Thursday, April 29, 2010

Video Games Can Be Art

So, recently, Roger Ebert (whom, to be clear, I adore) once again declared that video games are not art, and CAN NEVER BE!

Which is absurd. Of COURSE games can be art. Everything about Shadow of the Colossus is art, not just the fantastic visuals, not just the story, but even down to the controller itself! But it's clear that Ebert has never played SotC. (This, despite it being mentioned several times in reader responses the first time he brought this up). His initial argument is "Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control." But, games like SotC has its plot on rails; the player has "choices" but really, the player has to move the plot forward. If the player goes off exploring, the game pretty much just waits. Ebert just appears to be completely unfamiliar with the wide range of games and gametypes available (he also appears to believe that ALL games have winners and losers, which has never been true).

He also never played Braid, although he knows enough about it to discounts its possibility as art. Well, I say he knows about it, but clearly his opinion is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the premise. Ebert's entire article was prompted by Kellee Santiago's TED talk (which you can see here). Here is a quote from his piece:
Her next example is a game named "Braid". This is a game "that explores our own relationship with our encounter enemies and collect puzzle pieces, but there's one key can't die." You can go back in time and correct your mistakes. In chess, this is known as taking back a move, and negates the whole discipline of the game. Nor am I persuaded that I can learn about my own past by taking back my mistakes in a video game. She also admires a story told between the games levels, which exhibits prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Braid doesn't allow you to go back in time and correct your mistakes, it FORCES you to go back in time and correct your mistakes. That's a fundamental part of the game mechanic, arguably the entire POINT of the game. It's not 'taking back a move' and negating the discipline of the game, it IS the game! And his remark about 'wordy fortune cookies' is another indicator that he never played it. Yes, you are given tiny snippets of a story, but the larger story becomes clear as you play. If he HAD played Braid, he would understand that.

So let's talk about Chess (which he also mentioned). Santiago says that Chess isn't art, and can't be art, because it's just a set of rules. No matter how elegant the set of rules, it's not art. Fine. I'm not going to argue that point. So, let's try this thought experiment:

Imagine there is a PLAY about Chess. The actors dress up like the pieces, you can have fights between the white pawn and the red knight, eventually one king is killed and the play is over. You don't see the chessboard itself, the play is just using a Chess theme.

Can that be art? Of course. A play can be art, even if its theme comes from a game.

So, now imagine that towards the end of the play, the white king can send his knight or his queen to fight the red bishop. OK? Both parts are scripted, but it's up to the audience to shout out their preference for that performance. The play has two different endings, depending on the outcome. Everything else about the play is the same.

Can that still be art? I think so. The presence of a choice by the audience does not negate everything else in the play. The audience's choice isn't the art, it's still the writing/acting/etc.

So, now imagine that the audience has a choice twice during the play. Or three times. Or twenty. Everything else is still true, there are scripted scenes for the players to act out. Eventually, the audience could have enough choices to play an entire game of Chess.

Is that still art? Again, I think so. There doesn't come a point where the fact that the audience has choices negates the art in the rest of the play, because the art is NOT about their choices! The art is always about the play, and what is shown to the audience.

It is the same with video games. The art isn't about the player's choices, it's about everything else.

As the Penny Arcade guys said, Ebert's simply a man determined to be on the wrong side of history. And that makes me sad.

1 comment:

  1. The player's specific choices may not be central to the art, but the presence of those choices can be atmospherically important for the piece. Funny that SotC and Braid are discussed, I feel like those two games in particular aim to make you reflect on the "things you've done" in the context of the story. The second-person immediateness that a good game can tap into is unique to the medium, IMO.

    One of the advantages of not adoring Roger Ebert is that it doesn't make you sad when he says dumb things. In fact, it provides a faint amusement.