Monday, April 19, 2010

For the Love of the Game

I told myself that I wasn't experienced enough to write this yet, and I might be right, but it's something that has been in my head over the last few days.

Roger Ebert is a man I really admire in personal, professional, and intellectual aspects. He's a very smart man and is synonymous with movies in the same way Spielberg and Scorsese are. And for good reason. His makes his point articulately, usually spinning some kind of story through his reviews. He gives credence to the phrase "art criticism is art."
Recently Ebert wrote a blog in which he expounded on his claim that video games are not art. Not only are they not art, but "video games can never be art."
Obviously this enraged some gamers who, as Ebert was quick to point out, are "intensely concerned" that their hobbies be considered art.

Ebert was right in many ways. Obviously he is not an avid gamer, and some of the people posting on his blog say that he is "too old" to appreciate video games. Age clearly doesn't factor too much, as Ebert says he enjoyed the first Transformers movie and I hated it. And I'm much younger than he is. Ebert refutes the age argument by saying that "Not a one is too young to appreciate art," though a friend (also an English major) was quick to point out that a five-year-old can hardly appreciate Shakespeare. Of course people can be too young to appreciate art, but Ebert was clearly hyperbolic in his statement.

I can't help but to think that when Ebert makes these claims, he is thinking of games such as Pac-Man or Tetris. And he's right about that. Those are concepts. They are no more art than Plinko is. Concepts are used for problem solving. Tetris, at its minimum, helps you to see organization and patterns. This is not art. I'm sorry to say it's math. What can be considered an art in these games is something that Ebert, I think, is overlooking.

Video games aren't just concepts. The final product is the concept in action. All video games, at their cores, are problem solving games. Eat all the pellets; help the frog cross the street, hit the enemy's weak spot for massive damage. In between the genesis of the concept and the execution by the player comes the art.

You'd be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't believe that set design in a movie is not important. Costumes, mannerisms, lighting, and casting the right actor for a part are all a part of the illusion. They help you to suspend your disbelief so you can believe what you are seeing on the screen. The same is true of any video game. Before Frogger can cross the street, he has to exist. People design him in the same way one might design a costume for a movie.Video game characters don't just appear. They go through careful planning the same way any character from a novel or a movie would go through. They are important to the story and to the audience.

Secondly there is the music. I would find it difficult to tell Nobuo Uematsu that the 600+ tracks that he has composed for the Final Fantasy series alone are not art. Like the character design, the music is used to invoke feelings. The score of a film is one of the most important parts of a movie. Robert Zemeckis, on the Back to the Future special features DVD says that he told Alan Silvestri to think of the music as another character in the film, lending weight to the importance of music in the final product.

Perhaps more than any other genre, the role playing game (RPG) genre is the most like art. An important part of art is eliciting an emotional response. This is why art exists. This is why people like paintings, and music, and yes, film. RPGs are a literary genre. Take away the battles and the equipment and you have a cinematic and literary story unfolding in front of you. The game Final Fantasy IV for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, while dated, has the first truly emotional characters in a video game. We feel the self-loathing in Cecil, the jealousy and confusion in Kain, the need for revenge in Edge, and their love for each other. The story is one of forgiveness and retribution. There are character arcs for all 12 main characters, some admittedly better than others. The player feels loss when Tellah sacrifices himself and anger that his revenge was wasted.

Like any novel, we have seen these characters meet and watched their friendships blossom. The game may not run as deeply as a novel, mostly due to the memory limitations of the time, but the emotions we feel are real. And as with any good film, the music does as much to set the tone as the characters, lighting, and environment. Final Fantasy IV is light on metaphor and deep meaning, but it tells a cohesive story. It was crafted so that the player cares about what is happening.

