Ebert on Video Games: They are Inferior

By Chris Remo, Nov 29, 2005 2:45pm PST Noted Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert has a few things to say about video games. In a recent edition of his Answer Man column, a reader brought up Ebert's Doom review, in which it was implied that the reviewer had little desire to acquaint himself with the film's source material. Ebert's response was to claim that "books and films are better mediums, and better uses of my time." His justification for this is that he has recently read and seen great works by luminaries of those two forms, and despite an unfamiliarity with games has not seen a convincing argument as to there being games that can live up to the output of Nabokov, Hugo, Scorsese, Kurosawa, and so on. In Sunday's Answer Man column, a different reader wrote in regarding that response, citing various treatises on the artistic and theoretical properties of games. Ebert's response was simultaneously more generous and more limiting than his previous one.
Yours is the most civil of countless messages I have received after writing that I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: 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 am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.

He goes on to imply that time spend playing video games is wasted time that would be better spent with film or literature. Of course, as he previously stated, his knowledge regarding games is rather uninformed, and it's hard to believe he would keep up with the sort of journalistic or literary venues that would argue such claims well, since they obviously tend to deal with video games. Ebert's rather crass response seems to suggest a limiting definition of what art can be, as well as an unfamiliarity with the sort of control game designers can in fact have over their audiences. Just as in the other forms Ebert mentions, in games that control can be expressed through narrative means or simply through a crafted experience.

For an example off the top of my head of the former, take the strange yet brutally familiar imagining of America presented in Tim Schafer's Full Throttle (PC). Set in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic landscape, the seemingly mundane backdrop of a hostile corporate takeover reaches incredible depth of significance. It becomes a metaphor for the country's slow decline into corporate facelessness and the odd juxtaposition between the freedom allowed by a recreated American frontier with the essential powerlessness of the frontier's inhabitants. You think I'm kidding? Play it again.

For another spur of the moment example in a more non-narrative setting, take Shigeru Miyamoto's Pikmin (GCN). Miyamoto didn't set out to necessarily create a quirky character-based real-time strategy title, though that's the form the game took. While working in his garden, he decided to craft a game that would evoke the melancholic and solitary feelings he was experiencing. Anybody who has become engrossed in Pikmin can surely attest to those qualities shining through to an almost startling degree. It's all the more surprising given the typically Miyamoto-esque brightly colored and exaggerated presentation, as the game has less of the carefree nature inherent to, say, a Mario title. The fact that Pikmin so effectively communicates the emotions Miyamoto intended to convey is not simply an issue of craftsmanship (though craftsmanship is present in spades with the balanced and engaging gameplay), it speaks to the artistry with which the game was conceived.

It is frustrating to see current mainstream criticism--and no critics are as synonymous with modern mainstream criticism as Ebert--maintain deliberately ill-informed opinions about gaming as a medium. Not because gaming needs to be recognized as art, which is an opinion that is hotly contested among many gamers, but because it does such a grave disservice to the people behind the games, who are clearly capable of far more expression through their work than many seem prepared to acknowledge.

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92 Threads* | 251 Comments*

  • If you read his review of Doom, you can see that he can't even follow the plot of a movie, yet alone understand videogames. In the movie he goes to great length to complain that the monsters have been on Mars forever. Except they haven't...
    He also makes a comment about a skeleton surviving geologic activity, except Mars doesn't seem to have had any geologic activity for millions of years. I guess he's no scientist either...

    As to his refutation of videogames not being art, he is clearing espoucing a variation on autuer theory in that there must be a guiding force behind a film. He probably doesn't put much stock into reception studies, active viewing, or resistant readings.

    Many here have commented on his narrow definition of art, and I agree, up to a point. However, many here have also gone on to mention games that most closely approximate narrative-driven styles of art which is, I feel, also a rather narrow definition of art. Why does something have to be based in narrative to be artistic?

    Personally, I think that "art" is just as meaningful a term as "beautiful." We each have our own notions of what is or isn't beautiful and we can argue about that definition without ever coming to a satisfying definition.

