|Art in video games is a boring topic, but it's my blog, so I indulge occasionally. For the rest of you, here's a funny YouTube video.|
This week, I'm gonna' get all good and pretentious. I've been playing a lot of terrific games lately, and I want to engage in my tedious, semi-annual rant about the state of video games as art.
I am a lifelong fan of Roget Ebert, and I was greatly saddened when he died. And yet, in nerd circles, every mention of his name must now be marked with anger and bitterness. Not by me, but some.
Near the end of his life, he committed the greatest of crimes, the one thing no geek can ever forgive. He told us a truth we didn't want to hear. Here is the introductory sentence (context can be found here), written in 2005, that started the whole mess:
"To my knowledge, no one in or out of the [video game] field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers."
He said that video games had not yet produced a work of Great Art, and he did not yet see how they could. Which, in 2005, was pretty darn reasonable. We had barely even set out on the path. But nerds, being, as they are, a tense collective of eternally exposed raw nerves, reacted with limitless rage. Which is how we know he really struck that nerve.
(The old aphorism: The truth hurts. That's how you know it's the truth.)
The problem here, I think, is simply one of not yet having defined our terms. He was just using a different vocabulary, a different standard. A tough standard. We video game fans tend to be systematically uncritical of the products we play, which is a key part of the problem.
But I get what he meant. How can I not? The quote above threw down the gauntlet. Only now are we starting to be able to pick it up.
(Disclaimer that you should read: If you only want action and distraction from your video games, Candy Crush Saga and Battlefield 4 style, there is nothing wrong with that. This just might not be a conversation you care about. We're still allowed to have it, though.)
|Still with us? Good! Here is a funny YouTube video!|
But Why Would You Bring It Up Now, When Everyone Was Sick To Death Of Talking About It
Good question. After all, before he died, Ebert wrote that he was sick of the whole thing and wished he'd never brought it up.
But I think this is a perfect time to start hashing it out again, because games are getting better so quickly. Fantastic, innovative titles are coming out almost every day: Games that approach video game storytelling in fresh ways that really take advantage of the medium. Really good, emotionally involving stories that could only be properly told in video game form. (My examples: Gone Home. Stanley Parable. The Last of Us. Papers, Please.)
Ebert is, sadly, dead, and I won't mention him again in this piece. We don't have to care about impressing him, and we never should have, anyway. He wasn't the final arbitrator of art truth, he never claimed to be, and the way nerds fetishized his opinion bothered him.
Instead, we should set higher standards for ourselves and then meet them. I dream of a video game that is a piece of Great Art.
But what does that mean? And how will we recognize it when it arrives?
What Makes a Work Perfect?
A theatre professor I really respected once lectured a class I was in about the distinction between a Perfect piece of art and a Great one, and, the longer I live, the more truth I see in it.
A Perfect piece of art is, just that, perfect. Without flaw. It has a goal, a story to tell, and it does so in the most efficient and skilled way possible. You look at it, and you can't see a thing you'd fix. It's just really good.
He gave the example of the play Cyrano de Bergerac. I'd suggest Casablanca. Raiders of the Lost Ark. I just played the indie game Gone Home, and it was Perfect. Loved it. Have a lot more to say about it some time.
Being Perfect doesn't mean you have to like it. Tastes differ. It means that the work achieved its goals in the most successful way possible. It's really hard to do.
Perfect video games come out all the time, but they aren't Great, because the goals they achieve perfectly are so terribly low. And that brings us to the place our young art form has never reached: Greatness.
|Halfway there. Time for a break. Here's a really cool YouTube video!|
Perfection Versus Depth
Perfect doesn't mean Great. Thinking otherwise is a common mistake, but a key one. Here's why. It's a matter of depth.
Consider Raiders of the Lost Ark. I've watched that movie a million times. It's terrific. However, whenever I watch it, it's the exact same experience. Indy runs from the rolling boulder, and it's exciting. He kisses Marian, and it's sweet. The Nazi's face melts, and it's awesome. Done. It's immensely enjoyable, but there's nothing else there.
When you play Gone Home to the end, you're done with it. You can spend two hours giving everything in that game full and proper consideration, all the songs, all the secrets, and then you're done. Return to it tomorrow, and the characters probably hit you the same way. Same with five years from now. It might be tinged with a bit of nostalgia, but there will be nothing more to learn. It's a good story, but a simple one.
And that is enough. Not everything has to be Great, but the distinction exists.
What Makes a Work Great?
It's not perfection. Great works are rarely Perfect. They're too complex.
