"Video Games Can Never Be Art" – Roger Ebert
I sense a challenge! I sense a lack of imagination! An unwillingness to see what has been and what can be!
But first, empathizing with the enemy is the best way to get to know them. And, of course, to prove them wrong.
His argument feels unconvincing and radiates condescension. It reveals an elitist, exclusionary definition of art. But aside from that, it’s an argument that is reasonably well formed with the information he has, even if it’s derived from willful ignorance.
Great art deals with concepts and picks at the brain! It may not dictate insights, but often incites them! How can we talk of inciting insight without citing Journey and SOMA?
Journey is such a beautiful game. In it you explore powerful scenery which dwarfs you, yet at the same time reveres you. It creates a strong sense of purpose while providing no earthly language. It creates powerful bonds between players without a single word – nothing but a blip of sound and an expanding halo, and the movement the game grants you. It’s incredibly elegant, and awe-inspiring. The concept of the journey – so broad, yet so personal. Surely this is art! It incites insight without dictating it. Its world provides a new form of nature, which Mr. Ebert reveres as a source and model of art (at least to a degree).
As for SOMA – rarely do games come out that truly grapple with such philosophical concepts in such an impactful way. What medium could possibly be better at garnering empathy than a fully interactable game, when the consequences of nightmarish philosophy fall on your very shoulders?
But while Mr. Ebert shuts his ears and yells to drown out the opposition (“games can NEVER be art”) we have a duty to wrestle with his arguments regardless.
Let us be fair! Journey, which is undoubtedly art, has its shortcomings that prevent it from being a piece of art revered by the “high art” community. First, there’s uh…. Well ok not that but then if you look at the.. uh… but wait! Maybe because it’s so broad that means that it’s not.. uh..
Let us be fair! Even in SOMA, which is undoubtedly a great attempt at making a deep, philosophical game that handles concepts with a respectable amount of depth and presents a horrifying, fleshed out world that perhaps even H.P. Lovecraft would be intrigued in, there lies a problem.
THE. "ART". IS. NOT. THE. GAMEPLAY.
SOMA is a game of hide and seek, simple puzzle solving, and exploration. In and of themselves, hide and seek and most puzzle solving DO NOT further the depth of the concepts presented elsewhere! The hide and seek mechanics heighten dread and fear, but on a different wavelength than the game tries to convey its existential horror (though that is certainly debatable). This visceral, paranoid horror might promote attentiveness to the game world, but I’d argue that it does so in a way that promotes abstraction for the sake of survival (“Is this safe? Can I be seen here? Will the monster come this way?”), rather than in a way that promotes real curious interaction with world’s substance. The game’s setting and plot elements do a great job of promoting curious exploration. The puzzle mechanics are often just arbitrary maintenance tasks to reach different areas of the game world. These puzzles add to a sense of presence in the world (which Thomas Grip has written a great paper on), and I don’t think they are necessarily out of place. However, I think the game could have benefitted from including more decisions or puzzles that force the player to interact with the philosophical concepts the game so clearly wants to communicate.
Exploration is the tool by which you take in the game’s world- which is where the “real” art lies! The characters, the story, the setting, etc – all of these things further the game’s conceptual vision. I need not spoil anything, but players of the game will recall feeling very bad for things that, in a traditional sense, are not alive. These moments of extreme empathy and emotional impact do not come from the repeatable game mechanics (aside from exploration), but rather interacting with the game world in a situational way that is focused on a specific emotional outcome.
But yes, exploration has inherent artistic and conceptual value since it is your portal to many of the game’s concepts. Also, for a game that is about exploring a philosophical concept, it makes sense that a major gameplay element would be exploration.
SO WHAT ARE YOU GETTING AT THEN?
Perhaps I can answer your question with a question of my own.
Why, in making art, would you make the most prominent part of it contrast so strongly with the concepts that you try so hard to convey? Games for a long time have been about persistent and recurring systems - but these systems all too often evolve separately from the concepts presented in the game world. SOMA has something akin to Bioshock fever (though much less so, I might add). Bioshock is a horror first person shooter about the pitfalls of objectivism and laissez-faire capitalism, and that narrative unfolds in horrible, gut-wrenching ways that cause the grotesque downfall of a civilization. As a dystopia, it’s a beautiful, disturbing, and engrossing world that conveys its themes strongly. But as a system, how are you interacting with these concepts and how do these interactions evolve over the course of the game? Well, you’re murdering all the poor, crazed victims of this hapless society, of course! And better yet, you get more and more ways to slaughter these folks as the game goes on!
Games, for a long time, have been focused on fun. There is nothing wrong with this. It’s great! It’s why I fell in love with games and have loved them all my life and always will. But for game systems to truly be considered art by the harshest of critics, they need to spread into the same concepts their narratives are sprouting into, otherwise we end up with first person shooters and hide and seek games that seem to take place in an interactable film-esque world of fantastic concepts with little real interaction with those concepts.
This means we need to take fun off of the pedestal. Fun is an important emotional element games can and should take advantage of – and they’re very good at it! But if the game is making sacrifices in its concepts for the sake of fun or scary gameplay, perhaps it should change its concept, or reinvent its gameplay to fit its concept.
This is not an easy undertaking. In a way, it’s a reinvention of how we go about making games. And the vast majority of games trying to achieve conceptual strength as a whole by encapsulating its themes in its systems will do so in baby steps.
Journey is a game whose game mechanics are not novel. Running, jumping, gliding, meeting and interacting with other players – these are things we’ve been doing since the medium’s infancy. But the way the game contextualizes these mechanics provides weight to the Journey itself. The mechanics are not tools of fun (even if they are fun), but tools of emotion.
So I propose that we reshape the way we think about gameplay in video games. Gameplay, just like the rest of the artistic media contained within the multimedia amalgamation that is a video game, is another tool for creating emotional, thematic, and conceptual pull.
Maybe this means that repetitive, mastery-based game mechanics need to be ushered out and replaced with situational, concept-based bits of interactivity. Maybe it means that some mastery-based mechanics need to originate from something larger and evolve in such a way that they communicate something larger. Maybe it means something entirely different. It’s a huge problem that can, will, and should be tackled in a myriad of ways entirely situational to the ideas of the creators.
So why haven’t games yet seen their own Citizen Kane?
Because we’ve yet to realize the true potential of the tools we are working with. This is what Citizen Kane achieved with cinematography. I think it’s high time we do the same with game mechanics.
DISCLAIMER: Of course I think all games are art! I refuse to give anyone the intellectual authority to confine art to a set of standards. And of course- games for fun and mastery are valuable! I’m only talking about games that seek to explore concepts and stories, i.e. Bioshock and SOMA, but fall flat because of the conceptual conflicts that their game mechanics introduce. And just for the record, I love those games.