An Open Letter to Roger Ebert

(Ed. Note: This letter was sent to Roger Ebert and the Chicago Sun-Times editorial staff on 20 October, 2007. It is reprinted here for posterity.  Spoilers abound for BioShock and Half-Life 2: Episode 2)

In recent days, much has been made of Mr. Ebert’s comments on the concept of video games being referred to as “art”. Much more has been made of his seeming refusal to consider their value to the artistic canon of the twenty-first century.

As a writer, one not celebrated by any great awards or known beyond a small circle of dear friends, I can appreciate Ebert’s reluctance to admit such a seemingly infantile form into the pantheon of high art. It is a distinction that took many years to be reached by film, television, graphic novels, and many other forms of former folk-devils. Art is subjective, at its very core. I live in Washington D.C. and as such I have access to many famed museums. At the National Gallery of Art, there are a number of paintings that truly stretch the term. The “White Painting” is a white canvas. The “Black Painting” is a black canvas. Strewn nearby are various paintings of black and white in various mixed patterns.

Surely one could make the connection that the white painting is a stirring portrayal of the innate purity of existence. Likewise the black painting could be seen as a brave vision of the bleakness of uncertainty. You can call anything art if you try hard enough, which is a testament to the breadth of the term. Roger Ebert, as a student of film and a much-respected voice in the field of professional critique, is making a mistake with his view on video games. He’s looking at it, as would be expected, as if the games were film.

Video games, have their own unique challenges, drawbacks, and virtues. Much as film was maligned by theater critics for its essential lack of spontaneity, video games have been criticized for their lack of directorial control, so to speak. A player is in control of a video game. A player sits at something aptly-named the “controller” to work their way through a series of pre-determined or vaguely-randomized challenges to reach a conclusion. What this fails to consider is the breadth of video games.

Just as one can call stunning displays of cinematography art, or revolutionary effects art, everything from sound design, to editing, set design, to the performance on the screen art, there is more to video games than plot. Like the handicap of lacking live players, there are ways to compensate for the interactive nature of games.

Many games forego any semblance of story, or maintain a truly abstract one, and focus on something such as a visual beauty, or a transcendent musical score. These are things not uncommon to film. Some of the greatest and most influential films of all time are incredibly abstract. The same holds true for abstract games, where the player is more of a witness to a world that has been crafted solely for its beauty. Two games in particular stand out to me as excellent indicators of this: Shadow of the Colossus, and Rez, both available on the Sony Playstation 2. To someone who is not playing the game, their beauty might be mistaken for noise, but instead, the act of control is what grants them their depth and appeal.

Still more games take narrative approaches, with the player acting as a vessel, an agent of change that pushes through a storyline. Many times, these protagonists are never seen, they may have some identifiable markings to allow the player to identify, but are entirely silent, as the game is seen through the first person. Two games of recent years, BioShock, and Half-Life 2 accomplish this task admirably.

Half-Life has a central character with a name, but with no spoken lines. He is essentially an observer to the drama, and an engine for its continuation. While his compatriot, the stunningly life-like Alyx Vance provides most of the interaction with non-player characters, Gordon Freeman is the stoic scientist fighting against the world. When Alyx’s father is tragically killed at the end of Episode 2, the most recent expansion to the story, the game fades slowly to black, the only backdrop her unrestrained mourning, as she wails over her father’s lifeless body. The player has no control over the events for the last scene, being held captive, left to do nothing but watch helplessly. In this case, the ability of the player to control an actor, and yet be powerless to change the outcome, enhances the artistic quality, and does not detract from it.

Bioshock, too, employs a similar narrative device. The game is linear, in that there is only one path that can be taken to reach from the beginning of the game to the end. The developers, actors, and artists behind the undersea art-deco utopia of Rapture know their limitations, and instead turn them to advantages. At roughly the game’s mid-way point, the player is greeted with a disturbing revelation, that they are infact a puppet, enslaved by the code-phrase “Would you kindly”. The player is forced to watch, powerless, as control is wrested from them by this revelation. As you watch yourself kill an unarmed man simply because he told you to, the player is filled with a desire for revenge on the one who inflicted this on him. The rest of the game is a rush toward a climactic showdown with that nefarious influence, and ultimately liberation.

If the question of art comes down to emotional impact, I can say with certainty that all of the aforementioned video games had great emotional impact on me. I even cried at the conclusion of BioShock. Am I saying all games are art? Of course not, but I’m not saying all movies are art, either. In any form that can make claim to that name, there are exceptions. Video games, in their infancy, are just starting to ascend to that high throne. Games take influence from film, yes. They also take influence from classical music, from literature, folklore, painting, and sculpture, as have they all from each other.

There is much dreck in gaming. There is also much “beautiful trash” as you put it. Products designed to entertain and sell, with little more to them. If you approach them with an open mind, however, and I do for my part hope to have opened yours a bit, you can find art.

Sincerely and Respectfully,

Andrew Zimmer