July 2, 2010

"At this moment, 4,547 comments have rained down upon me for that blog entry."

"I'm informed by Wayne Hepner, who turned them into a text file: 'It's more than Anna Karenina, David Copperfield and The Brothers Karamazov.' I would rather have reread all three than vet that thread. Still, they were a good set of comments for the most part. Perhaps 300 supported my position. The rest were united in opposition."

That's Roger Ebert talking about a blog post of his called "Video games can never be art."

The reason I'm noticing this brouhaha is that, checking my Site Meter, I saw I was getting a ton of traffic from Bing on a search for "roger ebert apologizes." I wanted to know what was stirring people up today, and kind of sorry they were dropping by my blog only to be disappointed to find something I wrote back in October 2008 called "Roger Ebert apologizes for reviewing the first 8 minutes of a movie."

Funnily, Ebert's new post begins:
I was a fool for mentioning video games in the first place. I would never express an opinion on a movie I hadn't seen.
I think my old post does have some relevance: It calls that second sentence into question. I can see a lawyerly way to defend it, but it's pretty weasely.

AND: "I would rather have reread all three than vet that thread" insults the 3 novels doesn't it?


Scott said...

"Art is anything you can get away with." -- Andy Warhol

Revenant said...

Movies are more structured than video games can be. That's both good and bad.

It is good in that it gives the author complete control over the way the story unfolds. It is bad in that... it gives the author complete control over the way the story unfolds. Movies are passive, games are interactive.

Personally, few movies hold my interest anymore. If you want a complex and engrossing story, no movie can compare to a good book. If you want the sensory experiences that go with a movie, no movie can compare to a videogame.

Scott M said...

"Video games can never be art"

At least he's smart enough to rescind his use of "never". Other than that, his statement is utter crap. Video games are art intensive, if from none other than a visual sense. Some games are pure works of art by design. Game development studios have entire departments dedicated to artwork, both visual and audio. That doesn't even take into account the written part. Granted, there's a lot of two dimensional chaff out there, but there's also a small number of extremely good stories built in and around games, such as The Elder Scrolls, just to name one. Extensive back-stories and well-developed characters. Some games have spawned their own dedicated fiction book series. That alone is art.

He's as crazy as his face is caved in.

NotWhoIUsedtoBe said...

This is a generational gap that cannot be surmounted. Either you get video games or not.

That being said, I'd say most video games are not art. Most movies are not, either. Sturgeon's law applies.

I'd go a bit further and say that the best video game stories aren't as good as the best movie stories and definitely not as good as the best stories in literature. You just can't get that kind of depth in a game without turning the game into a movie.

A lot of the "good" and "complex" game stories are at about the level of a Dan Brown novel. That's the truth.

I've played more games than anyone I know in RL, and I have over 100 on my Steam account right now. If you count all the games I bought before Steam along, it's in at least the 100s. I know of what I speak.

Video games are about doing, not about thinking. They are about how you get to the end rather than the end itself. And they are usually damn repetitive about it.

Largo said...

AND: "I would rather have reread all three than vet that thread" insults the 3 novels doesn't it?

Not really, I think. For all their glory, reading all three is a rather costly venture (in time at least).

dbp said...

A three step method to generating 4,547 comments:

1. Be famous

2. Write something stupid

3. Allow comments

themightypuck said...

Those are three excellent books. I would rather read them again than do a lot of things. All three are in the public domain so all it will cost you is time.

themightypuck said...

A quick check shows that librivox has all three in audio format. Of course the problem with librivox is the inconsistency of the narration.

dbp said...

You can get right up there with a website that sells Tuscan Whole Milk too.

1,203 reviews!

Phil 314 said...

Unless you put this in a video game

A.W. said...

I think it’s a great slice of humble pie and I think its genuinely cool of you to say it.

But let me attempt to convince you. You offered this definition of art:

> Through them I was able to learn more about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of other people. My empathy was engaged. I could use such lessons to apply to myself and my relationships with others. They could instruct me about life, love, disease and death, principles and morality, humor and tragedy. They might make my life more deep, full and rewarding.

Then you admitted that the definition was too limited. Okay, but certainly if a video game could do all that you would admit it was art, right?

Well, video games have been doing that for years. There is a whole genre of games actually specifically designed to place you into the shoes of a person who is not you, called “role playing games.” Not all of them do this, but many explicitly want you to literally play the role of someone else. Games such as Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion or Fallout 3 give you an entire world to wander into and give you freedom to decide whether to be a good person or a bad one, and still have a rewarding experience. Like in Elder Scrolls you can choose to be an assassin, a warrior, a knight, an archer, a magician, a merchant, or about 10 other classes, and have very different adventures based on what you choose. Fallout gives you less options, but it makes you really step into the shoes of a person trying to survive in a post-nuclear Washington, D.C.

