere impressions and assumptions, and in doing so completely defeating his purpose as a critic.

“Ebert has not played any of the games he is discussing”Ultimately, however, perhaps the entire discussion is meaningless. Perhaps games have always been a form of art; we just didn’t know it. There is a section in Alex Garland’s novel The Beach in which the main character, Richard, considers his ‘split second theory’ in regard to Street Fighter II: “The split second is the moment you comprehend you’re about to die…” he says, “I’m sure that this moment provides a rare insight into the way people react just before they really do die. The game taps into something pure and beyond affectations.” Does this represent an example of games at their most artistically and emotionally engaging? A shrugging off of attempts at aping other forms of art? A kind of subconscious psychological artistry buried within the most basic, pure, undiluted gameplay? Probably not, but at least Richard decided to play a few games before embarking on his own bout of game-related faux-intellectualism, which is more than can be said for Roger Ebert. He gave Gigli two and a half stars out of four, by the way.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in April 2010.

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