Friday, May 7, 2010

Roger Ebert, You Confuse Me

Damn it.I remain convinced that in principle video games cannot be art.” – Roger Ebert’s Journal, April 2010

“I'm not opposed to 3-D as an option. I'm opposed to it as a way of life.” - Ebert in Newsweek, April 2010

What am I supposed to do with you, Roger Ebert?

You seem hell bent on discrediting the opinions and efforts of some damn smart people. Intelligent folk dedicated to filling out the emotional spectrum of a medium I have some affection for.

You also detest the advances of a technology being shoved down our throats by some other pretty smart people. Clever, crafty people frightened of losing sales to cheaper, less disorienting home theater options.

One of your stances I simply don’t understand. The other I find myself agreeing with.

It’s disconcerting, to say the least.

I get it, Ebert. You don’t play games. Not with any serious investment, anyway. And I can respect that. I don’t see every movie. So I won’t fault you for that. But because of that concession, I will fault you for taking such a strong stance on something you don’t take time with which to familiarize yourself.

We’ve beaten the Games As Art ‘debate’ to death here at Charge Shot!!!. Based primarily on the biases of myself and the other two founders, Rob and Andrew, we’ve long since accepted the premise that games can be art. We’ve even got a tag for it.

Your primary argument, Ebert, is that player agency compromises the medium’s artistic potential. In a 2007 piece on the subject you wrote, “I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist.” I suppose that is true.

But can’t a player’s ability to create within a set of parameters be part of the artist’s intended experience? Whether or not you laugh at the Shakespearean fool does nothing to the script but can drastically affect the performance and thus the work of art. Is not part of the Bard’s art how he coaxes the audience into the dialogue he intended for them to have with the performer? An artistically-minded game designer acts similarly. S/he creates a world in which the player might do any number of things, but limits the possible actions (and chains of actions) to guide the player toward an intended resolution.

Jason Rohrer, an indie designer who modestly agrees with your critiques and takes them as challenges, spoke of problems with player agency on A Life Well Wasted, saying (and I’m grossly paraphrasing here) that he understands that players could essentially walk in a circle or do nothing for the entirety of his memento mori piece Passage. Sure, it goes against the artist’s intended effect and breaks the game. I see this as the gaming analogue to running up on stage at a show, throwing popcorn in the movie theater, or ignoring/tearing down a painting. The consequences may be less severe, but the change in the audience’s relationship to the piece (from participatory to antagonistic) is similar. However, if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief (a phrase often used for what audiences do when they accept that the actor onstage just traveled from Brussels to New York by changing the position of a chair) and play along, you may just find yourself open to the artist’s work.

Sorry, Roger. Give me a second to climb down from my soapbox.

What I’m trying to say is that I don’t understand why you continue to vehemently close the door on something a lot of people feel strongly about. Maybe it’s because you didn’t grow up gaming, so you don’t possess the emotional vocabulary to be moved by something so interactive. I’m not trying to say Pac-Man made me feel feelings, so now Shadow of the Colossus can. But perhaps my affinity for games is what makes it more likely that a Mass Effect or Colossus might tug on my heartstrings a bit. I pay little attention to the objective-based design part (one of your major hang-ups, I understand) and look right to the heart of the matter (if there is one – sorry Madden).

Your affinity for movies is what’s garnered you so much success and goodwill over the years. You’re a respected member of the film critic community, due in part to your outstanding pedigree as an honest appraiser of the medium. So when I see you take a stand on the whole issue of 3D technology, I pay attention.

I loved your first point in Newsweek:

“When you look at a 2-D movie, it's already in 3-D as far as your mind is concerned… Our minds use the principle of perspective to provide the third dimension. Adding one artificially can make the illusion less convincing.”

It’s not an argument I’d heard before, and it could only come from someone who’s paid close attention to the evolution of the filmmaker’s toolbox. Your critiques of 3D as “dim” and “nausea-inducing” are often the mark – the explanation of how 3D glasses affect screen brightness also being something I supposed I’d noticed but couldn’t articulate before reading your piece.

And you’re right, there’s weight to the “Hollywood feels threatened” argument. Most praise re: Avatar depends on the conceit that people see it in 3D, in a theater. Hollywood needs us to buy those $15 tickets for the “experience” or else they won’t be able to subsidize the losses they’re suffering because their business model can’t cope with Netflix.

3D can and will contribute to mainstream artistic collapse if every major studio’s dollar is funneled towards converting Summer Blockbuster #37 to 3D. There won’t be the budget or the time to even consider future Hurt Lockers and There Will Be Bloods. I’m getting a little fire and brimstone here, I realize. But your 3D indictment pulls no punches, so I’m just trying to back you up.

Why do you torture me like this, Roger? Why must you sound so damn persuasive and insightful on a topic I trust you to know about, and then sound so closed-minded and judgmental about a field of which you know so little? Why say anything about games at all? Never mind that any of the “games” people (like myself) are throwing at you with the “Games As Art” sticker attached probably deserve a more specific word than “game” (though “play” seems to have stuck around the theatre world long enough). Unfortunately, “Interactive art” or “Interactive entertainment” just sound hokey.

I don’t want to see your thoughts about games any more, and I don’t want anyone else to either. It’s ruining your credibility among a burgeoning audience of media consumers (see Rob’s comments on a recent podcast). I want to read what you think about the newest Coen Brothers film. Or why it’s important for Scorsese to prove that 3D can be wielded effectively by someone other than James Cameron. Please give me your expertise, not your narrow-minded criticism.