Of course you don’t like that kind of wide-openness. So let’s try something where the choices are more limiting. One story that really stayed with me was the one in the game Star Wars Tie Fighter. You played a simple grunt pilot for the Empire working your way up until you were in Vader’s personal crew. And one of the things they did with the story is show how a well-intentioned guy and government could end up doing evil. You would intervene in a war with the intention of bringing peace, for instance, only to infuriate both sides and have to subjugate both. It actually said something to you about the seduction of evil.

And then there is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Besides having obvious artistic beats like a vocal performance by Samuel L. Jackson as a corrupt cop that is nothing less than riveting, there was a weird vibe to it. Your character is a thug and he kills other thugs for generally stupid reasons, defending territory and the like. At first I didn’t enjoy it, thinking, “these characters are too stupid!” And then I realized that was the point. They were trying to say to you that this was completely screwed up, that they were killing and dying over nothing.

Or a third… Half-Life 2. In the first game you were introduced to these creatures that would literally attach themselves to people’s heads, and then take over their bodies, somehow. The characters in the game call them “zombies” although they are very different from the zombies in popular culture. In the second game it took it in an interesting direction. You first see it in Ravenholme (sp?). Your character has got to fight through a whole town of them and you have lots of different ways to kill them. For instance, you can shoot drums of gas which catch fire and explode. Which often makes the zombies catch fire. And that is when they start to scream and moan in a way that is so human, its kind of horrible. But its kind of right, too. All throughout this you keep running into a survivor, a reverend who has gone a little mad, constantly talking about how he is helping his flock leave this world and enter a better one. So he is both killing them and trying to offer some words of comfort, either to himself or those he is killing. Its hard not to see art in that.

Salamandyr said...

I'd like to submit Planescape: Torment into evidence.

Or as Tycho puts it, how can the product of a dozen to several hundred artists collaborating together for years at a time on a single goal be anything but art?

Anonymous said...

If Ebert ever does a post about video games and Sarah Palin, the Internet is toast.

fivewheels said...

Ebert's problem is hubris. Not only that he assumed that he knew enough about videogames to pass judgment, which he doesn't, but that he also assumed he knew about art, which he apparently doesn't.

fivewheels said...

Lately I've been playing Rez HD,
which is beautiful and engaging and as meaningful for me as any installation in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Trooper York said...

This seems very strange.

I was under the impression that Roger had attained the level of
Douche Lord.

Joe said...

F.E.A.R. had a damn good video game experience.

doofus said...

Video games can be and ARE art. I offer three pieces of evidence for your pleasure:

1) Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

2) ICO

3) Final Fantasy VII

The game of Knights of the Old Republic is probably the finest video game ever made. It has incredible acting, amazing special effects, an absolutely enthralling storyline, and it contains what is the single biggest plot twist in any video game ever (and no, I won't tell you, I don't want to spoil it).

ICO is a sweet game that is about the struggles of a young boy who is attempting to get out of a castle where he has been abandoned by his village. There is not a single line of dialog in the entire game, and yet the emotions expressed by the two adolescent characters come through perfectly clearly.

Final Fantasy VII is a game where the player spends 20 or 30 hours working through the various plot complications of his party with a girl Aeris. Aeris is extremely important to the game, ranking just below the main character in face time and conversation. Then, in one of the most emotionally affecting moments in video games, she sacrifices herself in order to preserve something larger. This was a truly watershed moment in video game history, and many old-style players will tell you that it is one of the never-forget moments of their play experiences.

In short, Roger Ebert is an idiot. Video games are a storytelling medium, like film, plays, novels, and radio. Just because HE is not imaginative or smart enough to figure out how to use the medium to practice art doesn't mean no one else is.


NotWhoIUsedtoBe said...

No, they don't rise to art. The plots are either simple or complicated in a stupid way. The actual gameplay of FF VII is doing the same fights over and over, and the story, such as it is, is not actually very deep. Big evil corporation rules world, party of adventurers seeks to overthrow it. Boy meets girl, etc.

The fact that everyone thinks it is deep shows how shallow most video games are. The fact that people still talk about it this long after it was released shows how little things have improved.

Games don't HAVE to be shallow, but they are marketed to young adults who don't know any better.

Not that many movies are art, but there are movies that are still watched decades after they are released. Video games... not really. There are certainly some classics, but I doubt anyone will be playing them in 50 years. It seems that the simpler the game, the wider its appeal and the longer it survives. Google's Pac Man banner and the continuing growth of "casual" games shows this.

Anyone can watch Casablanca and understand it. Most people would not be able to summon the patience to sit through FF VII or would care much about the story, which would take too long to tell anyway. I played it and can barely remember any of it. I remember summoning Bahamut Zero over and over again to blast my enemies. That was more of the actual experience of playing the game than the interminable cutscenes. RPGs are mostly grind with the bare outlines of a story tacked on. There are exceptions, but they are rare.

Gaming is a subculture, albeit a large and growing one. Games are entertainment. To rise to the level of art a video game would have to be something that could relate to the human experience at large, and I can think of very few that do so.

Blue@9 said...

No, they don't rise to art. The plots are either simple or complicated in a stupid way.

Retort: Wuthering Heights.

Joe said...

