by Rio Liang
In 2005, many in the gaming community shouted “Hadouken” and jetted fireballs at Roger Ebert for writing that video games are limited and can never excel to the level of high art. His more recent expansion on those earlier views, an elegantly written essay posted on his blog, titled “Video Games Can Never Be Art” (which I highly recommend reading), drew even more ire.
Ebert makes an awfully great case, and I would actually agree with him that no game right now can be considered art. I would also concede that games like those cited by Kellee Santiago probably aren’t art (they’re interesting concepts, but concepts don’t amount to art; they’re aspects of it). But I take umbrage at Ebert’s myopic, and itself rather limited, view that ALL video games can never be art. He writes: “Santiago might cite a[n] 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.” Setting aside for a moment the pure definition of a video game as being only a “game” in which “winning” is an essential element, let’s step back and think about the concept of gradients: The term “dance” encapsulates both forms of dance that aren’t generally considered art (i.e. club dancing) and those that are (i.e. ballet, modern dance, etc.). “Literature” encompasses both the Cormac McCarthys (to borrow from Ebert’s analogy) and Nicholas Sparkses. The idea of gradients holds true for video games as well. In his narrow understanding of video games, Ebert negates an entire genre of video games: Role-playing games. (And to call RPGs a mere exception to the rule would be a bit of a stretch, as the genre encompasses a vast expanse of video games). Yes, RPGs are similar to novels or plays or films, but they are not exactly mere “representations” of them. All these forms are different species of “stories.” The only difference is that in a video game, you’re virtually immersed in the world of the story in an interactive manner.
Case Study: Final Fantasy XIII
But instead of setting Ebert ablaze with fireballs for his intellectually elegant but shallow view of video games, we should perhaps momentarily set aside the argument that video games already are an actualized art form, and actually start a dialogue about how to elevate the genre to what the likes of Ebert might consider art. Let’s look more closely at one game in particular, Final Fantasy 13, and its flaws (and strengths). In a sense, the game stands for the potential of video games. It’s imperfect, and no, I wouldn’t call it art myself, but it can act as a prototype, the cave painting that precedes the art to come (as you can tell, I say “Bah!” to Ebert’s cave painting argument).
1. Push the narrative boundaries of the platform
Novels, short stories, plays, films: The essential element in all of these is the concept of a “story.” What differentiates one form from another however is how they convey the story. A novel’s narrative unfolds in chapters, a play in acts, etc. An artist of a particular genre can even create something that feels distinct from other works in that field. Take for example Lars Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves” and compare it with Beat Takeshi’s “Dolls” or Francois Ozon’s “Sous Le Sable.” We can call films as having the brand or touch of its director (i.e. “a Hitchcockian touch”). Rarely however do you ever hear video games distinguished in this manner. This is probably due to its limiting adherence to blockbuster film formulae (often cool-sounding but substance-free dialogue set against flashy plots). FF13 pushed the boundaries (or at least pushed the buttons of gamers) when it came to its narrative presentation. Many complained about (while some lauded) its return to “linearity” (a failsafe by the way, as I do believe all games are linear; and linearity can be good, as often where it breaks down is when games are too free, too loose, too all over the lot, with no narrative anchor). But the larger, more important weakness of the game is its lack of an authorial voice or a directorial touch; there is no artist at the helm you can make out. It comes across as a crafted thing, a product, a commodity, run through this and that machine; a patchwork involving (albeit very talented) artisans. As such, FF13’s story is padded heavily with unnecessary dialogue, its l’cie/fal’cie plot comes across as very convoluted to the point of becoming ridiculous, and it suffers from multiple-writer syndrome (the first two-thirds of the story feels written by one writer, and the last part by another, lesser writer; the game loses “Focus,” as it were). But regardless of how unsuccessful it ultimately is, FF13’s narrative experiment is noteworthy because it’s a reaction to the current state of video game narrative; it questions by its very implementation how a video game narrative should unfold.
