Why Ebert Was Wrong

Joe Keiser at Next Generation has written an article statying why he agrees with Roger Ebert with regards to computer games being an inferior mode of storytelling. Ebert, in response to a letter from a reader, expounded on his comment, saying that:

Yours is the most civil of countless messages I have received after writing that I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

Keiser rightly refutes one of Ebert's central points by saying that authorial control in most cases is never really relinquished at all, because the portions of the game in which the player has control does not normally impact the story. Think about Halo 2's story: how you play it has no impact whatsoever. If you survive, you advance to the next level, see another cutscene, and keep playing. If you die, you respawn and try again. Halo 2's story, for the most part, can be experienced in its entirety by watching the cutscenes that bookend each level, with only a few quotes from key characters missing here or there. The major difference between such a sequence of cutscenes and a computer-generated feature such as Toy Story is the quality of the graphics, as well as the quality of the performances by voice actors. But these are specifics relating to individual works, not an inferiority inherent to a medium.

However, this refutation does not go far enough. Keiser asserts that games can preserve their ability to tell a story well by creating the illusion of choice: "A storytelling game should give the illusion of control, the idea that you can do anything, while at the same time putting the idea in the player’s mind that they want to do a specific thing."

I think this is a cop-out. This is, in fact, what most current games do. It creates the illusion that you're participating in a story while in reality you're just along for the ride, and the only choice you really have is to proceed as expected, stop playing, or die. When you play the game as the developers expected, you unfold the story as the developers wrote it. Hurray for us.

What Ebert presents as an inherent inferiority in games as a storytelling medium is the only real advantage it has over other forms, one almost completely unrealized to date; the ability of players to form and shape the story they experience as a collaborative effort with the games' designers, rather than experiencing it exactly as the auteur envisioned.

Storytelling in games has taken only baby steps in the past dozen years; the difference between Doom's hen-scratchings, Marathon's terminals and Halo's cutscenes are ones of quality, not kind. Where gaming has a chance to emerge as a wholly unique entertainment medium is being played out in the Massive Online Multiplayer arena, typically among role-playing games, where sincere efforts are made (sometimes, but not always) to create a fictional alter ego for oneself and then act as that person within a fictional context, both with others performing similar actions, and interacting with an environment created by the developers.

Even those efforts are in their infancy. The most popular game so far of this type, World of Warcraft, is still at best only a little removed from Blizzard's own other hack-and-slash dungeon crawls. The degree to which any one player character can star in a heroic story is somewhat limited. The strongest foes, once fallen, rise again in the next instance created for the next party, diminishing the value of the dramatic experience from within the game world.

Look at the struggles that have surrounded other MMO worlds, such as Star Wars Galaxies. When you're playing a single-player experience, like one of the Jedi Knight games, you're the star-- you're the aspiring young Jedi who chooses between the Light and Dark sides of the force. Once that experience is moved into an online realm, not everybody can play that role. It was understandable that SWG would severely restrict the number of players who could attain the status of Jedi, and understandable that paying customers (at least some of them) would object to this restriction. The hue and cry from taking Jedi status from being an accomplishment to a simple user choice has been similarly defeaning. How this kind of collaborative gaming/storytelling is supposed to function has not been worked out yet. Stories need minor characters as well as major ones, but it's unclear whether customers paying the same monthly fee are going to be willing to accept minor roles just because their stats are lower than other characters, or because they don't play as well or as often.

Some believe that the solution to that is just to instance all the core gameplay-- combat, treasure hunting, stat-building and exploring-- and retain the massively multiplayer features for the social aspects. Richard "Lord British" Garriott of Ultima fame said as much in an interview with GamesFirst back in 2002, when he put forth a kind of instanced, theme-park approach to MMO-building:

In Disney World, if you think of the main area as the massively multiplayer space, where it’s very easy to find each other or get from one fun activity, called a ride, to another fun activity, and even if you’re on opposite sides of the park, you can get there quite expediently either by walking, or using the train, or in our case teleporters even to make it faster. But when you go on a ride at Disney World, like Pirates of the Caribbean, when you get on a boat, you become blissfully unaware of the other people on the other boats. You can still see them, and you occasionally bump into them, but if it were an instantiated activity, you wouldn’t, and if the Pirates of the Caribbean were a pirate battle instead of a passive boat ride, you could imagine that here we have a quite contained hub world where you go from one fun activity, you come back and say, "Haha, we had a great time on that ride. Let’s re-equip ourselves and see what else we want to do."

