Games v. Art v. Time

I was hoping to avoid entering the “Games as Art” debate, because I felt that the question was (a) insulting and (b) obvious. Of course games are art. Or, rather, they can be, if that’s what they strive for. Film is an art form, but I defy anyone to defend a piece of crap like, say, “Transformers 2” as art. Similarly, Roger Ebert saying that games can never be art is, ultimately, meaningless; no matter how smart he is, or erudite, he has not actually played any games, and therefore his argument – however well-constructed – is irrelevant. My personal opinion is that if you haven’t experienced a thing, you are not inherently qualified to have your judgment matter.

But I had an epiphany of sorts last night and I figured I might as well bring it up, especially as I was a bit surprised at what side of the fence I ended up on. Let me set the scene, then, as the prelude has everything to do with the conclusion.

A great deal of my down time yesterday at work was spent reading various Rock Paper Shotgun articles about the 10 year anniversary of Deus Ex; this one is as good a place to start as any. Deus Ex – at least the first one – is still held as a pinnacle of game design; it did the whole “choice” thing long before Peter Molyneux and Bioware started offering it as a bullet point. You could pretty much do anything you wanted to – you could be stealthy, you could be lethal, you could be manipulative, and the game responded in turn. I, like a few of the participants in the RPS article above, played and enjoyed the game when it first game out, but hadn’t played it since. And so, by the time I got home last night, Steam had put both Deus Ex 1 and 2 on sale for a ridiculously low price – I think they were $5 combined – and I felt obligated to download them and re-experience a masterpiece.

Let me offer up a quote from the RPS article now, because it’s somewhat crucial to my eventual point:

I want to cling to my memories and experience, not have it tainted by age, creakiness and other people’s bluster. Even looking in on it last night, I was horrified by how not-huge the levels seemed now. I didn’t want to destroy their grandeur in my memory, so I couldn’t stay for long.

So while I was downloading the Deus Ex games, my wife and I watched Wipeout (ridiculous TV, not art) and then, because we’re in that weird point of our Netflix queue where the movies we have are good, classic movies that we’re never in the mood to watch, we decided to watch “Visions of Light,” a documentary about the history of cinematography that I’d heard was great.

If you’ve read this blog with any sort of regularity, you’ll know that I am a graphics whore. This also extends to film – my favorite directors (Kubrick, Gilliam, Jeunet, Gondry, the Coens, etc.) are all absolutely brilliant with the camera and use it as much as anything else to tell the story. I am a big big fan of Gordon Willis, Conrad Hall and Roger Deakins; the biggest reason why I liked the most recent Harry Potter movie was that it was shot by the same guy who did Amelie, which is one of my all-time favorites.

Anyway, so this documentary was really, really fascinating. It covered a general history of American cinematography, and showed lots of out-of-context clips which did a terrific job of illustrating the cinematographer’s relationship to the art of storytelling. There were a few notable omissions – no mention at all of Eisenstein’s influence, which seemed surprising, and only one Hitchcock movie (“Rebecca”, which wasn’t even identified as a Hitchcock film). And, of course, the film was released in 1993, which was right around the time when CGI really started to become prominent, and the transition from film to digital would seem to be as big a technological leap as the transition from black & white to color. But I digress; the documentary was really just about the evolution of the form through the years, from early silent films to the noir period of the 40s and 50s, and then to the Scorcese films of the 70s, with some specific examples of absolutely fantastic shots and how they were designed and filmed.

And one of the films that was brought up, again and again, was Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane is rightly held up as one of the greatest films ever made, and a great deal of the film’s genius is due to the cinematography of Gregg Toland – indeed, Orson Welles placed Toland’s name and credit right next to his, as a rightly-deserved tribute to his contributions. Just about every cinematographer interviewed in the movie held up Toland’s work as the pinnacle of the profession, and as a deep influence on every film that followed.

Here’s the thing: Citizen Kane still holds up. If you watch it now, nearly 70 years after its release, it doesn’t seem nearly as stodgy or stiff as a lot of films from that era can, and most of its camera moves and shots are still breathtaking and jaw-dropping. It is, in short, timeless.

And this is where it started to occur to me that this notion of “timelessness” has a lot to do with the games as art debate. Because here’s the thing: if you play the original Deus Ex now, as I did last night, it’s…. kinda terrible. It’s clunky, it’s poorly acted, it’s ugly. Its relative ugliness is perhaps unfair – 10 years is an eternity these days in terms of technology – but, still, if you took today’s Call of Duty-playing teenager and sat him or her down in front of Deus Ex, they would probably say “this sucks” about 5 to 10 minutes in, and move on. And this is important, because Deus Ex wasn’t just another first person shooter; it was incredibly ambitious and state-of-the-art for its time, and now, only 10 years later, it feels like an ancient relic.