  • People didn't really see the artistic merit in films either, until movies like Birth of a Nation started coming out. Full Throttle and ICO aren't enough--there are far greater things to come. Most game developers, no matter how talented, are still in the "thrill ride" mentality. They want to make something fun, not something meaningful. And who can blame them? If I thought all my serious artistic efforts would turn into pretentious crap like Final Fantasy I'd be reluctant to give it a real try myself. Slowly but surely we'll see more and more respectable work, and this will enbolden others.

    One thing is sure though: "games" is too broad a category to pigeonhole. They can resemble a New York Times crossword puzzle, or a spy novel brought to life. With that much flexibility it will be impossible to keep artistry out forever.

  • I thought guys like Ebert loved that yuppy art where some guy draws a bunch of primary colored straight lines on a canvas that randomly make shapes and try to determine what it means. The kind of stuff you send 5 waspy old farts in to try and figure it out and you get 5 answers, all of which have less to do with the artist having any form of control and more on how the viewer filters it through their own experiences.

    However, I do have to agree that he mispoke in saying it is not art, and it is more likely as one poster has said that he meant it is not a form of the literary portion of the liberal arts. But I'd have to disagree on that as well. Take any RPG from the mid 90s back to the dawn of gaming and tell me the authors did not have nearly complete control over your experience. Doing things in order and having to try and remember where you randomly saw doodad-X you need to make guard-joe schmoe tell you something definately puts the game authors in control of the story line. Even some puzzle/horror games like System Shock 2, HL2, Silent Hill***, etc are definately some well told stories.

    Another poster also mentioned that his likely low skill level with games probably prohibits him from experiencing these elements. As the best told games are also the hardest. A non-gamer would probably not have the patience to try and figure System Shock 2s puzzles out long enough to catch the story.

  • Ebert thinks that real art takes authorial control. This is from the mindset of how movies and literature are created. Like many critics, he is missing the whole point. What makes art wonderful is the experience people take away from it, not what goes into it.

    This is what separates Godfather from Star Wars Episode 3. Episode 3 is a much harder film to make- the technology, the art direction, acting in front of blue screens to characters that don't exist. But Godfather is a much better movie. Why? Because of what people take away from it. People love the characters and the world, the dialogue and scenes. Some of the most profound art is simple and short in any medium.

    I have had some of the most impactful experiences pertaining to entertainment with video games. It has created fantasy worlds at least as great if not greater than movies and books.

  • First of all video games require imagination. Most movies needs little to no imagination and books are usually very good to describe what happens and what characters think. Roger Ebert calls it authorial control.

    Video games require imagination because you take on a character and you are that character throughout the game, whatever game that may be; It could be a soldier in Battlefield 2 or the purple tentacle from the 'Day of the Tentacle'.

    You need imagination to put yourself in the situation of which the game puts your character. Therefore video games should be treated differently from movies and books. A good computer game like Full Throttle is an experience no movie or book provides and I alone for that fact consider many games to be art. To me it's a computer game work of art and you need imagination to live it.

    I can see it must be hard for Roger Ebert to fancy video games and do proper research because he's not that kind of person. He might have some imagination, but I doubt it's enough to enjoy video games as most people do on the Shack.

