Monday, April 19, 2010

Video Games CAN Be Art, Mr. Ebert.

Roger Ebert. This is probably a name you know fairly well. He's a film critic, very well known and respected. And rightly so. He's a good critic. Few would contest this. But recently he wrote a post I disagree with wholeheartedly.

Video games can never be art.

Now, I'm sure no one reading this is surprised that I'm not exactly in agreement with this statement. Video games are my passion. I love playing them, I love the community surrounding them, and I love the heated debate surrounding whether or not they can be art. And anyone who's read this blog, or knows me in real life, knows that I could not lean further toward the side of games being art.

Ebert actually first made that statement several years ago if I recall correctly. But this is the first time he's really cared to elaborate on it. This post was written as a response to a lecture given at TED. The video is about 15 minutes long, and if you have time I recommend watching it.

Now, let me start off by saying you're right. All three of the games she hit upon do not seem like art (for the reasons she listed, at least.) to me. Admittedly, the only one I've played is Braid, but Waco Resurrection is rather disturbing to be honest, and as I said, I haven't played Flower, so I don't feel qualified to comment on it. That would be like reviewing a movie after watching the trailer.

But what I think she was getting at (and take this with a grain of salt, since I haven't actually played the game) is that Waco Resurrection actually puts you into the shoes of someone else (Not someone whose shoes I'd especially like to be in, but still.), actually forcing you to say "I am David Koresh" in order to start the game. And while movies or books can make you relate to someone, sympathizing with them, or even cause you to hate them, the interactivity of Games can actually make you them. This hasn't really been demonstrated well by most games yet, but at this point games really are a new medium, a new artistic form in it's infancy. It needs time to grow.

And I'm not saying I think that Waco Resurrection did it especially well either. From the looks of things, it seemed as if it was trying to hard to pass itself off as art, without actually being art.

Now, as I said, the only one of the games I actually have played is Braid. And I wouldn't especially call that art, at least for the reasons she listed, either. To be honest, you're completely correct. Braid had about as good of storytelling as a fortune cookie. Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw of Zero Punctuation game reviews (As notorious for it's harsh criticism as it is for it's harsh language.) had this to say on the story:

"There is a story, although there might as well not be. I've always said the best stories are the ones that merge seamlessly with the gameplay, and in Braid they're kept in separate rooms, with you in the gameplay room looking into the story room through a tiny hole in a wall. Most of it is about some guy looking for a princess, or maybe she's his estranged wife, or his dead daughter, or the atomic bomb. Who knows?"

To be honest, I didn't find Braid as brilliant as most people did. I found it to be a fun puzzle game, with absolutely no penalty for death. It was fun to try and figure the puzzles out, but the story was horrible, and it felt like it was trying way too hard to be a game that would be considered art. I enjoyed the game, but didn't feel it was the flagship for the "Games are art" navy as most gamers seemed to.

So now I sound like I'm saying games can't be art. But that's not what I'm getting at, I just don't think her choices as to games that ARE art are good choices. What games are art? What games are, as you put it, able to be mentioned in the same breath as Shakespeare, Twain, Dickens, and countless other brilliant authors? Well, to be honest, there isn't a game that's quite able to live up to that standard yet.

But there are a few games I've played that I felt broke the barrier. Just barely crossing over into the realm of games being art, but nonetheless, have. And the main one, is Portal.

I've spoken about Portal before. Portal was a FPP (First Person Puzzler) made in 2007 by Valve, and I consider it one of, if not the, greatest games of all time. Portal did so many things right, that other games have not managed. The gameplay was amazing of course, but that's not what made it art. What made it art was the relationship between you and GLaDOS.

When the game begins you wake up in a small room, listening to a computerized voice introducing itself to you and explaining that you are a test subject for a company named Aperture Science, and it's new invention the Portal gun. The Portal gun can alter reality to make a small wormhole linking two portals together, letting you walk through one and exit out the other.

The first thing about this game is that it succeeded where many other games have failed by really making you feel as though YOU are the test subject. Not Nathan Drake, not Mario, not Master Chief, YOU. In fact, it's very possible to go through the entire game without seeing your character, Chell.

In fact, nothing is known about Chell. The only reason we know her name is because she was listed in the credits. GLaDOS never says anything about "Hello Chell". No, she is talking to you. You are Chell.

As you progress through the test chambers, you notice the tests are getting more and more strange, and dangerous, and GLaDOS (Short for Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System), the omnipotent computer voice guiding you is become more and more odd. It becomes more and more eccentric, and begins to expose you to more and more danger. Some of her quotes are quite funny, but dark.

"Please note that we have added a consequence for failure. Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an unsatisfactory mark on your official testing record, followed by death. "

She becomes more and more hostile, and causes you to do more strange thing.

Then they introduce the Weighted Companion Cube. A small box. That's all it is, is a box with hearts painted to it. And yet, millions of gamers have fallen in love with that box. It saved you. It helped you. GLaDOS made it your friend.

And then you reach the end of the chamber. So of course GLaDOS makes you incinerate it at the end of the chamber.

"While it has been a faithful companion, your Companion Cube cannot accompany you through the rest of the test. If it could talk - and the Enrichment Center takes this opportunity to remind you that it cannot - it would tell you to go on without it, because it would rather die in a fire than become a burden to you. "

You can't progress until you do. You can stay there as long as you want, but you have to make the conscious choice to murder the companion cube, the only friend you have in the chambers, in order to continue. GLaDOS comforts you, "Although the euthanizing process is remarkably painful, 8 out of 10 Aperture Science engineers believe that the companion cube is most likely incapable of feeling much pain."

