Confessions of a Digital Novelist

Archive for April, 2010

Yes Mr. Ebert, Games Are Art – SPOILERS -

by on Apr.24, 2010, under Uncategorized

Recently, there’s been a lot of hullabaloo about the assertion of Roger Ebert, perhaps the greatest living film critic in the United States, that video games could never be art.  I won’t go into details here but you can read it on Ebert’s website at http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/04/video_games_can_never_be_art.html.

I wanted to avoid commenting on this because I want this blog to be focused digitial publishing and writing.  Besides, far better writers have written far more persuasive arguments then I could ever hope to muster.  1up.com has an animated video rebuttal at http://gamevideos.1up.com/video/id/29092.  However my favourite post is by Mike Thomsen at IGN.com whose column “Dad is Dead: Rebutting Roger Ebert” combines wit, humour, and a great deal of reason into the discussion.  His post is highly recommended and can be found online at http://xbox360.ign.com/articles/108/1084651p1.html.

Now this controversy is tough for me as Roger Ebert is by far my favourite movie critic.  I have been watching or reading his reviews for over twenty years.  His analysis of film has been one of the most influential voices on my own storytelling style.  Whenever I start writing a story, I am always aware of the lessons in story that he has taught me and I endeavour to make sure that my story avoids the pitfalls and cliches of so many bad movies that Roger Ebert has reviewed.

There is no question that he is wrong.  Anyone who has played video games as a hobby intuitively understands that.  But the more interesting question is how is wrong?  What is it about video games that makes a select few of them art.  More generally, what is art?  Roger Ebert himself does not offer a definition of art.  He finds it too difficult to define.  The same problem exists for all of the rebuttals.  Art, it seems, is remarkably difficult to pin down.

For me, I would define art as a form of expression that transcends explanation.  Art cannot explained away rationally as it is not a result of rational thought.  Rather it is an attempt to capture something magical, something that cannot be recreated.  For example, Vincent Van Gogh’s “A Starry Night” is something that I would consider art.  I couldn’t say exactly why it is, any reason that I could give would be arbitrary, but there is no doubt in my mind that there is something there that transcends the painting itself.  That it defies our explanation to me is what makes it timeless and thus what makes it art.

In the case in film, I would consider 2001: A Space Odyssey to be a work of art.  Despite its awe-inspiring special effects.  There is something odd and out of reach about the film.  Intentionally or perhaps unintentionally,  Stanley Kubrick managed to create a film that seemed to humble before the great mystery of the universe.  To make such a film nowadays would be next to impossible.  It defies explanation and confused audiences are not conducive to big opening-week grosses.  Likewise, while I would consider Raiders of the Lost Ark to be one of the greatest films ever made, it is not a work of art.  It is the greatest combination of fun and entertainment on film but it does not mystify us like a great work of art should.

Does something can be an effective form of entertainment at the top of its medium and still fall short of becoming art.  So where does that leave video games.  Video games, even more so than film or painting, is designed primarily to entertain.  A game such as Modern Warfare 2 succeeds because it is constantly feeding you an adrenaline rush, not because it makes you ponder the wonders of the universe.  Uncharted 2, while containing an exhilarating single-player campaign and degree of characterization unseen in the medium, still depends on its action sections to carry the day.  When you play Uncharted 2, you don’t sit around and discuss what it means, you sit there and go “Holy $%^&, that was $%^&%$^@ amazing; I can’t believe that building/train car/helicopter almost came down on top of us!  While it was an incredible blast to play, and replay, it is not something that I would consider art (well, except for maybe the train stage).

So what video games would I consider works of art?  What games would I stack up alongside the works of Van Gogh, Shakespeare, and Kurosawa?

For me, the argument over whether or not video games can be art begins and ends with the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.  In the summer of 1999, I had a week to kill and so I stole my brothers N64 and his gold cartridge copy of Ocarina of Time.  Five deals and 50 hours later, I sat in front of the Television in a stunned stupor.  What had I just experienced?  I had only meant to play the first part but once I started to play, I simply could not put the controller down.  I was hooked for ten hours a day for five straight days.  Never before and never again have I been locked into a game like I was with Ocarina of Time.

At the time, I simply could not explain it.  What was it about the game that drew me in?  Was it the immersive 3D world, the likes of which we had never seen?  Was the large quest with plenty of things to do and items to find?  Or was the large than life boss battles?  The truth is that it was not one of those things.  It wasn’t the graphics or the music or the story that drew me in.  It was the design.  You see, the element the makes games art isn’t their aesthetic quality as it is in music, art, and literature.  Rather it is how these elements are combined into a seamless experience that can give video games an emotional experience unlike any other medium.  In this case, as I played through the job I felt a sense of unbridled joy that I have never experienced in any other art form.  When I solved the water temple I felt “Oh my, aren’t I clever.”  When I figured out a grand puzzle or a tricky boss, I received such a sense of satisfaction that I had to keep pressing forward.  And when I defeated Ganon and saved both time and space, I sat there in front of the television and realized that I played something very special, something that I couldn’t explain.  I had played art.  I played Ocarina of Time again decade later after finishing the disappointing Twilight Princess and again that same sense of joy that I had felt back in 1999.  Twilight Princess, with a decade of advancement in technology, simply could not match that experience.  I fully believe that I come back in twenty and thirty years and play Ocarina of Time again with the same wonder and joy that I felt when I was twenty years old.

