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Tag Archives: Video Games
In the years since I first wrote about Roger Ebert’s disdain for video games, he’s been in the back of my mind each time I’ve picked up a controller. He believed, and argued quite strenuously, that video games could never be art. At the height of the firestorm of controversy he unleashed with this statement, Ebert went so far as to declare that no game could ever achieve the same level of artistic transcendence as the great films and novels and paintings from around the world, all of which stood head and shoulders above such a hopelessly shallow medium.
It’s a ludicrous, haughty, even arrogant proclamation. And yet, as I discussed with Robbie Dorman on the Serial Fanaticist Podcast, in the years since his death, I’ve tried to at least understand where Ebert was coming from. He is a giant in the world of criticism and a smart and generally open-minded critic at that, even if he has a particular view of what’s required to create “great art.” That makes his critiques, however frustrating, worth unpacking, even if they’re not necessarily worth accepting.
Say what you will about “Stunning and Brave”, the season premiere for South Park’s nineteenth season, which centers on Caitlyn Jenner and the public’s reaction to her transition, but in that episode, series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone had a point they wanted to convey about Jenner and the surrounding media hoopla. In classic South Park style, the quick production turnaround let them have their say while the topic was still fresh in everyone’s minds. And while their commentary may have been crass, with plenty of room to disagree, Trey and Matt had a clear viewpoint and message behind their work that came through in how South Park handled the issue.
The Simpsons’s much longer production cycle means that it’s always going to be playing catch up when it comes to addressing the issues of the day. The show has tried to work around this obstacle, trying everything from turning the show’s lagging response time itself into a joke, making their easier-to-animate chalkboard gags more topical (including in support of South Park), and more recently, creating short topical clips meant for viral internet consumption. But as a general rule, the creative minds behind The Simpsons have had to wait patiently to speak their piece in the national dialogue. Until now.
Enter The Simpsons: Tapped Out, a mobile “freemium” game (the likes of which South Park has previously taken aim at), featuring the denizens of Springfield in a Farmville-meets-SimCity type of environment. Within this game, there are various “quests” — brief in-game tasks that feature minor storylines (often rehashes or sequels to the show’s most notable episodes) with small bits of written, interstitial dialogue to break up the action and add a little flavor to a mode of game play that can otherwise become repetitive. The fact that nearly all of this dialogue is conveyed via comic book-esque speech bubbles, without the need for voice acting or animation, allows it to be much more timely than in the game’s televised counterpart.
It’s in these bits of written dialogue that The Simpsons offered its take on the Caitlyn Jenner story, by having a little-known Springfield mobster become a woman as part of a bid to overthrow the local government, only for the character to just as quickly transition back to being a man, without fanfare, after the citizens turn on him. It’s odd not only for the peculiar nature of this riff on the Caitlyn Jenner story in and of itself, but because the Jenner takeoff seemed tossed off into an unrelated storyline, with no real criticism or commentary behind it.
“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.