When you finally do burn it up, yes, you feel a little guilty that you murdered your only friend in this whole place. GLaDOS commends you though, "You euthanised your faithful companion cube more quickly than any test subject on record. Congratulations."

When you finally do reach the final test, surprise surprise, GLaDOS tries to murder you. She sends you on a moving platform into a fire pit. You escape, just barely with your Portals, and from that point on the game changes. No longer are you in clean, pristine test chambers, now you are running for your life through dirty corridors, and machinery. And yet you still always have GLaDOS there, taunting you.

"You are not a good person. You know that, right? Good people don't end up here."

Perhaps she's right, why would you end up in a place like that if you were a good person? This part of the game always manages to tell you why you're doing what you're doing without the World of Warcraft or Braid style of cookie fortune storytelling. No text boxes pop open saying "This is why you are doing this.", but you always know what you're looking for. Freedom. She's trying to kill you, and these level inspire a feeling of nervousness, fear, anger, and maybe other emotions inside of you. I imagine it's different for different people, but nonetheless, it's quite good storytelling.

Eventually you end up finding GLaDOS.

What ensues is probably one of the most memorable moments in any Video Games ever.

"Well, you found me. Congratulations. Was it worth it? Because despite your violent behavior, the only thing you've managed to break so far is my heart. Maybe you could settle for that, and we'll just call it a day. I guess we both know that isn't going to happen."

And so you fight GLaDOS. The boss fight itself isn't all that interesting, it's fun to be sure, but not that interesting. You are given a time limit to redirect rockets at her and burn up different pieces of her like you burned up the Companion Cube. Poetic justice, I suppose.

And then there's this little ditty, as the end credits roll:

At first this just sounds like a humorous song setting up a sequel. (She's Still Alive!) But I really think there's deeper meaning in it. Other bloggers have disassembled the song before, but the most interesting lyrics in the song are the last line: "When you're dying I'll be still alive, when you're dead I will be still alive, still alive, still alive."

Now this is where I get into speculation.

Some people take that as a threat to Chell, a sort of "I'm coming for you.". But I disagree. I think the real meaning is a sort of acceptance. I think that the entire game was GLaDOS's way of trying to die. She was suicidal, in a big abandoned facility, all alone. She wanted to die. She wanted to be free. But she couldn't kill herself, likely because of a self preservation program. So she cloned you, Chell (Chell being a reference, obviously, to the sheep.), to try and kill her. Even the player's death in the game is explained by this. GLaDOS would just keep reviving you until you got it right and killed her. If this is true, then that line would not be a threat, but instead acceptance. She can't die. She understands that now.

That same blog I linked to earlier did a whole series on GLaDOS, and drew something interesting on his interpretation of GLaDOS. When he sees GLaDOS, this is what he sees:

I think I can agree with that. She's trapped.

Mr. Ebert, I don't care what you say, GLaDOS is one of the most interesting villains of all time. No, I didn't say video game villains, I said villains. She is fascinating, so much that people like me, or the guy who's blog I linked to have broken her down many times before. And if a game can have a character that interesting, I think games can be art. Portal is proof. Portal is art. It may not be comparable to Shakespeare or Dickens, but it has broken the barrier from being just entertainment, into being art. It's paving the way.

So sir you're right. The three games she pointed out in her lecture as proof of games as art are rather pathetic attempts. In fact, while she raised some good points, her lecture did fall flat. In fact, I felt like she was patting herself on the back for Flower, considering she was from the company that made Flower.

Allow me to explain something to you though. You asked

"Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. Why aren't gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care.

Do they require validation? In defending their gaming against parents, spouses, children, partners, co-workers or other critics, do they want to be able to look up from the screen and explain, 'I'm studying a great form of art?' Then let them say it, if it makes them happy."

No. That isn't why. I did a three part series called "Why I Care" that answers that exact question. It's the same reason why I suspect you would defend film as an art form.

So Mr. Ebert, although I have no illusion that you'll ever actually read this, I'm not nearly that important, the ball is in your court.


  1. Maybe he'll google "video games are not an art" and this will come up. Either that or he'll google himself. ;)

  2. Somehow I have a feeling my blog is not exactly the first thing to pop up on Google when you type in "Roger Ebert."

  3. Probably true. But you could always pay google to put your blog on top! Not really sure how much it would cost though...

  4. I don't know lol. But that's how people get their places on the google page though. Like when you google Wal Mart and the first page is not the Wal Mart website, it's because someone else paid to be on top.

  5. Yeah, but I have no money. Which is a problem.

  6. That would be a problem. Oh well, I guess I'll just have to e-mail him a link. Now where can I get his e-mail address....

  7. Hahaha yeah, I'm sure. I could always post a link on his post about why they AREN'T art of course...

  8. OH! DO IT! He'll probably never read it, but still! DO IT NOW!!!

  9. Ok sure why not. WHAT DO I HAVE TO LOSE?

  10. "Your comment is awaiting approval by the blog owner"

  11. hmmm... I wonder if it whall be approved or not!! the suspense is killing me!!!!!

  12. Probably not. It might be classified as an ad, which I don't think they allow in the comments. lol

  13. But hey, I guess we'll see.

  14. Yeah, we'll see. If they don't, we'll just have to find his e-mail address.

  15. I think it's obvious that Roger Ebert already reads your blog. Anyone can see through that lightly veiled explanation he gave and tell immediately that his entire post is a response to your 3 part series.

  16. Well I knew that of course, I just didn't want to sound too full of myself.