Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Indie Game: The Movie, and are video games art?

Before watching Indie Game: The Movie, I was never quite sure where I stood on the philosophical debate of “are video games art?” Roger Ebert caused an outrage in the gaming community a few years ago when he said that video games are not and cannot be art. There’s even a whole Wikipedia page devoted to the divisiveness of the issue (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_games_as_art). Ebert, as the most famous critic, noted after a presentation by game designer Kellee Santiago, that “One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite an 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.” I think there is a certain understandable logic to Ebert’s thoughts. But I find myself now disagreeing with him fairly decidedly.

Indie game Fez, in which you play as a 2-D character realizing he lives in a 3D world
I think people like Ebert, generally of his “older” generation, view video games as that, just a game. There’s luck of the draw in card games, luck of the roll in board games, and only a finite number of possible logical moves in a more complex game like chess. But Ebert is right that a game “has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome.” Video games, on the other hand, have a certain ability to achieve a higher goal. There’s no artistic reason why a video game has to have objectives or the ability to beat the game. There’s only the commercial drawback of it being possible no one will want to buy your game if they can’t defeat the alien invasion with all kinds of cool weapons in your game. But at its base level, that’s no different than people not buying tickets to your movie where stuff doesn’t get blowed up real good. So really is the only reason they are even video games because they’re interactive? Does interactivity negate art? Of course not. There are plenty of interactive art exhibits that are not denigrated because of their interactivity.

Indie game Limbo, an atmospheric, wordless journey through a dangerous black-and-white world
The game designers Indie Game: The Movie follows around talk about the artistic expression that the games provide them. They talk about how video games encompass visual arts, storytelling, and music, while simply being interactive. After all, the interactivity of video games is only allowed by the designer. A player can’t do anything in a game that they were not allowed to do by the constraints of the designer. Therefore, video games still possess the authorial intent that all art contains. We see the designers and programmers painstakingly work and re-work to get the desired effect in the game, while working against the clock to deliver the final product for release. All of that is directly comparable to the technical issues a filmmaker or a musician runs into when prepping their newest movie or album.

Screen shot from Super Meat Boy, one of the subjects of the movie
The designers in the movie talk with disdain about the people who work at the big video game studios as designers and programmers, because it would kill their creativity. But I came to see those jobs like those hundreds of names we see in movie credits, technicians helping realize the visions of the artists in charge. But these guys are like indie filmmakers, who work with smaller budgets and crews and are able to more easily deliver something close to their heart and artistic vision because it had to go through fewer people to get to us, the consumer. I can understand that mentality.

But the ultimate point of the movie and this discussion, to me, was: art video games art? I can now firmly say that yes, I think they are. And Indie Game: The Movie is what finally swayed me to that point.

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