collects stories and ideas from John Kelly

Videogames, Art and Ebert

Going back to the old well of the videogames-and-art debate, film critic, Roger Ebert is once again trolling the entire internet by pronouncing from the mount, that video games can never be art. For writers, these kinds of articles are a great way of generating ad revenue, since they represent a massive source of ‘clicks’ and comments. For contrast, an insightful article about uncovering the meaning of Michael Haneke’s Cache got 224 comments in three months, in three days his anti-videogame piece has gotten over 1200. I ususally try to avoid feeding internet trolls - especially one who makes a living criticising movies and yet whose contributions to that same medium are completely appalling - but I’m making an exception here. Mainly because of a couple of things Ebert has said that I feel are completely bone-headed.

The first, talking about Braid:

Her next example is a game named “Braid”. This is a game “that explores our own relationship with our past…you encounter enemies and collect puzzle pieces, but there’s one key difference…you can’t die.” You can go back in time and correct your mistakes. In chess, this is known as taking back a move, and negates the whole discipline of the game. Nor am I persuaded that I can learn about my own past by taking back my mistakes in a video game. She also admires a story told between the games levels, which exhibits prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie.

I can’t argue with his criticism of the prose in the game. It really is that hackneyed and bullshit. However, the issue is that he clearly has not played, nor sat down and watched anyone play, Braid. If he had, he would have realised that the going-back-in-time mechanic in the game is not just some giant “undo” button. It’s not a ctrl-z for your mistakesEbert’s bone-headed argument here seems to be that this mechanic is seen as antithetical in the game of chess. This is like complaining that the rules of Poker go completely against the ‘discipline’ of the game of chess. What the hell is he talking about?. The game relies on your ability to manipulate the flow of time, and it’s this mechanic that really sets this game apart from other platform-puzzling games. Not only because you play it and are completely awed by how someone could create something this clever, but also because it’s also the thing that gives the ending the emotional impact that it has - the time mechanic allows a level of reflection and re-evaluation that feels cheap and manipulative when done through more conventional storytelling methods (As in BioShock, for example).

For fun, contrast Ebert’s dismissal of Braid to his love for Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, a film which uses a similar storytelling device. Writing about the film in 1983, Ebert says

When Pinter’s stage version of “Betrayal” first appeared, back in the late 1970s, there was a tendency to dismiss his reverse chronology as a gimmick. Not so. It is the very heart and soul of this story.

Now in 2010, here comes Ebert, dismissing Braid’s time-manipulation device as a mere ‘gimmick’. He’s wrong. It’s the heart and soul of this storyThat’s not to say that it’s all about the mechanics. The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom has a similar time-manipulation mechanic, but has no emotional payoff. The story and the writing in that game just aren’t able to pull it off..

Talking about Flower, Ebert says

We come to Example 3, “Flower”. A run-down city apartment has a single flower on the sill, which leads the player into a natural landscape. The game is “about trying to find a balance between elements of urban and the natural.” Nothing she shows from this game seemed of more than decorative interest on the level of a greeting card. Is the game scored? She doesn’t say. Do you win if you’re the first to find the balance between the urban and the natural? Can you control the flower? Does the game know what the ideal balance is?

I think this passage highlights precisely why Ebert will never ‘get it’ - he still thinks that games are about competition. He’s still stuck in the Pong mentality of ‘avoid missing ball for high score’. For him, games are strictly about ‘winning’. This is not the case, any more than films are about using narrative devices to tell a story (‘sup Koyaanisqatsi?). For reference, no, there’s no score in Flower, and there’s no ‘winning’. This is a game that you play just for the joy of playing.

And it’s completely divisive. People either hate it or love it.

Personally, I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp. Let me explain why. Like most people, I went through a fairly rough patch when I turned 30. Anxiety, depression, all that fun stuff. All stemming from an overwhelming fear, not so much of death, but rather of non-existence. And everything I read or watched exacerbated this fear. For example, I made the stupid mistake of reading The Road in the middle of this funk. Even more stupidly, I watched The Wrestler. It seemed like everywhere I looked, things just made me aware of my own mortality and how fragile it is.

Flower, by contrast, made me aware of the beauty of life and nature. More importantly, it delivered this message with an experience I could not get anywhere else. People talk about how it’s the interactivity of videogames heightens the emotional impact of whatever you’re doing, whether it’s shooting some fool in the face or trampling prostitutes. Flower shows this swings both ways. Transcending the TV-controller interface, I was a gust of wind, bringing life to the environment. Although it sounds simplistic, it is precisely this simplicity that helped the game have such a profound effect on me. Think back to American Beauty, an Ebert favourite. This is a film that beat us over the head with its message, and so we are treated to five minutes of staring a plastic bag blowing in the wind, with some weird gargoyle-looking man telling the audience “this is beautiful”. Fuck this didactic bullshit. Flower lets us experience this beauty for ourselves. It doesn’t tell us, it shows us.

And this is exactly what videogames can be so good at. Showing, not telling. In a world where elephants can splash about paint and people call it ‘art’, I think it’s a bit much to say that videogames can never be art. Especially when they’re doing such a great job of beating movies at their own game.