Friday, November 18, 2005

A Digression on Gaming

I know I rarely discuss things outside politics, but I was struck by this comment by Roger Ebert in his "Answer Man" column, and felt like bringing it up.

Q. I've been a gamer since I was very young, and I haven't been satisfied with most of the movies based on video games, with the exception of the first 'Mortal Kombat' and 'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.' These were successful as films because they did not try to be a tribute to the game, but films in their own right.

I have not seen 'Doom,' but don't plan to, nor do I think that it's fair to say that it pleases all gamers. Some of us appreciate film, too. That said, I was surprised at your denial of video games as a worthwhile use of your time. Are you implying that books and film are better mediums, or just better uses of your time?

Films and books have their scabs, as do games, but there are beautiful examples of video games out there -- see 'Shadow of the Colossus,' 'Rez' or the forthcoming 'PeaceMaker.'

A. I believe books and films are better mediums, and better uses of my time. But how can I say that when I admit I am unfamiliar with video games? Because I have recently seen classic films by Fassbinder, Ozu, Herzog, Scorsese and Kurosawa, and have recently read novels by Dickens, Cormac McCarthy, Bellow, Nabokov and Hugo, and if there were video games in the same league, someone somewhere who was familiar with the best work in all three mediums would have made a convincing argument in their defense.
This comment honestly surprised me. That it has been said by a film critic, for one, as their medium had been dismissed as unserious and unimportant for decades before it gained what recognition it has... and some people still dismiss it compared to other artforms. It was even more suprising coming from Roger Ebert, considering his love of animation, which is another artform that has been generally dismissed as unimportant trifles for children.

That it's a clear logical fallacy also surprised me. This sort of basic argument from authority (if it were important, somebody in authority would have told me) is beneath Roger. The simple possibility that the argument in games' defense doesn't exist because nobody Roger knows has made it yet does not mean that it has not been made, and cannot be made, and that it were somehow incorrect in both cases. If you extended this logic to its conclusion, there could be no new art forms, because everybody would be referring to a lack of an authoritative argument, including the authorities that could make it!.

If he had said "I don't have the time to check", that would be lazy, but true. Trying to make a blanket statement based on this sort of reasoning smacks of intentional know-nothingism, however, and is truly disappointing. It's especially disappointing because the games cited actually are excellent examples of what the medium can do: Rez is an work of narrative ambiguity, symbolism, and synaesthesia that has the additional benefit of being a lot of fun to play, and Shadow of the Collossus is one of the most subtle, minimalist, yet effective examinations of moral ambiguity, power and futility, responsibility, and even (to a certain extent) viewer intersubjectivity I've ever experienced. It's also visually arresting; the game takes its name from the enormous (hundreds of feet tall) stone creatures that the main character is tracking down and destroying, and the sense of scale takes ones breath away.

(I'd say more, but don't want to spoil anything. I will say that the ending of that game features some of the most tragically brilliant moments in narrative fiction, and yes, I'm serious.)

David Cage's Fahrenheit is a great example of the possibilities of gaming as well, although being self-consciously cinematic in presentation. Ebert brought up Kurosawa? I'd argue that it out-Rashomons Rashomon.

The two playable characters in the game (to simplify it tremendously) are a possibly insane (or possibly innocent) fugitive who has unwittingly committed a murder and the police officer trying to catch him. Often the decisions made by the one affects the other, and having to play both sides forces players to balance their sympathies between fundamental antagonists in a way that is difficult in to replicate in any other medium, due to the greater involvement gamers have with the protagonists. In Rashomon viewers are forced to choose who to believe; in Fahrenheit viewers are forced to try to reconcile themselves with being both. I am an enormous fan of Kurosawa, but I think Cage has done something important too.

And these are just games that are popular right this second (except for Rez). There are a ton of other examples. It's a pity that Roger is so unwilling to try new things, because I feel that with this past generation, gaming really came into its own. At the very least, the best games are better than 99% of what one sees at the theatre nowadays. If Roger could give 3-1/2 stars to Anaconda, I think he might just find some value in Shadow of the Colossus.

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