Game Buzz is a weekly opinion column designed to take an irreverent look at one of the biggest news stories to break in the past week. Every Friday we’ll be bringing you another slice of reaction to topical gaming news, and inviting you to agree, disagree, shout assent, vent rage, scream and complain to you heart’s delight. This week, following Roger Ebert's apology (of sorts) for his stance on the games vs. art debate, Felix wades into the battle to ask what the hell the fuss is all about.
Yesterday, Roger Ebert, an outspoken critic of videogame's merits as an art form, conceded he "was a fool for mentioning videogames in the first place". Ebert is considered the most important film critic alive (the dead critics only watch George Romero films), but drew ire from the videogame community when he claimed the medium "can never be art". As expected, countless fans bombarded his site arguing quite the opposite, Matt did a previous piece in the series rubbishing the movie critic's stance, but Ebert was unperturbed.
Until now. Confessing he had no basis for his claims, having never played a videogame in his life, Ebert admitted he shouldn't have said that, but still believed in what he said. So... you were wrong for saying videogames weren't art, but still think what you said is right? Regardless of Ebert's double-negative, bend-bending semantics, it brings us yet again to the well-worn question, 'Can Videogames Be Art'?
Roger Ebert claims Citizen Kane is his favourite film. I studied Orson Welles' magnum opus in college, and found the opening scene, drifting up the grounds of Xanadu as the great building itself remains the same position despite the constantly shifting perspective, an amazing cinematic achievement, particularly considering the film was made in 1941. I was born in 88, almost forty years later, when TVs were the size of small cars and people wore jeans just below the nipple, so I can only assume the 40s were a fairly primitive place.
Citizen Kane is considered the greatest film of all time, pioneering cinematic techniques and narrative conventions. It's considered to be the film that propelled the medium into being an art form, paving the way for the likes of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Laurence of Arabia and Vin Diesel's eye-opening insight into the world of male nannies, The Pacifier. The videogame industry, according to people like Roger Ebert, is still awaiting its Citizen Kane before it can ever be even considered an art form.
My problem with all of this? Citizen Kane is BORING! I'm pretty sure when I was watching it in class, Gears of War had just arrived through my letterbox, and all I could think of, as Welles kept muttering about sleds from his deathbed, was Epic's bloody, brutal assault on brain-cells and narrative coherence. Citizen Kane, and Ebert's choice of it as his favourite film and a powerful weapon in supporting his anti-videogame claims, is so indicative of those stubborn, old-school types so petrified of change. Videogames scare them, because they live on discs too small to fit on their gramophone player.
Art? What's Art?
Maybe I'm stupid, maybe I'm ignorant. Citizen Kane is undoubtedly a masterpiece, Roger Ebert an intelligent, well-read critic. And I'm just some 21 year old writer for a videogames blog who still believes Arsenal have a chance of winning the league. Obviously, my argument for videogames definitely possessing the qualities of an art form, might be a tad naive.
But I've grown up on videogames. I've seen them evolve from the 2-D, pixellated wallpapers of Sonic to the lush, 3-D landscapes of Uncharted and Crysis. I'm obviously biased. Also, the definition of what art actually is eludes me. As a child, I was forced to wander the halls of the Tate, lined with paintings and sculptures. The only time I was remotely inspired involved seeing a halved cow, preserved in glass, and I doubt the artistic community would approve of those particular inspirations. So when I see the epic landscapes of games like Fable and Fallout, or the brutal battlefields of Killzone and Call of Duty, and I find myself both immersed, affected and considerably amazed by such scenes, how am I supposed to react to Ebert's claims, when I feel videogames are currently as cinematic, if not more, than today's films?
Ebert's challenging remarks about videogames came to a head when he was met with opposition from Clive Barker, renowned director of such disturbing gore-fests like Hellraiser, but who has also ventured into the realm of videogames, helping to breathe life into titles such as Undying and Jericho. Barker was supportive of videogames interactive features, whereas Ebert believed this sabotaged their artistic ambitions. What if Romeo and Juliet had been a videogame, and players had rescued the love-struck couple from their inevitable end?
About What I Said The Other Day...
Ebert's since retracted his claims, maintaining his stance but admitting his lack of actual knowledge of videogames means he's not qualified to criticize the medium. So why should we care? Why should we care if some film-critic thinks games aren't art? Like I've said, what does that even mean? Videogames aren't art? Who cares. As long as developers continue to push boundaries, as long as games like Gears of War can exist alongside the likes of Flower and Braid, I'm not fussed if the 'intellectual types' look down their proverbial noses.
What is troubling is the corporate nature of videogames. It's a highly lucrative industry, but also a very expensive one, for consumers and developers alike. Videogames are multimillion dollar investments. So if a particular game with a particular aesthetic is successful, publishers sense a trend, and proceed to develop a range of similar games, thus saturating the market in today's grey and brown shooters with their rubble-strewn, bullet-riddled landscapes. How can we expect our medium to not only progress, but prosper, when even our visual styles become corporate strategies?
With his remarks outraging legions of fans, Ebert found himself mired in dispute with many a gamer. As a videogame writer, I know what our fans can be like, so I doubt much of the debate was well-mannered and intelligent - the comments that appeared were perfectly erudite, but I do wonder what his spam box must have looked like! To his credit, Ebert claimed he received many a reasonable and well-founded message, suggesting he at least investigate some games for their artistic merits. Not surprisingly, Shadow of the Colossus was top of the list. Ebert was even offered a free PS3, pre-loaded with a copy of indie wonder, Flower, but he declined. Again, yet another reason to not put any stock in the man's beliefs. If he's not even willing to at least pick up a controller and play a game, for free, then what's the point?
In the end, whether videogames are art is a purely subjective decision. Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. I'm not even sure why we're having this argument. Developers invest millions in hiring capable artists, giving them the right tools to deliver their vision, and we as fans are lucky enough to be the recipients of their hard-work. Art shmart!