Friday, July 2, 2010

More Thoughts On Games--Yoggoth Helps Roger Ebert

Little Earl informed me that Roger Ebert posted again about video games so I couldn't resist reading it and offering my opinion. And my opinion is: Ebert says video games aren't art but what he really means by this is "video games do not offer the same level of narrative depth that great literature and film do." This statement is correct. But then again, neither do paintings--and I'd still call them art. Video games are similar to paintings, but visually they aren't quite as interesting. So we've got mediocre narratives combined with mediocre paintings. Not too impressive says Ebert. What about the button pushing part? The part that makes it a game? Honestly that's not very impressive in most games because they are just copying the same 5 or so ideas over and over again. One game out of a thousand offers something new on the button pushing front. When they do, however, there's more there than people give them credit for.

My example for this is Super Mario World. I know, if you haven't played this game you stopped taking me seriously right there. But think about it, where did this idea of a strange looking plumber traveling through neo-art deco flat worlds hoping on things come from? It's damn creative I'd say. And fun! The art is the combination of captivatingly odd graphics, dream-like narrative, and button pushing by the audience. Art in the sense of Andy Warhol not Tolstoy.

Unfortunately modern games often are too complicated to be enjoyable for a layperson. Playing most of them is like listening to trance music. In order to enjoy it you have to really like the genre already, or just use it as sometthing to do with friends.

So where's this heading in the future? Let's just say you don't spend much time worrying about art hopped up on hallucinogens and strapped into a sex-murder simulator.


Herr Zrbo said...

Woah, hold it there partner. I thought this post was inspired by Ebert's latest post, but from what you wrote I don't think it is. Take a look at this first:
Okay, kids, play on my lawn

Ebert basically conceded the argument. He still doesn't personally think games are art but realizes it's a stupid thing to debate. Speaking of games, I've got a big announcement I'll be posting soon!

yoggoth said...

Yes, that's the article I'm talking about. I guess some editing is in order if even that much isn't clear.

I stand by my analysis: Ebert wants better stories. Stories in video games are crappy. He'll never be satisfied.

And I pretty much agree with him. The stories are more along the lines of television shows or mediocre sci-fi/fantasy. Nothing in video games comes close to great literature or film.

But maybe they have artistic qualities aside from their stories?

Herr Zrbo said...

Sorry, my bad.

Yeah, generally video game narratives are nowhere near literature. I think the art comes from the worlds within games, like how you described Super Mario World's neo-art deco fantasy worlds.

I'd also say, and this is a bit more my opinion from playing, that the art also comes from the actual playing of the game, the hitting of the buttons, and watching what effect that has on the world you find yourself in. This goes along somewhat with the level design of games. It's very difficult to define actually, it's the interactivity of the medium, the certain rhythmic pushing of buttons. In a sense, it's not the video game that's the art, the art comes from the player playing the game, the performance aspect. It's that gray area where games fall, not quite traditional art (paintings, film), not quite sport (the technical aspect of pushing buttons). It's like watching a fantastic slow-mo vid of some basketball player making a terrific shot. Sure it's a sport, but watching the actual performer make the shot could be seen by some as a form of art.

Little Earl said...

To me Ebert's most interesting paragraph was this one:

"I thought about those works of Art that had moved me most deeply. I found most of them had one thing in common: Through them I was able to learn more about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of other people. My empathy was engaged. I could use such lessons to apply to myself and my relationships with others. They could instruct me about life, love, disease and death, principles and morality, humor and tragedy. They might make my life more deep, full and rewarding."

This, give or take a word or two, is probably how I would describe why I like the art that I do. And this is why haven't really gotten too excited about the video games that I've seen. Perhaps it's because I associate video games with a certain crowd that I don't think I have too much in common with (although obviously you two a gamers and I have a lot in common with you two). But I don't see video games as helping me find some beauty and nobility in the pain and suffering I experience in my life. Most video games seem pitched toward a suburban teen male demographic that isn't, in my view at least, dealing with some of the weird, fucked up issues that I find myself dealing with. I haven't been convinced that video games could address my aching philosophical concerns. But my opinion is about as informed as Ebert's is.