For a more recent and similar example, I would have to nominate Super Mario Galaxy for consideration as art.  Much like Ocarina of Time, its primary appeal isn’t in the last-generation but colourful graphics or the outstanding orchestral score, but the tight in fluid level design that gives me nothing but joy as I traverse its pitfalls.  I played Super Mario Galaxy for a year, going through each level twice and collecting every one of Mario’s and Luigi’s Stars.  I await Super Mario Galaxy 2 with anticipation but also with a little dread.  I don’t see how a sequel could match up to the pitch-perfect design of the original.  But once again, it is the design of the game not the graphics or the music by itself that create an emotional response that is timeless.

Many commenters have mentioned Shadow of the Colossus as a possibility but I think that it falls a little short.  The controls were simply far too frustrating to lead to a smooth experience but the world itself is just awe-inspiring.  For those that have never played it, the overworld in Shadow of the Colossus is a stunning achievement.  Even five years later, I feel a sense of wonder when I jump on my horse Archer and simply ride from one corner of the land to the other.  The land is vast, empty, and haunting, giving you the sense of loss over the long-gone civilization that once lived.  Traveling from plains, to cliffs, to deserts, and to forest is seamless and natural.  While the game itself falls a little short, the land itself defies easy explanation and evokes emotions such as loss, sorrow, and mystery that are all too rare in the medium.

Braid is another game that came up again and again but for good reason.  Braid is one of the most bizarre platformers that I have ever encountered.  But it’s gameplay, while brilliant, is not why I would consider Braid to be art.  Rather it is in story and how it is presented to you that makes it art.  When you begin the story, you are searching for a princess that has been kidnapped.  As you move from level to level, you capture puzzle pieces by manipulating time backwards and forwards in different ways.  In the final set of levels for example, time is moving backwards, you have to manipulate it forwards to find the solutions.  When you reach the last level, you see the princess running away from the evil night.  You can’t help her because they are both on the level above.  So instead you run to the right as the flames chase you from the left, the princess throws switches to open doors, move pillars, and unlock traps.  Finally, you reach the end of stage – her house.  You climb up to the window and greet her through the glass.  At this point, time reverses again.  The princess runs to the left and you must drop back down to the lower level and chase after her over the same terrain you just crossed.  However, this time instead of unlocking the traps, the princess is activating traps in an effort to stop you.  When you reach the end, she leaps into the arms of the knight and is pulled up and away from you.  You have lost your princess.

I have to admit that I didn’t fully understand it at first.  I was confused.  Why did time reverse itself?  Why was she running away from me?  So I looked it up on the Internet.  I was stunned to learn that I had it backwards.  When you move from left to right, time wasn’t going forwards, it was going backwards just like the rest of the final set of stages.  When you reach the end, time reverts back to normal.  As time moves forward, the princess runs away from you.  You see, the princess has always been running away from you.  The princess doesn’t love you.

When I learned the truth, I felt a wave of sorrow and loss that I had never experienced in video games before.  I had rarely experienced such a sensation in film or literature.  The difference in video game form was the emotions I felt where not directed towards another character.  Instead, I experienced these emotions as if I were the lead character itself.  The immersion factor in video games is something that we are only now beginning to understand and Braid demonstrates how powerful it can be.  Thus, I would agree that based on my experiences with it, Braid deserves to be considered a work of art.

From my experiences, it is clear that video games are an artform completely unique and relatively new.  For the most part, video games as art have been defined by how their design can invoke joy and sorrow.  Braid and Shadow of the Colossus represent a new wave of video games that can invoke a far greater and complex range of emotions.  Thus in short, 2000 words short, Roger Ebert is wrong.  Video games have been, are, and will be works of art comparable to Van Gogh and Shakespeare.  My own pity is that some people, due to their limited horizons, will never take the chance to experience them.

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Cormac McCarthy, Run-On Sentences, and Quotation Marks

by on Apr.11, 2010, under Storytelling Theory, Writing

With the introduction of the Kindle for iPhone, I’ve finally taken the opportunity to read Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.  I have loved the movie, even though I missed it an theatres and wanted to how close the movie stuck to the novel.  Needless to say, I was not disappointed.  No Country for Old Men is a terrific read, the most fun I’ve had since the Harry Potter series finished up.

One of the more interesting things with reading a Cormac McCarthy novel for the first time is his unique prose style identifiable by two consistent habits: run-on sentences and no quotation marks.  Now for the most part English teachers will balk at both habits as bad grammar but I’m always interested when a writer does something different.  I always want to understand why an author makes that choices that he or she does and how does it affect the manuscript.

Run-on Sentences

McCarthy has been compared to William Faulkner for his consistent use of the run-on sentence.  An example from No Country for Old Men:

The deputy left Chigurh standing in the corner of the office with his hands cuffed behind while he sat in the swivelchair and took off his hat and put his feet up and called Lamar on the mobile.

