Video Games Aren’t Art (Yet)

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“I believe books and films are better mediums, and better uses of my time. But how can I say that when I admit I am unfamiliar with video games? Because I have recently seen classic films by Fassbinder, Ozu, Herzog, Scorsese and Kurosawa, and have recently read novels by Dickens, Cormac McCarthy, Bellow, Nabokov and Hugo, and if there were video games in the same league, someone somewhere who was familiar with the best work in all three mediums would have made a convincing argument in their defense.” – Roger Ebert

I am wholly anticipating the flood of Benedict Arnold e-mails this is sure to elicit, but Roger Ebert is right. “…Video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. …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.”

Sly Cooper’s got nothing on Rififi.

I freely admit that I am a pretentious elitist when it comes to literature and film. While I can enjoy my share of pulp and popcorn flicks, my true love is for films that are widely recognized as true masterpieces. I also love video games, but for entirely different reasons. Games are meant to be first and foremost fun. For a long time, their sole purpose was to entertain; an amusement with which to occupy your free time. With time games began to aspire to more than simple tests of reflexes and hand-eye coordination. They started telling stories, replete with real characters and complex plots. Sometimes the characters might even develop.

When Bogart says, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” he wasn’t talking about her graphics

The difference between the story telling and characters of the great examples of literature, drama and film and that of modern video games is like the difference between Dick and Jane versus Dickens, that is to say; shallow and hackneyed. However, this is where Ebert and I part our philosophical ways somewhat. Video games are still in their relative infancy, and the fault for the pedestrian plots and one dimensional characters lies not with the medium, but with the games’ Auteur. While technical feats are quickly raising the visual bar within the industry, truly artful presentations of story, sound and character are still sorely lacking.

I have an obsessive resistance to dubbing of foreign films. The reason is simple: more often than not, the voice actor who has been recruited to dub over the original performance doesn’t do it justice. Likewise, acting in games, while getting progressively more tolerable, is still leagues beneath the quality of acting we experience in great films much less even straight to DVD kid flicks. This is also the case with writing and dialog in games compared to their superior counterparts in literature. I am man enough to admit that there are numerous films that have made me cry. I have not come close to experiencing that strong an emotional pull while playing a video game. No, not even when Aeris died.

Video games have other serious limitations too. Whereas there are volumes written dissecting each frame of ground breaking masterpieces like Citizen Kane, video games have the disadvantage of an audience controlled environment. I recently read a book containing selected frames from various classic Noir films. Accompanying each still was a brief essay breaking down the intricate composition of framing, light and shadow and their respective symbolism. Cameras and character motion in most games are not fixed and as such will rarely have the same artistic impact of a photograph or film frame that has been meticulously composed.

There’s more symbolism in this single frame of Citizen Kane than in all of video games so far.

The second and even more glaring weakness of video games is the lack of breadth found in literature and film. Where are the epic romances or tragedies of video games? Some would argue that such genres wouldn’t make for a very fun game, which only highlights a genuine disparity between the mediums. The reason more people don’t play games is not only because of the perceived difficulty of the interface, but because of their very limited range. While there are just as many space marine action movies as there are games, I doubt we’ll ever see a Victorian era romantic comedy from EA.

Speaking of Orwell, the chances of seeing a compelling game revolving around
a penecillin dilution scam? Zero.

Ask yourself this question: if there was a video game appreciation course at a university today, excluding technical details, how much material would there be to cover? Is there a single game you could see an entire book being written about? (Strategy guides don’t count, smart ass.) Is there one game that decades from now will be looked upon with the same universal respect and awe of Gone with the Wind?

Now before your fingers start furiously attacking the keyboard to shoot off that sarcastic hate mail, let me say that it took nearly 30 years before cinema really hit its stride. While games like Shenmue are a step in the right direction, they’re still bogged down with forklift action mini-games and lines like, “Excuse me. Do you know where I can find some sailors?” To be fair, bad films and books vastly out number those we accept as masterpieces, but if you compare the very best from literature and film against the very best video games, the difference is still night and day. Games are still in their cave painting infancy, and I expect that in years to come as less attention is focused on technology and more energy is put into creating real works of art we’ll see a true interactive magnum opus. We’re just not quite there yet.

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