Saturday, December 03, 2005


A famous movie critic is taking heat from gamers for suggesting that games can't compete artistically with movies or books. After reviewing the movie "Doom," based on the popular video game, he said he had "no plans to review the source material." Why, that's just ruttin' fancy talk for "playing the game."

In response to someone on his Web site asking why Ebert thought video games were a waste of his time, he wrote:

"I believe books and films are better mediums, and better uses of my time. But how can I say that when I admit I am unfamiliar with video games? Because I have recently seen classic films by Fassbinder, Ozu, Herzog, Scorsese and Kurosawa, and have recently read novels by Dickens, Cormac McCarthy, Bellow, Nabokov and Hugo, and if there were video games in the same league, someone somewhere who was familiar with the best work in all three mediums would have made a convincing argument in their defense."

After a bit of angry replies, he clarified his position:

"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."

The Mailbox has screamed like a girl playing Fatal Frame 2, had dreams about butter knife-wielding demon babies from Silent Hill, awed and nauseated by God of War, enchanted by Prince of Persia, impressed by David Duchovny and Marilyn Manson in Area 51, immersed by Deus Ex, suckered by the twist ending of Half-Life (really, the Mailbox should have seen it coming), swept away by Star Wars: Battlefront (shooting Ewoks, Gungans and Jawas really is good for the geek's soul) and completely taken in by the Tomb Raider stories--er, games (holy freaking crap! A new Tomb Raider game in spring 2006!). The memories of those experiences are comparable to the experiences of enjoying many movies.

What exactly makes a movie "art?" The presentation of visual images? The work of fine actors? The plot, relevance and import of a compelling story? Video games are making fast advances in all of those areas. Time will bring the medium to a compelling level. And so will the work of good designers making good games. For every outstanding game, there are plenty of dogs. But, the same problem exists in our local theaters.

Let's not forget that only 25 years ago, the best video game ever made featured a yellow dot-eating pizza running away from ghosts. Story? You had to clear two mazes, then every three after that. For those who appreciate video games, the medium will outpace its silver screened competitor one day.

Hey Joe!

I've been reading your blog and especially like the video game and tech posts that you're writing. No one else (except for that one guy at the News-Leader...) is writing any locally-generated content about games.

Anyway, about the Ebert thing. I'm longtime gamer (though I go in and out of phases and sometimes miss whole years worth of gaming), and while I believe as much as anyone that games can be art, I think Mr. E has a few good points. I was actually surprised by how open he is about it. Usually anyone over the age of 35 considers video games to be "child's play" and scoffs at even thinking about them.

But they can be art, it's just a different kind of art, and a different kind of experience. Pages and pages could be written about that, but the games you mentioned go a long way toward this end. BTW, have you played Shadow of the Collussus? OMG, what a cool game. SotC is without a doubt one of the contenders for "games as interative art."

I think the big difference is that most games, even Resident Evil, Final Fantasy and SotC, say a lot about the characters involved and get you attached to characters and invested in their outcomes (especially since you control them). But they don't say much about US, as in humanity, and that's what art does. At least they don't yet... But like you I believe they can.

Michael Brothers
Funny you mention Shadow of the Colossus. I rented that game and am desperately trying to beat it before it's due back. That game shouldn't work, but it does, beautifully. Minimal moves. Minimal actions. No complicated combos or maneuvers. All you do is find a colossus and kill it.

With other games, there are TONS of things to do. Heck, the Jak and Daxters, Ratchet and Clanks, Grand Theft Autos and even the simpler movie-based games can give players a list of to-dos; many not even vital to getting to the end. I'm surprised that SotC plays as well as it does, considering how little there is to actually do. But the programmers made the most realistic game world I've ever seen. I tried to attack a turtle, and it retreated into its shell. I haven't seen any bigger animals yet...hope to, but doubt I will. It'd be lame, after destroying tons of skyscraper-sized monsters, to die by wolf-attack.

Good to hear from you, Mike.
Yeah, it's more about atmosphere than blowing stuff up. But the gameplay is also fun, despite being stripped down because it makes you THINK about what the hell you have to do next.

It's kind of a shame they created such a lush, realistic environment for just 16 big baddies (imagine a Zelda stye game played in this kind of world) but what it accomplishes is a feeling a realism, a feeling that this is a lonely desolate place. In a way, this world becomes part of the emotional pull of the story ... Just keeping playing and you'll see what I mean. The ending's great.

EMG's Mark McDonald said it best when he said it was a game that "has a soul" that is enough to "make you regret every stupid coin you ever collected."
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