Roger Ebert Home

The Game of Art 3

A screenshot from the game "Planescape: Torment."

Who knew how this would play out? Roger Ebert's comments about the artistic shortcomings of video games ignited quite a fascinating and, well, interactive discussion among readers, not only about the nature of the game but about the definition of art itself. Now, however, we are exerting authorial control and we provide these excerpts from reader e-mails as our Final Chapter in this particular saga.

- - - -

I'm not sure why this particular topic has interested me enough to actually "write in" (something I never do), but I have a feeling it has something to do with my own inability to explain exactly why I waste so much time playing games.

I should point out that I actually don't spend all that much time playing video games; I've never even owned a gaming system (aside from my computer), and what time I do "waste" comes when I get a new computer game and spend the next few days (weeks) playing it non-stop. After this "binge" period I tend to think about how much better that time could have been spent and stay away from games for a few months in period of self imposed penance. Yet I always come back. I should add that it is not just video games, but also board games, war games, card games, and even role playing games as well.

To start with, I will admit that I sure wouldn't put any game I've ever played in the same category as something by Herzog, Tarkovsky, Rohmer, Fassbinder, Hawks, Altman or any of the many other directors I idolize. Though I still think they can be viewed artistically. I think the key flaw in your dismissal of games as "art", is in your narrow definition of art. Like a finely crafted piece of furniture, a finely crafted game could probably be called art -- there is authorial control in the creation of the game itself. Isn't "creation" in an attempt to achieve "excellence" (not to throw yet ANOTHER "definition" of art out there) at the root of all artistic works? Thus the comparison of games to film, music, and literature is partly unfair since doing this is like trying to say that Bach's St. Matthew Passion is a greater work of art than a master carpenter's bench -- there is no real reason to compare the two.

In addition, I would like to question just what the criteria are for making a superlative game. From the countless responses I have read on your website it seems many people are clamoring about how certain games have "amazing storylines", or "beautiful graphics" and are thus artistically justified. These things have nothing to do with a game’s artistry. Games are about "game play", from a child playing marbles to two gamers shooting at each other in “Halo.”

To say great stories and graphics are justification for a game's elevation to art is like saying good special effects and pretty actors justify a movie's elevation to art. Like that unnamable "something" that all great works of art share, this concept of "good game play" is no concrete thing. Maybe this is why I see the possibility of games as art in that they are an attempt to capture an elusive concept. No one can say exactly what makes a movie good, but many directors try and partly or fully succeed in representing this. The same could be said of games.

I think many people are overlooking the key element of games from Go to “Halo.” It is not storyline or graphics or presentation. If you want a good story, watch a film. If you appreciate a game solely for its beautiful graphics then you are no longer playing a game but looking at visual art. If you think the "game world" is amazingly detailed, again you are not appreciating the game, but the world, and should check out something like the Lord of the Rings books for finely realized worlds. Games can be art, though not for the reasons that most people claim make them art.

Isley Unruh Lawrence, KS

- - - -

I majored in film at college (BYU) and during my last semester I took a class called "Interactive Narrative". It truly was fascinating. We studied role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, video games like “Doom,” and yes, even films. A major idea discussed was that the level of immersion in an art form is directly related to the level of interactivity we have with it.

Obviously, the level of interactivity varies considerably between the different art forms. A video game is nearly all interaction, and very little story. Dungeons and Dragons has a similar ratio. A novel is almost all story, but readers DO interact -- we can stop and pause, re-read a line of dialogue, or choose to picture a description of a location differently in our minds than another reader.

Bear in mind, I absolutely agree with you that games are (generally speaking) inferior to most other art forms. But I don't necessarily agree that the reason they're inferior is because they surrender "authorial control" and employ "player choices". I think movies such as "Memento" require a lot of interaction; if a viewer watches that film by letting it merely wash over them, they will spend the greater part of the film confused, and in the end, they will leave having gotten much less out of the experience than a person who is actively engaged during the movie, putting the pieces together in their mind, "interacting" with the film in a way....

I think there is something appealing to everyone about being able to influence a story as it's being told. I think this is why people are drawn to the idea used in movies like "Sliding Doors" or "Run Lola Run". That idea of "choice" and how it can affect a narrative is fascinating to us.

In that college class our text was "Hamlet on the Holodeck: the future of narrative in cyberspace" by Janet H. Murray, which discussed, among other things, video games and their place in the world of storytelling. It also talked about the fictional "holodeck" from the Star Trek story, and hypothesized that such a device would be the ultimate in narrative immersion.

I think it's probably premature to dismiss video games as inferior; time will tell. I think the industry is in its infancy, and like the film industry when it was nickelodeons featuring naked women, the majority of video games out there right now appeal to the baser instincts of those who play -- it's all sensation and excitement. Sure, it's a multi-billion dollar industry as your detractors argue, but so is the porn film business, which is hardly great art.

I think in time video games will find their way, as film did, and give us something truly inspiring.

