Friday, December 20, 2013

Games As Art, the Toughest Standard, and Not Having To Worry About Ebert Anymore.

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.


  1. Great (GREAT) post. Amusingly enough, the fine folks at Tale of Tales have cracked open their vaults and are offering up prototypes and such for all to see and play and keep (for a small museum fee, of course). I'll let you Google them up, as I hate spamming.

  2. Odyssey: The Legend of Nemesis. The mechanics were crude, the graphics subpar, the title cliche. But the story was deep, thought-provoking, sad, and humorous. I've returned to it year after year, bashed my head against the brick wall of emulators for it, even run it as a tabletop RPG. It is Great, to me. Definitely not Perfect, but Great.

    1. The ephemerality of the art form is excruciating. Odyssey is, at the very least, a really neat game, and it's almost entirely vanished from the Earth. This SUCKS.

      - Jeff Vogel

    2. I refuse to let it die while I exist. As the author made it freeware, I took the liberty of making an emulator pack with the game.

  3. Games have great potential to convey ideas but games also have some shortcomings. With a play, as you pointed out, the interpretation can change based on how the actors portray the characters or the set design.

    In this sense the troupe is doing a 'remake' of hamlet, rebooting the Hamlet franchise every time they put on a play.

    So, while the Hamlet script may be a great jumping-off point, the real impact for the audience is an interpretation of an interpretation.

    Would Hamlet be as great if it was acted out in *exactly* the same way every time? (like a movie) Probably not.

    This is the hurdle that games need to get over. Right now the audience has some limited ability to change the outcomes of the characters in a story but each re-play contains (largely) the same recorded voice lines, the same arrangements of colors in world-space.

    This is why D&D is so great. the DM's brain is the world simulator and it can take a whole BUNCH of input, effectively becoming the theatre troupe to interpret the story/world and present it to you. The players are all interpreting things the way the DM presents them but games (tabletop and video) can go further using the feedback loop. The DM can process the players' unexpected actions and naturally redirect the party towards an objective, sometimes without the party even knowing they were redirected.

    Imagine if the audience of Hamlet could change some of the character's decisions based on some rules, like alignment. Sure, each re-telling might stray from the core content but the audience might be able to gain additional insight into the world and get a deeper understanding of the characters. Or everyone might die sooner, it's a tossup, or somewhere in-between.

    The point is that the game allows for deeper exploration of a world but we (game makers) are limited by the technology of today. We are like painters with a small selection of hues because we haven't invented some of the colors yet.


    Also, much of the article focuses up on character-driven stories with human faces in them. But many games don't have individual characters to interact with. Take something like Civilization where your character doesn't talk to anyone. (except other world leaders perhaps) Will games like that ever "grow-up" to be art in society's eyes?

    I see those non-character-driven games as a kind of meta-art where the player is free to create as they are wont to. The real art is then in what the player leaves behind in the game world. The game is the canvas, brush, and pigment. But can't those items also be art?

    This is a bit fuzzy. Look at Minecraft. An infinite world is created but no human hand touched it directly. But a human did create the method of creation. Will society label the terrain-generating algorithm as art, in addition to the content created by the player? And, when crowd-sourced content is more widespread, will we all be artists or will none of us be?

    This is deep, man. I look forward our future here.

    Sorry for the long post,

    1. I'm afraid I find your argument unconvincing. To pick this part ...

      "This is the hurdle that games need to get over. Right now the audience has some limited ability to change the outcomes of the characters in a story but each re-play contains (largely) the same recorded voice lines, the same arrangements of colors in world-space."

      By this argument, film, painting, sculpture, and literature (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc) are incapable of reaching the heights of art.

      When a game is done, it's DONE, and it's up to the player to extract whatever meaning is there, though the work is fixed. I don't see this as a problem.

      - Jeff Vogel

    2. I'm simply saying that there are different heights of art, whether largely accepted as such or not.

  4. This is going to sound like sucking up, but if we're talking about games that make an emotional impression on you, I'll throw out Avadon: The Black Fortress. It's not even my favorite Spiderweb game (and the final fight with Redbeard may be the single worst encounter Jeff's ever designed). But I played it non-stop for the week or two it took me to finish it and when I was done I wanted to throw up.

    It hasn't been long enough since it was published to know how it will make me feel playing it again five or ten years after it's first release, so I don't know if it's Great. But if any game I ever played was Art, that was it.

