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On One’s Own: Videogames Will Always Be Videogames

FlowerOn One’s Own is a column about, you guessed it, independent gaming. The wayward wanderings of DIYGamer’s James Bishop might lead to probing art, gameplay, design, reception or a number of other aspects related to independent games. But you can rest assured that all things indie will be carefully considered on a weekly basis.

Roger Ebert is a widely respected film critic but his opinions on videogames leave most videogames critics puzzled. Ebert is no stranger to this kind of discussion, either, as he’s made the same accusation multiple times over a number of years: videogames are not art. As has been pointed out, multiple times and by many people more experienced in the industry than I, Ebert is a film critic; not a videogames critic.

That isn’t to say that some of his points are not valid or somewhat accurate. The problem does not stem from his conclusions. It stems, instead, from his premise. I do not dispute that games, as he defines, do not necessarily constitute art. What I dispute, however, is his definition of games in general. It seems that Ebert lumps all games into having goals, being about winning and involving the attempt to get to those goals.

In this way, he brings things like chess, checkers and golf (as well as a number of other sports) to the same table. This is where his premise strays away from the actual area that games exist in: Some games are about winning and goals but not all of them. As an example, some rectangles are squares and all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares.

flOwEbert chooses in his most recent article to pick on one kind of square particularly: thatgamecompany’s Kellee Santiago. Given that his contention is that games can never be art, it is not all that terribly surprising to see him pick a bone with an independent game developer, especially one associated with games like Flower or flOw.

Even more specifically, Ebert responds to Santiago’s TED conference presentation. He begins by acknowledging that she is very intelligent, charming and able to get her points across effectively. He moves then to explain that she had to give the talk live while he has the luxury of responding at his leisure and with numerous edits. Well, he actually uses the word “extemporaneously,” but that’s rather big and serves only to obfuscate the situation. (See, Ebert, I can do it too.) This is mostly just a smokescreen that will later allow him to attempt to tear her argument down, brick by brick, and make broad sweeping generalizations about videogames.

IcoBut, again, it’s not that I disagree with the notion. What he describes, I, too, might also concede is outside the realm of art. He just does not seem to actually describe the medium that we have all come to know and love. He, instead, focuses on a minute window that he’s been made aware of through others instead of attempting to explore the field on his own.

Kellee Santiago has even gone so far as to write a response to Ebert’s criticisms, where she states that she’s deeply flattered by his attention but a bit disappointed as it seems he doesn’t actually engage with the topic and instead commentates from a lofty position. In fact, she notes that it doesn’t seem that Ebert has played any, “if any” videogames. The “if any” accusation is a bit meritless, but his experiences all seem to be limited to many, many years ago. Technology, and just about everything associated with it, changes rapidly, far more rapidly than Ebert has been able to keep up with it seems.

There are a number of equally amazing responses out there, ranging from IGN to G4 and beyond, but it does make one wonder whether Ebert truly did his research. If so, how does he discount more recent stabs at serious journalistic endeavors in order to more thoroughly explore the subject? I feel as if his bold challenge and mentality of “Show me if it exists, then” is much akin to a blindfolded man telling his friend that he can’t see when all he needs do is remove the cloth in front of his eyes.

Sleep Is DeathEven barring these secondary sources, there is a plentiful supply of primary ones. Where is the competition in Flower or stated goals? Ebert makes off-hand commentary about short clips of the game he has seen but never played. I could, in like, make judgments about Citizen Kane but will instead leave that to those who are obviously more knowledgeable on the subject.

An even better comparison might be made to Jason Rohrer’s most recent game: Sleep Is Death. Santiago mentions both Jenova Chen’s huge involvement in Flower and Jonathan Blow’s self-development of Braid as examples of what Ebert seems to seek in art, as they are “usually the creation of one artist.” Neglecting to even get into arguing about the collaborative nature of some art forms—Hello? Films have hundreds of hands in them, plays have half that, if not more, and the list goes on—no other developer so easily fits the mold of “artist” described as Rohrer.

While his Passage game might also challenge Ebert’s statements, his most recent, Sleep Is Death, does so more effortlessly. Sleep Is Death is an improvisation tool cleverly disguised as a videogame. You are meant to tell a story through the medium, to evoke emotions through it and, ultimately, craft an intensely personal experience for yourself and another. This is, more or less, the Mecca of game design: this game is just a vehicle for the experience and the vehicle is minimalistic at best.

Pete & James play Sleep Is DeathPeter Eykemans, our fearless Managing Editor, and I had a chance to play with it recently. The design of the game allows you 30 seconds to react to the actions of the other. One is, ostensibly, the player and one the controller. The controller is, arguably, a more difficult role to play as the player merely responds to the objects in front of them but both are equally responsible for the engagement presented.

Most importantly, perhaps, is the lack of a win condition. Or a fail state. Or any real tangible goals. I suppose finishing a scene before the timer counts down might be a goal but there are no true consequences to failing to meet it other than disappointment for both involved. Seeing as this has no goals, no fail state and no winning, what is this concoction that Jason Rohrer has cooked up for us?

Ebert would probably say that it isn’t art but it also isn’t a game. I’m not so sure he’d know what to do with this artifact of our times. I’m not sure it even matters, though, as the experience is the important part. Defining it as an experience puts the medium in an entirely different strata. We don’t need someone else to validate our experiences.