Video games as art, Part I: The auteur problem

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

Matt Sakey has a belated column on Roger Ebert’s hating on video games. I’ve already responded to many of Sakey’s points here and here, but basically I think Ebert is largely right. At this point, video games as narrative art are inferior to books, movies, TV, wha’evah.

Sakey brings up another point that’s worth considering in the discussion of games as art — or, less pretentiously, the discussion of games as more than just item collection and lightweight puzzling.

Ebert’s claim that there can be no auteurism without authors is compelling, but ultimately incorrect; there is an auteurist presence in game development and those auteurs leave an imprint on all their work. Peter Molyneaux, Will Wright, Sid Meier, Shigeru Miyamoto; they and their many other name-known colleagues are our Fassbinders and Scorceses.

Yes, yes, the usual suspects are geniuses of video game design. Some are among the best programmers and graphics wizards on earth. The book Smartbomb recounts that after Wright’s SimCity came out,

Maxis began getting requests for simulations from outfits as diverse and far-ranging as the Australian Tax Board, the Candadian Railway System, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Maxis’s simulation division built SimHealth for the Markle Foundation in New York, which modeled the entire national health care system, and one for Chevron called SimRefinery, which helped orient employees on how refineries worked.

But trotting out Super Mario Bros. 3, Civilization, The Sims, whatever, doesn’t answer Ebert’s point.

Scorcese is so admired because he has used all of the tools available to the filmmaker — both the technical tools of the medium and the artistic tools of acting, writing and design — to tell some of the most penetrating, engaging stories cinema has seen.

To take another (auteurless?) example, Citizen Kane is revered not just because of Orson Welles’ performance, or the tricky and smart screenplay, or the then-new or perfected technical tricks. It’s because Welles and his collaborators put all of these together in the service of telling Charles Foster Kane’s story: the long-focus shots highlight Kane’s loneliness; the camera built in to the floor during the song-and-dance scene subtly gives you a sense of how everyone saw him as a towering, larger-than-life figure; the flashbacks, newsreels and loopy construction give the story a mythic power; and Welles makes sure none of this goes to waste by thoroughly becoming CF Kane.

Of course, not all film “auteurs” are as concerned with narrative and telling a story. But in many of those cases, the exploration is in purposefully subverting narrative, playing with and challenging conventions.

The oft-cited video game “auteurs” are nothing like this. They’re one-dimensional savants of game design or caricature. And even using the haughty and undefinable “auteur” designation misses an important point.

Where is the video game Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Frank Miller, Dave McKean — the figures whose unique styles change the possibilities of what a medium’s visual art can do? Sure, the Super Mario Bros. characters are cute and memorable. But there are few video games that show a unique art style and sensibility rather than just presenting some version of cliched sci-fi or fantasy.

And where is the video game David Lynch, Neil Gaiman, Quentin Tarantino, David Milch, [insert Simpsons writer/producer here]? Psychonauts has a visual flair — though never derivative, it recalls a mix of the most out-there Looney Tunes and Burton — and a comedic touch wholly foreign to other video games. The box says “A psychic adventure by Tim Schafer” — and you can immediately tell this game reflects one man’s vision and sensibility. I can think of few other video games that come close to this. (Earthworm Jim for the Genesis and the Oddworld games come to mind, but they’re not as visually unique and have minimal dialogue).

I’m not trying to dismiss the achievements or brilliance of the best video game makers. I love Metroid, Zelda, Castlevania as much as anyone. What’s too often lacking in this discussion is a sense of perspective.

We don’t (or shouldn’t) need to be defensive anymore: video games are worthwhile and okay, and many of them are technically remarkable. But that doesn’t make them equal to movies, comics, books, or TV. Right now, they’re too focused on the technical, too limited, too derivative to compare them to other forms of narrative (and, in many cases, visual) art.

Let’s appreciate video games for what they are. And, whether it means writing about, playing, or making games, let’s keep trying to figure out and reach what they can be.

— January 10, 2006

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