Katamari Dumb-assy

Another SFist post from me is up, where I go off on a tangent about Roger Ebert’s claim that videogames are inherently inferior to real art like literature and film.

It surprised me that his comments bugged me as much as they did, considering that I don’t technically work in games anymore. And I’m as dismissive of videogames as anyone else. But I’ve always thought that I’m dismissive of them partly because of all the wasted potential. It’s not just the usual complaint that 90% of any medium is crap, although that’s definitely the case with games (probably more like 98%).

It’s that even people who would normally be the strongest advocates of the potential of games — the fans and game developers themselves — are giving up on that potential. People defend games because they’re either defending their hobby or defending their profession, but nobody can seem to agree what a game is supposed to be, exactly. Other than profitable.

People just seem to have this implicit understanding that although Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer movies get the biggest audiences, movies are capable of more than just explosions and car chases; they’ve finally been accepted by most as legitimate art. Even television and comic books, which have an even higher crap-to-quality ratio than movies, get the acknowledgement that they put out something great every once in a while. But more and more, people are saying that either games are nothing more than escapist entertainment, and that that’s all they should try to be. I’m fine with escapist entertainment; I don’t think you necessarily have to have meaning to have merit. And I think that good solid game design is an accomplishment in and of itself. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that I’ve played enough games to see what can happen when you get just the right combination of game and narrative, or as Ebert’s complaint put it: player choice and authorial control. It’s the point when you realize, “ah, I use the barrels to float the ramp up into position” in Half-Life 2, or “ah, I have to put a bucket of mud over the door” in Monkey Island 2. Day of the Tentacle was full of them. They’re points where you are actually working with the authors to finish telling the story. The realization hits you like a ton of bricks; it’s “ah, Rosebud represents Kane’s loss of innocence” and “Moby Dick is Ahab’s battle with mortality and fear of the unknown,” times 100. That’s the tool that gives videogames an artistic potential that nothing else has.

And the problem with that, is that very few games are actually using that tool to make something of real resonance beyond “just” entertainment. I’ve said that Half-Life 2 is the best videogame ever made, and I still think so. But I think it works on the same level as Aliens — easily one of my top 10 favorite movies, but not exactly a profound statement on the human condition. There shouldn’t be any question that it’s art. If Fantasia qualifies as art, then so does Rez. And if The City of Lost Children is art, so is Grim Fandango.

The real question is whether games will be allowed to take that extra step to make something profound. I honestly think The Sims takes a step in that direction — it’s not just a dollhouse or even a social simulator, but it has something to say as a parody of consumerism and an abstraction of social behavior and mundane life. And somebody on a message board hit on what I couldn’t figure out about Shadows of the Colossus that made it noteworthy — it’s not just the act of solving the boss fights that’s cool, but the sense of moral ambiguity throughout the game. You have to go through all the tasks you’re given just to complete the game, but just through the atmosphere of the game and the simple set-up, you spend the entire time wondering whether you’re doing the right thing.

People keep insisting that games are still in their infancy and that’s why there hasn’t been a real stand-out that’s universally acknowledged as a masterpiece instead of just “good for a game.” Technical improvements in rendering and AI will keep coming, and they’ll go a long way towards making games better, but what really needs to happen is for more developers to realize their potential as capital-A Art, and make something that’s not just a fun diversion but actually has some relevance.

2 thoughts on “Katamari Dumb-assy”

  1. I am not sure how relevant this is to your point, but a question I have is:

    Why are video games always compared to literature and film and not, say, to … games.

    Like Chess, Go, Pinochle, Sorry, Chutes and Ladders, Monopoly, etc.

    We never hear anyone ask, “Why aren’t video games more like Hungry Hungry Hippo?” It’s always, “Why aren’t games more like Citizen Kane?”

    It seems to me that academics are spending a lot of time talking about narrative in games and other fancy talk, but Tetris and Super Monkey Ball are both games and they have fuck all to do with narrative.

    I don’t know, my argument here isn’t well thought out, but it is something that bothers me when I don’t self-medicate.

  2. Nah, you’re not completely high. A lot of game fans and game developers assume that if you just make a game that emulates a movie, then you get automatically get great art. You don’t; at best you get something like Grim Fandango, which is a really cool short animated film with a great story and great music but gets interrupted every few minutes to make you do something barely relevant before you’re allowed to see the next bit.

    It’s important to remember that good game design is really difficult and it is and art in itself. But the question is whether that’s all they’re capable of.

    You can look at the truly great games, like Chess, Go, Pinochle, Tetris, and Mary-Kate and Ashley: Crush Course, and nobody will deny that they’re masterfully designed. But what does the audience get out of playing them?

    Game design is kind of like architecture in that respect — you can look at a great building like the Notre Dame, and immediately know that it’s a stunning creation and a great work of art. But it doesn’t say anything other than “I like God” and it doesn’t really do anything to the viewer except be nice to look at and keep him out of the rain.

    It’s not just narrative; it’s the idea that the game means something or says something other than just being a diversion. And that’s not saying that Super Monkey Ball would be better if it made an existential statement on how humanity was really nothing more than monkeys trapped in our own plastic balls of self-delusion and futility. There’s nothing wrong with just being fun.

    All’s I’m saying is that games are capable of being more than just diversions, and more games should take advantage of that potential. There are plenty of books that are about nothing more than plot, but then there are books that take a plot about a man going fishing or a different man searching for a whale and use that to say something larger.

    Games don’t have to do that, too, but they can, and they already have shown the potential to do so. That’s where Ebert’s wrong.

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