    (I thought Avadon 2 was more fun. But it wasn't Art. It didn't make me feel nearly as much; perhaps partly because I was able to guess too much about what was coming from having played the first game.)

  5. Greatness can be quantified by the amount of memes it produces. There are your "little glimmers of Greatness" right there.

    I'm a gamer all my life, I played so many games, that in my memory the average games all blur into a shapeless gray sea of game, the memories of "perfect" games give up an indistinct warm glow, but the retort to "You fight like a dairy farmer" that I remember for twenty years now, I will remember forever.

  6. I'd have to put forward Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis as a great game. At least, it's one that I can keep coming back to and find new ways to build my party and progress, and each time I catch different details of story and characters that I missed before.

    It's entirely possible this isn't even the 'greatest' tactics ogre game, but it's the one I've played and a classic to me.

  7. I'm not sure where the first great work of games will come from, but I'd like to suggest it may come from a strategy/simulation type game.

    I don't think the Sims or Crusader Kings II has reached it, but I could imagine from playing them, that one that managed to express the right things could be multifaceted enough to give the layers of meaning you're talking about.

    I think traditional story-telling games are the obvious bet when it comes to 'great work' material, but I don't want people to shy away from these other genres as art.

    1. Good point.

      I wonder if Chess could be considered a great work? It's got a rich history dating back over a millennium, thousands of people have devoted their lives to studying and commenting on it, and it's taught in public school in many places.

      Why are we holding video games to the standard of great videos like "Casablanca", rather than holding them to the standard of great games like Chess? To a strategy gamer like me, judging a video game by how emotionally moving its story is, while ignoring the gameplay mechanics, is like judging a painting by how well the different hues go together, while neglecting the subject.

  8. To me greatness doesn't have to be serious, to me greatness is even greater when it's funny. And Lucasarts' "Day of the Tentacle" is pretty great, just as Terry Pratchett's "Thud" is great.

    1. Agreed! I can think of a few stand up comedy performances that's I'd happily put in a time capsule for future generations.

      - Jeff Vogel

  9. This is a bit tangential, but it came to mind when you wrote of how "great" works stay with you and offer a lot of depth for analysis.

    Looking at it objectively, I can't say Dark Souls and Demon's Souls have particularly outstanding stories (they're decent, just not amazing). But one thing they did well was make most of their lore vague and hidden and allow the players to piece it together themselves from item descriptions, snippets of easy-to-miss dialogue, the placement of treasures and corpses, etc.

    If you play through the games quickly the plot seems sparse, but if you dig around, there are all kinds of theories and conclusions you can come up with. There are tons of Souls lore videos on YouTube.

    Anyway, I think it's interesting that presenting the story in this way, and giving the players lots of analyze, can make a game's plot arguably seem better than it is.

  10. Jeff, have you seen/played To The Moon? Fantastic game that did a nice job of melding story and game.

  11. I think that video games happened to be stuck in the same ghetto as science fiction. For a long time, sci-fi was (ans often still is) considered to be "books for children" by majority. Sure, it has its own awards, and there are some books that fans of the genre consider Great, but surely no one would in his rightful mind compare "Stranger in the strange land" to "Hamlet"?!

    Well, I would. Not directly, not in terms of drama or characters, but in terms of Greatness. I think sci-fi genre produced some really Great works. Only in recent years, with geeks coming into fashion, wider world began to acknowledge it. Still, pretty much nobody includes science fiction into school list of books (at least in Russia; I don't know much about school classics in other countries). When I was in school, we only studied Zamytin's anti-utopia "We", and only in passing.

    Same thing with video games. I think we're finally past out analogue of "pulp era" (YOU try to read sci-fi stories from that time without cringing!). So I don't believe we will have our Shakespeare any time soon (i.e. someone widely recognized as a classic author), but we may already have our Heinlein or Asimov (even though their best works may yet lie ahead).

    By the way, the more I think about it, the more I see similarities between pre-indie-boom video games and "pulp era" science fiction. Most of stories from 30's, as far as I can tell from reading a few archived magazines, wasted little time spilling pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo at reader before turning full attention to a dashing and often moustached hero and his exploits in course of saving the world and his love interest from Death Ray, Evil Aliens or Man-Made Monster. There were little science in them, and the fiction was quite weak. Don't you think that most video games fit this description (minus the moustache, unfortunately)? But games like your own Geneforge, or even somewhat maligned Dragon Age break this mould, by offering not just adventures, but some kind of discussion. They pose questions. Yes, they offer answers, too, answers that reflect their creators' thinking to a point, but the same is certainly true of any other art form.