A more modern example is the Japanese game Mother 3. The series' creator, Shigesato Itoi, is a part-time essayist and philosopher, and like any novelist, constructs his games' scripts with his own outlook on life in mind. While Mother 2 (Earthbound in the west) used traumatic bits of his childhood for the final boss, Giygas, to haunting effect, Mother 3 is rich in metaphors about human consumption and destruction of ecosystems. If there's one thing Itoi knows, it's creating emotion. In a scene early in Mother 3, the main character's father, Flint, learns of his wife's death. His reaction, although it is in simple pixelated form, is one of the most heartbreaking scenes I have seen in the medium. And it is all done with no dialogue from Flint.

The idea of art comes up in other genres too. Though RPGs may be the easiest examples, we also have the story of Wander and his lover in Shadow of the Colossus, which has almost no dialogue, but still conveys the love Wander feels for his lost love, and sympathy for the main character and the noblest of steeds. The most touching moment may be when Agro, Wander's horse and sole companion, topples over a cliff, leaving Wander more alone than we was at the beginning of the game with his dead lover. The grief in the scene is palpable. The designs of the Colossi and the musical score are breathtaking as well.

Someone might argue that video games lack one thing that gives film and literature a leg up and an obvious claim to art, and that is the literary allusion. Milton's work is full of them, and Shakespeare reveled in them. Adaptations of Dante's Inferno aside, video game developers exist in a world where they can create allusions to the most literary of all texts and get them to a mass audience.

While Star Wars used the classic design of the samurai to inform its character Darth Vader, the game Portal used imagery and even a nod to the name of HAL 9000 in the design of its GLaDOS character.

While we're on the subject of Portal we have to give the idea of design a thought. Portal is a game that makes use of a portal gun to help the player solve puzzles to escape imprisonment. The placement of the pieces of the puzzle; turrets, platforms, weighted companion cubes, are all important to the way the game is played.

They are all vital to the movement of the character and the way she interacts with her world, and by moving a platform or a turret, you change the way the stage is played. Could this be an argument for the game as art? Maybe, but it illustrates the importance and planning that goes into the development of each level and obstacle.

This is where it gets tricky. I would argue that the creation of video games is an art. Enough designers, composers, character artists, and modelers use their craft to make the game possible. Without their care and careful attention, the game is broken. It will never have a chance. However, the act of playing a game is not art. As Ebert says, "Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009." I agree with him here. We don't see the reading of a book as art. Only the writing process. The viewing of a film isn't art. It's the production. Your sitting on your couch all day to play Call of Duty is not art. The people who put the artistic knowledge and skill into the game are the artists. Bobby fisher wasn't an artist, but I'm sure he had a well-made chess set.

There is a reason I chose Pixar's Toy Story as my example of concept art way up at the start of this article. Both Pixar and a company like Square (creator of the Final Fantasy series) use computers to make their product. They design their characters, they sculpt them on a computer, they hire voice actors to make those characters come to life, they hire orchestras and composers to create a soundtrack to their world. Yet, why is Pixar's work seen as artistic genius, and Final Fantasy as tripe? I don't have the answer. Ebert seems to hint that the fact that video games are made for consumption and by executive decree;

"I allow Sangtiago the last word. Toward the end of her presentation, she shows a visual with six circles, which represent, I gather, the components now forming for her brave new world of video games as art. The circles are labeled: Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management. I rest my case."

Disney is one of the largest corporations on the planet, but Pixar is undoubtedly still making art. Andy Warhol blurred the lines of consumerism and art in the 1960s and they have broken down further since then. Most art is made to be bought. The entire film industry is proof of that.

Perhaps my favorite part of this argument is the fact that a movie critic is saying that video games are not art. If you read that as a snide remark against Ebert, read it again because it certainly is not. While he sees film as an undeniable art, it was not so long ago that the same art critics were dismissing the artistic worth of photography (and by extension, motion pictures). The definition of art eventually had to be reconsidered to make room for photography.

Art critic Clive Bell said that the interpretation of art was up to the "significant form." More Americans are now playing video games than going to the movies. What could be more significant than that?

Thanks for everything, Ebert. I really mean that.

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