Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Rebuttal to Mr. Ebert

I have so much respect for Roger Ebert, but he recently wrote this awful hate screed called Video Games Can Never Be Art, a sentiment really bothers me. I mean, he doesn't complain that CGI scenes in movies aren't art, after all the love and attention showered on it by artists, so what makes a CGI scene different from a video game? Control.

An audience member at a film is entirely at the mercy of what is on the screen- a director has to show or tell everything via the strictly linear progression of the film it was printed on. In a game, a director has to work around the movement of the audience- should the player choose to run to here or there, or do this or that- a director has to still be able to tell a worthwhile story without obviously limiting the movement of the player.

In film, a masterful director (and writer and so on) knows how to say everything they need to within the time limit of a film or an episode. Can your story survive segmentation, and be told in a two hour film, or twelve forty-five minute episodes, or a six-part miniseries each an hour long? A master film game director and writer (and, god knows, these are often far and few between) know that the length of their game runs anywhere from 30 to 100 hours, and it runs continuously. I mean, people can save and quit and you can have narrative arcs, but the story has to run continuously from point to point. Casablanca is a two hour self contained film- you're left asking questions at the end, but the story's narrative and major plots have been checked off and we're leaving the theatre feeling romantic and tragic and all that jazz. A game has to deal with the fact that by the end of two hours, you may only be finishing the tutorial, and the reveal of the game's villain, or the betrayal of a loyal friend may still be seven hours away, and the hero’s victory may not occur for more than an entire day in real time. That’s twenty-four hours worth of interaction that has to retain its ties to a narrative. The reason so many games are BAD is that they just can't sustain a story on that kind of a level. That being said, not all games are about story; many of them are just about having fun. Crafting beautiful worlds or landscapes to let people run around in, doing absurd things because they're having a good time. A complex musical game, where you've got to meld the harmonies of music into a unified theme to create lovely symphonic sound or the loopy absurdity of something like Mario- the little fat plumber in his overalls flying through outer space on a green dinosaur to save a princess from a giant, fire-breathing turtle. It’s absurd, and it’s hilarious and it is so much fun to inhabit this world.

Film needs to put you in a story- you need to care about the story and the people in it, and you'll suspend your disbelief because you care about who and what your seeing. A game needs to put you in a world, and it has to be a world where your interactions make sense, where things mesh together- and why we call a game broken when the world doesn't act in a way we feel makes any sense- when our ability to control our game-self is clunky or badly designed or where the actions of things around us are wrong.

I think I'm mad because I've been playing a game that understand story better than almost anything I've ever played before, Mass Effect 2, an epic trilogy, full of complex themes. An escaped slave who has no sense of herself beyond property, an angry young woman who was a test subject as a child, and carries around fury and baggage like you wouldn't believe. A scientist who struggles with having had to sterilize an entire species that threatened to conquer the galaxy, and now he has to watch them stagnate culturally and slowly die. The game always offers you a choice- what kind of person are you in this world? Are you the hero, who saves people and helps the downtrodden, or are you the selfish anti-hero, out only for yourself and not caring about who gets in your way. I care about the people in this game, because the actors who voice them aren't just phoning it in. Martin Sheen (Martin Sheen!) is an enigmatic and creepy head of a humanity first organization who funds your resurrection, but you can't trust him a millimeter. Michael Dorn as a belligerent viceroy, Marina Sirtis as a matriarch gone mad, Tricia Helfer, Adam Baldwin, Michael Hogan... the list goes on. These are sci-fi greats, and A-list actors, and they help build this world for you just as effectively as if they were acting on your DVD player.

I normally love Roger Ebert, but here he just comes off as a bitter old man who can't accept this kind of new medium. I can't help but think of Peter O'Toole in Ratatouille, when he gives his speech about how it’s more fun to write harsh criticism as a critic, but a critic really puts himself on the line when he comes to the defense of the new, because the new needs friends. Ebert was writing his piece as a response to a speech by a young woman who wanted to talk about why she thought games could be art- not always art, but have the potential to be. Ebert had to go and spit vitriol all over that. Games are often crap, but I have been as touched by the people of Mass Effect 2 as I was in the characters of Casablanca, or Star Trek, or as I did reading about the death of the boor Bolgs in the nuclear winter comic When The Wind Blows- and there's another medium that has to fight for people to give it a chance, for people to say that it can rise above pulp and be art. Ebert is just being old and spiteful, but it has got to hurt to the thousands of industry people trying to elevate their work so that a grumpy old critic will call it worthy. Andy Warhol painted a picture of a soup can, and we hail it a great art. Why can't we do the same to something like a game, which had hundred of artists and programmers laboring for years, and great actors lending their voices... when I'm old, and ranting that the Twitter holograms they beam into our brains will never be art, I hope I can remember that young people are trying to make something they can call their own.

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