    As for my own nomination for Greatness, I would point out Arcanum. It was a very imperfect game in terms of gameplay and balance. The main storyline was a bit simplistic. But it has so many nifty side-stories, and such an interesting world, and great dialogues. People were still playing it more than 10 years after release, even before it was widely made available again through GOG. 10 years isn't a true test of greatness, of course, but still.

  12. I really don't understand something. If we put Raiders of the Lost Ark, a great entertainment, but a very shallow experience, as far for art as possible, as the level to which games should aspire to, then what's the problem? There have been hundreds of games as shallow and entertaining as Raiders of the Lost Ark. With that "goal" the issue doesn't exist. PS. the images are really annoying, why a post that seems to try to take part in a serious discussion has be filled with these?

  13. Your comparison with Hamlet as a work of great art is interesting. When you say that Hamlet, itself, is a great work - are you meaning just the script? Or the original performances that established it's legacy? Or, do you include all the thousands of performances where companies create the play anew?

    If we had seen one of the original productions of Hamlet, even most theatre goers could have found it off-putting. The scenery would have been, at best, a series of backdrops. The costumes would be mediocre to our tastes, and the acting probably would be awful. If I remember right, at that time acting was far more presentational for the audience, and hardly ever interactive between characters. Imagine a radio play put on stage.

    Those similarities are making me think of how games become obsolescent as technology moves on. If we look for a single game release that can stand alone forever, it doesn't really seem possible. I think a franchise that's forever reviving and reinterpreting a core idea that holds up might be the way great works of video games exist.

    In that sense, the strongest contender I would suggest is the base story of the Zelda franchise. Specifically, 'The Legend of Zelda', then 'A Link to the Past', then 'The Ocarina of Time'. And I'm sure Nintendo will recreate the base story again, one day.

    It's also worth saying, the amount of widespread love and recognition for The Ocarina of Time I've encountered is very impressive, too.

    1. People might be too hung up on the Hamlet thing. I list a lot of enduring works above, not just Hamlet.

      Plays and books are their own things, each explored in their own ways. It's the same for video games. We're only now really learning how people interact with these electronic entertainments and the ways they have certain emotional effects.

      - Jeff Vogel

  14. Rather than give my long winded opinion on this topic that I find as meh. I'm just going to list a few games that I would nominate as works of art. And i you haven't played them I recommend them. (Opinion disclaimer)

    -PlaneScape Torment
    -Blood Omen/Soul Reaver series

    1. Of course games are Art. That train left the station a long time ago. Now we're into exploring what games work as art in what ways.

      - Jeff Vogel

  15. I'd like to nominate "Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri". The plot, setting, and technology compare favorably to great science fiction novels like "Foundation", "Dune", or "Ender's Game". Its social commentary on the relationship between humanity and its environment, and on the potential intersections between totalitarianism and technology, continues to be pertinent fifteen years later, and is like to remain that way for decades to come.

    Where it really shines are the factions. Each of the seven has a plausible, distinct, and rich ideology--developed further during the game as they react to technological advances. I've seen gamers consciously using those ideologies even while playing other games.

    In terms of game-specific stuff, the gameplay is adequate, a reasonable implementation of the C4 genre; and the artwork is fun and interesting. Replayability is extraordinarily high, with the seven factions each having a different playstyle, multiple viable strategies even within each faction, multiple win conditions, PvP network play, etc.

    It passes the "I come back to it every five years and get something new out of it" test. Not just for me but for others too; I was talking the other day with someone I know from a non-gaming context, who said that even though he owns Civ 5, he goes back and plays SMAC occasionally anyway (even though it's a Civ 2 era game).