I honestly don't think that's the answer. Garriott's approach takes away the problems of encountering delays in combat areas, and worlds being too small for large player bases. It doesn't solve the story problem. Every player in the world then gets to be a hero, and you can't have a story where everybody is a Chief and nobody wants to be an Indian.

There are a lot of other problems to solve, and I happen to think that this one will be the last and toughest nut to crack. MMOs already have the capability to take over the storytelling duties for their worlds that game developers mostly keep to themselves and film auteurs take for granted. What needs to happen is for game developers to keep coming up with problems-- quests, challenges, things that need doing-- within the context of a framework system flexible enough to allow multiple possible solutions without anticipating each possible outcome, and then allow the players to evolve the story on their own. Some stories will be of ignominous defeat, some will be of cowardice, perhaps others of betrayal, and perhaps some player or group of players will come up with a formula for triumphant victory. The story of the game world will be all those stories. MMOs currently are making the mistake of trying to coax each and every one of its players towards the triumphant victory ending, and letting each player take a shot at having it in their turn, conveniently resurrecting the terror at the end of each instance, making the storytelling value of the encounter nil.

Garriott advances exactly this scenario without mentioning the huge problem it creates; what I think is the real base of the problem Ebert points out when he mentions authorial control. The real authorial control within films and literature is not really so different from that in traditional single-player games. The portions in which the player has control are so divorced from the story being told that the loss of control is completely illusory, and thus has no impact on the game as a storytelling medium.

Such a lack of control could be a problem in a MMO environment; but to date, developers have skirted that problem by trying to recreate a single-player story experience within a persistent, online, massively-multiplayer framework. In this context, a game is an inferior storytelling medium:

Garriott: If I understand your question correctly, in the massively multiplayer setting, everyone is there together, and so if you could remove the word avatar and replaced it with the word Jedi, then there can be multiple Jedi. The fact that you went on a Jedi quest and became a Jedi doesn’t mean that somebody else can’t also become a Jedi. So even though the players have private experiences, it’s just like the real world where if you and I both played Ultima 9, we can meet and not be offended that we’ve both finished it. Our scenarios will be designed to keep that in mind. You’re not the main hero of the hub world, but you have defeated the bugs of Arachus, and even though others have also defeated the bugs of Arachus, it’s cool that you’ve both saved princess Lea.

What Garriott ignores here is that it isn't really "cool" that all the players in the game have rescued the Princess. In fact, it makes having saved the Princess worthless. At best, it's become a shared dream the players have-- a fiction within a fiction, much like two people sharing notes after they've watched the same movie. The fact that they both saw the same story and participated in it vicariously is not diminished by the fact that they've both seen it. But their involvement in it was at a much lower level. To really involve players in a story within an MMO context, it cannot be just a shared dream-- it has to be as real as any other event within that world. When someone rescues the princess, she has to stay rescued-- and only one player or group of players should be able to lay claim to the feat.

Serious roleplayers bemoan the amount of out-of-character, or "OOC" chat that goes on in MMOs like World of Warcraft, but given the repetitive nature of many of the game's encounters one can hardly be surprised. From the perspective of those players, how real is the gameworld where everyone can be the hero, nothing ever stays dead, and the act of selling an enchanted pauldron to a merchant has more verisimilitude and permanence than any exploit on the field of battle? Is it any wonder that the social hubs of these online worlds become virtual office water-coolers, where the events of last night's raid and last weekend's keg party are given equal validity?

It's as if, after one player killed Lord British in Ultima Online, they decided to make LB the game's ultimate boss and let the players queue up and kill him themselves in turn. That event lives on in the lore of MMO games because it is one of the only unique events that has ever occurred-- everything else is just a theme park ride.

Moving away from that model puts a lot more stress on game developers. Making up a few dozen or even hundreds of encounters that thousands of players can go through multiple times is one thing. But if each quest was a theme park ride that could only be ridden once, by a single party, the demand for creative content from the developers goes up exponentially. Even if such increased output were possible, some players would just have to live with the fact that a red dragon attacked the town while they were making a snack, and someone else killed it, and its like may never be seen again in these parts. But that's what makes the whole thing worthwhile for the guy who did kill it.