Retort: Wuthering Heights.

I'd say that's supporting evidence.

fivewheels said...

So much of this argument is so silly. At some level, everyone involved in it knows how absurd it is to argue that because, say, Hot Tub Time Machine is stupid, that film is not art, or that if we say music is art that it's some kind of gotcha to retort, "But Justin Bieber is so awful!"

Criticism of FFVII or Bioshock or Alan Wake or Child of Eden is not the same as criticism of the medium.

NotWhoIUsedtoBe said...

I think games will continue to improve. It's a relatively new medium.

Revenant said...

The fact that everyone thinks [Final Fantasy VII] is deep shows how shallow most video games are.

Who is this "everyone", again?

Not that many movies are art, but there are movies that are still watched decades after they are released. Video games... not really.

First of all, if you use popularity as your yardstick for artistic merit then there's no contest -- videogames are more "artistic" than books or movies. :)

Secondly, people still play games from over a decade ago. The aforementioned Final Fantasy VII, for example, came out 13 years ago and is currently ranked #460 at Amazon. Do people play games from "decades" ago? Well, not many -- because there aren't that many games from "decades ago", especially story-based games. The oldest story-based games, like Ultima IV, are around 25 years old.

Finally, videogames are a rapidly developing medium. Movies are not; films, like paintings and novels, are a stagnant artform. The movies of today aren't any better than the ones from 35 years ago. So the fair comparison isn't "are games from decades ago as popular as movies from decades ago are" -- it is "are games from decades ago as popular as the films of the 10s and 20s were in 1940". And that's easy: they're much more popular than the primitive early films were with the people of 1940.

Anyone can watch Casablanca and understand it. Most people would not be able to summon the patience to sit through FF VII or would care much about the story, which would take too long to tell anyway.

I'm not sure of Casablanca's current popularity with the public, but its total rental sales appear to be $4,145,200. Rentals for "The Rugrats Movie" are $36,500,000. Final Fantasy VII sold 10 million copies. Just a few points of comparison.

Games are entertainment. To rise to the level of art a video game would have to be something that could relate to the human experience at large, and I can think of very few that do so.

That's an odd standard for "art". It excludes most of painting and sculpture and all of classical music.

Besides, what is it about Casablanca (for example) that "relates to the human experience at large" that isn't common in videogames as well? The themes and plot of Casablanca -- the reluctant hero, the sacrifice for a greater cause, the star-crossed lovers, et al -- were already completely cliched when the film was released, and have naturally remained so since. What sets Casablanca apart is its dialogue, which is... entertaining! Funny, witty, and memorable -- but it doesn't tell us anything about the human experience that ten thousand other artworks hadn't already said before.

One final note: I think you're being overly reductionist in your description of videogames. Would it be sensible to describe this as consisting of thousands of blades of grass painted over an over again, with a girl and some houses thrown in? Or this as nothing but repetitive scenes of men getting shot? Missing the point a bit, don't you think?

Now, I personally think that FFVII dragged a bit, too, but there are plenty of other games that don't. In many games, the combats (or puzzles, or whatever) don't individually add to the story, but they *collectively* add to both the story and the experience. Any given combat in, say, Fallout 3 usually means nothing, but the omnipresent threat of combat and the struggle to win each one are both very important to the overall experience.

And that's enough about that. :)

John Orzechowski said...

"I can see a lawyerly way to defend it, but it's pretty weasely."

LOL. Thanks, that made my day.

I can see a new masthead quote...

damikesc said...

I would argue anybody who claims that gamers overwhelmingly hold FF VII as a deep story doesn't know gaming. Most people I know recognize that FF VIII had a rather terrible plot that was disjointed. To pretend that storytelling hasn't improved a ton since then is to deny reality (as cheesy as it was, FF X had a much better narrative...and Square can't tell stories as is). We've actually seen a lot of titles with outstanding stories (Alan Wake had a very good one), but a lot of folks who don't know better seem to believe story telling doesn't exist.

Elite movies have better stories than elite games. But, overall, most movies have laughably terrible plots that are no better than game plots.

And, unlike movies, critically acclaimed games tend to sell rather well.

Largo said...

A question to thoughtful gamers:

Is it possible to get an appreciation of most of the artistry of a game, or at least a good sense of the aesthetic reward one might expect to be able to reap from a game, from a very limited encounter that does not depend on a lot of technical, game specific know-how?

I can listen to some select passages of a piece of classical -- maybe the opening bars of each movement -- and get some idea of what I'm getting into. And listening to an entire work will lake (usually) much less than an hour, even if a deep understanding would require repeated listenings.

Reading War and Peace is not quite the same -- one must sink significant time in reading it -- but even hear, I could read a few excerpts and maybe appreciate the rewards to come.

Is there anything like this that can be done with games? Does it vary much (say by genre of game)? I am not a gamer, but I wonder what I might be missing. On the other hand, I don't want to spend hours of time (or great mental effort) in getting up to speed before realizing that it's not my thing... and doing the same again for every game on my short list.