As for me, I personally think dreams are the ultimate in narrative immersion; we are actually creating the story, watching it, and participating in it all at the same time!

Carter Durham Pasadena, CA

- - - -

I've read the controversy about video games as art with some interest. While I can't argue with the notion that the video game marketplace is inundated with low-quality games, I don't believe that precludes a game from being presented as art…. The Dadaist movement was about exploring the limits of art. Could a single painted line be considered art? Could a urinal ripped from a wall and called a fountain be art? Their answer was yes: if any one person could call it art, then it is indeed art. And this is the definition that makes the most sense. If I think Jackson Pollack's works are ugly, is he not still an artist? What if I didn't like Michelangelo's work? Though art may be judged on its beauty or effectiveness, these cannot be values that define it as art for the word to have any meaning. Video games, though they are a very different medium from film, literature, and sculpture, are definitely art. John Chernega Chicago, IL

- - - -

Jeez! What a convoluted mess this whole "video game as art" polemic has stirred up! Attempts to define something (in this case, art) by putting up a fence that either includes or excludes the object under discussion are inherently dishonest -- you know which side of the fence you want it to end up on, and that dictates where you build the fence. Judging from the extremely abstract nature of the arguments on both sides, about the only thing everyone can agree on is that the definition of art is about as substantial as an early-morning fog. Far be it from me, though, to offer criticism without suggesting a solution, simplistic though it may be. I've played the odd video game, occasionally visited an art museum, read lots of books, seen lots of movies. The only way I can compare them is to say that I've often felt uplifted, informed, inspired, or challenged by paintings, sculptures, novels, plays, or films, but I've never played a video game that didn't seem like a big waste of time when I finished.

Bob Riggs

- - - -

In light of your recent comments on video games I'd like to draw attention to your review of a 1979 film, "The Warriors":

"It's a set piece. It's a ballet of stylized male violence.... The deployment of the police and gang forces is plainly impossible on any realistic level; people move into their symbolic places with such perfectly timed choreography that they must be telepathic. And the chase scenes are plainly impossible, as in one extended shot showing the Warriors outrunning a rival gang's school bus. All of this is no doubt Walter Hill's intention. I suppose he has, an artistic vision he's working toward in this film, and in his work..."

Having been a part of the team that just completed a video game adaptation of "The Warriors" I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on the "inferior" version. It's clear from your review of the film that it wasn't much to your liking but at least its 'artistic' intent was appreciated. By your definition, though, the game would be disqualified as art simply because there is an element of choice.

Acting on these choices, however, you would learn how the Warriors formed, where they hung out, what their daily life might have been like and so on. Simply put, the game expands “The Warriors” experience in a unique way that neither Walter Hill nor Sol Yurick ever could have. To say that choice defeats it as a work of art is overly harsh and uninformed. As Marshall McLuhan stated in "Understanding Media":

"Games are popular art, collective, social reactions to the main drive or action of any culture.... As extensions of the popular response to the workaday stress, games become faithful models of a culture. They incorporate both the action and the reaction of whole populations in a single dynamic image."

Perhaps it's telling that a recent poll by art experts voted Marcel Duchamp's "Urinal" (1917) as the single greatest piece of art in the 20th century. People still argue whether or not it is in fact art. No one however can argue that it forced the hand of the audience. The thrust of modern art in particular has largely been about engaging and challenging its audience by asking them to make choices. Video games are no different.

John MacPherson

- - - -

As for Ebert's claim -- that video games are inherently inferior to film and prose -- it may or may not be true, but Ebert is hardly in the position to know. It would make as much sense for me to say that Chinese is inherently inferior to English. How could I reasonably make such a statement, since I don't speak Chinese? It's also interesting that there are plenty of people who would say that prose and poetry are inherently superior to movies. And, as long as there is a great novel to be read, it is a waste of time to be watching films. I doubt that Ebert would buy this argument, which demonstrates succinctly how his argument against playing video games is pure nonsense. Why not just admit that the medium doesn't interest him, and leave it at that? There are certainly enough great games out there that I haven't played yet, that I would consider it a waste of my time to go see anywhere near as much celluloid trash that Ebert puts up with. Marc Fleury Napanee, Ontario

- - - -

I do believe that games are art. More accurately, I believe that they CAN be art. Looking at games such as “Doom” or “Burnout” or any other mindless game is akin to judging all movies based on “Saw” and “The Chronicles of Riddick.” In all of these examples, the creators succeeded at what they wanted to create (frightening atmosphere and mindless adrenaline, respectively,) but they are not truly artistic in any sense of the word. Neither “Saw” nor “The Chronicles of Riddick” attempts to do anything other than entertain. This does not make movies, as a medium, without merit. The medium does not make games art or not art, it is the content which does that.

Games can be art, but not because they are GAMES, but rather because of their ability to convey a story, and their interactivity. I believe that the design of a complex game system is a nuanced enough process to be called an art, but resultant product is not, itself, art. “Tetris” is not art. The narrative that this game system (can be) supported by is the true source of artistic expression in games....

