Monday, May 6, 2013

In Search of the Interactive Rembrandt: Was Ebert Right?

Author's Note: This is an article I've been trying to write since I started this blog in 2009. With the recent passing of Roger Ebert, it felt appropriate to revisit and finally finish this article.

"Time mag sells its honour for a video game promotion. Sad, sad, sad." So tweeted Roger Ebert on June 13 of 2011.

The event Mr. Ebert referred to was a promotional faux Time Magazine cover created for Modern Warfare 3. It's especially significant in that Time magazine has hitherto denied the right to license their likeness in the promotion of any other product. It was unique in this respect to most or all of it's peers, as I understand it.

Ironically I actually agree with his disappointment on this issue, though for different reasons. The Modern Warfare series is basically the video game equivalent to a Michael Bay or Roland Emerich vehicle; lot's of flash and spectacle but light on social sensitivity. Time is still one of the most respectable magazines of its kind in North America and for it to lend its credibility to what amounts to sensationalist, empty entertainment just feels kind of... well, it didn't actually have any lasting effect one way of the other so it's kind a moot point. That said, I'm still not particularly impressed with Times' publisher at the time Kim Kelleher referring to MW3's demographic as "boys" (the series' largest consumer base peaks at 35, not 20).

But that's not the real issue here. At the heart of Mr. Ebert's statement was an attitude that video games are a lesser medium. Of course, this is hardly the first time he's expressed that sentiment. Since 2005 Roger Ebert maintained that games were not and could never be Art.

In his original article Mr. Ebert articulated that because the experience was shaped by the player it diluted the control of the author on that experience and so by extension diluted the authorial message/intent. Simply put because the experience is changed by player's actions, the author is rendered effectively moot.

The reaction to this has been fierce and varied, but those who's argument has been more thought out than a verbal knee-jerk reaction generally fall into two camps.

Those falling here argue from their personal definition of Art. Though sometimes insightful and often well thought out, this approach is fundamentally flawed because it changes the parameters of the argument. I invariably find myself coming to the same questions: "What are YOU basing your definition ON?" and "What makes your definition more valid than Ebert's?". Remember, Roger Ebert was not an uneducated man in the realm of Art and the criticism thereof. He was the first person to win a Pulitzer for film criticism, after all.

There are several lines of thinking I find interesting, here. One argument has it that if every element of a game taken alone can be considered art than so too must the sum of those parts. This isn't too far fetched, music from Final Fantasy is held in respected concert halls and the artwork has been subject of touring museum exhibits.

Others bring up the visuals of this game or that as being proof enough of artistic merit, arguing that aesthetic appeal is enough to warrant the stamp of Art. This does actually have some legs as in the Art World prior to the modernism movement aesthetic beauty was a primary evaluator of an artwork's worth. I encourage art history buffs to correct me here on specifics and timeline; my knowledge of Art History is cursory at best.

But back to the subject at hand, the second camp is far more interesting as it side-steps the whole debate to ask 'If we assume that games are art, what would that actually mean?'. The best place I've seen this was in the excellent Extra Credits, which explores the medium of games from the perspective of those who make them. I can't find the specific episode I'm looking for, but they address this subject a few times.

Again though, this doesn't really address the core argument because it also changes the parameters of the debate. It is, however, the next logical step of where to take it.

Not here though.

Here we're still talking about the argument set forth by Mr. Ebert. I've not seen any article or video address that argument directly.

See, Ebert's definition of Art didn't come out of thin air. The idea of the artist's voice needing to be present actually has it's roots in Auteur Theory, which was a movement that helped settle decades of heated debate and legitimize cinema (genre particularly) as a legitimate form of Art.

I am well and truly late to this party but let's see if I, as a man who's not actively* played mainstream games since 2004 and sporadically before that, can bring something new to this stale debate.

A few years ago I had a conversation with an art major about the nature of art and video games along these lines. This conversation led to many very interesting lines of thoughts that I'd like to explore here.

Your average video game, by design, places each individual member of its audience into the role of active participant. Because of this control, each player has an experience unique to them and each play-through is equally unique. This much of Ebert's point is true, but it really applies only to the minutiae of any given gaming session because player freedom is not absolute. The player's actions are shaped by immutable parameters set by the game's author.

In God of War you can dispatch the creatures in your path only by means of a set array of attacks and the path he travels is always the same. Likewise, the player has only as many avenues of control as there are buttons on the controller. Kratos will never build a catapult or learn Scottish Country dancing or negotiate a Peace Treaty. There is no diplomacy button mapped to the controls of Master Chief just as there is no attack command in Guitar Hero. Even the most open-ended gameplay models such as World of Warcraft or Everquest shape gameplay through interactivity limitation.

In other words while games offer the illusion of control, for the vast majority of games it is (within the boundaries of standard deviation) the same or comparable experience between it's every audience member. Which means that there can indeed be a clear authorial voice in a game.

