So a little while ago, a Kotaku writer posted this, a little video essay on the video game that film critic Roger Ebert actually liked. Here’s the article talking about the game from the man himself. Within the Video Game community, Ebert is kind of demonized as the mortal enemy to all gamers because he has said on more than one occasion that video games can never be art. More often than not, the comments I see on the subject, whether they be arguing against or for Ebert’s statement, have trouble at grasping why Ebert would something like that and what exactly makes a video game artistic.
Before I delve deeper into the subject, I want to first explain my belief on why there needs to be a line drawn on what is art and what isn’t because I know a lot of people who have argued that art is subjective and that everything is art. I believe that everything can be art, but not everything is art. Art should be something that is more than just beautiful to look at, in fact, I would argue that art doesn’t need to look pretty or be visually appealing in any way. Art is something that communicates a message in a subtle manner and in an expressive way. So an opinion piece like this is not art because I’m not being very subtle in how I am expressing my message. I would even argue that in addition to that, art needs to be able to reach an individual on multiple levels and actually provide an experience. You know that cliche where the art snob looks at a mangled piece of clay and says that he can feel the torment of the artist, despite looking like just a mess at first. That’s because the art is conveying an experience in a subtle manner.
Art is also not an easy thing to grasp. When I took my first film course (I was not a film major, but a literature major), so many techniques and concepts were thrown at me that I never considered and devices like framing, color schemes, and mise en scene have changed the way I look at movies. One reason why I enjoy watching critic reviews like The Nostalgia Critic of Linkara is because I can get new insight into these mediums that I love but still have only a surface understanding of. This is why most people wouldn’t consider some like Michael Bay’s Transformers movies art, despite being a very pretty movie with great special effects. To the best of my knowledge it doesn’t have a message, if it does it’s not subtle but just rather absent, and it doesn’t really seem to use any film techniques to convey any meaning other than action and more action. This leads me into why I think we need to be harsher on what is considered art, because if we are too loose with the definition, then the word art becomes meaningless and people stop caring about what art is.
But if Transformers isn’t art, then what is it? This is another philosophy I have called fun vs good. I always consider a work that is technically good, as in uses good techniques and can be analyzed on a level deeper than just what it appears to be, as good. You could also call it skillful, masterful, etc. The fact is that the people behind it knew what they were doing. A fun work though is a work that is enjoyable on the service level and that’s all it needs to be. Transformers, again, is a film series that I love. I really liked the Battleship movie and the Star Wars prequels because even though they are bad films, to me they are fun. The difference is that “good” is objective, with a little wiggle room but scholarly arguments can be made about them and be generally agreed on (it’s pretty much the most important thing I’ve learned in college). “Fun” is totally subjective, much more attuned to person’s taste rather than anything scholarly. With those difference in mind, it is totally possible to have a boring good work and a fun bad work and most importantly it is okay to like a bad game that you found fun, hate a bad game that you found fun, like a good game that you didn’t find fun, and hate a good game that you found not fun. It gets weird though when you start liking a bad game that you found not fun or hating a good game that you had fun, but I suppose totally legit.
Perfect examples of these in video game terms would be Metroid: Other M and Heavy Rain. Metroid: Other M actually has some really good writing if you consider what it was going for (a log book type of narration) and actually does portray a more realistic, human character in Samus. It was also designed well, with segments that naturally fit into the environment and control gameplay. There were some hiccups (particularly the final boss and the final final boss that I though were a little too Kojima-ish) but otherwise, it did something different and succeeded as a good game. However, what people didn’t like was a break from a familiar design established in older Metroid games (which might make it a bad Metroid game, but not a bad game on it’s own) and people didn’t like the portrayal of Samus based on preconceived notions of her personality or the implications between her and Adam (in my opinion, those implications are fabricated and blown way out of proportion as a result of cherry picking scenes and ignoring other factors in the narrative). Plus, some people couldn’t get use to the switching between third- and first- person views (despite being really easy). These qualities would make Metroid: Other M a not fun game to some people, which is subjective considering that almost any argument can easily be countered with the opposite argument and no one having proof one way or the other (i.e “switching between views is hard and stupid” vs. “no it’s not, you just suck”).