Think that idea is crazy? Maybe so. But the creators of Eve Online, if this Monday's column by Mark Wallace at Walkerings can be believed, are making this happen now-- and have been doing so for several years already:

In fact, EVE's uber items are too expensive for any one player to afford alone. So trust and cooperation becomes a resource in a way that it is not in most other game worlds. You could solo all of Azeroth and the only thing you would miss would be killing a few boss dragons that require a raid group. Even then, you could probably get into a pickup raid, even if you probably wouldn't come out a winner. A solo career in EVE can be just as rewarding a thing, but there is also a vast stretch of the game (most of it?) that is not accessible unless you're part of a player corporation and even an alliance of corps. The benefit of social interaction in EVE is much greater than in WoW. (In a sense, what it comes down to is that CCP isn't afraid to make a good bit of its game off limits to most of its players. In fact, this can be seen even at the early stages, given that the game's learning curve is so much steeper than almost any other MMO.)

The focus here is on economic rather than combat achievements, but the principle is the same: in the real world, scarcity equals value. That is just as true of experiences as it is of currency and durable goods. Eve has also found a solution for the problem of exclusion: those experiences and goods are blocked from even the most powerful single players, but are available to social groups. This gives more meaning to those groups than just raid participation.

If there's a technical magical bullet for solving such problems, I have to admit, I've no idea what it is. But this is not an inherent inferiority of gaming as a storytelling medium. It is unrealized potential for what could be the single best storytelling medium ever devised.

Ebert's parting shot, that time spent playing games is wasted, time better used improving ourselves, presumably with great films and great books, attracts the predictable retort that not all the films and literature being produced today are all that and a bag of chips, either. To say that games are inherently inferior is to say that somehow film and the printed word are somehow superior; and as long as people allow Uwe Boll to pick up a camera and Danielle Steele near a typewriter, there are going to be examples of film and literature that make Serious Sam look like an Oscar contender.

Games are a unique medium that present creators with unique challenges. To shrink from them and blame the medium is the cowardly way out. Where Ebert errs is not, as some have suggested, being too old and set in his ways as to fail to see what gaming really is. It is in underestimating the ability of human creativity to turn what he sees as limitations into opportunities.

UPDATE: Kotaku pointed out a well-written entry on Mitchell's blog Soo-Mahn that covers some of the same ground.

0
Your rating: None

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
bias against videogames? not the problem

Wow, very well articulated Narcogen. I'm amazed at how well you think these articles out. If I could make any compliment to you it would be the way you didn't take the "cop-out" as you put so nicely and go insulting Roger Ebert of other sources on a premise of bashing videogames on the basis on ignorance and not being "cool with the times". Instead you take the hard route: you go and carefully explain the standards in the gaming industry and what's stopping them from expanding further into creating unique and utterly different experiences for gamers. Your inclusion of the advancements in MMO gaming was insightful. It is not a matter of ignorance, simply an industry which has not crossed certain thresholds, if anything Ebert was only wrong about one thing, gaming is an acceptable medium of art, and you showed that in your writing. For this I commend you.

However, I'd like to expand further on the perspective of gaming as an artistic medium. I'd like to put forward that there are many games that offer the user a unique experience every time he/she plays it. Games such as Splinter Cell, and especaiily the newest addition, Chaos Theory, offer unlimited ways to complete a mission, do you go in guns-a-blazing? or instead throw a grenade at the enemy's feet? Whether you choose stealth or combat you have countless more options to expand into. As you pointed out the existance of scripted cutscenes, these go much further then the gameplay, they create a universe for you as a character. As a device much unlike in movies, the universe enevelops around you brings you in depth to the game's events much more than a simple movie can do. So is total immersiveness not an element of storytelling? Whether it be the engrossing events of a shooter like Halo or Splinter Cell, or the false reality of a MMO, can't these forms create art, as they say "art imitates life, and life imitates art".

