While famed film critic Roger Ebert says he still hasn't changed his mind about video games, and his view that they can't be art, he recently pointed his nearly 400,000-strong Twitter followomg to what he called a "well-written defence of video games" by musician Blake Williams. Here is the article, with permission, in its entirety.
Dear Mr. Ebert,
Before joining in on this hilarious debate that has turned all the nerds of the world against you, in spite of your previous heroism to them by giving the original Star Wars trilogy a hat trick of 4 star reviews, allow me to say that I am a fan. I enjoy your writing style and often trust your opinions. You have been involved in cinema long enough that, whenever I discover a great film, chances are you have written something insightful about it, and when I discover an awful one, you've written something hysterical about it. One such example, when I saw Vertigo for the first time, I was entirely engrossed in the plot at hand, and mesmerized by it's ending. I read your Great Movies article on the film after the fact, and was hit with so many concepts I hadn't even been looking for. Your analysis of Hitchcock's psycho-sexual struggle with himself has given me an entirely new perspective. This video game thing however is going to go on forever. I had read your argument with Clive Barker years ago, which was funny to me because I enjoy the writing of both of you. I had let the whole thing roll off at the time, and since I just started reading your Twitter, I realise it's a war you're still fighting. You're arguing with a demographic who still debates if Green Lantern could beat Superman in a fight, and the war is more or less over a vague piece of language. I've been a musician since childhood, and in my adult life have come to define art essentially as: an individual or a group of individuals using a medium that affects one or more of the primary senses, to convey emotion, philosophy, social commentary, or other general observations of the human struggle. However, by this definition, I've often gotten on rants at the local microbreweries about how beer is an art form by which the brewmaster can convey his feelings, ideas, and views on society via one of the most personal senses. Take that for what you will. If we observe the literal definition of art, however, we more or less open Pandora's box on this issue. dict.org returns such broad definitions as "the products of human creativity" and "the creation of beautiful or significant things."
That makes this discussion too complicated, so let's just run with the narrower version. Do video games allow a group of individuals to convey emotion, philosophy, and commentary on humanity and all of its general screw ups/triumphs? Well, the answer is vaguely, sometimes.
In the 80s, video games were toys parents bought for their kids that ruined their grades and showed a psychological addiction potential to where I still find myself dusting off my 8-bit Nintendo and playing Mega Man 2. Is Mega Man 2 art? Oh hell no. It's a little blue guy who shoots lasers at robots. I remember being a kid when the Super Mario Bros film was released. I had beaten the game, and if you approached me at that young age and asked me, "Is this art?" I would have said something like "No, art hangs in museums." I'm sure many a college student has tried to analyse the greater philosophical meanings of a plumber who eats mushrooms to become 20 feet tall, kills turtles, spits fireballs and fights dragons, but at some point they had to put the bong down and do their math homework. So of course, when the film was released, I went to it excited, but confused, because that game didn't have a story. The end result was a piece of B-grade sci-fi schlock that rolls out like it was written by one of said college students after a weekend bender.
Things change though. In the late 80s, I was a kid. The only adults I knew who played video games at the time all had drug habits and weren't very good at it. It was just this mindless thing that resulted in a lot of cursing and controller throwing. The kids had this technology and mastered it, grew up with it, and the games had to grow up also. Now, don't get me wrong, most video games are still just toys. Entertainment. Games derived from the Street Fighter franchise don't have much to say, they're just a very elaborate reinvention of Rock'Em'Sock'Em Robots. But scarcely, a group of individuals will set out to make an intense multidimensional interactive experience as a method of carefully paced storytelling. If I may, I'm going to quote something you wrote in your recent review of The Adjustment Bureau, "Sci-fi offers storytellers the freedom of tinkering with realism..." It also offers room to drop in a bizarre number of overblown galactic battles, spaceships blowing the hell out of things, and David & Goliath type scenarios where the protagonist fights a monster that should have been fighting Godzilla. As the Star Wars series of films clearly demonstrated, if you're patient enough with your plot pacing and you're willing to let the story go on long enough, you can interject both the mind rotting explosive entertainment with carefully laid out artistic themes all in one go. This is what a handful of video games (but not most) have been able to accomplish.
I'm not going to demand you play any such games, as you've repeatedly told your readers that you don't want to. I personally don't invest nearly as much time into it as I used to. That said, I'll gladly spoil the hell out of a few for you. You gave a 3 and a half star review to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. You said something all-too-right about it, that the plot was just "...nuts-and-bolts space opera...", but it sure was purdy to look at. This actually was a huge complaint of fans of the video game series, who had recently lost weeks of their lives to video games which had plots at least as well written as Blade Runner. Most fans probably weren't, but I know I was hoping this would lead to a proper media crossover; the creator of the game series directed the movie, as well as providing the story outline as he did for numerous entries in the franchise prior. I felt like good writing was more or less being wasted on a medium that only reached teenagers and self-proclaimed nerds, and wanted to see these stories move into the mainstream. A number of years have passed, and video games have more or less become mainstream.
That said, I'll give you a synopsis here. Final Fantasy VII, being a game I'm sure dozens of trolls have demanded you play with undying authority, is kind of an impressive thing. First, the story doesn't feel like it was written for a video game, but seems to have the same kind of flow as a lot of Japanese science fiction. It's kind of like when a musical theatre production is underway, you get your playwright to hand the book over, the dance choreographer and songwriter yank huge sections out and turn them into catchy musical numbers. This game (and a number of the better entries in its genre) uses this approach, except instead of musical numbers, you have violent battles with monsters that the player controls. In between the actual interactive content is a lot of text scrolling by which feels more like reading a fantasy novel, and inter-cut with these sections are short animated movies which sparked the idea to develop the aforementioned feature length.