  16. I think you've managed to miss what made the Ebert article so offensive to me, and to several of the more thoughtful gamers I know. It's not the claim that the current state of Art in video games is pretty lamentable: that was a fair claim then, and it's a fair claim now. It's the latter claim, that video games are fundamentally incapable of being Great Art (or even really art at all; I think your characterization of his claims is rather more reasonable than his claims actually were). Aside from the fact that dismissing an entire medium on the basis of a couple decades of work is silly, the reasons he cited for this dismissal were utterly bizarre and wrongheaded. Take the statement, "Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices. If next time, I have Romeo and Juliet go through the story naked and standing on their hands, would that be way cool, or what?" Aside from being a conspicuously straw misapprehension of the way video games actually handle player choice, this statement also ignores the last seventy-five years or so of literary theory. Ebert spoke ex cathedra as the voice of authoritative criticism here, but in fact the claim that art is a direct communication between a creator and an individual audience member, unsullied by any element of agency on the part of the latter, is actually highly controversial in academic and critical circles. I can't say for certain, but it has been my impression that the average professor of English or professional critic would disagree with him on that, so to state this idea as obvious and act as if anyone who disagrees with it is a dumb gamer who clearly lacks education in more refined art and criticism is both immensely condescending and and at best theoretically dubious. It's like he'd never heard the phrase "death of the author," or simply chose to ignore it, and pretend that everyone else who cares to analyze art and narrative does the same. I genuinely can't tell if he was disingenuous here or merely ignorant, but neither speaks well of his work and the validity of his opinion.

    1. Also, I realize I come across as pretty testy here. I did like most of the article, particularly the discussion of the distinction between Perfect and Great works. I agree that no video game I've encountered has quite made it to Great status. The closest contender for me is Xenogears. It's certainly not perfect: it's a deeply flawed game in many respects, including the prevalence of anime cliches, the awkwardly self-indulgent first person sequences in the latter part of the game, and the occasional weird bits of dubious Freudianism. Nevertheless, in its characterization, its moral sophistication, and especially its strikingly original and intelligent treatment of religious themes (an aspect in which I would say it surpassed the vast majority of novels, films, etc.), it came very close to greatness. Perhaps not to quite the extent of a truly great work like Lawrence of Arabia, Sometimes A Great Notion, or Hamlet, but at least most of the way there.

      Planescape: Torment, for its part, had an extremely promising first two thirds, but the last third (beginning with the emergence from Ravel's maze) really dropped the ball. And unlike the endgame awkwardness in Xenogears, this compromised the story to a degree that left it neither perfect nor great.

    2. ...What was ball-dropping, exactly? It's certainly weaker, but I found most of the weakness was in trying to figure out what the hell you were supposed to do next immediately after leaving the maze. Once I got through that, it picked up speed again.

      Also, I doubt you're being literal, but it's a LOT less than a third of the game. A sixth, maybe, and probably not even that much. It goes by pretty quickly.

    3. I think that Ebert's point of view was fundamentally flawed. But, more importantly, it doesn't matter. The whole game for a while became "Impress Ebert," which was completely pointless.

      But, while I disagree with much of what he said, I approved of his merciless harshness. I think gaming needs more Normal People to step in from outside and point out the weird metal cul de sacs we're in. Conan O Brien's Clueless Gamer is a perfect example of this.

      - Jeff Vogel

    4. Totally agree. Especially in this post-post modern era, anyone making the claim that any entertainment medium is fundamentally incapabe of being art strikes me as reductive and pretentiously ignorant. Aside from that, it's sort of silly for someone to make blanket statements about cultural trends that are largely outside their realm of experience. Ebert was a film critic. I doubt he spent much time exploring the wider range of what video games could offer. He was likely exposed to the same heavily advertised, big budget offerings as other plebeians to the medium. Any literary critic who took a similar cross section of the film industry today would probably reach the same conclusion about movies (assuming he failed to account for his own ignorance). The discussion of how to define art has been going on nearly as long as art has existed, and discarding an entire medium from that discussion is pure hubris. Aside from that, any discussion of the measure of quality (which is independent of determining whether something is art or not art) is purely relative and subjective. I have seen plenty of games, even older games, that I would regard as artistic and worthy of appreciation even if I might not list them among the wonders of the world. And frankly, if there is any legitimate criticism of a lack of artistic quality in video games, I believe the blame lies with the times and the symptoms of mass market media, and are in no way traits of video games themselves. I'm sure there were many silly, hot-headed things said (this is the internet, after all), but I believe the community's reaction to Ebert was justified, and I see no reason that people shouldn't defend their art form. People said similar things about film a century ago, and they were clearly wrong. In my opinion, while Ebert was probably a good film critic, he was an old man out of his element when it came to discussing games. That said, there were probably positive effects to what he said in the community, such as people striving to prove him wrong. And I do agree that outsider opinons can be useful (even when they are stupid).

  17. Planescape Torment isn't a great work of art? It's excellently written, it's very pretty, it's entertaining, the story's quite good, and the themes are fairly weighty (mortality? responsibility? what makes us who we are?). And it featured in the top ten of "greatest game" lists for a very long time (Oblivion tended to be the one that knocked it off, which I personally consider appalling).

