Ebert, Fairey, and The Last of Us: Making Sense of Games as Art

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To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers… For most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic. – Roger Ebert, 2005

I’m a gamer. I’m not an art-lover.

Don’t get me wrong; from abstract paintings, to well-produced films, to traditional sculptures, I can appreciate the amount of work, dedication, and immense talent that goes into creating any work of art.  But there’s a difference between appreciating something and truly enjoying it—and that’s where art loses me. There’s always been something inaccessible to ‘high’ art for me; something holier-than-thou that simply boggled my mind and forced me to consider a piece, rather than enjoy it.

Now, one may argue that this complexity, this secondary layer, is precisely what makes art art. It’s what separates an Archie comic from Guernica, what makes us look at Apocalypse Now differently than SharknadoIt’s an unspoken divider that separates the dreck, or even the Marvel-film-averse, from the true ‘achievements’ in creative society. It’s also the source of the classically vague definition: “I know it when I see it.”

Although art by its own nature is classically undefined, certain mediums have been ‘accepted’ as art by society, or at least, understood as having the ability to produce art—painting, music, film, sculpture. Other mediums, for the most part, have been defined by their inability to do the very same.

If you can’t tell from my lead-in, or the quote by the irreplaceable Roger Ebert above (rest in peace), I’m talking about video games.

The arguments against the consideration of video games as art have always boggled my mind. Few people would argue that games contain no artistic elements—it’s difficult to debate the musical merits of the original soundtrack in games like Bastion, or the unbelievable art design that goes into something like Limbo (both independently produced, by the way). Alas, there are still a host of reasons why people refuse to consider video games amidst the art-producing mediums.

So, without further adieu, let me put on my Mario hat, refute them one-by-one, and show you that perhaps, indeed, I am an art-lover after all.

Fallacy #1: Art serves niche interests. Video games are, intrinsically, popular.

This argument, surprisingly, comes from renowned video game developer Hideo Kojima, who’s credits include Metal Gear Solid. On its face, Kojima’s point holds a lot of weight: many video games, like the numerous professional sports franchises or Call of Duty, are re-packaged and re-presented year after year with an updated face and some slight changes to gameplay mechanics, and are among the medium’s most popular productions.

Kojima’s argument doesn’t hold true for a variety of reasons. Firstly, there are varying degrees of complexity in any given medium, and any can be aimed at the masses rather than niché audiences. Shepard Fairey‘s work is a prime example. Secondly, games themselves can be directed at niche audiences. Listen, Kojima—if you’re trying to tell me that a game like Killer7 is “intrinsically serving a popular audience,” you’re nuts. Take a look at the trailer below; 8 years after its release, it still creeps me out:

As with any other artistic medium, this complexity is reflected daily through video games. It’s impossible to compare Nintendogs to Metroid Prime, and that’s the  biggest hole in Kojima’s argument: you can’t paint anything, in any medium, with the same brush.

Fallacy #2: “You can’t win art. You can only experience it.”

This quote, once again, comes from Ebert, who apparently took serious issue with video games as art back in the day. Ebert suggested that the malleability of games—the customization available within—weakened artistic expression, famously (well, as famously as one can, given this argument) stating that if Romeo and Juliet had an optional, happy ending it would weaken the artistic expression of the work.

My counter argument can be summed up thusly (here’s hoping you have a lot of time to kill):

If you don’t have the patience to watch the whole video, those are all of the endings from Mass Effect 3. The game, by Canadian developers BioWare, generated not only critical acclaim for it’s customizability, but also intense dissent and discussion for the content of its multiple endings, which were debated ad nauseum in the gaming community. Content of the endings themselves notwithstanding, the customizability and optionality that the game offers became a focal point for discussion and appreciation of the game itself, and, arguably, the lasting impression that it made on the medium.

To broaden my point: like anything, customization done wrong can, without question, weaken the original intent of a work. But if done correctly, it can increase its complexity and place the viewer inside the work itself, generating discussion while still maintaining the integrity of the original artist.

And with today’s technologies, developers can effectively express their creative goals in more ways than ever before. We’re not in the world of Warp Zones and Game Genies anymore, where “customization” literally meant taking advantage of a developer miscue or simply skipping a portion of the game to decrease difficulty.

This is what used to pass for a “customized” game experience.

Instead, game creators today have the ability to create multiple experiences that keep the original integrity of a work intact, while still allowing the player the illusion of being in control his/her own destiny. Players can insert a modicum of their own will, and often, personality, into a game, while still working within the original sphere intended by the developer, instead of against them. This is what allows us to have such different experiences when we play, and also helps to generate debate and discussion.

In a way, it’s almost reminiscent of traditional art. If we all looked at a painting, and came to different conclusions on its meaning, does that mean we can’t all appreciate its artistic value?

Fallacy 3: Nobody has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison… Yadda yadda, read the quote at the top of the article.

Ah, 2005 Roger Ebert. It was a simpler time, then. Gordon Ramsay was only popular in Great Britain, Barry Bonds didn’t hold the home run record, and you, sir, didn’t have a chance to see this:

This, of course, is a trailer for The Last of Us, Naughty Dog Entertainment’s 2013 masterpiece that has drawn comparisons to Citizen Kane and is being widely hailed as the greatest achievement of the current console generation.

I own, and have played, The Last of Us, so I will have to say that my review of it, like anyone’s review of anything, will be biased by my own tendencies. However, it’s hard to play through something like this and see it as anything but art. It really is something that can hold its own against any creation, in any medium.

When describing the game to my friends and family, the closest I can get is: “it’s the best movie I’ve ever seen, crossed with the best game I’ve ever played!” If this seems superlative, it’s only because it is.

Of course, The Last of Us isn’t the only video game that transcends—and, perhaps, elevates—the medium. But it is a great example of the ability that game developers have to create something with serious complexity; you literally care about the characters, and your feelings toward them evolve as the story continues on. The game contains timely social commentary, stunning visuals, and an excellent soundtrack. It generates real emotion, stirs up real questions about the world around us, and can be discussed and dissected critically in the very same way any film or painting could. In short, it’s a perfect demonstration of what a video game is capable of being in 2013.

Part of me hopes that if Roger Ebert ever saw a game like The Last of Us, or Bioshock Infinite, or Heavy Rain, he’d change his mind on whether or not video games deserve to be included in the mediums that can create ‘art.’

Maybe, as Jim Munroe said on the CBC podcast Spark, critics are simply afraid of a new medium. Maybe Ebert, Kojima, and all the other critics are right, and games can never ascend to a higher plane.

Maybe, though, I don’t really care. I’m going to keep playing games, keep fawning over The Last of Us, and keep telling everyone who will listen that video games can play in the artistic major leagues.

After all, I know it when I see it.
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