Saturday, January 14, 2006

Another "Ebert on Gaming" Piece

I have little hope of actually ending up on the man's radar, but I figured that i would once again respond to Roger Ebert's take on the idea of video games as art.

Q. I was saddened to read that you consider video games an inherently inferior medium to film and literature, despite your admitted lack of familiarity with the great works of the medium. This strikes me as especially perplexing, given how receptive you have been in the past to other oft-maligned media such as comic books and animation. Was not film itself once a new field of art? Did it not also take decades for its academic respectability to be recognized?

There are already countless serious studies on game theory and criticism available, including Mark S. Meadows' Pause & Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative, Nick Montfort's Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan's First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, and Mark J.P. Wolf's The Medium of the Video Game, to name a few.

I hold out hope that you will take the time to broaden your experience with games beyond the trashy, artless "adaptations" that pollute our movie theaters, and let you discover the true wonder of this emerging medium, just as you have so passionately helped me to appreciate the greatness of many wonderful films.

Andrew Davis, St. Cloud, Minn.

A. Yours is the most civil of countless messages I have received after writing that I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, 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. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.
Again, I hold no illusions about the volume of readers that I command vs. Mr. Ebert, but I already cited a few examples:Shadow of the Colossus, and Fahrenheit, as examples of games-as-art.

(Even if the ending of the latter was somewhat disappointing, the basic concept of playing hunter-and-hunted was still brilliant and well executed.)

The question I'd put to Ebert is: is architecture art?



It's important. Architecture combines two elements: the visual, aesthetic element, and the utilitarian element. Architecture that is aggressively useless isn't in any way better art than architecture that elegantly combines form and function. Far from it, it's the effective combination of the two that makes it what it is. If the form and function seamlessly integrate, it's great architecture.

(It's much like comics, where the art lies not in the text or the visuals, but the interaction and tension between them.)

Ebert is complaining, essentially, that people must interact with the game- but in that it is no different than architecture. The architect must take into account the fact that it is to be used for something. So must the game designer. The advantage a game designer has is that he controls the experience- he can create the game so that interacting with the thing he has built in and of itself serves to create or intensify the ideas, moods, and themes that he is trying to express.

It is like that piano performance piece where the pianist sits down, prepares to play, and then sits in silence for a time, before explaining to the audience that their own reaction was the performance. It's like a play with audience participation. It's like any number of guerilla "performance pieces". Only the medium is different.

For an example, I'll go again to Fahrenheit, an aggressively cinematic game, at least in terms of presentation. One of the key themes of the game is inevitability; one of the key moods that of ambivalence. Both of these are served by the game's twinned protagonists, where the killer (that the player controls) is trying to avoid leaving clues for the detectives (that the player also controls).

The player quickly learns that whatever clues they leave behind will be picked up. They are held by the tension between these two roles: if they leave too much, they will be caught, and the central mystery remains unsolved; wheras if they leave too little, their task as detectives becomes difficult to the point of impossibility. All the protagonists are sympathetic characters, particularly the detectives- the player cannot (and, thanks to the sympathetic characterization, almost certainly wouldn't want to) leave them high and dry.

A player in a game quickly grows to think of his avatar as an extension of himself; by exploiting this to have the player see two opposing forces as these extensions, they destabilize the boundary between Self and Other; between Us and Them.

The game thus does something that is extremely difficult, if not impossible in movies. It takes gaming's matchless empathy between character and player and uses it to do the difficult task of making them empathize with all the players in the drama, rather than one.

Ebert asks how a game can make you "cultured, civilized, and empathetic"? To misquote Alan Rickman, I give you Fahrenheit. All the world is a stage: empathy with other avatars is a step towards empathy towards other people.

(And I haven't even got into Shadow of the Colossus. I can't, because readers may well have never played it and it relies on an element of surprise, but it is perhaps the best example of a game where everything, and I mean everything, about it serves the artistic purpose of its creators.)

Oh, and one other thing, Mr. Ebert: Despite what Professor Bordwell told you, the vast, vast majority of games do not require anything near 100 hours to master. For that matter, the vast, vast majority of books do not require 3-5 hours to read. Shadow of the Colossus takes, on average, maybe 10-12 hours, and I got more out of those 10 hours than hundreds of hours of movies I've seen, and tens of thousands of hours of television.

(Might I suggest, next time, that you ask the young fellow Bordwell is supervising about it? The one actually making the comparison?)

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