Now, many games present an interesting, sophisticated story, but these stories are really no different from what might be found in a movie. In fact, by taking all the cut-scenes and lining them up in order, the resultant film might convey the entirety of the story and be, functionally, no different than a movie. These games are not the sort I am speaking about. I am speaking about games which have narratives that could not be told in any other medium.

I do not want to get mired in specifics, but there is one game which I hold very near to my heart, and which perfectly illustrates what I am trying to say. "Planescape: Torment" is a story which could never have been told as a movie or a novel or a poem. The interactive nature of its presentation, which allows the player to meaningfully impact not only the outcome of the story as a whole, but also the outcome of any given situation, lends the plot enormous weight of significance in the mind of the player. While any single path through the game would be involving and emotionally trying (I have heard this game referred to as "life-changing," and "emotionally racking") it would not be nearly as effective. Without getting into the specifics of plot points or themes, suffice to say that “Planescape: Torment” changed the way I looked at the world. Given the obvious fact that this outcome was not accidental, but was in fact specifically and painstakingly planned by the game's writers and developers, I find it ludicrous that the game could be anything OTHER than art....

In the end, the fact that these pieces of media are GAMES, in the sense that they require player skill and effort, is rather incidental. The amount of time a player spends with a particular game is very helpful when creating associations and attachments in the player, but otherwise, many of these stories could be told just as well without the competitive element brought to the table by the actual game system. I love games for what they are, and have no problem enjoying a “Grand Theft Auto,” just as I have no problem enjoying a James Bond movie. But, while enjoyable, neither “GTA” nor James Bond are the pinnacle of artistic achievement within the medium.

In the end, I can't help but liken to current view of games to the bygone eras or demonizing comic-books, or rock-and-roll, or, frankly, the novel. As a student of literature, someone who is daily taking in some of the greatest pieces of poetry, prose and film ever made, it pains me to see that games get so little respect. As someone who is aiming towards a career in writing for games, I find it more than a little annoying. I don't blame people such as yourself for their views, because quite frankly the industry is making it more and more difficult for non-enthusiasts to see the games which have true artistic merit. As such, people don't view games as a legitimate source of art, and so developers are not able to sell their games as such. It's a true chicken-egg scenario; which came first, the doubters, or the tripe?

Graham T.

- - - -

I could care less about how much money the game or movie industry makes as some other readers have pointed out. What we are talking about here is the level of artistry to be found within video games. I will be the first to admit that there are not nearly enough game developers pushing the boundaries of truly artistic video games. However there are many games that (and this is the tricky part for developers) combine the quick-reflexes and strategic thinking elements found in all video games with a bold cinematic presentation and mature, thought provoking themes. I'd like to describe two of them:

First game: Shadow of The Colossus. This game contains very little in the way of narrative. The main character's motivation is set up in the opening cut-scene when he rides into a temple on horseback with the body of a dead girl. He places the body on an alter and makes a deal with a god-like voice (all dialog is in a fictional language with subtitles) to slay sixteen colossal beast in return for restoring life to the girl. He is warned that there may also be a high price associated with this agreement.

From that point on you are sent to slay the colossi one by one and are free to roam the expansive land on your horse. Each colossus is an enormous beast which much be scaled by your tiny character until you find the creature's weak spot. It's a bit more complicated than that and actually requires a bit of logic oriented, puzzle-solving but I don't want to take up too much of your time here.

The amazing presentation of the game is undeniably artistic with dramatic music and camera angles that underscore the overwhelming nature of your task. Most interesting though is that when each beast is slain the game depicts the creature's death in slow-motion accompanied by sad music creating the sense that you have just brought down a majestic creature for no other reason than your selfish desire to bring a girl back to life. This is a stark contrast to the usual sense of satisfaction typically given the player when defeating an enemy.

Second game: Killer 7. In this game you play the part of an assassin named Smith with multiple personalities, seven to be exact. Each personality has a different first name and a different look, (one is even female) special ability and preferred weapon. The game's visual style is that of a post-modern graphic novel. It looks like a comic book in motion.

Most interesting though is the theme of fractured personality that the game explores. You the player can switch between five of the seven personalities at will with two only being available in certain place or at certain times. As you play the game it becomes clear that you have no idea which, if any of the personalities are the real persona of the main character. This theme of the "fractured self" is built upon through many subtle flourishes such as the way the screen cracks to show you the different directions you can go at junction points in the environments and the way each personality explodes into little pieces and then comes back together into another personality when you change from one to the other.

The story involves a future political situation with Japan that is obviously an allegory for events in Japan's history. But the real driving force to play the game is to get to the bottom of exactly what the truth is behind the Smith character who, it becomes more and more clear as you play the game, is quite completely insane.

I hope that maybe I have illustrated that there are game makers striving to push the envelope when it comes to games as an art form. Unfortunately in games as in film, artistic entertainment is not always commercially viable. In this way at least the two forms of media are brothers in arms.

Tim Rockwell

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

The Way We Speak
Find Me Falling


comments powered by Disqus