Multiple angles on gaming's Ebert, Kubrick, and Citizen Kane
- Roger Ebert ruffled some feathers a few years ago when he declared that "video games can never be art".
One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.
- Ebert later clarified that he believed "anything can be art," but video games cannot be "high art". Among those who disagreed with Ebert's assessment was film director Clive Barker. Ebert responded to some of Barker's points in an article. Part of Barker's comments dealt with the importance of critics to video games:
Barker:"It used to worry me that the New York Times never reviewed my books. But the point is that people like the books. Books aren't about reviewers. Games aren't about reviewers. They are about players."
Ebert: A reviewer is a reader, a viewer or a player with an opinion about what he or she has viewed, read or played. Whether that opinion is valid is up to his audience, books, games and all forms of created experience are about themselves; the real question is, do we as their consumers become more or less complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on) by experiencing them?
- The idiosyncrasies of video game reviews themselves have become so well known that game reviews are practically considered a genre (see this satirical take from Something Awful: If films were reviewed like video games). Earlier this month video game designer Warren Spector wrote a blog post titled Where's gaming's Roger Ebert? In the post Spector argues that gaming journalism and criticism currently is geared toward specialized groups like developers, publishers, academics, and hard-core gamers, but not "normal people":
What we need, as I said in an earlier column, is our own Andrew Sarris, Leonard Maltin, Pauline Kael, Judith Crist, Manny Farber, David Thomson, or Roger Ebert. We need people in mainstream media who are willing to fight with each other (not literally, of course) about how games work, how they reflect and affect culture, how we judge them as art as well as entertainment. We need people who want to explain games, individually and generically, as much as they want to judge them. We need what might be called mainstream critical theorists.
And they need a home. Not only on the Internet (though we need them there, too), not just for sale at GDC, but on newsstands and bookstore shelves - our own Film Comment, Sight and Sound, Cahiers du Cinema. Magazines you could buy on the newsstand. Why? Because currently, criticism of this - what little we have of it - reaches only the already converted. To reach the parents, the teachers, the politicians, we need to be where they shop. Even if you never pick up a film magazine, the fact that there are obviously serious magazines devoted to the topic makes a difference in the minds of the uninitiated.
- James Cullinane of Gameplanet offers an alternative question: Where is gaming's Stanley Kubrick?
To wonder aloud when or where the Roger Ebert of games criticism will emerge is wrongheaded. First, we must ask where is our Scorsese, our Hitchcock, our Coppola, our Tarantino? Where is gaming’s Stanley Kubrick?
A precious few developers may already be taking those first, intrepid steps along that road. Once these new developers are ascendant, once “adult” is no longer just a byword for “graphic” on this medium, perhaps then we can start to discuss a new critical grammar for games, and begin the search for its greatest practitioner.
- When The Last of Us was released in June it received overwhelmingly positive reviews, including one declaring it the "Citizen Kane moment" of video games (the "Citizen Kane of video games" has since become a meme in its own right). This is not a new comparison, as IGN called Metroid Prime the Citizen Kane of video games in 2009:
The game industry is not waiting for its formative masterpieces to materialize from the hazy future. They're here, right now, walking among us. The future was 2002, and in many ways we have yet to surpass it. Like Citizen Kane, Metroid Prime is a landmark in both technical innovation and pure creativity.
- Writing in the Financial Post, Chad Sapieha says that video games will never have a Citizen Kane moment. Interestingly, his argument isn't based on the artistic merits of video games, but rather on the particularities of the medium: video games become obsolete with technological advancements. A film made in the 1940s may still be available to view on DVD or other format, but a video game released just twenty years ago likely exists as only a memory.
I'd go so far as to suggest that, over time, many games released today will end up sharing more in common with stage productions than books or movies or music. They will be appreciated in the moment, then eventually disappear. People will write about and record their experiences, and those words and videos will continue on to posterity, acting as the primary means by which they are remembered by gamers of the future.
What I'm saying is simply this: Video game "classics" should be viewed as a breed apart from those of other entertainment mediums. Any attempts at comparison are fundamentally flawed thanks to unavoidable expiration dates imposed by the unstoppable evolution of hardware and advancements in game design.
- Ryan Perez at Venture beat writes that Citizen Kane's influence should stay out of video games:
Our medium is a fantastic vessel than can go places and do things others cannot. Games don’t need to beckon reflection or emotion in order to be good, and I don’t require validation from other people for the hobby to seem like a worthwhile use of my time. Indeed, Citizen Kane is incredible. It’s beautiful, thought-provoking, and inspiring … and film can keep it. Video games don’t need any of it; they never have and never will.
- Finally, Nathan Grayson at Rock, Paper, Shotgun sees the discourse about gaming's Ebert, Citizen Kane, Kubrick, etc. as evidence of gaming's inferiority complex:
The problem with gaming’s incessant desire to be just like big brother Hollywood is multifarious and exceedingly annoying – like a thousand-headed hydra puffing away on an equal number of vuvuzelas. Have games or games criticism earned a place in the rarefied pantheon of unanimously beloved “mainstream” art? No, not really. Would it be cool if we had a Citizen Kane or, as Warren Spector suggests, an Ebert? I guess so.
But everyone waiting for those shining beacons of cultural acceptance to descend from on-high utterly fails to understand two key points: 1) in this day and age, creating direct analogs to those landmarks is actually impossible, and 2) games and games criticism are in the midst of a renaissance. An unstoppable explosion of evolution and creativity. The formation of an identity that is, frankly, far more exciting than film. Why aren’t we championing that to everyone with (or without) ears? Why are we instead breathlessly awaiting the day our medium suddenly and inexplicably conforms to somebody else’s standard?