Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Roger Ebert is A Pompous Gasbag

Not that this is in any way news. Still, I feel the need to chime in and reiterate.

In case you don’t follow the world of video game politics, Roger Ebert recently recanted his previous assertion that video games cannot be art (okay, it wasn’t that recent--N'gai Croal id an excellent rebuttal here-- but I am slow to anger). Instead, Ebert has now declared that video games can be art, but may not be “High Art.” Go, check this out now. Please scan the article in detail. No, look closer. See if you can actually find a definition, or even a vague attempt at it, of “high art” anywhere in there. No? Me neither.

Still, I look forward to the next step of this debate, where Ebert declares that games can, in fact, be high art, but cannot be “Eb-art,” a special category of art which automatically makes anyone who enjoys it a spiritually superior being and which is defined solely by the quality of being something that Roger Ebert likes. Ebert’s sole points against video games as High Art seems to be a) video games are entertaining (the true mark of all Low Art) and b) the user can affect the outcome. Ebert also points out that “the vast majority” of games involve point-and-shoot gameplay or scavenger hunts, but this is like saying movies cannot be art because the vast majority of them involve explosions and Colin Farrell. Are we really judging the entirety by the vast majority?

So let’s put aside point a), because clearly you would have to be a blithering imbecile in order to actually agree with Ebert on that one (no, I have no problems with using ad hominem attacks. I firmly believe that we need not put forth a full intellectual refutation of an idea when it is on its face retarded). Let’s look at point b), the idea that art requires the consumer to sit passively and consume as art is shoved down their unwilling throats.

Refutation #1: Not all video games give the user that degree of control. In fact, I dare say the number that do hovers somewhere around “none.” With varying degrees of flexibility, video games tend to shepherd the player through the story, giving the illusion of freedom while simultaneously pushing them from one cut-scene to the next towards an inevitable and inexorable conclusion. In fact, the “illusion of free will” concept is one of the greatest artistic statements I have seen games make, and they hammer it home in a manner that is utterly unmatched, and I believe cannot be matched, by any other medium. One recent video game in particular, which I will not name to avoid giving the ending away, really illustrated this for me when the twist in the story came, showing that I, the player, had completely and one hundred percent gone along with the game’s pre-planned destiny while believing that I was actually acting on my own free will. Anyways, long story short, the idea that video games by necessity actually involve user-affected outcome is simply false, so there goes that.

Refutation #2: All art is open to interpretation, right? Surely, if there is anything that defines “High Art” it is this. Each watcher brings in his subjective experience, interfaces with the art work, then takes away something different. Now I think this is true of all art, but even more so, not everything is as straight up as Romeo and Juliet. A Pollock painting, for example, or a Chopin composition, for example. What about interactive theater, like Hedwig and the Angry Inch? Isn’t all art interactive on some level? What about the artistic statements that can be made, in the manner discussed above, about our control of our own destiny? Surely nothing conveys these ideas better than allowing the viewer to actually do so, to actually see the fruits of his personal decisions. Thus, in the Knights of the Old Republic games, if we choose to act evilly, we see in detail the way good people around us are corrupted by our acts, the way it makes some warp their ideals to justify it, the way others break under the pressure. One character, for example is a reformed murderer. Your choice of actions can lead him to redeem himself or to relapse back into his old persona, and neither route is pretty or uncomplicated. Is that not an artistic statement?

Now granted, Ebert’s sparring partner here is Clive Barker, which is kind of like the value of beef as a gourmet food being championed by the Hamburglar, so maybe Ebert wasn’t on his A-game in that post. Still, what it all comes down to is this: the only thing that really defines “video games” as a whole, other than the fact that they occur on an electronic medium, is user interactivity. Can lack of user interactivity be what defines “high art,” whatever that is? If not, then how can you say that video games cannot be art? Then again, when you’re a pompous mongoloid attention-whore, it makes it that much easier.