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.