Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Infinite Lives: Ebert on games II

"I have recently seen classic films by Fassbinder, Ozu, Herzog, Scorsese and Kurosawa, and have recently read novels by Dickens, Cormac McCarthy, Bellow, Nabokov and Hugo, and if there were video games in the same league, someone somewhere who was familiar with the best work in all three mediums would have made a convincing argument in their defense." -- Roger Ebert

"Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control. [...] I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art." -- also Roger Ebert

Fighting Words? Two weeks ago in this space I put down my wineglass, roachclip, cheap jokes and gamer nostalgia almost long enough to consider seriously these comments of Eberts, these magical spells which recently summoned up a shitstorm of outcry and (sorta) debate in the collegium of nerds. Almost; as usual when things get Serious we ran right out of time, space and money, getting as far as dismissing Ebert's dumb first statement (retarded on its face) and addressing his second. So, here we go again; we'll return to Dreamcast memories and Bionic Commando references on the 19th.

Ebert's hung up on narrative, specifically the linear (though it may be chopped up, gimmicked and fucked with) narrative of literature, drama and film. The interactive, nonlinear fiction that's (ideally) at the heart of narrative videogames is beyond him, and thus beyond his concept of art. It's not his fault, really; he was forming his ideas of art and entertainment at a time when the concept of interactive narratives that change according to the will and whim of their experiencers was avant-garde, and the concept of such intereactive fiction becoming a multi-billion-dollar, globally networked mass medium to rival Hollywood was pure science fiction -- and even the science fiction would've had a bank of dials and flashing lights instead of a Dual Shock and a Trinitron. Hung up on the art of the narrative (which, in most games, is admittedly crappy) he can't see that game-making -- evoking emotion and stimulating intellect and imagination through gameplay experience -- is an art in itself.

He's not the only one that didn't get the memo. One of the hardest-dying concepts in gaming is this mystical idea of the perfect game being one whose experience is "like playing a movie." How long 'til this stupid idea dies? Who the hell wants to play a movie? Would I like to play a videogame that had movielike photorealism and A-list writing and voice talent, then maybe, yeah, that might be nice. But it has to be a damn videogame, like a game, a game you play rather than a weak-ass Choose Your Own Adventure. "Cinematic games," shit... didn't we learn anything from Dana Plato and Night Trap?

Sorry to get upset, there... I played Indigo Prophecy this weekend, and it still hurts. I picked it up because I knew I'd be writing this column and thought I'd check out the state of the art for games that bill themselves as Cinematic... favorable reviews led me to believe I'd at least be playing a decent adventure game if not "playing a movie." I don't want to get into a full review, here, but damn... what a payload. A dumb graphic adventure that wouldn't have passed muster in the King's Quest days and a bullshit mystic-mystery storlyline that saves itself from tedium only through becoming laugh-out-loud ridiculous? Jesus; the main "gameplay" was a Simon-type pattern-matching minigame that made Shenmue's "Quick Timer Events" seem like Civilization. This -- this -- is what happens to games when something (inferiority complex; lack of imagination) allows the aesthetics of film to override the aesthetics of game art.

The worst way that games mimic Hollywood -- and thus damage their cachet as Art -- is industrial. Games went from nerd niche to megamedium almost overnight, and as expensive mainstream entertainment products they have the same artistic limitations born of a need to play it safe in order to make mass-market bucks. But unlike Hollywood film, mass-market gaming doesn't have a century of experimentation, fashion, avant-gardism and accomplishment behind it to give it artistic legitimacy, and the indy game underground has an even lower profile than alternative film. Stock genres are now established, and the great mass of games are indistinguishable genre commodities, sequels and knockoffs. Games went from blocky bleep-blorp to Gun Man 3: The Blooding in the span of a single childhood; imagine film's position as Art if its canon went from Man Falling Off A Ladder to Stealth without picking up 8 1/2 and Vertigo along the way.

In a September essay on his Lost Garden site ( blogger "Danc", by way of discussing Nintendo's strategy in games (as market and as artform), posted an excellent critique of the games industry as it is: an overconsolidated giant alienating casual customers and failing to attract replacements by putting all their eggs in a few baskets (established genres relying on diehard gamers for sales) whose safety is an actuarial illusion. It's a great read, and his solution (well, his analysis of Nintendo's apparent solution) to the industry's current artistic and looming financial problems -- a focus on genre innovation and gameplay artistry rather that tech, in order to turn non-gamers into gamers and to retain casual players -- is right on the money.

The Fellinis and Scorsceses of game art -- and the teams that work to realize their visions -- are not, have not been and will not be mere crafstmen. The 8 1/2s and Taxi Drivers of game art are not, have not been and will not be knockoffs of genre pioneers nor weak "interactive" apings of film aesthetics. There will always be high and low art, in any artform, but always a masterpiece will be that work which comprehends, celebrates and expands our understanding of what its medium can be.


Leesah said...

wow! nice one.

Anonymous said...

you're severely missing ebert's point if you think he's hung up on narrative. in neither of those quotes did he once mention narrative.

the first quote is irrelevant as it's a declaration of taste masked as a summons for evidence of artistry. but the second makes a good point about art in general. a great artist creates their work with a very singular vision. each plot/symbolic/character advancement is placed where it is for a purpose, not only of progression, but of style and flow. Fluidity of a video game can't be regulated by the author as the gamer is in control. and putting control in the hands of the gamer is not "avant-garde," (a word which no one should write with a straight face) it's lazy and unartistic.

your final paragraph is so nebulous that it reaches new summits of meaninglessness. the medium of hand-bag art or tree-trimming art will never be compared to the visual, literary or cinematic arts just as video games never will stack up in terms of edification, intellectualism and expression. ebert's not asking games to mimic film, he's simply asking anyone to defend (or establish) their status as art.