The Princess is in Another Castle: Braid, Roger Ebert, and Whether Video Games Can Be Art

 
“Video games can never be art.”
– Roger Ebert

I spent a long time trying to figure out how to judge art. I came to the conclusion, admittedly a bit of a cop out, that judging art is an individual, subjective process. Certainly critics, laymen, and others can reach a general consensus about what does or does not qualify as quality, but in the end, each person has to judge for themselves.

That said, Roger Ebert is dead wrong.

It takes a certain amount of bravado, even for a celebrated film critic, to declare that an entire medium can never reach the pinnacle of artistic merit. It’s easy to point to Ebert’s age and believe that he mistakes the old days of fun if story-bare games like Pacman and Donkey Kong for the immersive, in depth, and often narrative world of video games that exists today. But I think that lets Ebert off too easily. At base, anything that tells a story can not only be art; it can be high art, and Ebert ought to know that.

Anything that uses carefully crafted visuals to evoke a particular sense or emotion can be high art. Anything that envelops the audience in a character, in a world, and transposes their experiences into a grand fictional adventure can be high art. In the same way that a great novel crafts a compelling narrative, in the same way that great visual art compels with color and composition, in the same way that a celebrated film brings the viewer into another world, a great video game can reach those same artistic heights. In fact, video games are uniquely positioned to do all three.

Which brings us to Braid, the 2009 game from Jonathan Blow. Blow is the yin to Ebert’s yang, a man who believes wholeheartedly that video games can be art, but who is relentless in his critiques of the industry as it stands today for failing to live up to its potential. Braid is Blow’s biggest salvo in this fight, and his example to the world of what a video game can be.

 

The "box art" for the game.

 

Braid has been chief among those games cited as counterexamples to Ebert’s position.  In fact, the game has been invoked so repeatedly that Ebert himself even touched on it in an essay defending his position on video games. (Ebert, of course, took a less-than-favorable view of the title, despite not engaging with it beyond watching a few minutes of gameplay.) Nevertheless, it’s a work that stands as playable challenge to the idea that games cannot be art.

Braid’s premise is deceptively simple. The protagonist, Tim, “made a mistake.” Now he has to traverse several obstacles and enemies in order to save the princess and set things right. The devil, of course, is in the details. The player does not have to advance very far in the game to realize that the princess in question is not necessarily a typical damsel in distress and that the quest is more complicated than just the usual “beat the villain, rescue the girl” script.

Blow crafts a story that lures the audience into discovering where Tim’s story is going and prompts them to wonder what’s really going on. Blow had a clear vision for the engaging visuals that not only create a backdrop for Tim’s journey, but evoke a very particular mood and feeling throughout the journey. He also created a haunting, off-kilter world that provokes a palpable sense of unease with each new puzzle. In short, in clear defiance of Ebert’s foolhardy proclamation, Blow created a game with a clear purpose to set a new standard for artistry in gaming and show that video games can indeed be high art. The big question is – did he succeed?

 

Using Gaming’s History

Part of what makes video games an art form, rather than mere diversions, is that they have a rich history to draw from. Yes, games like Asteroids or Pong can hardly be thought of in terms of high art, but they make up a treasured chapter of gaming’s past that later works can both draw from and reference.

Braid is a perfect example. It has direct references to prior games like Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong. There are not-quite-Goombas who roam around as the game’s main baddies. There’s also a puzzle that immediately calls to mind the series of beams and ladders that allowed the player to defeat the ape and rescue the damsel in distress in Donkey Kong. But Blow’s use of gaming’s past goes beyond mere shout outs; he uses gaming’s past as a way to both subvert and capitalize on the player’s expectations.

 

It may not look like much, but it was amazing.

 

I spent many hours as a kid with my dad playing Super Mario Bros. on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Any gamer worth their salt knows the sting that comes after completing almost any of the game’s stages. Mario still finds himself empty-handed. The obstacles have been evaded, the enemies defeated, and the dragon slain. Instead of a victory so richly deserved, the princess’s attendant tells you that the battle is not over, the damsel is not yet saved, and there is still another set of trials to endure before the fight is finished.

