Can videogames be art? Roger Ebert says no. Actually, he said it a couple of times. I’d like to take a moment to confront his arguments directly, seeing as A. I am an avid gamer with a lot of experience with, and many strong opinions about, art; and B. Roger Ebert is a stupidhead.
Point B conforms to the general level of counterargument that has been posed to Ebert thus far, arguments which have consumed vast swaths of the internet like a poop-flinging wildfire.* I’d like to suggest, in a more civil and intellectually rigorous manner, that Ebert has two issues preventing him from appreciating the art of the videogame. One of these issues is perhaps unresolvable, but the other might not be – and that’s even if we approach things on Ebert’s own terms.
We’ll start with the first. In one of the columns I linked to above, Ebert said this, which summarizes his position on art quite succinctly: “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 believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art.” That’s it in a nutshell – Ebert subscribes to the auteur theory. Not too surprising for a guy who was coming into his own as a film lover and critic while the likes of Scorsese, Spielberg, and Coppola were doing their best work. The authorial stamp of these directors is indelible and clear – they are master manipulators, artists leading their audience through carefully-engineered hills and valleys, toward inevitable conclusions. This is not to say that they never employed subtlety or ambiguity, but I think we all know what point was being made in the closing scenes of movies like, say, “E.T.” or “The Godfather” or “Raging Bull.” (Maybe not so much with the ending of “Taxi Driver.”)
Practitioners and theorists of art have had a lot to say about authorial intent in the last century, though. John Cage’s infamous composition 4’33” was a statement about the variability of art, which is this: no artist (or maybe we should just say “composer”) can be fully in control of the sensory experience of his audience. Outside noise will always interfere with any performance, or even a playback of a recording, of any piece of music, and affect – perhaps seriously – the way in which it is heard; and even if you manage to dampen all outside sounds completely, you still have to contend with the method of delivery (are the acoustics good? headphones or stereo system? etc.) and even the constant but barely audible sound of the listener’s own body going about its business.** 4’33” was Cage saying “I give up” to complete authorial control of his own work. The piece is nothing but outside noise – the performer adds no sound to it except the gentle thump of a piano lid opening and closing.
In literature, New Criticism came along and out of the mouths of luminaries as notable as T.S. Eliot, and stated boldly that authorial intent was beside the point. The text alone provides the meaning. Deconstructionism went a step further and said that meaning is always and only created by the reader. The author has been entirely removed from the equation here – he’s just a poor schlub who generated a book, onto which readers can project their own interpretations and conclusions. (You can see, hopefully, how 4’33” was a similar argument posing as – or maybe I should say “doubling as” – a work of art.) I think most readers today take a middle road: they want to have their authorial intent but fuck with it too. I can’t blame them. That model, though philosophically slippery, makes a lot of sense to me. Except in purely abstract or even random works of art, authorial intent seems to always peek through, because we speak the same languages and share many of the same experiences. It’s not as if these works of art have arrived fresh from another galaxy, created by minds entirely alien to ours. On the other hand, we don’t all know the same words or thoughts or emotions; we are not all versed in the same theories and methods of interpretation; we are, to get down to it, not all the same. So surely deconstructionism had a valid point to make, even if we aren’t yet ready to kill the author completely.
But Ebert rejects the efforts of Derrida, Cage, Eliot, and others. So be it. He is hardly the first. We could sit down and hash out theories of art for hours or days, and I might never persuade him. The man has had a lot of years on this planet (a lot more than me, in fact) and has probably read about all this stuff before; let’s assume he’s made an informed decision, and move on.
…Before we move on entirely, though, I want to dawdle briefly and make fun of something Ebert said in what was probably an off-the-cuff, ill-thought-out manner. This is from his “conversation” with Clive Barker, who came down firmly on the side of videogames being art: “I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist.” This is A. deconstructionism, pure and simple; B. self-contradictory if you believe firmly in authorial intent (which I think we can assume Ebert does, based on what I quoted above, as well as this: “Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices”+). So Ebert believes art is created by an artist, and if you change it, you’re the artist – who is therefore creating art – and therefore, videogames… are art? I’ve seldom seen a person decimate his own argument in so few words.
