Because I wrote this:
people keep referring me to this:
To reiterate my argument from two years ago: although video games have some storytelling aspects (worldbuilding, etc.) they are not really a narrative art form because their core purpose and measure of success is not the act of telling a story.
The first time it was suggested to me that video games were a narrative art form similar to movies, I was simply baffled that anybody thought that. Of course they don’t tell a story. They’re games. Sure, they have story elements — characters, setting, a backstory, that sort of thing.
But, then, Candyland has all those things too, and I’ve never seen anybody try to claim that boardgames are a narrative art form.
I won’t even argue, here, whether video games are in fact a narrative art form. But I will assert: they are not actually very much like movies, books, plays, television, or any other thing generally considered a narrative art form.
No matter how fascinating the game scenario sounds — no matter how intriguing or beautiful the artwork — or how elaborate the cut scenes — at some point a game must be played or it is not a game. Is playing a game like reading a story? Obviously not. Is playing a game like watching a story unfold, as in a movie? Well… it would be kind of a bad game if it were, right?
Is watching somebody else play a game like watching a story unfold? Still no. It’s like watching somebody play a game. Watching somebody play a game can be interesting — we have this entertainment called “sports” which is based entirely on the notion that watching somebody else play a game can be interesting. Also game shows. And the poker channel for some reason. I don’t know why it’s interesting to watch people play poker, but whatever. Big world and all.
Is the act of playing a game like playing a story?
Does the phrase “play a story” make sense?
Sure, I guess it does. Role-playing games, or that thing you used to do when you were a kid and you made your Barbies and your brother’s GI Joe be spies together. But role-playing games are a very specific kind of thing, more like being part of an improv group, and I’m not sure how analogous they are to video games.
But, okay, let’s say we regard video games as a potentially narrative medium in which the narrative is played, not viewed or read or listened to. How do they compare to other narrative forms?
Game fans assure me that some games provide moments of emotional effectiveness to rival any movie. All right. I’ll take their word for it. But here’s the thing: movies last about two hours, while playing to the end of a game lasts considerably longer. And you want it to, don’t you? Wouldn’t you be a bit disappointed in a game that was over after two hours? So, to get that emotional experience, you have to play the game for hours and hours and hours, which is fine if you want to be playing the game anyway, but if you just want the emotional experience, it seems like a waste of time.
Unless you enjoy the act of playing the game, even two hours is probably a waste of time.
Furthermore, I suspect that if you don’t enjoy playing the game you won’t even get that deeply emotional experience. You’re likely to spend the whole time on the surface of the game thinking “this is so irritating, where’s that fantastic emotional experience I was promised? No, I don’t want to shoot another zombie, just give me that emotional experience! Come on! Gah! I don’t want to solve another stupid pointless puzzle, WHERE IS MY EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE YOU STUPID GAME?”
If you take game-playing as a given, then it becomes important that some games provide a richer story experience for the player. But if the game-playing isn’t a given — is there really any game story experience out there that is worth trying to learn to enjoy playing video games in the first place?
I think this is the true impasse between Mr. Ebert and the game fans. Unspoken assumptions on both sides.
Game fans: [Given that we like to play video games anyway] some games are truly art.
Roger Ebert: No, they’re not [worth me taking the time to wade through all that tedious game play to get to what you allege is a meaningful artistic experience].
And this is an impasse that is not going to be solved at some future date with hypothetically better games (one thing that game fans have suggested). I can’t speak for Mr. Ebert, but I know that for myself, I prefer simpler, less narrative video games, things like Rock Band and Tetris, precisely because I’m not much of a game player. I’m only interested in short-cycle games that are easy to play at a low skill and attention level, the video game equivalent of darts or pinball.
If we lived in an alternate universe where games were the default narrative experience, that would no doubt make me hopelessly lowbrow, like people who are only interested in movies where stuff blows up real good.
But we don’t. We live in a world where the default narrative experience is movies and narrative television.
So, games-as-art fans, you need to give up on trying to convert people like Mr. Ebert to your cause. Not gonna happen.
Instead, if you want games taken seriously as an art form, you need to build up a body of pretentious critical work. Write as if you already lived in that alternate universe where games are the default, and you’re the ones who get to call Mr. Ebert a lowbrow fanboy.
But here’s a tip: unless your critiques are at least as well-written and thoughtful as Mr. Ebert’s, that approach is not going to work. The sputtering, “are too!” approach taken by so many of the commentators on his post is not going to persuade anyone to your cause. First, you have to learn how to write a critique and then you need to apply those skills to writing about video games.
Can this work? Can you convince the artistic establishment that something is high art just because of the body of critique surrounding it?
Why, of course. Look at mid-20th-century modern art. There’s a reason people think, for example, that Jackson Pollock or a canvas entirely painted an unpleasant shade of orange is art, and it’s not really the paintings. I’m sure many people genuinely enjoy them, but the typical layperson’s reaction is more along the lines of “you call that art? my kid could do that!” Pollock et al would be nothing without an artistic critical establishment successfully convincing the layperson that, if you don’t enjoy it, and you don’t see what makes it so great, the fault lies in you, the viewer.
So, have at it!