-jman571

narcogen's picture
narcogen
Offline
Joined: 05/26/1999
Linearity

Quote:

Wow, very well articulated Narcogen. I'm amazed at how well you think these articles out. If I could make any compliment to you it would be the way you didn't take the "cop-out" as you put so nicely and go insulting Roger Ebert of other sources on a premise of bashing videogames on the basis on ignorance and not being "cool with the times". Instead you take the hard route: you go and carefully explain the standards in the gaming industry and what's stopping them from expanding further into creating unique and utterly different experiences for gamers. Your inclusion of the advancements in MMO gaming was insightful. It is not a matter of ignorance, simply an industry which has not crossed certain thresholds, if anything Ebert was only wrong about one thing, gaming is an acceptable medium of art, and you showed that in your writing. For this I commend you.

Much appreciated! Smiling

Quote:

However, I'd like to expand further on the perspective of gaming as an artistic medium. I'd like to put forward that there are many games that offer the user a unique experience every time he/she plays it. Games such as Splinter Cell, and especaiily the newest addition, Chaos Theory, offer unlimited ways to complete a mission, do you go in guns-a-blazing? or instead throw a grenade at the enemy's feet? Whether you choose stealth or combat you have countless more options to expand into. As you pointed out the existance of scripted cutscenes, these go much further then the gameplay, they create a universe for you as a character. As a device much unlike in movies, the universe enevelops around you brings you in depth to the game's events much more than a simple movie can do. So is total immersiveness not an element of storytelling? Whether it be the engrossing events of a shooter like Halo or Splinter Cell, or the false reality of a MMO, can't these forms create art, as they say "art imitates life, and life imitates art".

-jman571

Linearity is a very important concept to this discussion, and one I admit I did not get to touch on at all in this article. It has been something I've written about here and there in other pieces, and something I expect will be the subject of a work in progress to be released later (if I ever finish it, and if anyone is patient enough to read it when it is finished).

The kind of choices and different experiences you mention are an incremental improvement, I admit-- but I think it's fundamentally the wrong approach, and as such it will be impossible to achieve the kind of flexibility I envision this way.

Here's what I mean. Tic tac toe, for instance, is a game with exceedingly few options. If played correctly, it can be "brute forced"-- played perfectly to a draw each time. It is completely linear. It has a known beginning, a known end, and a known and finite number of possibile ways of progressing from one to the other.

In a sense, nearly all modern games, and certainly all FPS games, are a variation on this theme. They have a known starting point (when the level loads) and one or perhaps more ending points (when the level ends) and a finite number of ways in which to proceed from one to the other; usually a relatively small number of ways that are anticipated and encouraged by the designer, and perhaps also a number of other ways that are not-- say, some of the ways of skipping parts of levels in Halo through the use of vehicles or tricks.

How large a number you use to describe those finite possibilities largely depends on how much detail you want to delve into. For most levels in Halo 2, for instance, in terms of geography there is only one way to proceed. You may, while progressing that route, have your choice of weapons, vehicles, and tactics, and this varies the experience somewhat. But it does not change the end, and in reality changes the experience rather little.

Some games offer more variation in terms of routes, vehicles, weapons and tactics, and some offer less. In many places, Halo 1 offered more than Halo 2. Other games, like Splinter Cell, may be said to also offer more.

However, with this approach to design the designer still must anticipate these various approaches and account for them. When they don't, the result is usually an experience that falls outside gameplay-- getting outside levels, failing to spawn enemies, and the like, sometimes even resulting in a situation where you cannot continue playing. Once I thought myself very clever to get a Ghost aboard the gondola near the end of Quarantine Zone, only to discover I could not start the gondola or finish the level!

Because the designers hadn't anticipated my approach to playing that segment, and their game engine depended on calculating a known and finite combination of circumstances, the game broke.

Compare this, to, a game such as chess. It may also be that the game is finite, known, and therefore calcuable-- but no one has been able to do so yet. While there are at one level three possible endings-- win, lose, or draw-- the configuration of pieces and their positions that lead to those have a great many number of combinations, with a great many ways of reaching that conclusion. Far more than nearly any FPS game ever conceived. Even a multiplayer game such as CTF on a large map with a wide selection of vehicles and weapons generally reduces in a short amount of time to a limited number of acceptably playable routes and tactics that lead to success (or, in the cases of many so-called "balanced" maps, a stalemate).

