In Response to Mr. Ebert…
Earlier this week, the brilliant, esteemed critic Roger Ebert wrote again that he believes that video games can never be art. When he first made this argument some five years ago, I disagreed with him quite strongly. Here was, I thought, a man that could not and would not ever understand the way that games were, the potential that they had, the point that many attempted. Here was a man that would not and could not see that games were meant to reach heights heretofore unseen by the likes of cinema and books.
Since then, my view has changed quite dramatically. Before now, I cited examples such as Indigo Prophecy and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time as being the closest that games had come to art in form, as the closest they had come to meaningful narrative and true artful focus. They were games that attempted to break the status quo: games that did not cater to the masses but focused on instead delivering their respective visions without deviating for a second. And while that’s not entirely true, in that the former unraveled by the end and the latter featured two sequels that deviated quite a bit from the fantastical nature of the original, it was my view, and I stood by it.
But I’m older now, and I’ve seen more and read more and have more perspective. My journey from a wishful kid who saw something great in his beloved medium into an adult who verges ever closer to swearing off gaming for good in the name of writing and reading and actually being productive was a long one. Part of it involved a slow maturing, and a good portion was about that boy learning about the world the hard way. I won’t go into details there, because it’s mostly not important to the subject at hand.
In late 2006, I began to work at a local game store. I liked it. I liked my coworkers, I liked the product I was selling, and most importantly, I knew a lot about it. I liked helping people find the best game for their needs, helping a parent find the perfect game for their child. It wasn’t much deeper than that. For a kid less than two years out of high school, it was a good job. The pay was shit, and it stayed that way for the entire length of time I worked there, but I stayed because I devoted myself to the place. The side effect of that was that I stopped gaming.
Why did I stop? There were a lot of reasons. Working there meant that I was constantly inundated with a veritable onslaught of noise and sound that began to represent a medium that I was starting to resent. Yes, I loved my job, but I didn’t love what I sold. It seemed slightly better than peddling pornography (which I have also done), but not much so. Ultimately, however, I stopped gaming because I began to feel like I could spend my time doing a lot more, and thus become much more productive. I began to reflect on mortality, in a very youthful way, and how I was spending ten and twenty and thirty hours a week playing this game –usually alone – when I could be doing something else. I could write, I could read. I could watch a movie. I could fall in love. These are things that are certainly not the domain of the young, but they expand a person in some significant way. They contribute to the building of a person, a person who comes with an expiration date. What was the point of wasting all of that time gaming when it contributed nothing to what was fundamentally me?
So I stopped. I couldn’t rationalize it anymore. I couldn’t justify it. I was nineteen years old and I wasn’t living. What followed was a spurt of growth for me, as well as a period of unbridled creativity. I read. I wrote. I was consumed by emotion and my creativity. Nothing else mattered, least of all gaming. I would argue that, at this stage in my life, I became a better version of me, somehow more substantial and more alive.
When I finally picked up games again, I had changed as a person. I had little time for them. When I played them, I played in spurts: a week at a time, or less. Months would pass before I touched a game, and I was happy with that. Generally speaking, I still am. It hasn’t changed much experientially for a couple of years, and that’s a pretty good thing from where I stand.
When I revisited the concept of games as art, I found that my view had changed. No longer did I believe that art lay in wait with the medium. I didn’t find that games were unable of art; I found that they were unwilling. This is where I disagree with Mr. Ebert. I arrive at the same conclusion – that games are not art – but it’s not because of a lack suitable material. The elements are all there. A game can say something meaningful, and it can even do it in an eloquent fashion. But often, that eloquence is lost in a maze of bad translation, bad mechanics, over-the-top gore and a lack of a suspension of disbelief.
Mr. Ebert is wrong in saying that games do not have a single vision originating from one person, and I believe this comes from his lack of understanding of the industry. Giants of design such as Hideo Kojima, Shigeru Miyamoto, Will Wright, Sid Meier, and others have absolutely emerged. A team fulfills their visions, but they originate with one person. What makes a game different from, to use an example from Ebert, a cathedral? One might say that it’s because a game attempts to create an interactive experience, a narrative that the player works through in an attempt to elicit meaning from something that at first glance is inherently meaningless.
Does that make eliciting meaning from games a postmodern attempt at deconstructionism? Certainly, we do not normally understand the original intent of the designer, so attempting to find meaning would either be an exercise in understanding the explicitly stated or deconstructing the various aspects of the work in question. This would then place Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (MGS2) in a strange place. The game features a winding, philosophical narrative, punctuated by bouts of postmodernist ideas (no global truth, no objective truth) and rampant exposition. And whereas some have said that MGS2 is one of the finer arguments for art in games, I find it one of the more damning. Narratives need to unfold naturally. We need to find some common ground with characters, some emotional connection. With this game, what we get instead are caricatures. What should be sad is instead close to laughable. What is perplexing in nature is made more so by the emotionally void delivery of it.
At the same time, however, I look at the games that I’ve loved (and make no mistake, I did love MGS2) and I see much of the same thing. The games that I’ve held are closest to art are the ones that I’m most critical of. I love Grand Theft Auto IV, Bully and 2008’s Prince of Persia. The latter is excellent in terms of how it delivers emotional connection to the player, should you so let it. Yet it is also completely flawed; the characters seem initially stilted, the gameplay is nonexistent for portions of the game, and it is, essentially, linearity refined. The former two I’ve discussed already in a previous blog, but what’s most important is that they create characters that are illusions. Any emotional connection that exists for the player is destroyed should the player deviate from the nature of the character in the game, and that will absolutely happen in both games, simply because they are “open-world” in design.
Every game that I’ve played, from Super Mario World to Braid, from God of War to Persona 4, is not art. I play games because stories fascinate me. I’m discovering more and more that games are not the ideal medium for this, and that they ultimately detract from the things that I want to do. But further, the more games attempt to be art, the more they lose their focus. If game developers can first focus on delivering convincing, engrossing narratives, and second, further utilize the ingredients that they already have, gaming might one day becoming something quite special and quite worth the time. As it stands, gaming lacks the significance of high art. Because of that, an argument for the medium is difficult to make without compromise.