For example: why doesn't someone make a video game that tries to wring some beauty and acceptance out of the tragedy of a friend being cut down in the prime of his life, a la Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here? THAT would be a video game I might want to play. And not "a hypothetical person in a hypothetical situation," but the actual creator of the game bearing his actual feelings for his faded friend. You know, something that I might actually find touching. Maybe this is a game that no one would actually want to play, since games, almost by definition, are supposed to be "fun" and this doesn't sound like a fun topic. But I think I have a different sense of fun than the majority of the population. Hell, I think Apocalypse Now is fun. So maybe I'm screwed up.

Yes, video games can in some ways help me address the tragedies of my life, simply because I can space out and relax while playing them (like Microsoft's freebie Hearts game - bad example, please save your wrath). But I can also space out and relax while taking a walk. Does that make a walk art?

yoggoth said...

A walk isn't art because no one arranged it to get that response out of you.

Yes someone could make a game with a storyline about losing a friend. But it sounds like you want a non-fiction game? The game replicating the experience of losing the friend? Why not? The trick is figuring out what the player will be doing on their side, because some type of player action is required or else we're just talking about an animated film.

There, I think I've done it. The question is: can requiring action on the part of the person consuming the creation, in order for them to appreciate the creation, be art? And why not? What if I made a sculpture you had to climb on to see the whole thing? That would be pretty fun right? Okay so there we go, I solved the problem in this comment.

That quote from Ebert is a good explanation for why he likes art, and yes that explains a lot of it. But as I wrote, that explanation doesn't explain a lot of visual art. And it doesn't incorporate an appreciation of the craft that goes into art.

Herr Zrbo said...

I forgot to say that it's a shame that Ebert didn't play the game 'Flower' that he was lent. It's a beautiful game that's easy to play (there's really only one button) and has been known to elicit strong emotional reactions out of players. My girlfriend's 60-something year old parents played it and absolutely loved it. And it doesn't require the 20 to 40 hour commitment that Ebert wants to avoid.

Also, LE, if you want a game where the creator has put his actual feelings into it you could try 'Braid', my least favorite game of 2008 if you'll remember. The problem is that it comes off as pretentious. I'm not sure if that's because Jonathan Blow (the creator) is full of himself or if the pretentiousness is a result of what happens when you actually try to imbue a video game with emotions. It's even available for the PC.

Little Earl said...

No, see, it would have to contain feelings and not be pretentious. Rule #1.

Also, what if I planned a walk for myself? I arranged it to get a response - out of myself. I created something: the experience of me in that exact moment taking a walk. Art?

As for the video game argument, unlike Ebert, I don't care what other people like to do with their time and I'm not interested in judging their hobbies. I think Ebert is wrong. Video games can be art, and video games already are art. My motivations here are entirely selfish. I like to find works of art that help me enjoy my life even though my life is full of suffering. If a video game exists that would REALLY help me with this, then I would want to know and I would be interested in playing it.

I'm not talking about "What would I do if I were some soldier in some sci/fi fantasy landscape and I had to kill either this guy or that guy?" Sure, that's art, but until I'm in a war zone, I can't really apply that concept to my life. By contrast, when I was 16 years old, and the girls I liked didn't like me back, and certain friends didn't want to hang out with me anymore, and I would come home and my mother would start screaming at me for no reason, I would watch the ending of The Third Man and think, "OK, wow, so I'm not the only person who's ever been rejected by a girl," and I would read The Great Gatsby and think, "OK, wow, so I'm not the only person who's ever wished he was richer than he was, but maybe that's not really the path to happiness," or I would listen to Johnny Cash and think, "OK, wow, it's screwed up that people get murdered, but if Johnny Cash still thinks that life is worth living even though people get murdered, then maybe so do." I want to see a video game say THAT.

Herr Zrbo said...

"No, see, it would have to contain feelings and not be pretentious. Rule #1."

So Pink Floyd's The Wall isn't art? /sarcasm

Little Earl said...

See, all that stuff actually happened. Worms actually started eating Roger Waters' brains, and giant hammers were actually roaming around in his yard. Not pretentious.

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