Ebert Is Right… For Now

I’ve been a long time follower of Roger Ebert, it’s around five years now, and I love the charm the guy manages to get across and how humble he can be. Given he’s seen so many movies he’s probably a walking dictionary on the matter. It’s why it’s ever more peculiar that he chooses to stick his nose into my little world of videogames. I welcome his lovely nose, I welcome him de-constructing the very basis of why I write and campaign for videogames to be appreciated as an artistic medium. What I don’t welcome is cynicism.

In his latest article (probably my favourite for sometime) he takes apart one argument for videogames by Kellee Santiago. I’ll embed the video after this post.

In this article, Ebert points to one of the few games that Santiago mentions; Flower. In such a span of time, you can see that you couldn’t describe this game to such outsiders as an audience at the TED convention. I feel that she tried her best. Flower isn’t exactly a challenging game or a game which shares conventions with mainstream titles, it can pretty much be defined on the level similar to an independent picture.

Flower does provoke some emotions on some level, but that can’t be done without playing it. I understand Ebert’s sincerity on the subject and I know he’s not trying to poke fun at us. Maybe he even considers us at least an industry with some degree of maturity. The trouble is, to all outsiders and campaigners against videogames, you can’t convince them unless they taste the sample. Just one sample maybe.

I remember reading some of Anthony Burch’s stuff over on, and he said that you can’t prove to Ebert that “Games are art” by making him play BioShock. When it comes down to it, BioShock is a game about finding inventive ways to kill people. We can’t make him play Shadow of the Colossus either, because it’s obviously very long and in depth, because it’s still about ‘finding the weak spot’ on giant monsters and then climbing them to stab their hearts out.

I’m quite offended by “videogames can never be art” because of how quickly they are changing. They are changing at such a pace that tomorrow I could wake up and every single videogame just doesn’t work anymore. Imagine that, every videogame in the history of mankind just stops working. All of those nostalgic memories, the crying, the emotional output, the late nights; it’s all gone. Nothing to prove.

That would be the greatest thing to happen to us.

Right now, videogames can be projected to move into a state where they will mirror films creatively and financially. You’ll start to see a trend of fewer games coming out, fewer publishers taking risks, large game budgets. The independent studies will not get their say, they will be weeded out. Call of Duty, Halo, Gears; they could be just the fewer games we get. Casual gaming can’t save us. Lets guess around 100 games come out every year, and around 40 mainstream films come out every year. The number of games is going to just go downhill given the trend, and the independent studio will be at risk of failing.

As they are weeded out, as developers are fired and put on to 500+ teams on Call of Duty for 2 year cycles; that will be the end. The end of blogging about artistic expression, the end of endless nights of going back and taking notes, the end of crying at a videogame.

Everything is subjective; films, television, art itself. What I want to give to this is that videogames are subjective too. I cried at Shadow of the Colossus because of how invested I was into it, but someone might just think it’s the worst game of all time. Massively diverse opinions, and no one should ever be wrong how a videogame affected them. But that’s the thing, isn’t it, I feel that a videogame can effect in the same way that a film or television show can.

Now there’s the special word, can, I approve of Ebert’s post entirely in the present tense but not in future tense. I don’t know what will happen, I can only predict we will get fewer and fewer titles. My friend, Adam Stephen Kelly, tells me that if it would mirror the film industry in a sense. Independent studies churning out the innovation with big buck Hollywood churning out whale vomit. This could be what videogames become, and I feel that would be for the better.

I can imagine 12 man games rushing about somebody’s bedroom, chasing that big idea. Pushing out on to the internet with less than 5,000 plays. A game that changes people’s way of thinking, that changes who they are down to every single little emotion.

We don’t have ONE title or any studio out there who shows the potential of what videogames can become. We have a few games such as Braid and Flower as an indication of what can be done. Ebert himself called these attempts ‘pathetic’, which I slightly agree. But if there’s a scale, if art within games can be pathetic then surely it has the potential to be something meaningful. Surely it can become something on the level of film.

Videogames aren’t art, the mainstream never will be. They have potential, and it’s not something we can exactly show people like Ebert. I appreciate the time he took to watch the TED talk below, and I appreciate that he at least sees maturity within our industry.

We can’t show potential, all we can do really is wait. It might never happen, we might shift into something like comic books where it is completely devoid of originality. You get around four independent comic books NOT about superheroes, and they aren’t even recognized by people. Games right now are about, mainly, killing people or finding ways to harm people.

Maybe it will change, maybe it won’t. Maybe Ebert might be right but only for RIGHT now.

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