What makes a work Great is a mystery, a depth, an ambiguity of meaning, that is best detected in this concrete way: You can return to it every few years, and it's meaning to you can entirely change.
I am a fiend for Hamlet. I try to see that play at least every five years. Every time I do, it hits me differently. Someone who seemed sensible now seems like a jerk. Parts I never noticed before suddenly slay me. I'll have a better understanding of how someone acts the way he or she does.
This is what a work being Great means. You never truly get all of it. You never will. Every time you're sure you Understand it, give it a few years and that certainty will slip away.
Great work is rare. You can only get so many powerful, enduring pieces of art in any given century. That's why so much of it is so old. It's not the sort of thing that, once you have it, you let go to waste.
It is the most subjective thing there is. I know lots of smart, sensible people who hate Hamlet. Other works affect them that way. Maybe The Godfather. Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. The Girl With a Pearl Earring. (The painting, not the book, of course.) Ulysses. Infinite Jest. Leaves Of Grass.
And It Takes Time To Find the Great Ones
It's completely subjective. I listed several works just above that are commonly hailed as Great, and there's one of them I can't stand. On the other hand, I consider The Stranger by Billy Joel to be a true masterpiece, and believe me, there are plenty of people who would disagree with me vigorously about that.
The process of finding Greatness happens inside all of us, a quiet personal thing, and then we bring our opinions out to the world and see if any trends emerge.
If enough people find a work Great for them, it eventually gets elevated into The Canon and kids are forced to suffer through it in school.
Great works are usually difficult. They take time. It's not all on the surface. It may take those repeat visits over the years to get what they're going for. What makes them Great is the way they, for some many people, reward the effort.
You are not obligated to like any particular work that has been christened Great. In fact, I guarantee there will be many that do nothing for you. However, if you never like ANY Great work of art, it is possible that the problem is you.
|That's right! I just put The Stranger on the same level as The Godfather! Nobody can stop me! Here's a disturbing YouTube video.|
But Back to Video Games.
To find a work that has Greatness in it for you, you need to live with it for years. You need to see if it has that lasting effect on you, that it grows up with you. Key point here: Video games are young enough that, even if we have produced a true masterpiece, it's too early to know.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe, generations from now, people will still play emulated copies of Journey and Gone Home and go back and forth about what it means to them. I really, super don't think so. There are games I enjoyed very much. They're Perfect. Sometimes, when you're talking about a work enduring for decades or centuries, that's not enough.
God. We Embarrassed Ourselves.
When the challenge was given, we gamers gave our pitiful examples of works to be judged. Flower. Braid. Portal. Shadow of the Colossus. Fun, worthy games, all Perfect. But more than that? Something that can stay with you for a lifetime, constantly offering new emotions and new meaning?
Are you kidding me?
Hey, Flower is ... Well, it's kind of fun. It's pretty. Relaxing. I imagine, after a bong hit or two, it's fantastic. But would you go up to people who cut their teeth on King Lear and La Dolce Vita, offer them that glittery trinket, and expect them to slump away shamed? Embarrassing!
At least, that's what I think. I also might be wrong. It's not up to me.
|Almost to the end. If you are fading, here is a controversial YouTube video.|
Here's the Great Part
Maybe I'm wrong. I don't know the future. I don't know what's in your head. It is possible that Flower and Gone Home might strike a chord in peoples' heads, and they will still be played in fifty, a hundred, a thousand years.
Video games are young. There is no canon, no room of musty old dudes with tenure saying what you are obligated to love. Are there games that are Great, that have what it takes to keep you engaged through a lifetime? I don't think so, but I only get one vote.
You get one too.
One of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog is that I get to use my little voice to push forward things that are worth emulating, and say why. I don't think video games have produced anything truly Great, but I see the potential coming forward more and more every day.
Papers, Please, for example, is a work of art. It's a fantastic window into a different world, a foreign way of thinking. It's even fun.
I bet a lot of people who bother to read this will come away from it feeling angry and cranky. "How dare Jeff Vogel say Bioshock: Infinite isn't a game for the ages. What a dick! And his games suck anyway!"
So fight. There's a comments section below, and a lot of industry people, actual game makers, read this blog. I hear from them in private all the time. As I never tire of saying, the art form is new.
If something in a game really affected you, shook you, moved you, and you keep going back to it, say it below. If you see a little glimmer of Greatness somewhere, make your case. It doesn't have to be a whole game, just one section, one moment. If you want to join the argument, you can do it in a constructive way. Try not to be an asshole.
We don't have a grown-up art form yet, but we're getting there. And it's pretty fun to watch.