I know I already covered what an idiotic statement Ebert made, but there is one quote that's still bugging me I didn't cover.
"One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them."
Now, normally, I wouldn't be bothered by that quote. I would dismiss it as an old guy's misunderstanding of how games work, or just not understanding how a work of art could have an objective. But it does bother me, because he's not the only person I've heard say that. In fact, a friend of mine said to me (I'm quoting from memory, because it was quite awhile ago) something very similar when I first suggested that games could be art.
"I find it hard to accept games as an art form, because the story is driven by the player, and in film, or literature, the story is driven by the author, or filmmakers."
I've heard that many times over. How can games be a valid medium of storytelling, when the player progresses the plot? It troubles me that people think that way, because in most cases that's simply not true.
The first problem, is that people don't understand the difference between problems and choices. I'll let Daniel Floyd cover that, since I would really just end up spouting his opinion again, paraphrased.
See, the thing is, most games stories aren't progressed by the player. The player just goes through a set of problems to see more bits of a story. Let me give you an example in the form of one of my personal favorite games to bring up, Psychonauts.
Psychonauts is a great game, easily one of my favorite games of all time. It's not without it's faults, but it has an excellent story. But the thing is, no matter what you do, the story is the same.
At the beginning of the game, you are introduced to your character, Raz, a young psychic who ran away from the circus to go to a secret government run summer camp for psychics. After an opening cutscene, you are told to go to the Coach to go through "basic braining". So what happens if you choose not to? What happens if you choose to run over to explore the camp? You can't. You're blocked. You cannot progress until you finish basic braining.
After that, you have to get power X in order to overcome obstacle Y, and power X is only found in level Z. Or, later on, you find yourself at an abandoned mental hospital, and you can't progress until you help all the left behind inmates, and get something from each of them.
This happens over and over again in pretty much every game. Even games that claim to give you high degrees of choice use this method to control the story. Here's an example: The game "Heavy Rain" for the PS3 kept talking about how much choice it gave you. Throughout the game, it would give you so much choice that you could in fact screw up, and one of the four main characters might die and disappear for the rest of the game. Of course, as soon as you start the game, this happens.
Right there, a choice is denied. The story says you take a shower and get dressed before you go downstairs, so you do. You have no choice in the matter. You can keep attempting to go downstairs all day, you won't manage to do it. You character will keep stopping himself.
Let me give you another example, this one a little more free. The game InFamous. While the plot is really awful in that particular game, being saved only by the sheer ridiculousness of it all (Trash robots. What.), it does give me a good example of another type of limit given in more free roaming, sandbox games.
In this game, you're given all your missions by people on the phone. At any time, you can stop doing missions and just go mess around for awhile. Blow up cars, terrorize civilians, whatever you like. It's darn good fun too. But of course, you won't get further in the story until you do the mission you were already given. The power won't return to more parts of the city until you get to the point in the story where it is. You can go to the sewer grates where you need to go to restore power, but you can't go in unless you're at that point in the story.
Of course this game gives me another good example of how storytelling is actually quite linear in these games. "Choice" in games. In InFamous you get choices that affect your powers, and to a point the plot. The thing is, these choices are pretty simple. An example comes early in the game, when supplies have just been dropped into the quarentined city the game takes place in. You have to the choice to A. Zap the pedestrians who are swarming the crates, and take all the food for yourself, or B. Let them eat the food, and get almost none for yourself. As you can see, these choices are pretty simple "Am I Hitler, or Mother Theresa" choices. You're either evil, or good. No middle ground.
Throughout the whole game you get these choices, but none of them really matter in the end. Let me give you an example, toward the end, Kessler, the villain of the game has your girlfriend, Trish, kidnapped. He has her suspended on top of a skyscraper, and she'll be released in a moment, killing her. On the tower next to that skyscraper are 7 doctors, on the same mechanism, with the same timer. You can only save one. So you have the choice of good (Save the doctors) or evil (save your girlfriend).
At first it might look like a real choice. You can either keep you girlfriend in the plot, or let her die, right? Well no. If you choose to save the doctors, she falls and dies, that's true. If choose to save her though, you find that the woman on the tower was another girl in a wig, and Trish was actually one of the 7 doctors, and she falls and dies. Either way you end the same way, Trish is dead, and Cole hates Kessler even more, leading up to the climactic battle with him at the end of the game.
*FINAL CINEMATIC. DO NOT WATCH THE VIDEO IF YOU PLAN ON PLAYING INFAMOUS.*
No, the ending doesn't make any more sense in context. But that's beside the point, the point is that either way you play ends the same way. You still find out who Kessler actually is. You still end up friendless and alone. Basically the only thing different is your attitude about the whole thing.
Of course, games that have choices that really matter within the story do exist. A prime example is Bioware's Star Wars epic, Knights of the Old Republic. Knights of the Old Republic gives you many choices in your search for what's called the Star Forge. You make choices to either be good or evil, and while for the most part they're still about as subtle as "Do I save this kitten from a tree or eat its soul?", they actually do make a difference toward the end of the game. At the very end many things will happen depending on dozens of choices, even ones past the simple "Good vs. Evil" choices you made. Did you convince the Jedi Bastila to give in to her passion and fall in love with you? Then you can convince her to leave the dark side and help you in your battle with Malak. Or maybe you just told her she can be your queen of the sith once Malak is dead? Either way, the ending does change quite drastically.
Dark Side Ending
Light Side Ending
Either way, you're getting a story. It's just a different story than you might have gotten had you made other choices. I just don't understand why people don't think anything where you drive the story can't be art, when it most certainly can.