Saturday, April 17, 2010

Ebert: Still Disappointing

What's disappointing about Ebert's latest whinge about people daring to define computer and video games as "art" isn't so much that he tortures the definition of "art". (Though he does)

No, it's that he tortures the definition of at least two genuinely creative works in doing so: Flower and Braid.  For Flower, he just moans about how he doesn't know anything about the game, and therefore it cannot be "art". But for Braid, well...

Her next example is a game named "Braid" (above). 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.
Yes, in Chess, that would be "taking back a move". Braid isn't Chess. The two aren't even really comparable. Various forms of time manipulation are the entire point of the experience; they ARE the "discipline of the game".  There is far more to Braid than "taking back a move", and it takes only a cursory examination of the game to reveal the sort of life experiences, emotions, and frustrations that the creator is drawing allegories to.

Ebert isn't even just ignorant here, though: he's being willfully ignorant. He's not only utterly dismissive in a situation where it isn't warranted, but he's clearly not interested in even paying attention to the counter-argument. He talks about how he enjoys the advantage of "response after consideration", but betrays not the slightest moment of consideration in the first place.  Anybody who had ever even heard of the Sims, for example, wouldn't claim that all games are winnable; yet Ebert does it over, and over, and over again, since victory conditions apparently (somehow) deny a game the status of "art".

(No, he never explained that one, either.)

It's not surprising. He's practically built his entire critical reputation on this fight these days. For reasons which baffle me, he has spent more time, energy, and devotion on tearing down games than he has building up film. One wonders why he is so devoted to it, but whatever the reason, he simply cannot be convinced otherwise at this point. He simply has too much at stake, and never did have the temperament to suffer a demeaning climbdown on the subject. Nobody who was trying to engage the subject fairly would make the sorts of rash dismissals that he does on a regular basis. He doesn't appear to want to engage it fairly, because it allows for the possibility that he may be wrong.

In any case, here's the TED talk he was responding to:

I disagree with this in one key respect: I do think that Chess is a work of art. Otherwise, it's excellent stuff. I can see why Ebert was compelled to respond. I'm just disappointed that he made such a hash of it.

Edit: Just as an added point: Ebert really, really mixes up the question of whether something is GOOD art with the question of whether it is art AT ALL. By any logically consistent definition, even bad art is art; bad art contains within it the possibility that it could have been good. 

It is also unfortunate that Ebert seems unwilling to fairly engage the question of interactivity and involvement. Winning conditions do not determine games. As I noted above, many of the most popular games (The Sims, Spore, and the multitudes of "massive multiplayer" games) have no victory conditions at all. They cannot be won. If that means they are not "games" as Ebert understands them, then that shows how limited his conceptions are, not ours.

What defines these games is, instead, direct engagement. You cannot separate that out: that would be like taking the gutters out of a comic, or editing from a filmmaker. It is what defines the form. It's what makes games like Flower and Braid unique. It's also what makes Chess unique: a Chess set is inert until somebody sits down to engage it. You cannot sit outside of the experience: you must become a part of it. And, as anybody who has played Braid can attest, becoming part of that experience will affect how you perceive yourself and the choices you have made in life. That's the point. That's the art. The "victory conditions" are in its service, not the other way around.

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