Heavy Rain on the other hand is a game that a lot of people loved, but on a deeper level, it actually throws out a lot of video game design and narrative conventions. One example of bad game design that frustrated me to no end is that some choices don’t matter. No matter what you always move left even if you choose right, Ethan always ends up sobbing in his motel room, and stripping Madison serves no purpose (other than being really really disturbing). If the game was trying to convey the meaningless of choice, well it didn’t do a very good job since none of the inevitabilities felt like they were fate or something predetermining the outcome, it just felt like lazy design. Narrative wise, the plot twist is stupid and most of the plot is non-sense. Why was Ethan getting black outs? What’s the deal with Norman’s future tech? Overall, the game had some bad storytelling and some bad game design, either rhetorically or even just functionally (there were sometimes where neither myself or my friends playing the game could tell what the game wanted us to do because of the blurry, shaky, input prompts that could have easily been solved by adding something like color coding or just a different interface). However, I enjoyed Heavy Rain. I thought the story was captivating and I was genuinely excited to bring the game to close even though Norman died and overall I had enough fun with the game that watching it again as a friend played it was just as exciting (even though our different decisions often led to the same outcomes). A lot of people tell me that Heavy Rain is art because it was an enticing story, but then again so did Transformers.
So now that that is explained, let’s finally talk about Roger Ebert and why I believe he thinks video games can’t be art. The first is because I think Ebert looks at video games from a film-critic’s lens. That’s not to say he doesn’t understand what the point of a video game is, afterall, in hisCosmology of Kyoto review, he specifically mentions that one of the appealing qualities of the game is that he feels that no people would have the same experience because the game seemed limitless. As a film critic, I think Ebert analyzes his visual mediums by looking at the story, the visual techniques, and since games share these like films, sound, music, acting etc. In fact, one reason why he might have liked Cosmology of Kyoto is partly because it was heavily narrative based and partly because the nature of the old-school adventure game made use of strong visual techniques and sounds. I don’t know if he would call it art, but when you compare it to other games he’s played you can definitely start to see where his stance of the artistic quality of video games lies.
Most modern video games have an interesting narrative because you are the character in some way or the other. Half-Life 2 has great video game narrative, but I think I would die of boredom if they ever made a straight movie adaptation of it. Think about some of the great story-driven video games of the modern age and really narrow down to what those games are about. They’re usually about the player-character traveling from one place to the next to get some information or fight some boss, and then going somewhere else to do the same. Even games like Uncharted 2, great fluid narrative that keeps me interested in playing, but almost zero character development from anyone, with the main character’s being switched around so often, a high-consequence action driven story that offers no insight on the nature of humans or the world at large, and aside from some elements of foreshadowing, nothing about the game is subtle. Uncharted 2 is still a good game, but after watching it as a roughly 3 hour film, it’s pretty bland and forgettable in terms of narrative.
Something that frustrates me to end is when people say “look how pretty these graphics are, and Roger Ebert says that games can’t be art”. Special effects in movies don’t equal a good or artistic movie, so why should pretty graphics equal a good or artistic game? It’s not about how pretty something is, but how those visuals are arranged to create meaning. An example would be when looking at ancient Greek plays. Where the actor is standing, what kind of costume they are wearing, where they enter, where they leave, all held significance and since video games needs to, for practicality, place a camera in some sort of fixed position following the player, games cannot get the same kind of visual impact that a film can unless it’s a cutscene (but then it’s not a game at that point).