 

"Sucker."

 

That’s why when a character comes out at the end of one of Braid’s many worlds to tell Tim, “I’m sorry, but the princess is in another castle,” it means much more than any random level-ending congratulations. When that same character’s affirmations became more wary, more disjointed with each new level conquered, it conveys the sense that something is wrong. That character was messing up the way the victory was supposed to sound and look and feel. Something was not right, not out in the open, about the quest the player had been tasked with, and it was unsettling in a way that could not be conveyed through exposition alone.

 

The old bait and switch.

 

Blow took advantage of the language of gaming in the same way great directors use the language of film to convey moods or tension, based solely on the viewer’s expectations from prior works. By both invoking and vandalizing these tropes, Blow managed to convey the eeriness, the unease of what was happening by playing with the “grammar” from gaming’s history. There’s a level of sophistication in the medium that comes from having those sorts of expectations, both to avoid the unsubtle instances where a work’s creator has to spell everything out, and to allow that creator to reach the audience by defying those expectations.

 

The Great Divide Between Plot and Gameplay

In the same vein, the gameplay of Braid is both plain in how familiar it feels, and strikingly novel in its twist. The game plays like any Mario-inspired 2D platformer. You stomp on enemies, work your way through puzzles, travel through various worlds and reach a castle at the end of each level. It all seems pretty standard at first blush.

The twist comes in the form of your ability to manipulate time. Braid is not the first video game to use this concept in gaming, but few integrate it so flawlessly. Make no mistake, the player’s ability to rewind and fast forward through time, correcting or retrying their prior actions, is not just a gimmick. It’s both an essential part of the themes of the game and vital to solving its puzzles.

To the point, there are six main worlds within the game and each uses the time feature differently. One involves the player’s “imprint” repeating their prior actions after each rewind. Another ties the enemies’ (and the level’s) ability to move forward in with Tim’s own movements back and forth across the screen. Still another has the entire level moving backwards in time, only moves “forward” when Tim uses his rewind ability. Each level starts with a bit of text, not only providing some backstory on Tim and his quest, but more importantly drawing out the theme for each level.

 

"They should have never even started playing Risk."

 

Integrating a game’s plot and its action is often difficult. One of the biggest criticisms within gaming is that too many video games have a stark divide between their story and the gameplay. Often there’s still an engaging, worthwhile story being told, but it comes exclusively through cutscenes and breaks in the action.

Even if you accept my premise that anything which tells a story can be art, there’s a fair criticism to be made that Ebert is at least partially correct when he complains that games are just about action, not about expression. A solid half of the presentation in many games–to wit, the half the player is directly interacting with–frequently has little to no bearing on the story being told.

On the one hand, it seems like this sort of split, all too typical in games today, should help convince Ebert that video games can at least be a type of art. In 2005, the first time Ebert made his grand declaration about video games, he explained that video games were “inherently inferior” because “by their nature [they] require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.”

Well take heart, Roger, since many many games have a fairly even split between the plot and the action. The game’s authors can craft a story, told bit-by-bit, cutscene-by-cutscene, that is entirely linear. Then, once the game has revealed the latest chapter, it can send the player on their way to some nominally-related mini quest before they get the next one.

 

He's clearly thrilled.

 

Hell, the game’s creators can, and often do, make the objective of that quest and the means of achieving it so straightforward that it’s questionable whether the player gets to make much of a decision at all. Based on such examples, Ebert ought to admit that video games in their popular iterations can be art, or at least some sort of hybrid between artistic expression and gaming.

Of course this divide is often a negative when it comes to games rather than a positive. Sure, it helps to create more of Ebert’s vaunted “authorial control,” but it also limits what truly sets video games apart as an art form – the way a skilled creator can weave together a game’s plot and its visuals and its quests into one cohesive whole.

Admittedly, that does involve contending with that oh-so-unfortunate boogey man of “player choice.” The creator of a video game has to both create a world where the player is trusted with ability to make real decisions that affect how the game progresses and also must craft a story that can not only adapt to those choices, but build on them and make them feel like meaningful steps toward the resolution of the plot. They also have to anticipate a multitude of player possibilities and still manage to impart the broader themes or messages the creator is trying to send.