    Not that that makes it a great work of art in and of itself. But on top of all that, I certainly get different things out of it every time I play it. I notice new details, or interpret character actions in a new way. And I tend to play through it as a fairly similar character each time - there's capacity for even more variety in experience.

    Moments that stick out particularly to me: Deionarra's sensory stone; Ravel asking you her question; the interplay with Morte and Dak'kon (and I don't just mean the funny bits); and watching everyone refuse to give up on you in the dark. And all of those can have completely different meanings depending on you and on the character you've played.

    Is it the greatest work of art ever? Probably not. Is it *a* great work of art? Definitely.

    1. "Planescape Torment isn't a great work of art?"

      No idea. Maybe?

      I loved that game, though it didn't have the massive emotional punch for me it had for some people. Might hold up more as time passes.

      Along these lines, Psychonauts contains some segments that are truly, mind-bogglingly inspired.

      - Jeff Vogel

  18. Games that stand out in my mind as works of "Art" are not new nor are they outstanding in visual aspect. Instead they are the works that we still strive to reach today in story telling and the fact that players just won't let them die. Things like Zork, Legend of Zelda, Maniac Mansion, etc that users just won't let go of and in fact keep gaining new fan bases.

    Art is effective over generations, granted not for everyone in the generation but it evokes something across the generations. Few of the "Great works of Art" were "Discovered" or quoted during the Artists lifespan.

    Long story short, you don't know its a "great work of art" when it is created. It isn't until (a few?) generations have passed and people either start finding interest or are still finding interest and intrigue in it that you can call it great art.

    These games do exactly that. Players won't let go and new players keep finding something that just draws them into the game to play it again and again.

    You can tear me apart for my point of view or selection to pose now :)

  19. I don't really see how games are getting better as time progresses. Now, I haven't played the specific examples you listed, I admit, so maybe I'm talking out of my ass and they really.

    But how do you see that they are gonna stand the test of time better than older adventure game classics? They might have better technology and/or production values backing them up, but I don't think those are the things truly holding people back from making great games.

    Another thing to keep in mind that games are not really a format for telling stories. It's first and foremost about having good gameplay that makes most video game genres tick. The adventure games that are mostly focused on story telling are a minority. Comparing most games out there to pieces of literature or movies, is really missing the point. If you want a compelling story you really should read a book indeed, rather than play a game. But if you want to play Tekken or Starcraft or FIFA, or chess, it's entirely a different activity entirely, more akin to doing sports. Pitting the two against each other simply doesn't make sense.

    1. "Now, I haven't played the specific examples you listed, I admit, so maybe I'm talking out of my ass and they really."

      "Another thing to keep in mind that games are not really a format for telling stories."

      Why would you write the second thing after you wrote the first?

      A large part of the reason I write this stuff is that things are changing, game design (esp. in the indie space) is evolving by leaps and bounds, and that we should actually pay attention to the changes and reevaluate the medium with respect to them.

      - Jeff Vogel

  20. "Key point here: Video games are young enough that, even if we have produced a true masterpiece, it's too early to know."

    Totally agree, and I think video games are entertainment. BUT, as you said, "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."

    It's a personal thing, and you hear all the time people waxing nostalgiacally over games they played as a kid, teenager, etc., and besides the required "had a blast" feeling, other emotional states probably come into play that revolve around their personal life. But people say the same thing about movies, which are also entertainment, and these movie have deep meaning for them. Maybe to be Great, something has to move a lot of people over time.

    On the other hand, within the gaming world itself, you pretty much know the Greats--the time-tested and honored games.

    Personally, if I had to choose ART with GREAT MEANING OVER TIME, thing would fall more into the books and music categories at the top of the list, with games pretty far down--probably with very little meaning at all. But hey, I still like them.

  21. I have to be honest and agree with most of the points you bring forward Jeff. I agree that games and turning games into a work of art are in their infancy.

    I've been playing games for a very long time now as well. I'm 37 now and I have played games on almost every single computer, console, gaming system, and mobile device you can think of.

    The absolutely closest example I can come up with as a game that is both a game and perhaps a work of art is Journey for the Playstation 3, made by thatgamecompany. The problem is it doesn't exactly leave the strict confines of being a game that you "play". Out of my long list of games that I've played over the years I'd have to say that Journey is definitely one of the closest examples that I could possible think of as delivering an experience that is both a game that could possibly be displayed as a work of art.