2. Make the visual substantive.
A game’s graphics is a big, and sometimes deciding, factor for many video game players. However, what many video games offer onscreen is gorgeousness sans the substance. Throw-away beauty. I would say make of the scenery, the landscapes, etc. a painting. More than that, a video game world can be like not just looking at a painting but actually being in it. (I’ve always admired Yoshitaka Amano’s illustrations–too bad he wasn’t involve in this FF; can you imagine a video game world rendered exactly in the way he illustrates?). The thing about a video game is that because of its interactive nature, a player can take on the role of cameraman. As such, the in-game camera should be accommodating to the interests of one’s eye in a fluid way. It should aid the visual substance it presents. FF13 succeeds in creating a lush and beautiful gamescape, but unfortunately falls short of conveying it fully. FF13’s is perhaps the most unwieldy, restrictive, and frustrating camera I’ve ever come across. Your view is restricted to a certain frame. A photograph meaningfully freezes its subject and imbues importance to it; this is not the intent however of this game. It’s a cinematographic shortcoming that can definitely be improved upon by video games to come.
3. Test new aesthetics and reach out to new audiences.
Video games cater to certain aesthetics, and to do so they must cleave to formulae. The gratingly cutesy voices that Vanille in FF13 makes, her many girly sighs and frail, knock-kneed poses, caters to an anime aesthetic. The “party” system we see prevalent in RPGs caters to the Dungeons & Dragons or Lord of the Rings aesthetic (the party system, by the way, rarely works now because the joining of characters tend not to be organic; the way FF13 joins its characters together is not particularly organic…though it can be done, such as with FF10). Nothing is wrong with either, but just as in literature the particular breeds of heroes of the past died out to make way for the anti-heroes of the more recent past (or present? future?), so should new paradigms of characters (among other elements) exist for video games. Video games exclude, and in such a way that invites derision. How many literary types have you come across dismissing video games? In many ways, it’s because video games don’t really cater to that crowd (nor am I saying it should have to); video games have a limited audience because it limits itself to entertaining only that audience.
4. Make a video game the intersection of the arts.
A video game has the potential to be a mix of the arts, and as such an interactive experience between artists. Think of the elements that comprise a video game: Writing and dialogue (writers), motion (choreographers), a soundtrack (musicians), visuals (filmmakers, photographers). One of the Final Fantasy franchise’s great strengths has always been its ability to meld all of these together. I still remember the days when Yoshitaka Amano’s enigmatic designs (which always remind me of Mycenean paintings) would synergize with Nobuo Uematsu‘s scores (Who can forget the opera-within-a-game or symphonic finale of FF6?) and Masato Kato’s writing. FF13 continues and builds upon that tradition with new artists (Tetsuya Nomura, Masashi Hamauzu, etc.).
5. Make it a “game” that’s more than a “game.”
Just as a writer must balance depth with accessibility and take into account that the majority of readers will be reading for primarily entertainment, not academic, purposes, a video game creator can never foresake the “game” aspect of a video game. It’s in this area where Santiago’s cited games perhaps excel the most; they are cleverly imagined, even inspired. One of the great things and the worst things about role playing games is the “level grinding.” FF13 does a great job of reinventing or rejuvenating the video game battle system, so as to mask the feel of having to level up. Game designers have always been amazingly creative when it comes to this aspect of games, and should unashamedly continue to push the boundaries in this respect. Gameplay should always be what distinguishes video games from other art, not something that excludes it from being art.
Is It Art Yet?
Overall, I view video games as more malleable than Roger Ebert does. Ultimately I think we determine what form it takes and whether it becomes art or not. And to reach that point, we must push the creative boundaries of the form.
What are your thoughts? Surely the above criteria are not a catch-all, i.e. what about Western RPGs? What about non-RPGs, which I failed to include in my defense? Can they ever fit the definition of art? Feel free to add to (or subtract from, or whatever have you) the manifesto!