When video game designers can achieve this, it shows a skill that matches or even surpasses that required of great authors, directors, or other artists. They have to present their messages, convey their meaning, and tell a story without the benefit of that pure narrative control. In these situations, the work goes beyond being a mere story, visual or otherwise, and becomes an experience. When done correctly, it’s something truly extraordinary that cannot be achieved in another medium and cannot be achieved when plot and gameplay are segregated.

Braid, on the surface, runs afoul of this separation problem. The main story of Braid is told to the player almost exclusively through the series of text boxes that precede the entrance to each new world. There is essentially no explicit way in which the story moves forward during the actual gameplay. Part of the player’s task in the game is to collect puzzle pieces (tokens akin to collecting stars in more recent Mario games) which can be assembled at any point in the game and which reveal more of the tale, but this too is arguably outside actual gameplay.

 

What Braid might look like if it had been released in 1993.

 

On the other hand, one of the things I discovered while writing this piece is how well-integrated every part of Braid is. Sure, the text boxes before each level do not directly intrude into regular game play, but each presents a theme, and that theme comes to fruition in the midst of playing through each level. The aforementioned puzzle pieces do gradually unveil more of the story, one step at a time. Each new gameplay mechanic introduced in each new world connects directly to the themes expressed and gives the player both insight into the protagonist’s psyche and into the larger point the game’s creator is trying to make.

The game is certainly not the straightforward, linear story that Ebert might prefer. Yet, Braid manages to weave together the obstacles the player must face and the game’s bigger themes so seamlessly that it becomes difficult to extricate them. The game’s various elements are all so bound together that it makes it difficult to talk about any one facet without implicating the others parts of the game that make up the whole.

 

Whither the Prose?

It’s a tribute to Blow and the game he constructed that he managed to tell a story almost entirely via pre-level text boxes and still have the player keep them in mind while actually solving each new puzzle. The only problem is that actual language he uses in those narrative text boxes is vague, ambiguous, and intentionally enigmatic.

They’re also not especially well-written. If there’s one criticism from Roger Ebert that I agree with it’s that Braid, “exhibits prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie.” I do think the game succeeds despite that. Blow lays out his text with enough broad strokes to convey his general themes, but it’s hard to praise the actual writing.

 

Also jury duty.

 

Many critics disagree with this point. Some enthusiasts see the writing as something to recommend Braid as a cut above the rest. There’s no doubt that Jonathan Blow is reaching for something greater, something with more depth, when he wrote these tidbits, but I’m not sure he actually gets there. What’s more, in the pursuit, he sacrifices clarity for inscrutable purple prose.

And that’s my biggest criticism of the entire exercise. Braid imitates one characteristic of great directors and authors and artists in particular – that many of their works are nigh indecipherable. Blow is a devotee of David Lynch (even thanking him in the credits) and it shows, not necessarily in a good way. I don’t know if the events of the game ever reach the surrealism of something like “Twin Peaks,” but overall Braid certainly matches Lynch in terms of a head-scratching unintelligibility. It hurts the game and it hurts Jonathan Blow’s goal generally. The venerable Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw of Zero Punctuation encapsulates the problem perfectly:

“There’s a glimpse of absolute genius in a really well-done endgame sequence, but it still doesn’t explain much, and then it’s back to obscurely written text boxes for the epilogue, which ultimately left me confused and unsatisfied . . . And I refuse to accept that it’s just because I’m thick. . . . Braid is proudly wearing the ‘arty game’ label, but it’s possible that it might be taking refuge in that to avoid having to explain itself. Oh, people say it’s open to interpretation and you’re supposed to discuss it on forums and stuff, but I don’t buy that. It’s like when you tell a joke and nobody laughs. You then explain the joke and people go, ‘oh, that’s pretty clever, I guess.’ But they still won’t laugh, because you didn’t tell the joke properly in the first place!”

