They Are Both Stupid, Redux

Just when you thought it was safe to browse your internets, the intellectually challenged have come out to play again. This seems to happen once or twice every year. Or maybe it only annoys me this much once or twice a year. This year, I come to the partial defense of the current punching bag of the defensive gamers everywhere: Roger Ebert. You may recall that he said some stupid things about games versus art last year and like a kid in an Internet Forum, he is back to troll again.

First things first. I don’t really agree with what Ebert has said about games. I believe that video games as a medium have the potential to provide a rich and varied emotional response in the player. I think we have seen flashes of this possibility from time to time, but I am hesitant to say that any one game has put it all together.

I believe that Ebert isn’t really interested in the question at hand at all. To him games are a diversion for kids, and in this sense he is showing a shallow and prejudiced point of view. I believe that he is overstating his case for purposefully dramatic effect. He is, in fact, trolling the entire gaming press Internet nexus and waiting for the flames to come back to him.

And he’s done a pretty good job. The hue and cry this time around has not been as voluble, but many of the same tired arguments have again been trotted out by those who would defend their beloved medium. Most of the time they boil down to calling Ebert an ignorant fool while providing no evidence whatsoever that he is wrong. For example, this noted critic takes Ebert to task, but then puts up Half-Life 2 as one of his pinnacles of gaming narrative. Now, I love HL2 as much as the next shooter fan, but here is how you sum up the narrative:

You start on a train. You shoot a lot of stuff. The guy with the beard talks a lot. You end up back on that train

Strangely, that was the story in Half-Life too. It winds around and goes nowhere precisely so Valve can take you on the same ride again in their next episode. The strength of the game was never the narrative, it was the hallways full of aliens, and those marines.

The normally more intelligent Escapist magazine has also chosen to take on Ebert this time around. They trot out the help, help, I’m being oppressed defense. See, games can’t be art because the poor developers can’t follow their true vision unless they are allowed to let you cut people’s balls off with a hack saw. The fallacy here is that for games to achieve an artistic status they must be edgy and subversive. This is patently false. The other fallacy here is that the road to edgy and subversive is paved with the corpses of the NPCs that you have dismembered as part of the emotionally compelling gameplay and narrative in your new work of art. This is also patently false.

No video game that had over the top levels of violence or so-called sexual content ever made it past the children’s pulp section of the artistic pantheon. There are certainly a lot of vehicles for fantasy and diversion there, but no one will ever convince me that any of them had anything more intersting to say artistically than “dude, you totally killed a hooker.”

The one intelligent beacon that I found in all of this mess was this critique which actually manages to make a couple of intelligent points while also taking the standard route of calling Ebert and ignorant buffoon.

My only complaint is that Croal gives the gaming community too much credit for being an intelligent and erudite group of people who are just misunderstood and beat down by the man. He cares too much that Ebert is dismissive about “the entire medium”, and again he provides no real evidence that there is anything in the medium that Ebert should care about. I love to play that game where we dismiss critics from the past for saying stupid things about great works as much as any self-important elitist snob, but it doesn’t really advance the discussion of the artistic impact of video games as a medium.

My humble contribution to this discussion would be to encourage gamers to get over the obsession with competing on narrative. Game stories just are not that good, get over it. But that’s not what I am here to talk about.

There is this notion in the gaming orthodoxy that the true strength of the medium is in its potential to provide a truly interactive story. Games, they say, will finally kick the ass of traditional “passive” media when we can give the user a interactive simulation of some alternate reality that will react to the player’s actions and adjust reactions of everything from the other characters in the game to the game world itself in response.

Almost every comparative discussion of video games brings up this notion. Even when they are beating on Ebert, they take a time out to put out this utopian vision of future gaming excellence, for example, in the articles I linked to above, we have

The truth is that videogames’ interactive nature allows their creators to craft experiences that can evoke a much broader array of emotional responses than any passive medium, because the story can change as the player interacts with the game – leading each time to different consquenses, different resolutions, and different revelations.

and

Others, like role-playing games, have a similar improvisatory element, but because they place more emphasis on narrative, they’re more like a novel or a play that is co-written or rewritten with every play session. Alternately, actors were called “players” in Shakespeare’s day; perhaps we players are the actors in today’s videogames. Massively multiplayer online games could be seen as improv theater.

I think there are several points to be made about statements like this. First, they are ludicrous on their face because no game has actually done this. Any narrative that there is in a game is put there by the designers. Some games allow player actions to change some small aspects of the in-game narrative, but no one has ever come close actually making the story react to what the player does in any significant way. I am also skeptical that any game in the future will ever do this.

Second, if the future of games is to allow the player to craft the experience, then I’ll get off the train now. Any experience that I craft for myself would be really boring, and involve a lot of writing code, or writing strange incoherent rants on the Internet. I’m not good at crafting game experiences, that’s why I want a game designer to do it.

Finally, the alleged malleability of in-game narrative is exactly what Ebert objects to when discussing video games as art. And I think he is right about that.

I think video games will truly reach their pinnacle when designers learn how to create experiences that are at the same time interactive and perfectly controlled by the designer. This would be the gaming equivalent of authorial control. The author of the game should be able to control the player’s response to the game even in the face of providing the player with an interactive landscape.

I think Ebert thinks this is impossible. I think he might be right, but I would also note that a few games have shown flashes of being able to do this. It will seem clich├ęd to bring up Shadow of the Colossus but I have to because as my esteemed colleague peterb wrote about the game:

In other words, this is a story that is more powerful because it was told in this medium. We care about the game because it is our hands that are unclean.

Those gamers that wish for games to really reach the narratve quality of film, or literature, or even to some extent music, should be looking to this sort of design for their wishes. Here is a game, I think, that would interest Ebert precisely because it has the control of the author that he so craves.

But games don’t need narrative to have this effect. Many of the classic Nintendo games do an admirable job of providing a precisely controlled and uniform response in a wide range of players even though they are primarily interactive puzzles with no real story. I think I could probably play Mario 64 forever, and so could my son, who isn’t old enough to really know what’s going on yet. You can just sit in the world and marvel at the design and the pretty colors. But most of all, you can make the the little man run and jump and slide and collect things and fly out of cannons and do literally dozens of other things. And, over the whole of this richly interactive world there is the strong authorial hand of the game designer making sure that everyone who plays has a strong and controlled response to the game: they have fun.

The fact that video games offer experiences like these make me optimistic about the future of the medium. I think it’s true that for the most part video games have produced a lot of pap that isn’t really worth a second thought. But it seems to me that the potential for more is there if you look in the right places.