To try and apply the current approach to game development and recreate individually all the possible scenarios and outcomes would be daunting-- no one would ever ship a game. To say nothing of trying to have the gameplay impact the end-state of the game and have those changes reflected in the cutscenes.

That's why I brought in the MMO approach; because I think it's the only genre that, because of the social interaction involved, and because of the focus on flexibility, is the only one that in a short amount of time can come close to reaching the holy grail of a nonlinear game with a story that is also fun to play. As the situation stands, it's pick any two, your choice. But not all three.

I admit-- for the most part this is a separate issue from whether or not games, due to their interactive nature, can be considered an art form. I do think they can, and with all due respect to Roger Ebert, whom I greatly respect as a film critic, I think that interactivity alone should not exclude them from being considered such. In part, this is because with the relatively low level of interaction between gameplay and storylines, currently most games' cutscenes are simply short subject films. Secondly, I think there is the possibility, down the road, of having a unique kind of collaborative story, told by designers and players together, that is not only entertaining, rewarding-- and possibly edifying-- but that would be unique to this form of storytelling, something close to impossible in any other, more traditional art form.


Rampant for over six years.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Linearity- reply

Thanks for the feedback Narcogen, but is it possible that things such as online co-op can increase players interaction? Perhaps even allowing further development into scenario building and level design, however unless games are made with intelligences smart enough to re-write the levels and designs for each time someone plays them, I'm afraid the FPS may face a rather "linear" bottleneck, how can a game expand further then what is written on its disk?

narcogen's picture
narcogen
Offline
Joined: 05/26/1999
Cooperative and Interaction

Well, let's set out a few things. I like cooperative play. The most fun I have in games like Halo is when playing cooperatively.

Cooperative play does create a different experience by adding the interaction between the players.

However, it doesn't really address the linearity issue much, because most games' bottlenecks remain in place. It adds X number of variables to the combination of successful tactics you can use to complete the goal, but does not allow you to define your own goals.

With a coop partner you can decide to, say, drive and gun the warthog down the highway tunnel at the end of Outskirts, or grab two ghosts, or even walk it.

But the addition of the other player doesn't change the fact that you HAVE to go through that tunnel. You can't jump on top of it and walk to the next stage, because you just hit an invisible wall. You can't turn back, find a Pelican and decide to fly there. Even if you could get a Banshee, you can't fly to the next objective since the game won't let you.


Rampant for over six years.

Anton P Nym's picture
Anton P Nym
Offline
Joined: 08/06/2004
One wonders...

... how many films rivaled classic novels in the first thirty years of their production?

Taking the invention of Lumiere's camera in 1895 as the origin of the modern movie; that takes us to 1925. By that time I know of only one film that met Mr. Ebert's criteria, and by his own admission it's one he'd rather forget: The Birth of a Nation, 1915. (Indeed, films didn't even have sound at that point... aside from a few experiments, films were silent until 1929.)

Video games have come a long way since Pong's home release in 1975. They just haven't gone far enough to create a new method of story-telling or art that uniquely suits it as a medium.

-- Steve just hopes that the first video-game "art" won't be a paen to bigotry.

(P.S. a version of this post is going to the Answerman site. I'd be very interested to see the response, if any.)

Anton P Nym's picture
Anton P Nym
Offline
Joined: 08/06/2004
Message text enclosed:

I find myself dismayed by your response to Andrew Davis' letter about the artistic merit of video games. To write off an entire medium after only 30 years is premature, to say the least; I can imagine authors and playwrights in the early years of film sneering at its limitations as well. The current lack of a great video game artwork is not a limitation of the medium, anymore than film’s inability to respond to audience reaction or its inflexible linear presentation (no “paging back� to re-read an earlier chapter!) relegated it eternally to the “craft and diversion� status it held in its earlier years.

Perhaps games are waiting for their equivalent of the “talkie�, a radical advance in technology; or perhaps they’re waiting for another D.W. Griffith to focus less on the medium and more on the message. (However distasteful that message may be.)

Video games simply haven’t had their “Birth of a Nation� yet. Perhaps it will descend from 1995’s “Marathon� series, a narrative written in scattered (and often incomplete) pieces left for the player to find, read/hear/absorb, and assemble. Perhaps it will descend from 2003's “Knights of the Old Republic� series, a mythic tale that branches into new narratives depending upon the actions of the player. Who knows, it may even descend from 1998's “Dance Dance Revolution� series, as a whole new form of immersive ballet. Or perhaps it will be something entirely different.