On the other hand, maybe Croshaw and I are focusing too much on those textboxes and not on the experience as a whole. When unleashing some bile regarding the Watchmen movie, Alan Moore decried claims that the source material he created lent itself to the cinema. He strenuously maintained that there was something essential about the medium of a graphic novel that was necessary to convey his story and ensured that something would inevitably be lost in translation when that context is removed. The same might go for video games.

Jonathan Blow certainly seems to think so. He maintains that his game’s ideas, “are very hard to verbalise,” adding that, “The sort of thing that I guide myself into thinking about, doesn’t succumb itself into linear language, or at least I don’t know how to do it. Even though there are text bits in the game, I think about the game as the whole thing, that it’s some kind of envelope that I’m trying to express, or points at it in different places and in different directions.”

 

Jonathan Blow, seen here shortly before fighting the Crazy 88.

 

Maybe there’s something there. It’s fair to say there is a certain harmony in the marriage of gameplay and plot and visuals and ideas of Braid that is lost when they are all chopped up and evaluated separately. Blow seems to be arguing for, or at least describing, an element of irreducibility to his art.

That said, how much can that art really move someone when it’s a slog to even begin to understand it? Even when Blow claims that the game “means something very definite” to him and that it is an “unverbalisable concept kind of thing,” is that meaning robbed of its force when its salience is lost on much of the audience?

There’s always a balance between subtlety and clarity in any work. Blow is not the first and will not be the last to lean too heavily toward the former. The problem is that this sort of intentional obscurity clouds the substance of the game. I believe there’s quality, meaningful substance there. Unfortunately, it’s the sort of problem that just provides fuel for Roger Ebert’s fire.

 

The Ever-Moving Goalposts

Unfortunately it’s a fire that’s unlikely to go out anytime soon. In logic, there is a concept called the “No True Scotsman Fallacy.” The name comes from the fallacy’s most venerable example: One person affirms that “No Scotsman hates haggis.” Another responds, “my uncle is from Scotland and he despises haggis.” The original person then retorts, “Well, no true Scotsman hates haggis.” It’s a classic case of changing the criteria for truth in an to attempt to maintain the veracity of your position despite a clear counterexample.

Ebert is clearly an adherent of this particular fallacy. When he opined in 2005 that “video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic,” he was flooded with messages and examples of games and stories that advanced cultural understanding, provoke questions about what civilization means, and earned the audience’s empathy by making them feel through the trials and travails of fictional characters. When he decried video games’ lack of authorial control, he received a torrent of examples of games with stories that proceeded in as linear a fashion as any film and others that presented a multitude of possibilities but still bore the author’s fingerprints in each.

 

Or, if you prefer, thumprints.

 

Faced with this response, Ebert eventually admitted that there was some artistic merit in video games. But then, in 2006, he moved the goalposts again, saying video games could never reach the level of something like “The Great Gatsby” because games “don’t delve very deeply into what it means to be human.” In the process he was presented with, and ignored a myriad of games that force players to make choices, to see where those choices lead, and to understand how very human qualities like compassion, understanding, guilt, greed, and even good and evil come into play.

Then in 2010, Ebert went a step further and seemed to admit that video games could perhaps be art that explores what it means to be human, but that they could never be “high art” on par with the works of the “great filmmakers, novelists and poets,” presenting many of the critiques discussed here.

Chief among those criticisms, Ebert asserted that no video game could grow “better the more it improves or alters nature through a passage through what we might call the artist’s soul, or vision.” He argued that that boundary to artistic expression remains “resolutely uncrossed” in gaming. As a result, Ebert again witnessed a tidal wave of responses explaining how very flawed this reasoning was and how many modern games have the characteristics he seems to value so highly. But to no avail.

Roger Ebert does not want to accept video games as art, and so he won’t, despite the overwhelming amount of evidence on the other side of the argument. He admits that he simply does not want to play any video game, and that it prevents him from delving any deeper on the subject than making these arguments “in principle.” He waved a white flag at the vociferous defenders of video games, stating that he had no desire to experience the wealth of artistic expression in gaming firsthand, and waving off their litany of counterexamples by specifying that he was only discussing video games “in theory.”