So basically, the reasons I see on why Ebert doesn’t think video games could ever be art is because they have usually are horribly constructed narratives and don’t do anything visually beyond looking pretty. And these are perfect valid points that are worth listening to. I used to be of the opinion that since Ebert doesn’t play games or understand them on the same level as game scholar, then his opinion is worthless. But then I started writing all my terms papers comparing literary topics and ideas to video games and seeing how differently the two mediums approach to same topics are (in case your wondering, it was pretty difficult comparing Skyrim and Twilight Princess to Kafka’s Metamorphosis until I finally made the right choice and threw my hands up in the air and said “they’re totally different and video games aren’t the perfect medium to express all the same ideas a books”).
Ebert’s views are important because for an industry whose giants are trying more and more to make a cinematic approach to video games, Ebert represents a well-learned film critic who says “you’re doing it wrong”. This should be a waking up point to almost every one in the industry or interested in video games to start looking at video games differently and maybe even more critically.
But what is also important about Ebert’s view is that it is clear where is unfamiliar with video games and that alone is the starting gate to making video games as art: design, rhetoric, and personal experience. What do video games inherently do different than any other medium? They provide an experience that is active and deeply personal. Everything from what gun you choose to play with in Halo: Reach to how you make your character in Skyrim plays into some part of crafting your own personal experience because at it’s core, video games are just rules. Games in general are just rules, which is why rhetoric becomes important. Rhetoric is how the rules of the game translate into a meaning. For example, the first page of this essay discusses how the mechanics related to money, purchasing items, and expanding your house all relate to a meaning regarding the link between debt and getting more things. In fact, it could said that Animal Crossing is all about the effects of capitalism. Afterall, the harder you work to make money, the more stuff you can get, and spending more money means that Tom Nook’s store can increase. These rules both have a useful purpose in the game, by creating a goal in an otherwise free to explore game world, and represents parallels to the real world. From this rhetoric, we can also derive a personal experience, revealing something about us to ourselves. Are you non-materialistic? Then maybe exploring in Animal Crossing and building relationships with your neighbors is enough to keep you satisfied. I remember as a kid, during the first Animal Crossing, I got a house that satisfied my personal needs and donated every fossil to the museum, which I like to think introduced me to a more altruistic and education focused side of personality that I was unaware of at the time. Likewise, in City Folk, I dedicated all my time to buying the most expensive furniture, clothes, etc from a specific season in the city ,which I think revealed a more appearance and desire to be culturally elite based side of my personality. The point is, this is what makes a game like Animal Crossing art. It has well-designed rules that have real-world rhetoric and can create personal, revealing experiences while still presenting itself in a cutsey game that makes the whole thing subtle.
What about a more action oriented game like say, Monster Hunter Tri. It has a story that can be summed in one sentence (A mysterious monster is threatening the island village, TWICE!) and is basically hunt monsters, sometimes with friends, get better gear, rinse and repeat. How could it be art? The formula of the game has mechanics that emphasize hardwork and long term rewards. Certain missions, like the Jhen Mohran hunt, emphasizes team work and coordination, and the journey to become a top ranked Monster Hunter is never short, which is pretty parallel to be a top ranked anything in the world. It also crafts personal experiences. I remember my time as a noob, relying on a stronger friend to pretty much walk me through the harder hunts, then after two-hundred hours of playing, I had upgraded Jhen Mohran+ armor, the most powerful longsword in the game (which was a scythe to boot), and was actually helping and teaching newer players myself. In my mind, my experience had crafted such a wonderful story that it has been too hard to try again.
So basically, the big difference between video games as art and everything else as art is that game designers create something more like guidelines within the rules to make personal and meaningful experiences to the player and where Ebert probably differs from me in my opinion is that while video games can probably never convey a single, laser focused meaning, to me that is something that makes it unique and adds to it’s artistic qualities, not flawed and detracting from it. Of course, his Cosmology of Kyoto review might indicated otherwise, mainly depending on whether he would consider that art or not.
Video games are different, and even to this day, gamers, developers, and critics alike are still baffled about what to with games or what makes them artistic. It’s up the next generation of game designers to start convincing people that games have the capacity to be art in their own right and all it takes is the right person to combine all the right information together in his or her head to put it all together.