But to write off the interactive entertainment genre as incapable of producing art is to make the same mistake as those who saw the clumsy shadow shows a century ago and dismissed film as a frivolous toy.

As a postscript, games are no more of “a loss of precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized, and empathetic� than your typical popcorn flick or slushy romance novel… indeed, in their multiplayer aspect they can be superior to both by at least encouraging some kind of social interaction. That some players choose antisocial behavior instead is no more an indictment of video games than talking in theatres is the fault of movies.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
You disregard a lot of what Ebert says

Your idea that a game can tell multiple stories really doesn't address the key issues Ebert was bringing up. The idea that a game can tell multiple stories is only useful inasmuch as it can be part of the art of the piece — not entertainment value.

Ebert's whole argument was that movies and books can be used as stepping blocks to make ourselves more humane, cultured, civilized, etc. Video games, as of yet, cannot. They are merely hours spent doing something we enjoy that provides no bonus outside of other hours that we enjoy doing it. Playing Halo doesn't reveal very much about human nature or ourselves at all, whereas movies and books can offer insight into human nature and do so convincingly through the storytelling medium. The idea that a narrative in a game can be just as good as a narrative in a movie because a video game is just a movie with segmented pieces of gameplay and story that barely relate to each other does more harm than good to the argument that a video game can be art.

A person who reads a book or watches a movie must be offered something that expands and uplifts his humanitity and his cultured nature by playing a video game, over and above what can be achieved by book or movie.

Until a video game can provide us with insight into ourselves by the choices we make in it, and furthermore enhance our civilized natures (i.e., not a game starring a psychopath), it will not be art, and merely entertainment.

That's the crux of the matter, in the end: Video games do not civilize us, they do not build us up, they do not teach us morally by the act of playing; a narrative offered outside the context of interactivity might do that, but if that's the case, why not just make a movie?

Until the interactivity of the game is what differentiates it from books and movies and offers insight to the human condition, through playing, and uplifts our natures, they will continue to be exceptionally fun and exceptionally wasteful expenditures of time.

RoverRoverRover's picture
RoverRoverRover
Offline
Joined: 12/07/2005
Re: You disregard a lot of what Ebert says

Quote:

Your idea that a game can tell multiple stories really doesn't address the key issues Ebert was bringing up.

...

Until a video game can provide us with insight into ourselves by the choices we make in it, and furthermore enhance our civilized natures (i.e., not a game starring a psychopath), it will not be art, and merely entertainment.

That's the crux of the matter, in the end: Video games do not civilize us, they do not build us up, they do not teach us morally by the act of playing; a narrative offered outside the context of interactivity might do that, but if that's the case, why not just make a movie?

I think you've highlighted Ebert's point right there. Everybody is defending gaming by pointing out the non-linearity of the play sequences, or that the interstitial cut-scenes approach movie or novel quality. The problem is that the interactive sequences of games at best only bridge the gaps between important narrative events.

When we look at novels and movies that are high culture, or high art, we rarely include action films. That is because the action scenes are purely visceral entertainment, and the real humanistic stuff is in the dialogue and exchanges between characters.

The interactive portions of today's games are exactly like action scenes.. it's completely at odds with the delivery of compelling story material. The delivery of story material is most effectively done in highly-linear games with a low branching factor... games like KOTOR really only have 2 or 3 possible storylines that you can choose from, with lots of little self-contained side stories that can go different ways, but don't really matter in the overall scheme.

If we ever see interactive games comparable with the most acclaimed books or movies, it will only be when the interactive portion involves meaningful exchanges between the main characters of the story, while staying relevant and tightly connected to an overarching dramatic story arc. Traditional tabletop roleplaying games provide a good example of how this can be done... the DM can actually respond directly to player actions, and tailor the storyline and world so that things are still dramatic, meaningful, and yet the players have some sense of control. MMOs can't do this -- there's no way for a thousand people to simultaneously be the center of a story. The best attempt at something like this is the Facade demo which was released recently -- which relies on AI-like technology which is very, very primitive at this point.