The beautiful thing about arguing on theoretical grounds is that it allows you to backpedal with an alarming absence of friction. Ebert’s ever-changing criteria for what makes something high art always allows him a retreat position.  That’s why he could, at last, relent ever so slightly and concede, rather belatedly, that he “should not have written that entry without being more familiar with the actual experience of video games” and that “it is quite possible a game could someday be great art.”

 

Ebert humorously titled his concession, "Okay, Kids, Play on My Lawn."

 

One of Ebert’s biggest distinctions between “games” and “art” is that you can win a game while true art can never be won. He raises up works in other mediums like “a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film” because they “are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.” In setting up these arbitrary obstacles to reaching the pinnacles of art, Ebert has managed to contradict himself, by creating a game that is impossible to win.

Despite his admission that games could someday meet his criteria, Ebert steadfastly held that “no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.” I agree with this assessment if and only if Roger Ebert is the one who gets to make that judgment. Ebert makes the idea of video games becoming high art into one of those famed princesses, a goal that all video game creators are aspiring to. And by moving the goalposts with each flood of evidence that gaming has already reached this lofty plateau, he’s able to ensure that the princess is always in another castle.

 

What Does It All Mean?

But Jonathan Blow’s Braid was not directed at Ebert. On the contrary, it was directed at the other video games creators. Blow designed the game as both a challenge and example of how gaming can rise above such critics to become undisputed works of art, rich with value and meaning. This begs the question – what exactly does Braid mean?

The game’s big epiphany comes at the very end, which I am about to spoil. As you reach the final world, a large imposing knight descends down a vine onto a plateau above you proclaiming, “I’ve got you!” The princess is tucked firmly in his grasp. Suddenly, she breaks free, cries for help, and starts running away. Tim races along the bottom level in order to meet up with her. Suddenly, when you reach the end of the chase, there’s a flash, and instead of running to you, the princess is in her home, asleep. She’s unreachable, and does not seem to even notice your presence. It’s jarring and confusing at first.

 

Astute gamers will notice that the Princess' dolls and curtains are reflected in the game's baddies.

 

Only when you attempt to rewind does the story become clear. It turns out that the entire level was playing in reverse from the minute you entered it. Only when you’re “rewinding” is time actually time moving forward. It turns out that the princess was not running to you, she was running from you. She was begging the knight for help and leapt into his arms. He says “I’ve got you” and whisks her away.

You were the bad guy this whole time.

Tim retreats to the “Epilogue” another mystifying series of text boxes that orbit around a few key themes: obsession, control, regret, and the birth of the atomic bomb. One textbox features the statement “Now we are all sons of bitches,” a quote from test director Kenneth Bainbridge on the occasion of the detonation of the first nuclear device, driving home the allegory. In the end, Tim decides to make a castle, the sum of all his experiences.

What to make of all of this? The epilogue’s text boxes give few cognizable clues, but I do think there’s a point to all this. It does not come through much in the prose, but rather from the exercise itself. In constructing Braid as he did, Blow is both commenting on and simulating the problem-solving involved and the act of working toward supremely challenging goals. It applies to the creation of the atomic bomb, but also more generally, to the quest for difficult-to-obtain knowledge, for enlightenment.

There is an alternate ending that plays even further on these themes. It involves finding eight stars that go beyond even the challenging difficulty of some of the game’s regular puzzles, devolving into obsession and tedium. They require an absurd dedication and devotion to sniffing them out and reaching 100% completion. When all these secret stars are in tow, you can play the last level again, except this time you can reach the princess before she makes it to the end. When you do, there’s a bright flash, like an explosion, and then in an instant she is gone.