But I’d like to move on to the real meat of the point I am making. (Or about to make. Whatever.) If we grant Ebert the right to be a fuddy-duddy and cling like a rat to the sinking ship of “the author is always right,” we also have to talk about what videogames actually DO. And that thing is not what Ebert thinks it is. He holds fast to the notion of the player changing the experience, and therefore changing the art (and thereby making it not-art). The “smorgasbord of choices” does not lead to an “inevitable conclusion.” And yet, this is not what videogames do; at least not most of the ones I’ve played. Frankly, it is still considered a Very Big Deal when a game can have different endings depending on the player’s choices in the game.++ GTA4 has been universally acclaimed and the malleability of its plot and characterizations is much-commented-upon in reviews. Bioshock (an excellent game with a, dareIsayit, ARTISTIC story line) offers several different endings depending on a series of choices you make throughout the game. But these are exceptions rather than the rule. Most heavily plotted games have a series of cut scenes and scripted in-game dialogue or character interactions that proceed in order to an, ahem, Inevitable Conclusion. You may lollygag about between these moments, and you may kill more or less (or none) of the game’s other denizens, and you may sacrifice yourself a few extra times just to see Master Chief bounce off some polygonal, bump-mapped rocks – but ultimately you are heading for the same damn ending as everybody else. Not just the ending, but all of the plot points – all the highs and lows, the improbable twists, the part where your grizzled mentor betrays you and turns out to be the true bad guy, oh no! – will be the same for every player. Ebert is hung up on “choices” that generally don’t occur in the world of games. Games are simply more lackadaisical about getting to their conclusions, but that doesn’t imply a lack of inevitability; it doesn’t prohibit any possibility of authorial intent in the game. (I’ve beaten Halos 1-3 collectively three times, and the plot didn’t change any of the three. And don’t get me started on the heavily scripted, almost ridiculously over-plotted Metal Gear Solid series.)
Games since (at least) the dawn of the console (and possibly before) have often given us cinema-similar plotting. The standards for writing and acting have generally been much lower, of course – none of us are immune to the awkwardly hilarious voice “acting” from the first Resident Evil – but the point stands that the experience is honestly not that different, except that the gun fights, car chases, and big action setpieces that fill up time and sizzle your nerves between the plot bits can last a whole lot longer. And the best games rise to at least the mid-water mark of cinema, if never attaining “Citizen Kane” status (let alone the perilous heights of a good, dense novel). But it’s only a matter of time. GTA4, despite allowing the player to affect the outcome to a certain extent, has a rich and emotional story that shames both its predecessors and its copycats. Bioshock has an excellent and immersive plot that draws influence from Orson Welles, Ayn Rand, and other sources, and also makes a startling (and Artistic) point about player agency. If anything, the argument posed by Bioshock is one that would make Ebert smile broadly: “You think you’re in control, but actually you’re doing what we let you do; or what we TELL you to do.”
If that ain’t some kind of authorial intent, I don’t know what it is. I know this though: it’s probably art, by most definitions. Including Ebert’s.
* Creating good mixed metaphors is an art. Sadly for me- and you- this one is not good.
** Cage made a trip to an anechoic chamber at Harvard that led him to the conclusion that as a listener, you can never experience complete silence. He heard two sounds at different frequencies – a low pitched one (his blood circulating) and a high pitched one (his nervous system in operation).
+ I imagine Ebert is not a “Choose Your Own Adventure” fan. He probably also has a serious problem with “The Lady or the Tiger?” – sits around in a drunken stupor on weekends, intermittently screaming “Just fuckin’ tell us which one, ya baloney!”
++ Here we are talking about plot-driven games that really have endings; the Donkey Kong kill screen, for instance, does not qualify.