Roger Ebert, the famed movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and co-host of the syndicated TV show Ebert and Roper at the Movies has thrown down the gauntlet on his website by stating that video games will never be as artistically worthy as movies and literature. Ebert does not believe that this quality gap can ever be crossed, as he feels it is a fundamental limitation of the medium itself:
There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.
Whether or not interactive art can still be art is an interesting question. Modern artists such as Chin Chih Yang, who design interactive multimedia projects as well as creating “traditional” art, would probably tell you that whether something is “art” depends on only the artist and the audience, and not the medium itself. However, there are undoubtedly more conservative artists who would dismiss “interactive multimedia projects” as not being worthy of the term art. Of course this debate is not a new one, nor has it been confined to video games. Movies and comic books both struggled (and still struggle) to receive the same level of respect as traditional media, such as literature and dramatic plays.
But is it really the “interactive” part of video games that Ebert is criticizing? To me, it seems like a convenient excuse to dismiss for all time a new form of entertainment that has not only influenced movies (with endless releases of video-game-themed movies such as Tomb Raider, Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, etc.) but at times even seems to be in competition with cinema itself. Every time movie sales go down, some pundits start looking to the video game industry as being the source of the problem.
I don’t believe the “interactive” nature of video games is what Ebert is really railing against here. While he gave a poor review to the movie Clue, which featured multiple endings, he admitted in his review that it would have been more fun for viewers to see all three endings. He seemed to be indicating that if the movie itself was of higher quality, being given a choice of endings would have made it even more entertaining. Like Clue, video games can feature multiple endings or storylines, but all of them have been written by the writer ahead of time. The fact that the player can choose between them does not make any of the choices less of a creation by the game developers.
A closer examination of Ebert’s comments seems to indicate that he is critical of the artistic value of the games themselves, not their structure:
I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.
Some might be eager to tell Ebert about games that he may not have ever seen or played, such as Star Control II, or Planescape Torment, where the story is given higher focus than the graphics and is at least comparable to literary fiction. Or games such as ICO, where the atmosphere and feel of the environment and characters is on par with any “serious” art film. But perhaps Ebert hasn’t heard of these titles because video games in general have been deluged with an endless parade of flashy sequels and movie tie-ins that favor graphics over gameplay. Perhaps if a viable analog to the independent movie industry emerged for video games, Ebert might change his tune. But is this likely to happen?