Even with this as a medium, the story runs down a few carefully twisted plotlines with dozens of subplots scattered around. It introduces itself in a setting much like Fritz Lang's Metropolis, where a corporation that started as a power company has become the entire world's commanding government. They have built a city in the sky which the elite live in, and the poor are left in the remains of the city underneath it without sunlight, thus constantly buying into the power the company used to take rule. That fun little irony as an introduction, the power they're harvesting is actually something that the heroes of the story use to harness magic power, which later ties into a philosophy of animatism, in which a common spiritual force animates all things, merges together, and breaks apart at will. This "Materia" that is being sucked from the Earth for power, which is simultaneously killing the planet, turns out to be this energy; our very souls are being devoured by our own greed and technological progress. Yes, I noticed how ironic it is that this is the chosen medium for such a story. Beyond this, you have love triangles, complicated and detailed development of characters that are far more human than a video game necessitates, countless plot twists (some being the ultimate in anime cliches), and a climax which questions such subjects as the nature of human memory, the fragility of our very decency, and at points the cynical concept that maybe we don't even deserve to exist. The heroine dies midway of the story, the hero's memories of his own life aren't real, he's been deceived by those he cares about, and the only thing separating him from his nemesis (who is presently trying to summon a comet to destroy the world so that he can merge with it, thus becoming a God to reinvent it to his liking, how's that for tinkering with realism to explore a concept?) is a willingness to move forward despite these tragedies.
It's a well formed science fiction story. I just wish it had a novel, comic book, or animated series as a companion so I wasn't required to sit there and cuss at snake monsters that are killing me for 40+ hours to get through it. I'd even look to ask your opinion on it if it existed as a 6 part Showtime miniseries, which would likely be overacted and campy in many places, but appreciated by the same demographic that embraced Star Trek for those same reasons.
One more before I wrap this up. I don't typically play video games these days that eat 40+ hours of my life, maybe one or two a year when my life otherwise has some downtime. Instead, I'm more entertained by a mostly Japanese genre called manic shooters. You move a spaceship through a vertically scrolling screen littered with bullets and other crap that will kill you if you so much as touch it. Not art, I know, but a great way to kill 20 minutes when you need a distraction between tasks. A friend and I who collect these things sat down one day to play an obscure one we found called Radiant Silvergun, which was proving to be the most difficult damn game either of us had ever played. We decided to cheat through to the end of the game, just to see how impossible it ultimately became. Half way through, we realise something is going on here among all the pretty visuals and the very impressive musical score (which in itself was an artistic achievement). My friend gets a translated version of the script so we can understand the very brief inserts of dialog (plot development isn't exactly a component of a scrolling bang bang go boom kind of game). We find out that we're killing God. It's just a theme for pretty colours and visuals up until close to the end when it hits a climax of sight, sound, and symbolism. Having decided that humanity was ultimately a failed experiment due to it's lust for violence and destruction (once again, irony), a creator-God that's referred to as the Stone-like, a diamond shaped object, is found on Earth unleashing all the crap that's shooting at you now, which just recently obliterated all human life. You were in space at the time when Earth's communications were lost, testing out a new weapon by which the game is named after. Low on supplies, you are forced to return to Earth, not knowing what exactly has transpired there, just knowing if something shoots at you, shoot back.
There's a climax at the end where you battle the Stone-like itself. It first transforms into a whale, then a tortoise, then a bird, representing the progress of Earth's lifeforms in a beautiful display of fireworks. At the end, it evolves into a man, and begins doing things men aren't supposed to be able to do; mainly flying, and standing a hundred stories high and looking down upon the world. During this battle, in the background you hear dialog in Japanese, which translated is a series of conversations between those for and against warfare, those who do and don't believe in humanity, and those who wonder if God truly does doom us for our behaviour. The music has gone from an epic (albeit computerized) symphonic arrangement to a choir singing against a few low synth drones. It is uneasy, tragic, and introspective. The blatant entertainment that made up the game for the first 70 minutes suddenly seems like filler against this one moment that they wanted to convey to their audience; a beautifully sad wall of fire full of philosophical ambiguities, with the actual violence on screen forcing the player to experience a sense of urgent panic as the background noise is introduced to them consequently.
So, at this adult stage in my life, having grown up with the medium and played it in chronological order from Atari to today's interactive movies that have me screaming "When do I get to effing play!?", if somebody asked me if I thought video games were art, I would tell them sometimes. The same is true for many viable mediums. For every film as great as Kurosawa's Ikiru, there will be a god awful waste of money like Bay's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (or just about any movie based on a video game, for that matter). The problem facing video games is that its ratio of art to sheer entertainment is far more skewed, because it was invented as a toy, and continues to serve that purpose regardless of elevation in creativity. Cinema was invented as a technological marvel which was shortly thereafter adopted by true artists, whereas video games were invented as a toy that artists occasionally dabble in from time to time. Most video game developers aren't sitting around wondering how they can cram Nietzsche into a racing game, and honestly it's better that way, because the best use of video games is to unload some of your brain's stress and replace it with entertaining visual cortex massage. But a couple times a year or so, it happens; somebody in charge of a development team gets a wild idea, follows it through, and an audience less prepared than that of conventional art mediums gets this deeper concept launched into their face without warning. I'll just cap things off with a very redundant, sometimes.
Now to make a long post longer, I'm appending a couple references.
The scene where Sephiroth burns Cloud's village to the ground, complete with super deformed character models.
And something to get stuck in your head...
Reprinted with permission.
"Blake William is a 26-year-old blogger, musician, and audio engineer from Sacramento, CA, who harbors an unhealthy fascination with Atari and bullet hell. He also really, really likes craft beer."