For the most part, this is a mild example of McCarthy’s run-on sentences but does illustrate the reasons why he uses them.  For the most part, McCarthy uses the run-on sentence to string together a bunch of action statements that by themselves are not that interesting.  It almost seems if McCarthy is following Elmore Leonard’s old axiom to eliminate the parts that the reader skips over.  However in McCarthy’s case, instead of deleting the boring description of action, he shortens them and puts them all together in the same sentence. In a sense, he is skipping over the text alongside the reader. Now, if I was writing it, it probably would have gone like this:

As the deputy walked in to the station, the door creaked in protest. I would have to oil that, thought the deputy. But he couldn’t do it right now because he was not alone. Upon his right hand rested the manacled hands of one Anton Chigurh. His arms behind him, Chigurh was led to the corner by the deputy. The deputy left him in the corner and walked over to his desk. Papers lay strewn everywhere and a pen could not be found. The deputy sat back into his swivel chair with a relaxing oomph. He dropped his hat upon the desk and put his feet up, taking the opportunity to scratch an itch that had been bothering him for the last ten miles. Leaning back, he picked up the mobile and dialed the number for Lamar.

As you can see, my version spends a lot of time describing things that aren’t really that important. McCarthy’s text zooms past this unnecessary description and cuts right to the chase.

While run-on sentences are generally seen as the result of poor grammar, I believe that in the manner that McCarthy uses them it works well. It skips over the boring text without completely removing it. It also makes the story appear to be going by faster.  For this reason, I would recommend it but don’t overuse less someone accusing you of simply copying McCarthy.  They’d be right but there is nothing wrong with copying good technique.

Quotation Marks

The other unusual grammatical quirk that is a trademark of McCarthy’s writing’s is his use of the quotation mark or more accurately, the fact that he never uses a quotation mark.  For an example, here is the second paragraph from No Country for Old Men:

Just walked in the door.  Sheriff he had some sort of thing on him like one of them oxygen tanks for emphysema or whatever.  Then he had a hose that run down the inside of his sleeve and went to one of them stun guns like they use at the slaughterhouse.  Yessir.  Well that’s what it looks like.  You can see it when you get in.  Yessir.  I got it covered.  Yessir.

Not one quotation mark.  McCarthy states that it’s because the quotation mark halts the reader.  That it is an intrusive obstruction into the reading experience or to paraphrase him, he hates seeing all of this marks all over his page.  At first it is a little jarring but you soon become used to it.  On this McCarthy has a point, the reading experience is far more fluid when you don’t have to deal with quotation marks.  The punctuation disappears and the dialogue and not the punctuation becomes the focus.  However, there are problems with this strategy when you mix dialogue and description.  For example:

Wendell leaned and spat.  Yessir, he said.  I’m ready.  He looked at Torbert.  You get stopped with that old boy in the turtle just tell em you dont know nothin about it.  Tell em somebody must of put him in there while you was havin coffee.

In this case, the reader must switch back and forth between description and dialogue several times.  Each time the reader has to shift focus, there is an opportunity for the reader to lose his place and become confused over whether or not he is reading dialogue.  I found that this happened several times while I was reading to book.  Confusion resulted, forcing me to go back and read it again.  Every time that I did so, it broke the momentum of the story, thus nullifying the advantage that Cormac McCarthy was trying to gain.  Thus, I would recommend that you stick with quotation marks.  They may mark up your page something awful, but they will ensure that your text is clear and easily understand, thus helping to maintain the flow of the story.  Now if you decide to forego quotation marks, just be aware of how the reader can become confused and try to avoid mixing description and dialogue in the same paragraph.

Cormac McCarthy is one of the best writers in the English language.  There is a lot that you can learn from reading his books.  But keep in mind that every writer has their own style and this style must have a purpose.  Take from your favourite writers what works for you and leave the rest.  Only you can write like you.

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iBooks Announced for iPhone

by on Apr.08, 2010, under Books, Digital Publishing, Tools of the Trade

And the good news keeps getting better.

As reported by Macworld.com, the iPhone OS 4.0 presentation today announced that the iBooks app, available on the iPad since its launch, will now be available along with the iBooks Store on the iPhone.  As quoted by Macworld, this means that

In another borrowed feature from the iPad, Apple will make its iBooks e-reader available to the iPhone in iPhone OS 4.0. The iPhone offering will be a smaller version of the iPad app, but it allows for the same features, including purchasing from Apple’s iBookstore. And you’ll also be able to sync your place and bookmarks between multiple devices—leave off reading a book on your iPad, and you can start reading it in the same place on your iPhone.

It seems that self-publishers in Canada have had nothing but good news over the past three months.  First the Amazon Digital Text Platform and Kindle app for iPhone came to Canada in January – allowing any writer to publish to the world’s most popular media device at no upfront cost.  Then, we found out that Apple was launching iBooks and that Smashwords and Lulu would be supporting it – allowing any reader to buy your work with the same account that they buy music, movies, and games with.  But now we find out that iBooks will be available on the iPhone.  It doesn’t get any better than this.  Now only if we could figure out how to get people to buy the millions of self-published novels that will appear on the platform.

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