You realize that you are essentially playing through a metaphor, one that certainly implicates the atomic bomb, but also all knowledge, all pursuits that involve that level of myopic, single-minded commitment. The player struggles to achieve the stated goal and receives a somewhat unsatisfying end, the same way Tim does, and the same way Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Manhattan Project tasked with creating the first nuclear weapon, did. A summary of this view from blogger Iroquois Pliskin has come up again and again in discussions about the meaning of the game:

“On one hand the complex thinking you do in order to solve all these puzzles leads to all these small and satisfying epiphanies that occur when you successfully intuit the laws of the various game-worlds. But on the other hand, Tim solves all these puzzles for the sake of an emotional connection, and yet his portrayal in the final chapter and epilogue makes it clear that the attitude towards the world that was necessary in order to unlock it secrets is simultaneously alienating– destructive to meaningful relationships with other people. In the end, even a his control over time and space leaves him powerless to attain the meaningful connection with the object of his pursuit.”

I believe the game is chiefly about that very thing – the search for deep knowledge, for projects that are both important and challenging, and how they are also alienating. At its most straightforward level, Braid is about a man focused on the pursuit of just that sort of knowledge and who estranged the woman he loved in the process.

 

It looks pretty lonely down there.

 

That basic idea gives you the closest thing to a clear takeaway that Braid offers. Whether you look at the game on its face as a story about a man, whether you dig deeper and see it as a metaphor for the research and construction of the atomic bomb, or whether you generalize it a commentary about any search for deep knowledge, it explores one articulable theme – that it’s easy for become lost in an obsession, a pursuit, which becomes so consuming that it alienates you from the people in your lives, leaving you empty.

That’s why there was a certain irony, lost on me at the time, when one evening I was thoroughly immersed in trying to solve one of Braid’s thorniest puzzles. My girlfriend looked over and muttered in an annoyed tone, “You sure seem really into that game.” The message was unmistakable. I was too wrapped up in this collection of puzzles, and she was feeling ignored. Whether it was what he was specifically aiming for or not, something tells me Jonathan Blow would smile about that particular outcome.

In Braid, you work hard, you try to do what is expected of you, and you spend a great deal of time and mental energy trying to figure things out in an attempt to reach your goal. At the end, once you have, it turns out that you’re the bad guy. You have something akin to Oppenheimer’s stark realization that, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” And what’s more, you’ve lost both what you were working toward and the personal connections sacrificed in the attempt.

It’s a poignant message that comes through in the very structure of the game. Unfortunately, that message is buried in nebulous, intractable verbiage.

*   *   *

Blow doesn’t necessarily have to spell things out for everyone, but by the same token, near-literally erecting signposts just to obscure the message, or bury the themes in purposefully vague prose detracts from his project. If you want the story to speak for itself, then let it. If you want video games to stand on the same pedestal as great cinema and literature, then don’t ape them, particularly their tendency toward a deliberate lack of clarity.

In the end, Braid does present us with something that it is equal parts novel and familiar. It’s a work that is deliberately ambiguous and enigmatic in a way that leaves it open to a vast array of interpretations.  Many critics see this as a sign of the artfulness, or intellect, or poignancy imbued in the work. Much digital ink has been spilled turning over the myriad possible “meanings” of Tim’s journey, and each new would-be interpreter tries to peel back another layer of the onion to find what’s really under the surface.

 

The game's visuals, on the other hand, speak for themselves.

 

Others, like yours truly, see many of the “insights” so desperately sought from Braid as well-worn and prosaic vagary, ensconced in threadbare symbolism.  Make no mistake, Jonathan Blow has concocted a wonderful game that uses a novel concept, aims high, and makes some interesting points both through the story it tells and the themes it explores. That said, I think that all the people continuing to mine through the game to find the deepest, truest “meaning” of the work are on a fool’s errand, particularly those parsing the breadcrumbs of prose that Blow has scattered throughout the title’s many levels.

Braid is steeped in the sort of artsy affectations and doublespeak that can only create the illusion of depth and the shadow of transcendence, rather than support something firmly, movingly trenchant. It’s a badge of pretentiousness directed specifically at the art crowd; one which the game did not really need in order to make its points or to make them well.

It’s a product of the same refuge in inscrutability you find in every medium where creators reach toward high-minded, ineffable ideas and mask their inability to articulate them with a smokescreen of murky symbols and metaphors. As part of this time honored tradition, Jonathan Blow has, quite intentionally, created a game whose “true meaning” is that very same princess, just out of reach, and forever fated to be in another castle.