The thing about “great art”, I think, is that it can be appreciated and enjoyed regardless of when one is experiencing it. Shakespeare is still resonant today, even if the language can sound foreign. Mozart and Bach can still stir one’s emotions; Michelangelo and Picasso can still inspire awe and wonder.

Gaming, however, is hampered by a multitude of artistic difficulties. One could certainly make the very valid point that the vast majority of games have absolutely no intention to be art. They may be beautiful to look at, but they are ultimately meant to exist as product. But there’s more to it than that. 2 points to consider:

  1. The technology used to make (and play) games is evolving at such a rapid pace that there’s no real “constant.” Simply in terms of graphics, a game that looks fantastic now will eventually look shitty in a few years; but if you just factor in how a game controls, a game that you loved dearly 5 years ago is damn near unplayable now. Your memories of playing Goldeneye in college 10 years ago will not stand up to the reality of playing Goldeneye now, not after Halo and Call of Duty and everything else. My memories of GTA3 are all that game has going for it now that GTA4 has come and gone, and my experience with Red Dead Redemption has made GTA4 seem archaic in many respects.
  2. Moreover, a game that you loved dearly 5 years ago is probably on a console that doesn’t work anymore, or that you no longer have hooked up to your television – or that you are no longer able to hook up to your television. I still have my Dreamcast and a somewhat large library of Dreamcast games, but I’m not sure that I can get them to work with my HDTV without going out and buying cables (not to mention that it’s also a near certainty that the VMUs in my Dreamcast controllers are dead). It saddens me to know that I’ll probably never get to play Skies of Arcadia again, simply because I can’t. But in a way, that’s good, because my memories of Skies of Arcadia do not seem to include the relentless frequency of random encounters…

So then. What now?

I was about to predict that within the next 5-10 years, the technology curve will flatten out to the extent that it will not necessarily matter how many trillions of polygons you can render per second; the human brain is only capable of processing so much. 3D may or may not take off; I think it will, eventually, but not next year (which is what Sony seems to think); I personally don’t anticipate buying a new 3D HDTV until (a) the price comes way down and (b) there’s enough content to support it, and I think that (a) and (b) are still a few years off. But what the hell do I know – I didn’t understand the Wii, either, and the whole concept of Kinect seems more like science fiction than something I’m going to be using in a matter of months. Still, though, at a certain point, there’s only so many pixels the human eye can process; games will eventually reach a finite level of graphical fidelity.

Which means that creativity will have to take over. That’s what it’s always done, in every artistic discipline; the rules are laid out, the forms are given shape, the boundaries are drawn, and that’s when the artists can truly shine, because to break the rules will finally mean something. This is not to dismiss the truly outstanding artistic achievements in today’s games, of which there are many; it is only to say that once there is a standard form, a form that doesn’t require a new television and console and controller and eyewear every year, a form that every designer and artist and programmer can actually work with for more than six months without getting antiquated – it’s at that point that I think we can expect truly amazing things to happen. It is at that point that we can finally have our Citizen Kane.



Categories: navel gazing

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1 reply

  1. >Thanks for writing about this. I've been mulling over this argument quite a bit lately myself (mainly because I follow Ebert on Twitter and he just won't let it go, and given that I respect him so much, his constant tweets and blog posts on this topic have almost started to feel insulting). And in considering it, this very same issue occurred to me, of great films being timeless, while great games quickly being surpassed by technological conventions and commonly accepted advancements in game design that make those once-great games not so great anymore. I do think, however, that there are exceptions to this, at least for me personally. Game Room has demonstrated that some very early arcade games, like Asteroids Deluxe, are so simple in their visuals and their design that they've hardly aged at all, and can still pull me in as effectively as they ever did. In fact, I think those early 3D games like Deus Ex may be in some ways the most susceptible to this phenomenon. I think the virtues of many games from the 8- and 16-bit era–the terrific level design of Super Mario World, the great gameplay of Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past–are still evident and enjoyable today, and their graphics have been made charmingly dated, rather than ugly, by advances in technology. Ebert's new obsession seems to be about placing "value" on things. "Only a fool would value a video game over Huckleberry Finn." The comparison is just so outrageously misguided to me. Apples and oranges. Will Grand Theft Auto IV endure as long as Huckleberry Finn has? Of course not. If I try to go back to it in ten years, there's a good chance it will already seem dated. But it absolutely had value in the moments in which I experienced it, and that experience is what I carry with me, and isn't that what matters most?

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