  • I sent the following email to Ebert. We'll see if I get a response:
    Mr. Ebert:
    I do not mean this email to be in any way derogatory. I appreciate your knowledge as a film critic and have read your reviews for years. However, my admiration of your perspicacity toward film has compelled me to write in defense of my favorite pastime: videogames.
    In response to another reader you wrote:
    “That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.”
    Essentially, the final sentence of the above statement implies that playing videogames is a waste of time, while reading a novel or watching a film is not. While I do not presume to have complete awareness of your life experience, I daresay that your experience of videogames has been confined to occasional glimpses of games played by younger relatives and to reading the polemical statements that periodically crop up in hysteria-driven news media outlets. And I must admit, if all you know about videogames is what you see on TV advertisements or what you read about in the denunciations of the evils of Grand Theft Auto, your above statement would be correct.
    But then you are missing so much.
    Take a look at the history of new creative media. Novels, a few hundred years ago, were considered trashy and bland, prosaic works that were unable to compete with the artistic beauty of verse. Now some of the greatest works of art come from the pens of novelists. Shakespeare considered the plays he wrote to be base and a means to money, not as art—his real focus, the writing he considered artistic, were his Sonnets. Now Shakespeare’s plays are studied in the finest universities around the world. More recently, comic books and graphic novels suffered under exactly the same kind of inimical criticism as videogames do now. Read Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” or Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series and try to tell me there is nothing artistic and compelling and worthy of our time on those pages.
    Am I daring to compare videogames to Shakespeare? I am, especially in their potential. Play “Half Life 2” and try not to feel as much visceral emotions and connection with an imaginary world as you do when you watch the finest films. Try out “Knights of the Old Republic” and see if you are not immediately caught up in the characters and plotline the same way you would be with a great, page-turner of a novel. These are just a few examples of an art form—yes, an art form—that is still in its infancy. As with any new creative medium, its inchoate stages are sometimes rough, and it brings condemnation from older generations that do not quite understand, just as their parents did not quite understand rock ‘n roll music back in the day. But the potential for videogames is enormous, and there are some people already out there in the industry who are crafting worlds and creating experiences that move and excite and usher thoughts as profound and moving as any other creative medium.
    Videogames are no more a waste of time than watching a movie, reading a book or listening to music. I hope that this email, and the (no doubt) hundreds of others may help convince you, and anyone else you may read this, not to be so quick to judge what you may not fully understand.

  • Ebert's point is valid and I'd say he'd be right if he were to say a truly artistic game hasn't really been made yet. There's certainly been artistic endeavors in videogames, with mixed success. I mean, when he says, "I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful," does that sound like an insult? It's not, he's just saying that games don't quite reach the caliber of art. Keep in mind, also, that things that have very crude or simplistic craftmanship can be considered art as well.

    I'm also very wary about citing Tim Schafer's games as "art". His style relies on a very tried-and-true narrative style and doesn't really ever directly tackle the problem of player interaction very elegently. Instead his games are content to sideline the player into a slightly more observational role in order to get the content of his stories across, which, of course, makes for an interesting story but the game itself becomes of arguable quality.

    Ebert is right in that the player-interaction is a big hurdle, but it's not necissarily an impossible one. I seem to recall film had a similar problem, in using pictures of reality to craft a story that is complimentary to the medium and could be considered "art". Film may not seem like a weird idea nowadays, but back when it first strated it certainly was. I'd postulate that games are in a very similar position at the moment, where creators are just beginning to realize and tackle the problems in realizing games as an artistic medium (and I'm not talking about bootstrapping cinematics into games, which many developers seem to think is acceptable at the moment).

    It's no big deal to see critics of other mediums react this way, though. All mediums have this problem and get labelled as gimmicky trash (and, sadly, some either sputter or flat out don't overcome it, like comic books and animation in America). It's a little disheartening, and current gamers will probably never really get the satisfaction of seeing the critics eat their words (becase they'll probably be dead by then), but games as an artform will happen.

  • I only scanned the first page of comments, so I apologize if this has been brought up in this place already.

    Someone mentioned not long ago the differences between Japanese and American games. More specifically, the design and motivation behind each.

    In a short, simplistic, if not entirely accurate summary: American games are in general focused on technology as it's applied to the gameplay + a cool story to go along with it. Japanese games, as evidenced by interviews with the luminaries, start with the designer wanting to convey an idea, create an emotion in the player. I think this is very important point in understanding why non-gaming people can't attach themselves to games as they do books and movies.

    I'm going to bet that Ebert isn't impressed by latest graphics engine and the latest gaming technology. To him, Counterstrike and Doom 3 probably look like the same game. (As hard as it is to believe, I've had many non-gamers tell me that). The general public just isn't moved by flashy graphics.

    You're a marine fighting against an invading army of aliens. You know, we often wince at how bad videogames get translated to movies, but maybe when you take away the gameplay, take away the game, the hollow story is all you have left. Gamers fill in this story with their imagination and weave an entire world in their heads that is as real, as organic, as detailed and as fulfilling as the greatest sci-fi novel ever written. Non-gamers can't do that.

    I say someone should get Ebert, or anyone close to you, to try out a few of the more "emotional" games.

    It's like getting a gamer to read again. You don't start with War and Peace. Not if you want to keep him reading, at least.