    It's not that there are no other examples out there, it's that we as gamers do not have time to play everything, and finding a balanced game that is both a work of art and yet still a game is difficult.

    I think true gamers (people who play games more than they watch tv, listen to music, or read books) are very passionate about their favorite pastime, but also have a hard time separating themselves from the alternate reality that gaming provides. I would consider myself one of those types of gamers, so I'm not exempt from being passionate about the subject, but I believe age, experience, and a bit of wisdom have cleared my head and allowed me to become a better judge of what is real and factual as apposed to simply feeling strongly about something simply because I'm passionate about the subject.

    As I said early though, I do agree with you Jeff, that things are ever so slowly starting to change. Hopefully we'll live long enough to see a masterpiece in gaming. As long as devs (namely indie devs) keep striving and pushing boundaries, gaming will eventually be able to achieve those lofty goals.

  22. I had a pretty emotional (rage!) reaction to my guard friend dying in Papers Please right after I let the love of his life in the country but couldn't get to my gun in time to save him cause of all the paper work cluttering my desk! Afterwards I populated whatever chat I was in at the moment with profanities and went straight to bed in a rage.

  23. Thank you for an interesting and thoughtful post.

    The game that I think might be recognized as classic someday is "Planescape: Torment." There's just so MUCH in that game, plus it's a game that seems to be more appreciated the more mature a person is (notice that I'm not saying the OLDER someone is), and different things strike a person at different times. Add in its weighty themes and stunning creativity, and it may well cross the threshold from fun to great.

  24. +1 for Papers Please.
    This year I've made several minigames for #onegameamonth and I've made minigames in past years. What I tried to do was make each one complete and whole and perfect in its own little way so that it can be a piece of art. Not like a big fancy piece of art like Gone Home or Papers Please, but a small bite-sized snippet that speaks to the player. More like a song than a whole album. It's quite satisfying to do that when normally my commercial games take months.

  25. Thirty Flights of Loving.

    Perhaps not deep enough to warrant being Great, but it's certainly interesting enough to.

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  27. The big problem with Ebert's notion is that he seems to be defining 'art' in terms of his favourite art (film), the closely related theatre, and I guess to some degree literature which shares some similarities. Some but not all games do some of the same stuff in narrative terms. Others are doing something considerably different.

  28. To me it seems like video games are in a transitional period akin to what was going on in silent film in the early 20s. People are experimenting with the medium in ways they never did before and feeling their way blindly to new avenues. Unfortunately, I think this has produced more "promising" games than it has produced good or classic games. Although, you still kind of have to give them credit for trying something new.

    Take "Dear Esther," for example. It was a definite leap forward in terms of the sorts of stories games could tell, and I commend it for that, but at the end of the day it's still just some pretty level design awkwardly tied to some (often hamfisted) text dumps. For all its daring in trying something new, I don't think the game works as a whole, either as a game, or as a piece of storytelling. Much of the same can be said of "Gone Home" as well...a very creative and innovative game that, at least for me, doesn't come together as a whole in the end.

    The only game from this "new wave" of indie game making I will passionately defend as an instant classic is "Braid," just because all of its elements (both its artistic pretensions and gameplay mechanics) come together and work seamlessly as a whole. It's at once a brilliant platformer in its own right, an equally brilliant deconstruction of/comment upon the history of platformers, and a meditation on love, time, paradox, and loss. What makes makes "Braid" so great is that all three of these things actively bleed into one another and support eachother thematically. So, in other words, "Braid" doesn't just tack on some arty text dumps about love and loss to a convention platformer, but rather it went through the hard work of trying to conceive of ways that its various shifting gameplay mechanics coud comment upon, support, and embody the game's overriding themes. I think it's one of the first (and very rare) games to use gameplay as a language in itself. Stuff like "Gone Home" and "Dear Esther" just seem kind of lazy in comparison.

  29. Interactive fiction (aka text adventures) deserves some attention in this debate, I think. It's come a long way since Zork and is probably the most experimental region of the gaming cosmos.

    I'd like to recommend "The Warbler's Nest" by Jason McIntosh. It was divisive among reviewers, and the meaning and emotional impact of the game genuinely depend on the player's own interpretation of the events in a clever and subtle way.