I'm not ready to say its impossible that games will ever stand up to the best novels and movies, but the conventions of the genre make it very difficult. First person shooters like Halo or Max Payne, racers, action platformers -- forget it. They're, at best, only going to provide entertaining gameplay between story vignettes. Games are going to have to become something very different to be deep and compelling from a narrative view.

Claude Errera's picture
Claude Errera
Offline
Joined: 05/26/1999
Re: You disregard a lot of what Ebert says

RoverRoverRover wrote:

When we look at novels and movies that are high culture, or high art, we rarely include action films. That is because the action scenes are purely visceral entertainment, and the real humanistic stuff is in the dialogue and exchanges between characters.

On the other hand, many (most?) critics would include movies like The Seven Samurai in a list of artistic films. So action does not PRECLUDE a work from being 'art'.

RoverRoverRover's picture
RoverRoverRover
Offline
Joined: 12/07/2005
Re: You disregard a lot of what Ebert says

Claude Errera wrote:

On the other hand, many (most?) critics would include movies like The Seven Samurai in a list of artistic films. So action does not PRECLUDE a work from being 'art'.

That's not the point. If the Seven Samurai were a game, the fun gameplay would be in the action of the climatic battle, or in the tests of skill performed in the earlier portion of the movie. In the movie, action scenes provide only brief moments of dramatic tension, while in a game they constitute the majority of the experience. However, it is the non-action elements that elevate the Seven Samurai to high art, such as the characterization and the moral motivations behind the choices they make... not the skill-based outcomes of these tests.

If games are to be more than vehicles delivering abridged movies accompanied by elongated sequences of reflex-based skill tests, the interactive portion itself needs to be a fundamental part of the player's exploration of provoking issues.

narcogen's picture
narcogen
Offline
Joined: 05/26/1999
The point was...

I think you missed the point of Claude's remark. He was responding to your remark about films, not about games, and used the general term "a work" rather than game or film.

You've been dragging this discussion in circles now for quite awhile, and it's probably time to stop.

The bottom line is, Ebert said interactivity denies authorial control, which I denied, and that authorical control is a sine qua non for being considered art, which I also disagree with.

The bit about being uplifting or civilizing is really just the same nose-in-the-air snobbery that always comes with discussions about what is High Art and what is not. Having graduated from university more than a decade ago, it's no longer the sort of thing I get my kicks doing.

We seem to agree at least on one point: that a new kind of game that doesn't keep interactivity and narration separate, as most current games do, would be something we'd like to see.

What I'm not willing to do is wait until some developer achieves that before admitting that games, as multimedia productions, are just as valid as vessels for artistic content as any other visual and/or narrative medium. The extent to which they are similar to other forms, or that they (to date) have failed to live up to their full potential as a completely unique form, does not preclude them categorically from being considered 'art' any more than films of Broadway musicals would be by virtue of being some strange combination of stage, song, and film.

It does seem as if you have some prejudice against action and violence-- as if somehow, a well-written dialogue between two characters about violence can somehow be called high art, whereas a well-written, well-performed, well-photographed and well-choreographed fight scene between two characters cannot be. I find this difficult to fathom. Violence, to my mind, is a more fundamental human behavior than introspection, so I see no reason to accord introspection into violence a greater degree of "artness" than a representation of violence that provokes that in the audience.

The essence of any narrative work is conflict. The most visceral visual representation of conflict is violence. To deny it is nothing short of unfounded snobbery.


Rampant for over six years.

narcogen's picture
narcogen
Offline
Joined: 05/26/1999
Re: You disregard a lot of what Ebert says

Quote:

Your idea that a game can tell multiple stories really doesn't address the key issues Ebert was bringing up. The idea that a game can tell multiple stories is only useful inasmuch as it can be part of the art of the piece — not entertainment value.

Actually, I addressed that because that was what Ebert himself said his primary point was, in the first paragraph of his response:

I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

What I did was two things: refute the idea that authorial control and player choices are mutually exclusive, and refute the idea that authorial control is necessary for art. The so-called "auteur theory" is one of the older schools of thought on art criticism, but it is not the only one. Before Ebert had ever watched his first film, there were critics proposing the idea that meaning is not something transmitted in one direction from the author to the audience, but something that is created collaboratively between the two. What I suggested is that within that kind of framework, games might be considered a better medium for certain kind of storytelling.

