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In Honor of Roger Ebert...

In honor of Roger Ebert, I have dug out an old article I wrote for The Married Gamers regarding his 'games are not art' statements, and re-sharing it. RIP, Ebert.

(Originally posted on The Married Gamers on April 29th, 2010: http://www.themarriedgamers.net/2010/04/games-are-not-picasso-%E2%80%93-they-are-games/. Reposted today in honor of Roger Ebert.)

During my youth, I looked upon the world of multimedia as an exciting end to a means.  My means were growth and education, with the goal of entertaining as the end to the first journey in my life.  I grew into a family who was educated in a wide variety of areas including chemistry, cooking and computers (or The Three Cs).  Today, 30 years into my life, I am a game designer and developer with my own company.  But not even 18 years ago, my goal was quite different – it was to be in film.

I followed film and movies vehemently, learning what I could in the days before the internet was a household term.  What my theater classes and research did not teach me, however, was how the audience saw the end result that reflected off that elusive silver screen.  I could love how I acted on stage during a play, but without reading reviews and talking to the audience I would have had no way of knowing what people thought.  So to learn what made an audience tickle with glee or drone with boredom, I would always read the columns by Siskel and Ebert.

These two men had a way of describing a film that made the reader savor the words like a gourmet meal.  They would experience the best and the worst, and sum up their experiences on paper and in their television show, Siskel and Ebert Go to the Movies.  In a way, they were like an opinion driven litmus test – give them your best, give them your worst, but they will always come through with their facts.

Time has its tolls on all in our world.  On February 20th of 1999, Gene Siskel died due to complications related to brain cancer surgery.  I remember hearing about his death.  It was a grim day.  By this time the focus of my future was well set on video games, however I still had enough of a film bug in me to mourn the passing of a great critic.

Today, the world of the critic has changed.  Maybe it was the depression that seeped into everyone’s bank account during the past 10 years, or maybe it was the general uneasiness people have felt since 9-11. Or perhaps, it is just what sells these days.  But the truth is undeniable – distaste sells.  Writing a scathing film review about a movie that has truly good qualities will always put it at a higher consumer level for the sheer fact that it is entertainment – and entertainment sells.

So what of Roger Ebert?  The man has not had an easy life.  He lost a dear friend.  He has also suffered cancer which left him physically scarred for the remainder of his years.  But does he write scathing prose about films just to push papers and sales figures?  I would have to say no.  His reviews are honest, to the point, and – what they have always been – his personal opinion, well written to be consumed by all.  Despite what the past 12 years have brought him, Ebert continues to write his truth in words.

When we get down to the gritty facts, Ebert is not a young man.  He is an extraordinarily well educated man in his wisdom years.  In fact, my writing about him, at the green age of 30, almost feels like injustice.  But I shall do what I can with the experience I have so far been worthy enough to earn.

Ebert’s truth does not come without rebuttal – and today he has the full force of the Internet to agree or disagree with him.  He is a man wise enough to speak his mind, and does not fear the need to bite his tongue.  Recently, through following him on Twitter, I came across two articles he wrote that were met with incredible fury.  One was his review of Kick-Ass, where he generously points out his distaste of watching an 11 year old girl get beaten up by grown men.  I, personally, do not find this offensive by any means, for the sheer fact that it works within the fiction of the universe in which Kick-Ass is situated.  Had this been real life, on the other hand, my attitude would be quite the reverse.  But then, this is a wonderful example of Ebert’s powerful opinion being shared with all for consumption.  You are given the choice to agree with him or not.

His other article, which I would say has met with an even greater offensive, was one where he pointed out that video games can never be art – at least not within the lifetime of anyone physically able to read his article on the matter.  The responses if have seen to this are extensive.  Many, naturally, go with the simple “up yours” route.  Others invite Ebert to play a specific game.  Still others attempt to go into detail on why games are or can be art.

I intend to do none of those.  Not because I respect the wisdom that Ebert brings to the entertainment industry as a whole, not because I am above cursing a man out just for having a differing opinion, and not because I want to sell papers through a foul-mouthed article.  No… I instead wish to discuss this an entirely different way.

