On Ebert, That Most Vile Fiend!

In The Gaming Community, Video Games on April 22, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Whether games are art continues to behave like unto a boomerang, entering and re-entering the consciousness of the gaming community during topically relevant periods of unrest.  While the source of the discord may change from incident to incitation, the incandescent remark remains the same: someone somewhere had the gall to deny to gamers their past time’s artistic merit, significance or, more broadly, taxonomic schemata of even being art.  Most recently we have the gaming community’s longtime “rival” Roger Ebert, brought into our collective consciousness by Penny Arcade.  Before proceeding you may wish to familiarize yourself with Mr. Ebert’s relevant blog posting, but it should by no means be necessary.

Given the vivacious and vitriolic response the last time Mr. Ebert stopped by for a chat, it should be unsurprising his latest comments, lacking acquiescence, are viewed as caustic and closed-minded even as the actual content of his posting is cordial, respectful and laden with several disclaimers arguing subjectivity in matters so intrinsic to taste.  He dismisses the presented definition of art outright, instead presenting his stance that one generally knows art when one sees it; this is as accurate a definition of art as we’re liable to find, as even among fields we would believe to be inherently artistic — paintings, sculptures, et al. — there are enormous, decades-old debates as to what constitutes specifically as art, if they aren’t arguing over whether an individual piece fits the bill.  Generally, the only safe bet as to whether a given work is art is whether the creators are long dead and art-history majors are learning about it at university, and even then, it’s just a bet.  Hence his disclaimer.

Of course, his dismissal of his own opinion would seem hollow if said opinion did not first present itself, and his “Video Games Can Never Be Art” blog post certainly doesn’t disappoint, though it is inaccurately named: Mr. Ebert concedes that never is quite a long time to be right about something and is confident he will posthumously be proven wrong.  This isn’t a morbidly self-effacing measurement of his remaining life; rather, this is a declaration that while there are no games that would presently qualify as art, he generously concedes that this may change in an uncertain number of decades, likely exceeding this generation’s lifespan.  Hence the vitriol.

It’s strange to reconsider his article in that he is essentially agreeing with the notion that games are in an incredibly primitive stage of not-yet art, as the subject of his opinions, one Kellee Santiago, compares the current accomplishments and merits to cave paintings, chicken scratches and very, very early cinema.  This rather seems like a self-proclaimed genius receiving a “D” on their report card, only to turn around and demand recognition for not failing.  I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong of Mr. Ebert to rebuke this sort of attitude.  More importantly, I believe the gaming community is failing to understand what the manifold duties of a critic are!  It’s not their duty to applaud effort or work in progress, but to critically appraise a final work.  Those that produce such content should take it as their duty to at least acknowledge these critical evaluations as more than simple opinions, if not to use them to improve future works.

Of course, Mr. Ebert’s cursory dismissal of WACO, Braid and Flower are hardly comprehensive, but I believe the overall point is the same: he’s doing more good for the industry by rebuking their desire for acceptance since the appropriate reaction should be to prove him wrong, rather than presenting elongated, melodramatic treatises on how he’s wrong.  Seeking the approval of a movie critic is barking up the wrong tree anyway since games aren’t movies, and the parts of games that are most like movies actually remove that which makes it a game in the first place.  Understanding the key components of games as goals, rules, challenges and interaction should make us all realize that the vaunted cutscene, the currency through which our plots are purchased, contradict the very nature of gaming.  Some developers understand this, whether through Resident Evil 4’s frenetic quick-time events, Assassin’s Creed’s shifting camera angles and pacing protagonist, Quantic Dream’s games existing as fully interactive cutscenes or Bioshock’s meta-plot deconstruction; some games truly grasp the delicacy of deploying plot without destroying the game in the process.  Some games get away with it in lesser degrees due to their consistent portrayal, and for this I can’t praise Mirror’s Edge enough for its dedication to allowing its consistent, cohesive aesthetic to drive the major themes and plot home with its use of first-person viewpoint in a clean, dystopian city set among symbolic primary coloring.

But it is time for developers and gamers to stop deluding and start challenging ourselves.  Games are written last and built first, the needs of the plot second to primary considerations of gameplay, engine requirements and the whims of everyone else that has a say in the final product: producers, marketing, executives and even the rest of the development team in most cases.  Actual writers don’t tend to be brought on board unless under very special circumstances or if there is a need to proofread or otherwise clean up a script, and again, this happens near the end of the development cycle and has many requirements regarding the setting or justifying the gameplay.  The number of games that employ actual literary devices like symbolism, allegory or true consideration for framing, themes and the place of the narrator or player are negligible.  However exceptional these games are, it is important to understand that they are indeed exceptions.

The quality of the writing is just one of the myriad problems that must be faced; I understand that you might hold dear certain games because you love their plots, enjoy the characters and fondly recall the vistas you visited on your voyage to save their world, but know that it is as much in the telling as it is what’s being told, and we haven’t quite settled on just how interactive our interactive storytelling should be.

  1. The Ebert article actually came about at a very convenient time for me, personally. An essay assignment in my Major Critical Theories class required the student to defend some activity they engage in as having some sort of valid sublime or artistic value. I ended up writing my paper against Ebert’s recent article, using David Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste” as the basis for my rebuttals.

    While reading Ebert’s articles though, I had to agree the presentation he was arguing against probably wasn’t the best one to defend the medium with. I do have to agree that comparing modern games to cave paintings is a poor way to start; using, say, NES games or maybe even something earlier would be a valid starting point– crude and simple expressions of showing and telling something with the expression not yet full evolved. Saying that we’re only now at cave paintings is cutting the industry short, as we don’t really have a comparison against where we’re going or why we haven’t already gotten there.

    I’m also unsure about the games the presenter chose; Braid, probably, does provide a good piece to study against, though Ebert dismissed it specifically for its lack of challenge and, as a story telling piece, most of its merits lay in the last few minutes since the story, otherwise, is completely non-obtrusive.

    I’ve not played the other two game, but the WACO game seems like it was thrown in with some intention of being edgy and political, though there don’t seem to be many valid examples to fill that void with. Maybe if “Six Days in Fallujah” hadn’t been shelved it would’ve provided a better example, though I don’t think many games have aspired towards effective political commentary yet, and perhaps it would’ve been a subject better avoided in the presentation.

    On the flipside, I found Ebert’s alliteration to the concluding image of the presentation being simply a representation of a marketing chart, which is a pretty callous way to perceive it, especially since so many of the Hollywood movies he critiques are likely formed more or less that same way for that same reason.

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