But damnit, if that’s not high art to a tee, then I don’t know what is.

Your move, Ebert.

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12 Responses to The Princess is in Another Castle: Braid, Roger Ebert, and Whether Video Games Can Be Art

  1. Anthony says:

    I completely agree with this. Someone should get this post to Ebert.

  2. An says:

    As I see it, something isn’t art just because it’s handmade. All video games are not art, nor are all movies or even pictures. Art has a meaning behind it, the creator wanted to tell something to the others, convey a message. What medium he uses for that, such as books, movies,music or games is a minor detail.

    Is farmville art? God no, it was made with money in mind only. Are games art because they have cool graphics? No. Is a specific video game an art because it had a message to relay? Yes.

    • Andrew says:

      I generally agree with your criteria. If there’s a message attempting to be expressed or a story trying to be told or a mood or emotion trying to be conveyed, it qualifies as art.

    • kristian says:

      Technically a game cannot be art. The criteria for art is that it must have no other purpose than itself. They game did move me though. I felt very depressed when I finished it. Felt even more depressed when i read the epilogues.

      • Andrew says:

        Why is that the criteria for art? Seems unnecessarily restrictive to me. There are great films and great novels that Ebert and others would certainly consider art, but that also had the intent to make money, among other things.

  3. George Brell says:

    **Disclaimer: I haven’t played Braid.

    I remember reading a number of posts that sprang up whenever Ebert would make another odd foray into this particular argument and I remember one in particular that I felt made a fairly substantial criticism of gaming which Ebert had previously alluded to, but failed to flesh out.

    That idea was that gaming would qualify as art to the extent that it worked within the sphere of gaming to create art. Stay with me for a second. The critique is that you have two kinds of games: linear games and non-linear games.

    Linear games are essentially movies or television shows, with the sole difference being that the player is put in charge of the pacing to some extent. Very few games can make an argument that their non-scripted portions both advance the plot and integrate into the total artistry. Some good examples of this criticism would be Metal Gear Solid (especially the latter ones, cut-scene fests that they were) or any FPS.

    With that said, the act of playing through the game certainly engenders a level of attachment and connection that might be missing if the game was simply viewed as a movie (though considering how often I “played” games with my friends where one person would play and everyone else would watch, I should rethink how much of my gaming experience is exactly that). Some of my favorite games used a linear structure to pull me into the world in a way that isn’t replicated by film. The best example of this I can think of is Freespace II.

    But the failing of these linear games is that there is almost no creative input from the player. He may play through the game, but he really doesn’t control the outcome of the events (except in a simplistic binary fashion – win/lose). Notice the furor over Mass Effect 3′s ending; players are unhappy that their actions throughout the series have been rendered meaningless by an overly simplistic ending. And yet even those games with varied endings can only vary them so much, there is no space of endings, there is only a spectrum (and usually a non-contiguous one, with a handful of discrete options).

    And this brings us to supposedly non-linear games. Games where the player actually directs the outcome of the game. And yet I can think of no game that is truly non-linear. You have sandbox games (GTA, etc.), but those have a linear backbone with a specific story. You have MMOs, but those tell encapsulated stories in which the characters play set roles. The closest game I can think of that is truly non-linear is EVE Online, which isn’t a game so much as a world wherein people create their own stories (and financially backstab each other in shockingly realistic ways). But is simply creating a sandbox for others to live out stories art?

    I want to consider this by providing two examples and referencing a third.

    The first is a game that I think is undeniably art. Shadow of the Colossus manages to combine an atmosphere that positively aches with sorrow with a notable absence of dialogue or explanation that manages to be incredibly moving. There are about to be spoilers.

    I really can’t summarize the plot of the game because it is both incredibly simple and incredibly complex. But the main thrust is that for the entirety of the game you don’t know what you are actually doing. You get clues and hints that the player can interpret to mean that you are doing something unspeakable (your character grows paler and seems to physically waste away as you progress, the colossi you kill begin to seem more and more human even as they assume more and more outlandish shapes) and in the end you become something truly evil only to see that your goal was accomplished, but that you will not live to see it.

