Qbert vs Ebert

I’ve been resisting posting about Roger Ebert ever since he’s become as silly as those Epic-Verse aficionados Aristotle dissects in Poetics, but following his latest reiteration of his thoughts on games in his review of the Hitman movie, I decided it was inevitable I’d have a crack. Except I now realise I don’t have to. Following the thread on Rllmuk – where I steal Dapple’s splendid line for this post’s title – The Bag links to Splinter Cell Creative Director Clint Hocking’s extensive, elegant and intricate rebuttal. Which despite dating from August, I hadn’t read before. I probably should have, because it’s extensive, elegant and intricate. Also – whisper it – agreeably bolshy.

“If Haggis’ Best Picture winning Crash was 100 hours long, and contained 100 different interconnected plots all echoing the same themes of racial tension from different perspectives, would it suddenly lose its status as art? It probably wouldn’t be a very good movie, because 100 hours of movie is painful. In any case, no matter how long you make Crash, you will never fully explore the domain of the themes of racial tension in modern America. 100 hours is just 50x what the movie already offers, and is no closer to the infinite depth of the theme than is the existing 2 hour film. GTA: San Andreas on the other hand – which I played for a good 100 hours or so, gave me such a world transforming view of racial tension and inequity in early 1990’s California, that I have been shaken to the core, and have been forced to re-examine a huge part of my world view.”

On the same topic, I wrote a justification for games-as-expression back when the Escapist launched, which I think still stands up and explains that Poetics bit in the intro if you’re wondering if That Gillen Guy has gone and went a bit funny in the head again.


  1. drunkymonkey says:

    The Ebert and Barker argument sort of went to the wayside when they both decided that insulting each other was the best way they were going to debate videogames.

    Nice to see some more tolerant voices on the matter.

  2. JakethePirate says:

    I have very little experience with Hitman and I haven’t seen the movie but I found two things very interesting about that review.

    First, if Tom Francis’s wonderful “Blood Money and Sex” article is to be believed (link to kfj.f2s.com) then all the aspects of 47’s character that Ebert praised are lifted straight from the games.

    Second, Ebert criticises the movies for the high body-count and blames it on the franchise’s game heritage. Since Hitman is a stealth game that generally encourages you to avoid, or at least temper extraneous killings, might the load of killing be an attempt to pander to action movie people and not game fans?

    Otherwise, it was actually a pretty good review in terms of writing and ideas put forward.

  3. Faust says:

    Reading his review was actually quite comical. It’s obvious he didn’t even read a synopsis of the game, or anything at all about it.

    ‘Other scenes, which involve Agent 47 striding down corridors, an automatic weapon in each hand,…/…These scenes are no doubt from the video game.’

    ‘He also jumps out of windows without knowing where he’s going to land, and that feels like he’s cashing in a chip he won earlier in the game.’

    For those unenlightened, Hitman is about none of these things. It is about killing as ‘few’ people as you can before getting the target, not wracking up a massive kill count.

    Mr. Egbert, this is why video games aren’t considered art. Not because they aren’t, but because they are dismissed as violent drivel by idiots like you. Ever heard of ‘professional research’? Because I don’t think you have.

  4. Zell says:

    I’ve come to quite like Ebert’s opinion on movies the last few years. It’s a shame he feels entitled to opine on something he clearly doesn’t understand.

    Meanwhile, Kieron, that article of yours is mesmerizing.

  5. Zell says:

    “If you can go through “every emotional journey available,” doesn’t that devalue each and every one of them? Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices.”

    Oh that infuriates me. Tolkien would’ve shredded him for that. Inevitable conclusion? That’s ridiculous. I wonder if he really meant to say something so inane.

  6. Essell says:

    In the interests of not having a totally one-sided show…

    “Mr. Egbert, this is why video games aren’t considered art. Not because they aren’t, but because they are dismissed as violent drivel by idiots like you.”