I want to say that Ebert was right.  At least, in a fashion.

In Ebert’s article, he discusses a presentation about games as art hosted by Kellee Santiago of ThatGameCompany (made popular by the well known designer, JenovaChen).  During the presentation, she discussed a violent game with poor visual art (Waco Resurrection, more a study on how events affect our psyche than a real game), the time-warping game Braid, and the curious Flower – which is more an interactive dream than a video game.  I believe these were decent examples of art in games – providing you are already a gamer.  As a gamer and a game developer, I look at Flower the same way I would an art film.  It is mysterious, it is experimental, and in its own right, it is beautiful.  Do I call it art?  Yes – but not of the same kind that one would classify works by Picasso.

During this presentation, Kellee also discusses wants and needs of the consumer, and generally points out that deeper games make bigger sales.  I cant disagree with her here – games need to be designed to fill a gap or a desire in the world of its audience.  No product sells without being something that fills a gap, which goes for all industries.  However, if one sits back and makes decisions for a game to be “artsy” without fully understanding the medium outside of a business standpoint, then they will be subjected to making the bottom-barrel games that are so popular in bargain bins.  While I do not believe this is how Kellee makes her decisions (and the sales figures of ThatGameCompany help to further prove that it is not), one must understand and care about the art of what they are producing before they can make money with it – and before they can prevent their work from earning a sales sticker.

If we cannot consider the art of video games something comparable to the recognized mediums, then what exactly is the kind of art that we need for this topic?  To answer this, we must first understand what a video game is.  At their core, every video game is interactive fiction – even if there is no story to behold.  In Game Architecture and Design (Third Edition), Andrew Rollings and Dave Morris point out how gamers will make their own stories.  To explain this, I offer the following scenario:

Two people are sitting and enjoying a meal.  One looks to their friend and says, “You were insane in that last round we played of Random RTS Game!  I couldn’t even tell where your generic flame thrower soldiers were coming from.”  The other person chuckles, returning the rest of their sandwich to a plate and responds, “I had them flanking your six! Your typical ninja spy units had just taken out my not-invisible to them weapons array – which was nothing more than a diversion so I could take out your town.”

What just occurred here?  Two people, discussing a standard RTS game, were sharing and discussing the story of what happened.  No story was presented or indicated to have been given by the games’ designer – but that does not matter.  Gamers will make their own story, not unlike soldiers in the field, not unlike office workers doing their jobs, and not unlike you would with your friends.  Everyone has stories.  This is the first thing to realize about games to understand the art of games – the player makes the story based on their experiences.

What else do video games consist of, at their core?  The above example presents a scenario meant for a multiplayer environment, then compares it to real-life situations.  But wait…. Is football art?  When an accountant crunches numbers and finds the magic combination to score their client a fat reimbursement check from the government something we could consider art?  Yes.  But it is not art one would find in a museum.  This is the art of the process.  The art of understanding and knowing how something works, and how to manipulate the world to create something beautiful in the end, even if that item of beauty is as simple as a paycheck.

The art of making video games is incredible.  Just like film, there are tens to hundreds or even thousands of people all performing individual jobs to make sure the end product is amazing.  Each of these people know the art of their individual craft incredibly well.

And that is the next part – the art of the craft.  The core of video games is a combination of the art of numerous crafts which come together to allow the person experiencing the end result to produce a very personal story.  At their core, that is what a video game is – a personal story generator, built for you, and you alone.  Because your experience will not be the same as the person sitting next to you – even in a very linear game, they will still experience it in a different way than you will.  And…. honestly, this is where the line between art and not art blends, and where the discussion on this topic starts to fall apart on both ends.  There is absolutely art here – but it is something very different.

When we get to the final end product of the game itself, I find myself at a dead end.  As a gamer, as a developer, I want nothing more than to stand proud and yell, “Games Are Art!” as loud as my lungs will allow.  Yet, I instead find myself with at an impasse.  Down one route is where I wish to go…a world where games line museum walls and are hailed as great creations from whimsical and artistic minds.  Yet, down the other path, I see reality – a world where video games are games, as artistically produced as they may be, they are still comparable to chess at their core.