  • I don't think this is so easily reducible. A novel, a film, a painting, can each tell a tale, convey emotion in its own unique manner. I've seen abstract paintings, with only enough definable imagery to give you a context wherein to place the emotion of the color, and the texture of the strokes, that moved me quite deeply.

    The words of a fine writer can have a profound effect, as can a stirring series of images in a film, backed by a moving soundtrack. But, for instance, how does the painting "Guernica" by Picasso, compare to Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls"? What about the opening beach scene in "Saving Private Ryan"? How does that compare, in its depiction of the sorrow, madness and brutality of war? Should they even be compared?

    Can someone truly say that a video game can't convey the same emotion, with the same power? The development of a computer game can bring together inspiring writers, visual artists and musicians. Can someone truly say that the visceral response of storming the beach in Call of Duty or Medal of Honor doesn't compare to words or images others have used to describe the scene? With the high quality imagery and audio capable today, the game can put you in a foxhole, with the sound of artillery shattering your ears as it slams into your flimsy cover. You march inch by inch, seeing your mates killed by your side, until finally, brutally, suddenly you, yourself have fallen... and the sounds and the sights fade into a blur.

    Not every tale can be told with equal force in every medium; I certainly wouldn't want to "play" Crime & Punishment, but a game such as Shadow of the Colossus, or even the recent Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit) can put the participant in a position of wonder and excitement that most novels or films would have trouble attaining.

  • Consider EA Sports, BF2, Counterstrike, or Civilization. They are all basically sandboxes that allow players to have an experience. The exact experience changes with each play, and the per-game story can be suspenseful and have twists. Can this type qualify as art? I don't think so. They are toys to play with.

    It's not so cut and dried though. They can have artistic elements in them. Most games have "art assets" and artistic direction with sound and music to provide an atmosphere. It's hard to believe there can't be ANY artistic value to any of that.

    But then there's the plot games. Interactive fiction (all the point and click adventures are basically just graphical versions of this). They present a story; isn't it conceivable that that story could be art? Even if it almost never is. The main issue is that the player interaction is often "pointless" (Dragon Slayer arcade game: the story plays but the player has to exercise reflexes to keep advancing the story).

    So, assuming LOTR is art, would it still be art if you have to get through a hand-eye-coordination exercise or solve a Myst-like puzzle to advance the story? It's not clear how interactive sequences affect the art.

    I think potentially, interactivity can draw the viewer into feeling like he is "in" an experience, rather than watching one. Half-Life 2 would be relatively boring to watch as a video of someone playing through. But clearly there is an experience playing through it... you are directly controlling the character and feel like you're in another world.

    But computers are so limited in what you can directly control. Action is the order of the day because we don't have AIs with language and speech processing. Furthermore even if we had that, what would drive the player to do interesting scenes? Look at the movie Taxi Driver. You can't make an interactive experience out of something that is based on an intricate character. Game personas are either shown in cutscenes or provided to you in conversation choice items (or you sort of indirectly control a strong character, as with Full Throttle).

    TLDR: I think most games that are art, aren't art because they are games. The interactivity that directly contributes to artistic games is nice but ultimately limiting in the nature of experience they can provide.

  • Actually, I'm giving Ebert the benefit of the doubt on this one. I think his viewpoint is just as legitimate as either of the views that (a) games are/will be art, or (b) games and art intersect nowhere, and thus games will always just be called 'games' and no other label will be placed on the medium.

    This debate will go on until our generation is old, and I think people who have grown up surrounded by only single-directional media (film, literature, etc.) will be inclined to follow Ebert's line of thinking. There's a certain parallel, in cerebral terms, with people who can use computers and those who can't.

    To add my two cents, I think it's perfectly legitimate, and fair, to keep games and art as separate concepts, and that as games evolve, they'll take on their own terminology (whereas certain concepts can be applied to music, art, literature and film alike) to where they develop into their own field, completely separate from other forms of art that traditionally get lumped together. And that's not to say it gives games a positive *or* negative connotation - I think if such a thing happened, it wouldn't bother Ebert in the least.

    So while my personal opinion is that games *are* art, because they evoke emotion, what Ebert says doesn't necessarily have to be taken as a slam toward games or their creators.