    The most amazing part of the game was how the incredibly miniscule hints written in by the designers let me write a story in the game as I was playing it. And when I later read the “official” story, I found that I enjoyed my version better, even though it varied from the canonical plot. I helped create art for an audience of one.

    The second example is a short story.

    http://mu.ranter.net/asherons-call/asherons-call-chronicles/liquid-moves-the-air

    I played a lot of Asheron’s Call. I will strenuously maintain it was and is the best designed MMORPG of all time. It also had an interesting back story that was pretty much ignored by 99% of the players. But the story I linked to above managed to take what scraps we had been given along with the ignorant attitudes of the player base and turn it into something else, something dark and painful and emotional.

    I mention this particular example because I think that the story is art and arose only because of a game and the players in that game. It built on a mythology that was given to us (indeed, later patches and add-ons would invalidate the story’s central premise), and used it to instantiate a philosophical concept in a character and in a story. That is art.

    The last example I wanted to reference is a recent game called Journey. I haven’t played it, but it made the rounds of Penny Arcade, RPS and other gaming sites. It is apparently a game with a bare story. It’s also a game you can play with another person, but the matchmaking is deliberately random and you can’t communicate with them in any way except through moving your character. You can’t influence each other’s game except to show the other person where to go if you have figured out the next step or follow their lead if they have. It provides a sandbox, loosely guided, but allows for the creation of a story between two people within that space.

    And that, in my mind, is where games can become art. By creating a space, loosely defined, where people (usually more than one) can interact under defined conditions and, as a result of those limitations, create something new and interactive. And that is art unlike a movie, or a painting or a novel. And it’s fascinating.

    And to claim that it is inherently less is idiotic. A masterful performance of Hamlet is not better than the written Hamlet, it is different and related and incomparable. When games try to be movies (I’m looking at you Metal Gear Solid 2), they are less because the game is secondary to the story and feels tacked on. But when the game allows you actual license to write your own story, that is art and it is the unique provenance of games.

    • Andrew says:

      That’s a really interesting way to look at it George. If I’m not mistaken, you’re positing something of a collaborative effort between the game’s creator and the player – a setup where the designer fills in enough spaces to give context and a baseline for the world, but also leaves in enough blank spaces for the player(s) to fill in their own detail and meaning in the story. I do think that’s an achievement in art that would be very difficult to achieve in another medium.

      I think there’s also a lot to the idea of games as something akin to a catalyst as with your experience with Shadow of the Colossus and Asheron’s Call. The short story reminded me of an oddly compelling story based on, of all things, Animal Crossing — http://lparchive.org/Animal-Crossing/Update%201/

      At base, I think the heart of what you and I are both getting at is that video games offer something distinct from other art forms in that you can make the audience an active participant in both how the story is told and what it means, and that the resulting art is of a different flavor but no less compelling. By the same token, it’s almost philistine for folks like Ebert to deny the potential for great things by taking advantage of that feature.

  4. Drew says:

    Wow, really late to the game to finding this article – but seeing as I just replayed Braid just this past weekend I must say – what a wonderful essay! I was very frustrated by Ebert’s comments, but you very astutely dissected his arguments. I bet you are a fellow logistician. I appreciated your reference to “the true scotsman” as well as usage of “if and only if” ;-)

    Great article – it made me appreciate the finer points of the game that much more.

    • Andrew says:

      Thank you very much for the kind words, Drew! I majored in philosophy in college, so I had a fair bit of instruction in logic, though I wouldn’t begin to deem myself a logistician beyond my ability to solve sudoku puzzles, haha.

      But at the end of the day, I think that beyond the technical flaws in his argument, it’s easy to see that Ebert is just being obstinate. I’m sure he would never tolerate someone rejecting an entire genre of films without having watched any of them, and yet that’s exactly what he does by criticizing video games while refusing to play a single one.

      Thanks again for the comment!

  5. Killian says:

    Ebert is dead.

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