    As far as art is concerned though, lots of very popular games really are just violent and destructive drivel – including Hitman. Gears of War. Unreal 3. Manhunt. Crysis gets a 9 in Edge and all kinds of praise on here, yet where is the appeal if you take away its adolescent fixation on entertaining violence and destruction? Look at what videogames do to the likes of The Godfather, Reservoir Dogs and John Woo (in Stranglehold) – awful, awful games, bastardising highly respected works of cinema, with no redeeming features other than guess what? Brainless, videogamey violence.

    I think these kind of debates always end up with too many defensive gamers whipping out the rose-tined specs. People like Ebert are obviously in the wrong regarding the potential of the medium, but to be honest I don’t completely blame them for their mistake. The games industry is still churning out way too much embarassing drivel to give the real substance and art any mainstream attention.

  7. Faust says:

    You say that, yet look at the types of films that are released each year. The mere fact that there *is* a Hitman is testimony to the comparison that is inevitably drawn against the two mediums. Hitman is the game equivalent of an action film, and it is an above average one in my own personal opinion, as it has a complex story line and deviates from the typical ‘go in with guns blazing approach’.

    Despite this there are good films being made, and likewise there are good games being made. The only reason that there is perceived to be a difference at the moment is because games have not yet been recognised. If games were considered an art form, something like Bioshock would have received much more attention and praise, and as it was it did very well critically. Arguably, due to the large amount of films being made every year in comparison to games, there is more crap in the film industry than there is in the game industry, but that’s a whole other topic.

  8. Zell says:

    I also think we should be careful what we ask for. Being considered art is a double edged sword. We’re all aware of the potential of the medium without the validation of art critics — who, honestly, can be wankers at times.

  9. Thiefsie says:

    His research for Hitman probably involved the youtube videos ‘How Not To Play Hitman 1 thru 16’

    Hence then running down corridors with M16 in hand being plausible ;) Hilarious that they are

  10. Pidesco says:

    Clint’s article is quite interesting and well written. However, it seems to me that in Crash, he picked a pretty easy target to compare negatively to games. In fact, I don’t think it should even be necessary to include comparisons to specific movies. All that is needed is the analysis (which he does very well) of games as art.

  11. Hobbes says:

    I think describing Anna Karenina as a simulation might be a little bit of a stretch.

  12. Thelps says:

    Yet again, Kieron, your article expresses a point I’ve been trying to make to a number of my friends for quite some time (and far more eloquently than I’ve ever been able to). More mass-emailing material, methinks.

    I’m sadly disappointed with Mr. Ebert’s stance on games. For a man with such an excellent grounding in film he’d make a seriously impressive opponent for a game’s-as-art debate, if only he’d take the whole thing seriously. As it is, he’s just whitewashing and generalising, and clearly hasn’t done his homework on the matter. Shame, really.

  13. I_still_love_Okami says:

    One of the more thought provoking articles on the whole “are games art” issue. Good read and thanks for posting, Kieron.

    Though I’ve often felt that this need of ours, to have our hobby recognized as an art form stems more from insecurity than from anything else. After all, once “interactive media” (puke) get recognized for art, won’t we at last be part of society again? Will we at last get the respect we deserve for beeing so passionate about our hobby?

    Games are enterainment, pure and simple. That in itself should be merit enough. If you believe Huizinga, all aspects of our culture have their roots in games. Shouldn’t we be more concerned about redefining the word “game”, than trying to tack on yet another word to it?

    Don’t get me wrong. I really do believe, that games can be art. I just don’t think that they need to be.

    Let Game be a word tha stands for itself. Talk about all the great things games can do, how they can be used to train, to explain, to experiment. Show people how the basic rules that underly all games can be applied to look at the world around us.

    Games predate art. Before there was any kind of art, we played games, every art there is evolved from people playing. Our systems of law and governance have their roots in games, theater and sports evolved from games. Religious practices have their foundation in games.

    Mammals are different from other animals, because they play. And humans are different from other mammals, because we continue to play games after we’ve grown up.