  30. I'm not so certain that the demand of time really be applied when trying to define great art. When compared to the works of Shakespeare, sure, the media of video games is at its origin, however, in comparison to that mammoth gulf of time, you could say the same for film. Going in reverse, the plays of Shakespeare were just as distant if not moreso from the original plays of antiquity at their birth.

    What survives the passage of time is likewise not due to its own inherent merits as art, but is often a simple question of exposure and accessibility. The "Timeless Christmas Classic" It's A Wonderful Life, for instance, only ever became such because of an error in filing the copyright. This enabled royalty free access to it from anyone anywhere, leading to massive exposure elsewhere. Likewise, much of the "timeless great works" are cited as inspiration because, to say one was "Inspired by Skyrim" in this day an age is grounds for intellectual property violation.

    In short, the value of art is independent of its legacy. Putting some arbitrary demand for the passage of time like waiting to canonize a saint misses the point. Art survives the ages because it is great, it is not great because it survives the ages, and neither notion guarantees the other.

    1. "In short, the value of art is independent of its legacy."
      Yes, there we go. Said much more succinctly than I managed to.

  31. Spot on-- I have always loved a good film, just like any piece of art. We're still in our infancy exploring the art form, whereas with film, we've got 100 years of content to critique. Even more with music-- so the standards are higher. Progress is a beautiful thing. I'd say the first generation of masterpiece games are out there now with Braid et al. Now the floodgates have opened and film will never be the same-- nor will any other one-way art form, in my opinion. Cheers and thanks for another great article.

  32. Jeff said, "I just played the indie game Gone Home, and it was Perfect. Loved it. Have a lot more to say about it some time."

    I'm very interested to read more about your thoughts on this game, Jeff. I just played it myself, and Perfect is not at all how I would describe it. Interesting, sure, but Perfect? What does that mean?

    While a lot of the comments to this post have been about trying to nail down the definition of "Great" - almost impossible with something subjective - no one is really asking for a definition of "Perfect." I submit that your current examples of Perfect are just as subjective because we don't have a clear definition of Perfect.

    Is the Fibonacci sequence, or Pi, or even the natural logarithm Perfect? To a mathematician maybe, but not to the average Joe. Is Tiger Wood's swing Perfect? I might think so, but he probably doesn't, given how much he keeps practicing at it. Is a score of 10/10 on a test Perfect? Depends - are there only 10 things to know about the subject?

    Hope you get what I mean.

    Therefore, when you do discuss Gone Home, I humbly ask for your definition of Perfect, please. While I THINK I know what you're getting at in its comparison to Great, I just don't think you've described Perfect well enough in so far as describing a video game.

  33. I like the idea of Chess as an art, and in that light I would consider fencing an art as well! As far as video games, though, I'd have to offer Okami. The main mechanic of the game derives from the "Art of Arts" (calligraphy) and the entire experience is woven seamlessly into a sublime, multifaceted romp filled with beauty, meaning and fun. It goes beyond hitting all the right notes of a perfect game, it's truly a game on another plane of existence from most titles released to date.

  34. I've been thinking about this post for a while, and I think that there is one thing that totally defines a game, and that's interaction. Could it be possible that the interaction (which is great about games) is what gets in the way of creating what we define as "art"?

    We can't really have a game without interaction from the player(s), in a way that is different from a movie or even from a play. While in arts we as spectators (consumers?) are necessarily passive (we cannot change the Mona Lisa), meaning that the creator (being the original writer or someone making an adaptation) can create something "frozen", reflecting something (even if it's open to interpretation, or interpreted in different ways).

    On the other hand, on a game, the creator (in the same sense) it's the player. The game designer can only make an environment to allow the play, but will never be in control during the game. There is no way that someone can predetermine a Tetris game (and I'm sure we agree that's one of the best games ever)
    That means that the experience is incredibly personal. Sure, a great game designer can drive it, shape it, and present a narrative. But as a player, you cannot focus on all the different details of the composition, or in the way the plot is presented for different characters. You can (and should) change the story. You give meaning to it, even if there is no story (Tetris don't need one, Super Mario Bros doesn't really have a story)

    This can mean that, while we can see Hamlet and analyse it in different lights and can evoque feelings with different flavours, if we analyse a game we have to get an approach more similar to sports, as each time the play will be different. Sports can have their own narrative (David against Goliath, the last great match of a former glory, an injured runner gets to the finish line...), but it's external, not from the point of view of the players, but from the spectators. It's also less sophisticated, more raw, because it is not a totally designed experience, it simply can't be. (On the other hand, it's very authentic, and I think that's one of the biggest appeals of sports)
    That 100% crafted experience makes a great film, but in a game will make us to not feel in control... We expect to be able to do stuff, that's what defines a game!

