Video games as art, Prelude: Why Roger Ebert is right

(Or, “Are we cool Ringo?” vs. “Thank you Mario, but our princess is in another castle”)

Last week, Roger Ebert unknowingly set off a mini-firestorm by hating on video games during an online chat:

“…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.”

Kotaku gave a quick response here and links today to response from a game designer. Kotaku argues that “Evolving storylines are more compelling than static, non-interactive media. Ebert overlooked the role of the developer and didn’t factor in that each pathway taken in a video game is one the developers already expected you to take. And as a result they were prepared.” Mitchell, the game designer, makes a similar point: “A designer, unlike a novelist or a screenwriter, must factor in all of the potential choices that a player will make while playing their game.”

If each storyline and possible decision tree in a game were crafted as a powerful, unique story, this might be true. And in time, this could happen. But I think Ebert has a point.

First, he is responding to the fact that right now, the player choices and evolving storylines are more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book than anything else. That is, the “story” consists not of illuminating interactions with others or with the character’s own thoughts or imagination; not of original dialogue that brings out the characters’ personalities and journeys or highlights the greater themes in play; not of landscapes and scene shots or descriptions that underpin the greater theme or symbolism of the work; not of asides from the author that do all of the above or take you out of the work for whatever reason.

Rather, the story consists of “Talk to character A to find out how to get to point B; then talk to character B to find out how to pick up weapon C.” So while Kotaku says the developers are prepared for each choice by the player, that may be true in a basic video game/Choose Your Own Adventure sense. But not in the sense of narrative storytelling.

Second, unless you do craft each branching story and every potential path into a full story, the multiple possibilities of an interactive game contradict a central element of narrative art. I think this is what Ebert means when he talks about authorial control.

Great storytelling has a purpose, a dramatic arc, a reason for everything happening the way it does. A comic book like The Sandman is a wonder in part because it ended and Neil Gaiman — even though he was making a lot of it up on the fly — told a complete tale of the Lord of Dream’s capture, release and redemption. Ongoing, serialized comics — or sitcoms, or soaps — are often lame because they can’t tell stories this way. If everything a character does in a video game can change what happens in the future, what kind of story can you possibly tell? Put another way, if you have a story to tell, why would you want to dilute it by making it into a video game where each interaction changes the story you want to tell?

That’s what authorial control is: Setting the pace of the story, the speed and manner in which information gets to the reader to move the narrative forward and fill out the dramatic arc; discovering things about the characters while writing the work and incorporating that into the story; not letting the narrative get caught up on conversation asides or thematic tangents.

A bigger reason that gamers shouldn’t laugh Ebert off is that video game writing is, on the whole, dreadful. It’s mostly just assembling cliches and stilted faux-fantasyspeak. The single line from Pulp Fiction in this post’s subtitle tells you more about Jules Winfield than the complete dialogue of your average video game, which hasn’t evolved much beyond the quote from Super Mario Bros. that forms the rest of the post’s title. Pick up Psychonauts and play for a few minutes, and the characters’ lines and voice acting — almost as good as Futurama or The Simpsons in parts — will make you wonder why most games are so trite.

Mitchell cites EarthBound, Mario, Zelda, GoldenEye 007, and Half-Life as video game masterpieces. In the book Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution, Unreal/Gears of War game designer CliffyB “complains hotly about the truism that the game industry has yet to create its Citizen Kane. ‘I am so sick of hearing this … Hello! Doom, Warcraft, Zelda?’ ”

In a technical sense, Mitchell and Cliffy are right. Those games are masterpieces of game design; you could argue that some are masterpieces of visual art. But they are emphatically not masterpieces of narrative art. And until the writing dramatically improves, Ebert will pretty much be right.

— December 9, 2006

(See also: Parts I, II, III, and IV)

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