Quote:

Ebert's whole argument was that movies and books can be used as stepping blocks to make ourselves more humane, cultured, civilized, etc. Video games, as of yet, cannot. They are merely hours spent doing something we enjoy that provides no bonus outside of other hours that we enjoy doing it. Playing Halo doesn't reveal very much about human nature or ourselves at all, whereas movies and books can offer insight into human nature and do so convincingly through the storytelling medium. The idea that a narrative in a game can be just as good as a narrative in a movie because a video game is just a movie with segmented pieces of gameplay and story that barely relate to each other does more harm than good to the argument that a video game can be art.

Actually, that wasn't his argument; at least, not as presented in the response to that letter. That was a throwaway line at the end of his answer:

But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

Ebert has made no assertion here that there's any connection between a medium being art or not being art and its ability to make people more cultured, civilized, and empathetic. He's simply set both things next to each other, saying that 1) games are not art because they deny authorial control, which art requires, and 2) time spent playing games is time wasted because games cannot improve people.

However, if you would like to make that assertion yourself, that's fine, and I will answer it.

Quote:

A person who reads a book or watches a movie must be offered something that expands and uplifts his humanitity and his cultured nature by playing a video game, over and above what can be achieved by book or movie.

Until a video game can provide us with insight into ourselves by the choices we make in it, and furthermore enhance our civilized natures (i.e., not a game starring a psychopath), it will not be art, and merely entertainment.

That's the crux of the matter, in the end: Video games do not civilize us, they do not build us up, they do not teach us morally by the act of playing; a narrative offered outside the context of interactivity might do that, but if that's the case, why not just make a movie?

Until the interactivity of the game is what differentiates it from books and movies and offers insight to the human condition, through playing, and uplifts our natures, they will continue to be exceptionally fun and exceptionally wasteful expenditures of time.

I submit here that you've induldged in the same logical fallacy that Mr. Ebert has in his response: that the plural of anecdote is data. No list of unrewarding, low-brow, uninteresting, storyless video games, no matter how long, can actually prove anything about video games as a medium. If that were true, I would submit that film is also not an art, because the vast majority of films also do not meet your criteria. The fact that some do is a statistical aberration.

I am also not sure that even great films qualify as art under your definition. I might suggest that films do not provide insight intou the choices we make in it-- in films, we have no choices! The film unfolds before us as the author dictated. Even the characters have no real 'choices' as their actions are predetermined. Films, like games, show the illusion of choices, and then the auteur, as a stand-in parent, either wags his or her finger in disapproval or smiles warmly. Insight may come from the examination and deconstruction of the work. But insight is not inherent in the work.

I also think you're off the mark in the standard for judging the medium. You seem to be advancing what I can only call a kind of 'savior mentality' where one particular work or group of works achieves an artistic purpose, thus redeeming the entire medium. Whether or not the medium of games can be art has nothing to do with whether or not any particular game made to date, or indeed any, has been judged worthy as a piece of art. Film isn't art becacuse someone at some point made a film that was art, thus redeeming the entire medium. The potential of film to be art would exist, even if it went unused forever.

I also think your standard of what makes art is also far too conservative and narrow; about the only thing that would seem to qualify are morality tales. Why you've particularly picked on pychopaths or films starring characters that are psychopaths, I'm not really sure. But even in that case, I can imagine a well-done film about one or more psychopaths that, one might say, reveals something about human nature: that humans are essentially base creatures, and that the line between normalcy and psychopathology is much narrower than most of us suppose. It's unclear to me whether, by your standards, such a film would be art: it breaks humanity down, rather than builds us up, and puts forth the notion that edification may not be possible. I think that's valid as an intellectual assertion, but according to your standards as I read them, it cannot be art.

I'd assert that art needs to examine the human condition; but I'm not going to put preconditions on what it must find there.

narcogen's picture
narcogen
Offline
Joined: 05/26/1999
More comments

For those of the commenters here who are NOT part of the HBO community (halo.bungie.org) there is another discussion thread on this article running over there:

http://carnage.bungie.org/haloforum/halo.forum.pl?read=668801


Rampant for over six years.

Syndicate content