  35. This comment has been removed by the author.

  36. I wrote a long post about why it doesn't make sense to compare the staying power of modern works in a genre like video games to the staying power of classic works of art, but it just kind of disppeared when I tried to post. I guess I'll summarize by saying that the cultural systems, levels of education, and methods of distribution have changed so much in the modern era (especially the digital age), that it is unrealistic to expect single works to stand out for comparatively long periods of time amongst the sheer volume of what is available in our simultaneously monolithic and highly diversified culture.

    Another problem, of course, with people judging games in comparison to something like literature, is that what they are really doing is comparing a game designer's writing to the writing of a great writer, and finding it lacking. Similarly, someone might find the 3D models and painted backgrounds lacking in comparison to a famous Renaissance painter. Not exactly a fair comparison. The issue, I think, is that games (similar to film) are actually an amalgamation of different art forms. For a particular game, we might spend some time criticizing these different facets and then wrapping it up by making a judgement on what they accomplish together. However, it seems to me that any more general critical look at games as an art form should be focused on what sets them apart; namely, the systems at play in the design and perhaps how they evoke the themes and intentions of the artist. From that perspective, it isn't particularly constructive to compare a game to a work of literature or a famous painting and assign them relative levels of quality. It would be similarly irrational to say something like: "I think the Mona Lisa is better than Hamlet." Even if I were to choose a painting that most people don't consider great art, the mediums have too little in common for a comparison to be very useful. Perhaps this is partly why Ebert's statments don't make sense to me. He was judging games in terms of narrative, perhaps in the same way that he might analyze a film. He seemed to be suggesting that a coherent narrative was necessary to be art, which is an obviously flawed definition. A game can exist almost entirely without narrative (or at least without words), but I'm sure we can all agree that it can still evoke emotion and communication, and thus be art.

    I guess if I were going to contribute an example of a game I think qualified, I would say Ultima IV might be one of the earliest ones I can think of. I would not compare the writing to any of my favorite novels, or the pixels to any great painting, but the game makes some interesting choices on how to model morality and thought in its character generation system. And as an RPG, I think it was exactly its lack of a coherent narrative that makes it subversive even compared to most current titles. In a genre that more or less exists to tell complex stories about good guys fighting powerful villains, Ultima IV basically says, "Your only goal is to travel the world and meditate on your values." Beyond that, any narrative takes place largely in the player's head. In comparison to the way the game places various positive virtues at odds with each other and asks you to choose between them to determine who you are, most modern RPGs 'good points vs evil points' systems seem childish. I would say that a game that came from the infancy of a genre and still has so much to say to current iterations of the same genre almost 30 years later qualifies as an artistic success in my mind.

  37. I'm thinking that video games are now being accepted as form of art. Art exhibitions are being held appreciating them and museums start to include them in the collection. The cinematography and storyline are now being complex and engaging. It's no longer just an adventure to a path of how to get to the finish line. Most of the time, even video game trailers look cinematic and awe inspiring. It is an art, no matter how skeptics try to discount it.

  38. The big problem here is that people haven't yet understood that in order for video-games to became art they need to stop being games altogether. Systems, rules and competition are not compatible with philosophy or deep truths about life... Video-games that try to reach greatness should start exploring fiction though interactivity and not interactivity with some narrative bits here and there. That is the whole problem.
    People need to understand that the interactive medium needs not to involve games in order to tell stories or talk about interesting subjects. The interactive medium is a thing and video-games are another and the only thing that there's in common between the two is interactivity.
    Tetris, Dark Souls or Minecraft are examples of video-games. Metal Gear Solid or Silent Hill are examples of the in-between games and narrative. Journey or Dear Esther have started to tap into the interactive-fiction medium but have not quite made it there yet.

  39. I always thought that the reason why a game like Thief-remake would lose its charm is not just because of the kids. I mean, consider a game like Dishonored. That game very much has the "hide in the shadows for an hour until the guard passes" thing going on. The Last of Us was the same way. There are plenty of AAA games that demand patience from their users. The real issue is that the type of person who would want to remake a decade old IP rather than creating a new one *is not* the same kind of person that can make a game with creative and thoughtful mechanics. Same way movie spinoff games are rarely good. My two cents.

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