Some time ago, Roger Ebert, the famous film critic, came out with an article that caused a lot of buzz both in the world of gaming, and in the world of art. There is a clear divide on this topic, and it is interesting that there are people out there who are actually examining this critically. It is inspiring to see people who take what is going on right now in culture and art as seriously as they do.
Now of course, there are people with no real opinion. Internet trolls who simply want to complain about things. However, there have been other people who have had very measured responses to Ebert’s article. He contends that video games can never be art. I am a hardcore gamer, but I will take the measured approach.
Can a video game be compared to a great film? No. But here’s the thing – can a great film be compared to a great book? No. That’s a fact. Books will always be better than film. If one is going to look at a medium and judge its artistic merit to what it can’t compare to, then, truly, nothing is art. Can a description of a place in a book be compared to a great piece of nature in painting or tapestry? No, it can’t. There are some amazing descriptions in some great books, but it still doesn’t compare to great paintings.
So, what can be said for the argument of if video games are art or not? Well, the first thing is that one has to come to a consensus on at least a couple of issues. The first is – what makes something art. Kellee Santiago made a great video at TEDxUSC about this. Great art is something that creates an emotional reaction and an emotional connection with the viewer, reader, etc.
Are there any games that have produced an emotional reaction? I think there are. Take a look at the newest edition to thatgamecompany’s lineup – Journey. This game is what I would want a good short film to be. The visuals in this game are perfect, absolutely perfect. They are flawless. There is an emotional simplicity about the story, the same way that early Disney films were. Plus, this game did something that most people would think impossible for a culture who demands immediacy – made people care about a character who said nothing, and for a plot that was totally vague.
This game sold fast, and the reception of the audience and critics was amazing. A simple yet beautiful concept, and it was delivered perfectly. It was the most basic, yet most ambitious project of thatgamecompany.
Next up, let’s examine the game Batman: Arkham City. This game was the tipping point for me in the debate if superheroes are this generation’s version of Greek mythological heroes. The issues presented in this game were incredible. The ethical dilemmas of Batman and the often harsh view of him throughout this game was beyond engaging. It was theatrically incredible. Everything about this game was what one would expect from a great piece of film. I have made, and will defend, claims that I think this game is better than The Dark Knight.
Now don’t get me wrong, that was an incredible film. But this game had so much more engagement. For one thing, the dilemmas of Batman were so much better explored in this game. He is facing his own mortality, yet to kill the Joker, he views death as a small price to pay. He is willing to let all of the inmates of Arkham City get killed so that he can go after the woman he loves. He has gotten to the point where he will brutally assault people who won’t give him what he wants. He won’t kill, but everything up to that point is fair game. You really get the sense that he has gotten to the point where views violence as the only solution. Much more than in The Dark Knight, you question if Batman is the hero or the villain. He even (spoiler alert) at the end admits that even though the Joker kills and destroys everything he touches, he would still save him. Implying that those two actually need each other. And Mark Hamill’s final role as The Joker was simply incredible. The best that has ever been done on the small screen. He will never, ever be topped.
Another game to examine is a new one that is coming out – BEYOND: Two Souls. One can’t even touch the cinematic presentation. In fact, that is one area that Ebert will never be able to argue video games artistry. Visuals in most all games that come out now are simply amazing. But here, there is a definite cinematic presentation. When Quantic Dreams is making it, you know that it has to be good. Heavy Rain was an incredible game that was easily comparable to a good film.
Now look, you can argue there is bias on my part, since I am a gamer. You can argue that I am simply making these claims because I don’t want to accept that games aren’t comparable with great forms of art. Well, depending on how you look at it. But the fact is that they are, in fact, art.
Not only are they art, but they are also culture. They are a significant part of modern culture. One of the reasons that video games are where they are today is because of the culture surrounding them. We grew up with games. Gamers who played low-on-plot, high-on-action games when they were younger wanted their games to mature with them. And they have. And they still are.
I would argue that not only are video games an art medium, but they are also a cultural medium. It is time for the prudish scholarly types to stop being stubborn and accept that video games are a part of both communities. I think that gaming designers took what Ebert said as a challenge. Like he said – make a game that could be compared to a film. And they have succeeded. Since he is a movie buff, and has admitted his bias, he will never own up to it, but it’s the truth.
Something to think about.