Peter Travers – The Anti-Ebert

As a lifelong fan of film and game alike, I’ve been increasingly frustrated in the seeming critical divide between these two art forms.  Roger Ebert, famously has stated that games can never be art, my open letter to him drew a lot of attention, and has yet to yield a response from anyone at the Chicago Sun-Times.

This month, however, Peter Travers, the famed film critic of Rolling Stone magazine, still one of the premier print magazines for music, politics, film, and increasingly gaming, started his movie reviews column with a rare 3 1/2 star review of… Grand Theft Auto IV.

The bright red headline screams from the page, below a shot of GTA IV’s protagonist Niko Bellic

“Screw Hollywood, Go Game”

Travers, as much a giant in film criticism as Ebert himself not only headlines his monthly reviews section with Grand Theft Auto, he revels in it.  As if speaking from Dan Houser’s subconscious, he slyly slams the anti-game crusaders.  He’s played the game, he’s beaten the game, he understands the game, from the tragic storyline to the biting satire.  Of the game’s supposed threat to society he muses “Note to the moral hand-wringers: Yes, GTA IV is brutal, bloody, debased, debauched, and likely to corrupt the innocent after, say, 400 hours of play.  But let’s keep the innocent out of this.”

Of the game’s script he writes “It’s a rare video game that enters territory marked by Scorsese and Tarantino.  But writers Dan Hauser and Rupert Humphries have created the vid version of film noir with dialogue that crackles even in the film’s darkest shadows.”

Even for all his praise of GTA IV, he recognizes the distance games have to go, and the challenges ahead of it.  It would seem to me that Travers, as entrenched as he is in the art of Film, is pulling for a revolution in interactive storytelling.

“I’ll resist to the last, trading human drama for virtual reality.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t wonder for a minute what it would be like to grab a controller and follow the characters in No Country for Old Men and There WIll Be Blood into corners their creators never imagined.”  Travers wonders who the visionary might be to “raise interactive video to the level of cinematic art”.

He suggests James Cameron, he derides Michael Bay.  I would add Steven Spielberg to the short list, as I would Ken Levine, he of the brilliant BioShock, and Dan Houser of Rockstar himself.  I’ve long been of the opinion that video games have a far broader definition of artistic merit than film.  Just as there are arthouse films, there are arthouse games.  One need look no further than Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and Rez to find the sorts of wonderment video games are capable of, things beyond the reach of even the most skilled cinematic auteur.

Peter Travers represents to me the Anti-Ebert as far as video games go.  As he ends his review, he claims that artistically, “GTA IV qualifies as a wow of a start.  It’s not this game that spits you out feeling brain-numbed and dead-ended.  It’s Hollywood.  You leave GTA IV – if you ever do – thinking, “So many possibilities.”

So many possibilities, indeed.

Is Grand Theft Auto IV Actually the Best Popcorn Movie of the Summer? – The Travers Take (Text identical to review appearing in RS issue 1055)


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

Bioshock = High Art.

I figure I should just come out and say it instead of dicking around with doublespeak. Bioshock is art.

After beating the game, for the first time ever I feel as if the title “Game” is a sleight against it. It is an experience, one that could easily be revelatory. For me, it once and for all answered the question of whether or not video games can be art.

There have been ‘Art’ games before like Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, Rez, etc. Those have all excelled in more finely focused ways such as visual beauty or symphonic immersion.

Bioshock is more the total package, perhaps to Video Games what films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, both being films that addressed complex issues with artistry and scope unheard of at the time. Bioshock, perhaps influenced especially by Metropolis

Everything from the disturbing imagery, to the moral choices, to the beautiful ending, remind me of all the very best in film, prose, poetry, music, and the myriad graphical arts. It is an expression of an idea, many ideas in fact. Not simple ideas, either, or ideas of little import.

Bioshock, if you treat it as an experience and not “another game to use to buff my gamerscore”, acts as a sort of mirror. It asks us to answer questions and make decisions, none of which are easy to make. It also rewards us by treating us with respect, not pandering to any audience or critic’s whim. Perhaps the most impressive facet of the experience is not graphical, or literary, or auditory, nor any level of technical prowess. Perhaps the most impressive facet is that I can say with all honesty, that my life has been enriched by this game.

That is what makes something high art.