    Ebert and the rest can debate about wether games are or aren’t art until hell freezes over. The best thing you can say about games is that they are games.

    (Note to self: Improve my written english skills, so I don’t have to bite my keyboard in frustration because I’m not able to get my point across the way I’d like to. But I hope you get what I’m trying to say).

  14. Ace says:

    The only games I’ve played that made me think “art” are the mods by Koumei Satou, Peaces Like Us for Half-life (1) and Mistake of Pythagoras for Half-life 2.

    Anyway, while Ebert clearly deserves respect, I doubt he plays modern games much if at all, thus largely invalidating his opinions on the matter I’d think.

  15. Leeks! says:

    I wrote this:
    link to ffwdweekly.com

    Back when Bioshock came out, trying to package this very debate for digestion by a non-geek audience. Needless to say, I don’t think it was terribly well read.

    Anyhow, I’m only posting the link for the sake of full disclosure, as Clint shoots down most of the ideas I thought were “totally rad” with the nonchalance expected when shooing away an insect. In other words, you really shouldn’t bother wading through it.

    The point I’d still stand by, though, is that games are ultimately designed for no other reason than to make money. While I absolutely agree with his “paintmaker” thought experiment, any kind of artistic content a game has is there for one reason only: to help it sell copies. It’s like an appealing label on a cereal box designed to catch the eye of children of a certain age demographic. But why can’t there be a kind of artistry in that? Well, maybe there can, but it’s certainly not “high art,” which I think is what this debate (and Clint, definitely) is stabbing at.

    Oh, and if you do (for some reason) decide to read my pabulum, know that it was rather brutally “edited for length,” and “contains spoilers.” The one edit I feel the need to point out is near the end, where I crib a Keaton/Bergman analogy from somewhere (I think it was Clive Barker, but can’t remember anymore), and my acknowledgment of that was axed, apparently because I didn’t steal enough of it.

  16. hobbes says:

    Hmm, I’ve read the rebuttal from Clint Hocking, and I’m not so sure that its any more logically sound than the arguments he rebuts. Its late, and my little girl sounds like she’s going to want feeding, so I’m not going to take it apart line by line, but heres a small example:

    “I think it would remain clear that I was an artist for having created ‘paints that constrained the set of possible paintings achievable to those that dealt with a set of themes I had chosen’. ”

    I don’t think that this is clear at all. The act of placing constraints of what can be accomplished with your creation does not, per se, makes it art. Its not a direct, causal relationship, by any means.

    To use a subset of his own symphony analogy, The creator of a musical instrument, say a violin, has made something that can be used for creation within some fairly rigid constraints imposed by the nature of the violin. Yet not all violins can be seen in themselves as an expression of art. A Stradivarius maybe a work of art, whole and entire in and of itself. But most violins are not. They are, at best, works of great craft and skill. At worst, mass produced tat.

    Now, for the record, I think the following:

    a) Games can be art, just as any act of creation can be, but aren’t automatically so.
    b) the vast majority of games are not art.
    c & d) repeat a and b with the word ‘films’ in place of ‘games’.

    I’m just not convinced that Mr. Hocking actually did anything to actually rebut the equally floored arguments of Ebert. Which is a bit of a shame. Were I are to take Ebert to task, I would think that there is a case to be made that interaction is a primary, essential facet of what we call art. That interaction may be as simple as looking, or as complex as drawing the bow just so across a strad or even crafting the flow of Darwinians across the face of the fractal maps, but the interaction with the user/audiences is, I would argue, essential to something being seen as art. And that just for starters.

