Ebert's Curse

It's been more than a year since Roger Ebert made his famous and silly statement that game's can't be art and subsequently called a cease-fire on the issue. After we've gotten this time to reflect on the matter, I think the most depressing thing about that pointless argument is that many game developers seem hell-bent on proving him right. In a way, his statement may have been a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

I'm not going to say that people aren't working hard on their games or aren't thinking about them. A lot of skill goes into making the stuff that you buy at Game Stop (if you're silly enough to do that anymore). But skill isn't necessarily artistry.

It's almost certain that I'm going to make enemies when I say that more than zero game developers don't seem all that interested in making good games but only shoddy movies that have some interactive moments in them. And if that's your main exposure to games, it kinda starts to make sense why a movie critic would hold nothing but contempt for your trade.

Lots of folks, even some terribly smart folks, seem to think that games should strive to be like literature or poetry; that it should emulate the techniques of other artistic media. This seems as absurd to me as the idea of a ballet dancer saying that an abstract painting is a terrible arabesque. It's true and also irrelevant because games are none of those artistic media.

Where the painter's medium is color and shape, the composers medium is pitch and rhythm, the dancer's medium is motion and choreography, the artistic medium of the game is decision and consequence. Every artist's ultimate medium is the human soul; causing us to evaluate ourselves and ask the big questions about who we are and how we relate to the world around us. Whether that is done with a chisel or a network of choices seems immaterial to me.

Far be it from me to criticize (snicker) those who make a living at entertaining us by warming our GPU's but it seems that the vast majority of money is being sunk into games that do not celebrate this premise. Rather, the power of our choices is being dulled with quick health regeneration as with Modern Warfare and boss fights that are more about obeying orders than finding weaknesses such as in God of War.

Game designers seem to have a loose understanding of the relationship games (should) have with choice but I'm not sure if they fully appreciate it. We're told we have choices when a game like Fallout 3 has a "morality system" that's really just a matter of whether you give out free (useless) water to strangers. But if the consequences of our choices are as easily wiped away as they are in that example, you really have to wonder how much meaning your choices have in the first place.

When games do not fully capitalize on the premise of choices and integrate them into every aspect of what the player is doing, the heart of the artistic medium of games is lost. When that happens, Roger Ebert's silly statement becomes more true.

We need our artistic medium. It is a medium of choice. That necessarily calls for consequence because choices without consequences are no kinds of choices at all. This is why Super Meat Boy is such a glorious work: When you botch things up, it matters! Yeah, this frustrates some people but decision-making isn't like getting a massage. It involves risks that accompany rewards. You really can't have the latter without the former.

This isn't to say that we should forget all the other narrative components that contribute to the artistry of a gaming experience (which is not to be confused with the artistry of the game itself). Just like a good musical play will combine many arts into a new artistic creature, the game may do so as well. When those other artistic elements come at the cost of the beautiful network of choices, the game ceases to be good and just becomes a bad movie.

Date: 2011-12-30 15:56

Author: Anthony "Ishpeck" Tedjamulia

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