It follows then that reducing a player's choices increases that authorial voice.

This is certainly evident in many games self-identified as 'art games' that limit the player's input options. Sometimes to even a single button so as to make the experience more akin to a novel where there is only one path through which to proceed. There are many excellent Flash games which use this limited control palette to more directly explore a facet of the human condition. For example, both Loved and Everyday the Same Dream have controls simple enough to map to an Atari controller.

The idea of a limited canvas better highlighting themes and character can be found in mainstream games as well. Consider the following example: one of the most emotional moments in 90's gaming is Aries' death in Final Fantasy VII. While most people cite the cut scene in which Sephiroth dramatically drops death from above, it's the lead up that I find more interesting. Cloud, possessed by unseen forces, moves towards Aries with his sword drawn. Despite there only being one option available (move towards Aries to kill her), the player controls Cloud's every step. Any other button but forward on the d-pad did nothing except make Cloud briefly struggle. In forcing the player to take Cloud's every step it gave the possession more weight than a cut scene could ever have. In spite of Sephiroth's sword being the death blow, I question whether the moment would have cemented itself in gaming culture with as much bitter-sweet reverence without this lead-up.

Of course everything in the last paragraphs could be rebuffed as essentially saying the same thing as Ebert; that to make an artistic statement as a game's author you have to take away control from the player.

But could it be that game mechanics are exactly what cements the medium as an art form?

This takes a page out of influential film pioneer Sergei Eisenstein who looked at the medium of film and noted that it actually encompassed many existing art forms within it. Writing, acting, and photography all existed separate of film, but one element, editing, was entirely unique. Similarly, game mechanics (and specifically how each player is allowed to interact with the game) are a wholly unique animal to the medium of video games. So, like editing is to film, it's interesting to consider game mechanics as an artistic tool.

I think it's unethical given this whole debate is framed by his words not to bring this back to Mr. Ebert.

Since first touching on the subject in a 2005 review of Doom, Roger Ebert had come back to it countless times. And while he never changed his stance, he engaged in open dialogue with those on the opposite side. In a 2010 article he gave his thoughts on both Braid and Flower. The following year, an article entitled 'Why Videogames are Indeed Art' was posted on by one of his correspondents and actively promoted by Mr. Ebert.

This was two months before the Time Magazine tweet.

It's safe to assume Roger Ebert never changed his opinion. Regardless, Mr. Ebert was never dismissive of games; his criticisms of the medium were always intelligent and very well written. There was little stupid or ill-informed about his opinion. But one opinion doesn't stop the world from turning.

In March of last year, the Smithsonian American Art Museum did an exhibit entitled 'The Art of Video Games', one of the first of its kind to not simply present Art inspired by video games, but instead the games themselves as Art. This doesn't settle the subject, but it shows that the tides of opinion are swinging in the direction of Video Games. More and more games are being made every year to draw upon as examples of the medium's artistic merit, from Heavy Rain to Journey to Braid to Spec Ops: The Line. In fact, whenever there's actually been a debate on the subject more often than not those in opposition to games as art come across as woefully uninformed.

I personally think the debate will always be more interesting than any definitive answer. That said, I can't write an article like this without weighing in.

I joined this console generation expressly for the purpose of writing this article. I started playing games like Bioshock and GTA4; games much lauded for their subtext and social commentary as well as game play. After getting several hours into them, I found myself getting... bored. The more serious undertones of both games I found was undermined by the actual game play. Bioshock felt repetitive (get new weapon, shoot baddies, escort little sister, get hopelessly lost and stumble around until the next story beat activates), and in GTA4 the radio stations actually became more interesting than the missions. The infamous 'No Russian' scene in Modern Warefare 2 just left me feeling numb and unfulfilled. Shadow of the Colossus, I couldn't get past the first fight.

Further, removing cut scenes and text scrawls out of immediate consideration, I actually found the games I was playing were very ineffective at telling stories, something I'd romanticized games would be better at by function of interactivity and the larger canvas.

But there are examples where this is true.

I think of Riven, where the universe felt lived-in and so little was conveyed verbally. I think of Portal. And Journey. And Limbo.

Touching again on the idea of the auteur theory, developers like Hideo Kojima and Tim Schafer have artistic visions so strong that each could be identified by their work alone.

So yes, games can and have aspired to be Art.

Until next time, I'm the Trenchcoat Anti-Critic.

*I owned a Nintendo, then a Sega Genesis. I'd still play games at houses of friends periodically in the next two console generations and I emulated a Playstation on the computer, but I'd not buy another console or actively game until 2002 when I got an Xbox. It collected dust from 2004 to 2009 when I was intrigued enough by the games as art debate to pick up a 360 to research for this article; my perspective on the issue wasn't represented but I figured it wouldn't really do to use examples from modern games which I hadn't actually played.