    I’m left in the rather annoying position of agreeing with Gillen again (damn it). His take on this was much sounder than Hockings. Although, again, Anna Karenina as simulation? Good grief…

  17. Seth Tipps says:

    Great Article. I would throw out a word of caution though; as the Poetics largely explores art as imitation of nature and it’s effects upon the soul, the inclusion of Poetics in a discussion of games as art implies that games do in fact have a psychological impact on their audiences. A game which requires or encourages the player to make morally repugnant choices would fulfill the Aristotelian function of habit as expressed in Nichomachean Ethics. Interestingly enough, if a game is a simulation, rather than art, it simply could not have that kind of impact on the human soul. If the game is a simulation, then the ratings are unnecessary. If it is art, then it is subject to first amendment protection.

  18. GhaleonQ says:

    Ebert is nearly wholly correct. Hopefully, an influx of more intelligent people into the industry and artists, not tech geeks, running development will remedy the situation.

  19. Brog says:

    because technology and art are mutually exclusive.
    no mortal mind cannot contain them both!

  20. Vollgassen says:

    Huh, I’m thinking that we need people like Ebert telling us that games aren’t art. Every art movement that ever came about started with people saying “no no no you’re wrong” and the other people just argue back trying to prove that they’re right.

    Would Dada have been considered art in the 1700s? Or Warhol or any medium of modern expression.

    In a way it’s kind of exciting to even have this argument. I have a tiny peeny weeny sneaking suspicion that Ebert thinks games ARE or could be art and just wants to get people to argue it out until the games are elevated to the highest level… but prooooobably not.

    It’s like we get to experience the dawning of a new art movement… Maybe they’ll write about it in art history books 50 years from now.

  21. darkripper says:

    Games are in a phase that can be compared to the golden age of cinema: with movie producers having the most control over story, setting, actors, etc. The current situation have a lot in common with the Studio System.

    Now what we have? a lot of bandwidth, some almost affordable game engines, a chance to build a studio without actually renting an office thanks to internet and some direct download services that can cut the Ubis and the EAs out of the picture entirely. We have a nicer situation than most of the independent moviemakers of the last century.

    Also, I think we need our Cahiers du cinéma, a relevant game magazine that actually changes the way games are made. But this will be waaaay harder.

  22. Dinger says:

    I always love this chestnut, and Kieron, you’re right to bring in Harry (Heck, I bring in Harry even when he’s not welcome). Art does not have to involve some bourgeois ideal of making you think Deep Thoughts.

    The most interesting part of Hocking’s essay is that Ebert’s arguments, as represented there, could equally be applied to unmistakably artistic films, if anyone bothered to do it. (bonus! a blog that discusses a first-person perspective movie, with a title derivative of a film penned pseudonymously by Ebert)

    On the other hand, exploitation has a proud tradition in movies too. Hitman’s not any less art than, say, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Just as some genres of video games have their little arms races in scenarios (a few years back, didn’t half the FPSs on the market have a scene involving a 747?) and contrived plots to match the technology (err, we need a supersuit of some kind), so do movies (and they’re neatly summarized for you in any number of “making of” features).

    But the continual comparison of cinema and video games gets irritating, especially for those who don’t know their history. Cinema today is not what cinema was before television. Before television, “going to the movies” meant not just features, but cartoons, travelogues, newsreels, even musical interludes.

    So games don’t have to be the analogue of feature films. And, like movies, there will be a bulk of “genre pieces” that follow the fashions, and make a bunch of the money. But there are also short features, concept pieces and quasi-ludic experiences to be had. Bickering over the definition of art has no point.

  23. Alexander says:

    I love this discussion because it’s so utterly pointless, the majority of the people who claim something, anything, to be Art (capitalized, but of course) are really rather in fact just lost in their search words to exhibit their appreciation.

    Art, I happen to study it as practitioner, is absolute bullshit, it is about artificial- the name inherently implies- anything that is not nature but created by human practise. Some games are, some are not, Some paintings are, some are not.

    Quite simple, do the world a favor and never refer to something as Art. It devalues the word. Just explain why it’s good according to your opinion.

  24. Miles says:

    I don’t know why anyone still cares about Ebert. Quoth Joystiq: “Why do we still pay attention to a man who gave three stars to Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties?”

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