Games started out as a simple blip called Pong.  Pong is quite comparable to tabletop and board games in many ways as it is a simple, core mechanic presented in its rawest form.  Flash forward to the modern day and we could look at Bioshock 2.  Just like Pong was in its day, Bioshock 2 is a very advanced title using a state of the art game engine to render beautiful scenery.  The player, taking the roll of the first Big Daddy ever created, must use their Plasmids and combat abilities to save the Little Sisters and discover the mystery of Lamb and her legions of followers who have taken over the underwater city of Rapture.  This game contains an incredible amount of story mixed with intense game play.  And just like chess, the player must strategically use their environments and consider the best use of their Plasmids and weapons at hand to dispatch the enemies and save the day. Okay, so chess did not have DNA rewriting syringes, however the concept of strategy is still there.

Bioshock 2 is a title that can be studied and compared for its incredible display of gameplay, visual art value due to it’s impressive visual designs, characters and architecture, and for its use of an ongoing, iterative storyline complete with twists and emotional moments.  Naturally, with so many components, this is also a game that allows players to write their own very extensive stories.

The other component of typical art is emotion.  Again, this is where the line begins to blur between art and not art.  If I were to say video games cannot draw an emotion, I would be lying.  I can name two games that have brought a tear to my eye – Final Fantasy VI and Prey. (I do feel the need to point out that what follows contains spoilers. If that is an issue for you, then please continue to the next paragraph and skip the remainder of this one.)  The first title contains an emotional scene when one of the main characters, Celes, is stuck on an island with nobody but her Grandfather to keep her company.  The day comes where he dies, and she is unable to take it. She blames herself for his death, finds the tallest cliff, and falls to her end.  This is easily one of the most emotional moments in gaming, and has been widely remarked as a scene to have brought a tear to many a gamers eye. Prey has a more fantastical scene, however, where the powerful alien ship – known as the Sphere – is attempting to thwart your efforts to save Earth. In this game, your grandfather is killed early on.  However, this is a title which makes strong use of Native American beliefs.  In fact, the player, his family and friends are all Native Americans. During your journey, your grandfather occasionally pulls you to the land of the dead to train you and help you in stopping the Sphere. There is one scene in particular during training in this peaceful afterlife where the Sphere opens an interdimensional portal and commences an invasion upon the land of the dead.  For me, this was a very emotional moment due to the feelings of having a peaceful land attacked in a nearly impossible manner, and having someone whom – as a player and viewer of the pre-set story before me – I found I deeply cared about.  Upon returning to the Sphere, I began blasting away the hordes of enemies in site, wiping way angry tears, my only goal destroying the portal generator to the other side. In the case of Prey, I was able to feel deep emotion thanks to the pre-written story, and then write my own story on how I dealt with the invasion.

Art is intended to bring forth emotion, be it love, hate, jealousy, disgust or others.  While I will argue to the day I die that video games can bring a very strong flow of emotions in someone… it is not the game itself bringing forth these emotions.  In both of my whimper filled examples above, it was the story in the game which brought forth these emotions.  Not the game itself.  These games utilized the art of story very, very well – however that is just one component of the whole.

So… where does that leave us? Are games art?  Yes.  Are games art in a way that we can currently recognize?  No.  As a developer, I believe we can create great art in games.  As a gamer, I enjoy the pre-written stories of the games, along with the way they allow me to create my own story.  I agree with Roger Ebert that games are not art – and I also agree that they can never be art.  Because games are not a medium that have the capability of being the same kind of art the world is used to.  Instead, games are something very different.  They are an artistic medium where the person experiencing them creates their own unique story, and has their own unique experience.  This, of course, means that games like Chess and Checkers share a page in the same art book as video games.

Instead of arguing over whether games are or are not art, I first believe we need to allow people to have their individual personal opinions, because that is exactly what Ebert’s impressive career has been based on.  Throughout this article, I have proposed the concept that the art in video games is something different, even though it has been around for centuries, and is simply something we have never taken the time to consider.  I could be incredibly off the ball on that, however.  Because, let’s face it… in the end, art is only in the eyes of the beholder.

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