Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Videogames That Work as "Art"

In a recent column Roger Ebert dismisses videogames as an artistic medium as follows:
I believe books and films are better mediums, and better uses of my time. But how can I say that when I admit I am unfamiliar with video games? Because I have recently seen classic films by Fassbinder, Ozu, Herzog, Scorsese and Kurosawa, and have recently read novels by Dickens, Cormac McCarthy, Bellow, Nabokov and Hugo, and if there were video games in the same league, someone somewhere who was familiar with the best work in all three mediums would have made a convincing argument in their defense.

I am familiar with some of the best work in all three mediums and I would like make a case for a compromise view: Video games are an equally good medium to film, but nonetheless are not better uses of Roger Ebert's time. Mr. Ebert, you have a vast comparative advantage in watching films based on your life experience. You are fluent in films, but not in videogames. To develop an appreciation for videogames now after ignoring them for so long would be like learning to appreciate Hebrew poetry without having learned Hebrew as a child. Kids who grew up with videogames have the advantage - a basic grounding in the medium - and modern videogames tend to build on what came before. Though many try, few games are entirely self-contained; they assume background skills and knowledge about how videogames work. You would find it frustrating to play without this background.

Videogames have a lot in common with film. The best can introduce you to vast, exciting new places, let you see through new eyes, and leave you profoundly changed by the experience. Like films, Siskel's rule applies: it's not what it is about, but how it is about it. You can easily categorize many games - it's a platformer, or a first-person shooter - just as you can categorize many movies - it's a mystery, or an action film. The best videogames do something truly new. Some create a new genre all of their own. Others take an existing genre and make the best possible game from it through rare thought and craftmanship. The best games ultimately produce moments in which writing, animation, art direction, music, scripting, and design all combine to create a transcendent user experience.

There are pitfalls to avoid. The best videogames, like the best movies, are often commercially unsuccessful - rare gems in a sea of copycats. Games, like movies, are expensive and time-consuming to produce and publishers are risk-averse, so quirky titles rarely make it to market and even when they do they don't get the advertising budgets of the bigger titles. There are many genre conventions one needs to accept in order to allow for willing suspension of disbelief - the videogame equivalent of Ebert's Movie Glossary rules. In the movies, people never use a restroom just as a restroom and never have to drive around the block looking for a parking space. Why? Because it would make the movie boring. Similarly, characters in a videogame have arbitrary powers and restrictions that may be unrealistic but make the game interesting. You get used to it, learn what the rules are, and apply them to solve the game.

I have seen every Kurosawa film I could find and loved them all, but I have played videogames that moved me as much or more than some of them. (Mind you, not more than Madadayo or Dersu Uzala, but perhaps more than, say, Yojimbo). There have been moments of deep sadness, moments of great triumph, moments of terrifying shock and surprise, moments of sheer wonder at the beauty of the landscape I was moving through - I like those the best.

Some games I recommend:
Myst and its sequels

Stunning visuals, ambient sounds that put you in the location, and a highly literary quality. You are exploring a strange world and slowly piecing together how everything there works and what happened here. In the process, you find notes written by various characters who have different literary styles. You must figure out who is telling the truth and who is not, who you should help, and how to help them. In the process, you get to explore a breathtakingly beautiful series of imaginary worlds. By the end of the game, these places will seem as real to you as any place you've been in the real world.

Pikmin and Super Mario Sunshine

Shigeru Miyamoto is a legendary game designer. He makes fun, upbeat, colorful experiences aimed at a younger audience. Pikmin lets you explore the world outside from the point of view of a creature not much larger than a ladybug. You get to conquer various hazards with the help of an army of little plant-creatures. Super Mario Sunshine reinforces pro-enviromental memes - your job is to clean up a town that's been contaminated with slimy pollution - and might help one conquer a fear of heights. Playing this game I felt real vertigo due to the activities of my virtual persona.

Marathon and Halo

Marathon was a first-person shooter on the Macintosh in 1994. What made it impressive was mostly the quality of the writing. You have been activated by a computer program to carry out various tasks. What you gradually figure out over time through many missions is that the computer you're working for is an unreliable narrator. Like Tokien, the writers of Marathon created a huge back-story that the plot merely hints at. Communities still discuss and argue about the story; the game has been ported to many platforms. Halo is a modern descendent written by the same company. It, too, has a vast plot revealed over time in which your character has a role, aided by unreliable AIs.
At least three books have been written set in the Halo universe, and movies have been made using the Halo engine to generate all the graphics. (granted, they weren't /good/ movies...)


A critical success but a commercial failure, this story is a dark fairytale. You're a little boy with horns who rescues a strange little foreign girl and helps her find her way to safety. Tiny little touches make you fundamentally care about these characters. They react. There is a sweetness and humanity and love in the way they interact. I can't recommend this game highly enough.

Prince of Persia: The Sands Of Time

Here architecture is key; Michaelangelo couldn't have built a more beautiful castle. As in _Ico_, there's a rescue-the-princess subplot, but in this case the princess is much more of an active participant. As the Prince, you are impossibly flexible and athletic, able to run along walls and swing from flagpoles and evade traps in a fluid manner.

Both Ico and Prince of Persia have plots that are well-constructed and ultimately end in a way that is thought-provoking, surprising, and immensely satisfying.


At 8:49 PM, Blogger pdf23ds said...

I enjoyed both ICO and Prince of Persia, but I felt that the latter was so similar to the former that it was almost "too much of a good thing". I still played it through, though, but stopped at the last battle because I couldn't beat it before I had to return the game. (How annoying.)

I think video games have great potential as a medium to meet and surpass film, but I don't think that potential has been developed to the point where they even rival film yet. Budgets are still too small (and perhaps producers' priorities to limited) to really get good voice acting involved, and plots all to often are still just a flimsy pretext for the action of the game.

But there are some real gems.

At 10:01 PM, Blogger Glen said...

Yeah, you might not want to play PoP and Ico back-to-back. Both were quite heavily influenced by the original 2-D Prince of Persia.

The main thing I loved about Ico was that it had this doomed, tragic ambiance throughout and the eventual outcome lives up to that. You've been saving this girl again and again and in the end she saves you instead and you ultimately FAIL in your goal to get her out of the castle. I wasn't expecting that. It was like a Terry Gilliam movie - shocking because it gives you a sad ending where you've been trained by all prior experience to expect a happy one.

Even if they do get to meet up again in the afterlife (I /think/ that's what the final scene means...).

At 4:29 AM, Blogger Stephen said...

Now I need to find a summary of ICO.

What is important to note is that in world wide sales, games beat movies.

That tells you something.

Games also have internal action plots. Those are much clearer in a game like Wing Commander 1, but they are just as important as story plots to make a game work well.

Also, important to gaming history are failures, like Heretic and Heretic II which you can see reflected in Diablo and Diablo LOD. Everything wrong with Heretic gets fixed in Diablo ...

At 10:03 AM, Blogger Glen said...

Many well-loved games have wikipedia entries. Ico's is here.

I first heard about Ico from Penny Arcade. I love the title of the award they gave it when naming it Game of the Year: Best Use Of Smoky Shadow Guys Who Try To Steal Your Princess Who Might Be Blind Or Something We're Not Really Sure.

Shadow of the Colossus, in current release, is an Ico prequel that is well worth playing. And again, you don't get the full effect unless you manage to get to the end.

At 3:48 PM, Blogger Stephen said...

Thanks for the link on Ico. Was neat to see the ending material as well.


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