I’ve got a lot of respect for Ebert, but in this instance I think he fails signally to construct a rigorous argument for his point, even as he’s taking apart Santiago for the same failure.
I could go through his article responding line by line, but that would produce an incredibly long and rambling post, so I’ll try to just hit the central points. First off, he dings Santiago for “lacking a convincing definition of art.” Given that no one has yet managed to come up with a truly convincing definition, that’s a bit unfair. And indeed, he immediately follows that criticism by asking, “But is Plato’s any better?” Okay, so he recognizes the contentious nature of definitions in the first place — but then the rest of the paragraph is spent on his own definition, which at the end, boils down to taste. Art is the amazing stuff. Everything else is . . . something else.
He clearly means “art” as a category of quality, rather than anything structurally defined. Which is an approach I fundamentally disagree with. To pick the simplest way of pointing out the flaw of that argument: Ebert says video games aren’t art (and won’t be) because none of the examples he’s seen impress him. But I guarantee you there are movies that do impress him which would bore me stiff, while there are video games I consider artful. The message I take away from his argument is that my opinion doesn’t matter; only his does, and people who agree with him. And that’s why quality as the delimiter of “what’s art?” is a bad way to go.
Let me quote him on the topic of Braid, which is the only game mentioned in the article that I’ve played.
This is a game “that explores our own relationship with our past…you encounter enemies and collect puzzle pieces, but there’s one key difference…you can’t die.” You can go back in time and correct your mistakes. In chess, this is known as taking back a move, and negates the whole discipline of the game. Nor am I persuaded that I can learn about my own past by taking back my mistakes in a video game. She also admires a story told between the games levels, which exhibits prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie.
Here we see the danger of opining on things you don’t know about — because in Braid, while you can turn back time to correct a mistake, that is not the only thing it’s used for. The mechanics are a great deal more complex than that, and far from “negating the whole discipline,” manipulating the conditions of time-reversal is the point of the game. A really good player could get through without ever undoing a mistake, but you’d still have to reverse time in order to win.
Now, I will grant him that the prose of the game-story elements is very much like a wordy fortune cookie; the writer was trying so hard to be Significant and Meaningful that he fell over into Pretentious instead. But there’s a moment near the end, where the time-reversal thing is used to make a point, that caused me and kniedzw and kurayami_hime (who were all gathered around, playing it semi-collaboratively) to all stare at the screen and say “holy shit!” Is it a moment that could have been done in a film instead? Yeah, mostly. But I do think it gained extra effect because the actions being reversed weren’t things we’d passively watched; we’d done them, we’d gone to the effort of figuring out how to do them.
Braid actually does have an underlying idea it’s exploring, which is one of the possible definitions of “art” that Ebert dismisses along the way. I think it’s kind of clumsy in that exploration — my WTF? reaction was so strong, I had to go look stuff up online to understand what the game was trying to do — but as I’ve already said, I don’t think quality is the right basis on which to define the category. It’s more useful, I believe, to talk about “art” as a class of activity, and specific examples as “bad art” or “good art.”
Where I come closest to agreeing with Ebert is where he waltzes close to, but doesn’t quite notice, the hybrid nature of games (whether video or otherwise). As a genre, they marry the worlds of goal-oriented behavior — here are the rules; this is how you win — and storytelling. Which isn’t quite the word I want; it’s more than just narrative, it’s sensory experience and exploration and other things, but I can’t think of another word that would encapsulate all of that for me. Maybe what I mean is art; if I tried to propose my own personal definition, it would probably come closest to the Wikipedia definition Ebert quotes: “Art is the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.” The more goal-oriented end of the game spectrum would, therefore, probably fall out as “not art” in my eyes; football and chess and Bejeweled can be fun and even amazing, but when they appeal to my emotions, it’s as a byproduct of their actual purpose, rather than the purpose itself. A long pass happens in football for tactical reasons, not aesthetic ones. But Braid very much wants to make a sensory/emotional appeal, and so does Dragon Age, and pretty much any game that deliberately builds in narrative elements.
I suspect that, if I were to show Ebert Dragon Age, he would at least grant that its narrative elements are in the category of “could be art.” As in, stories can be art, and this is a story, even if it doesn’t impress him enough to earn his quality-based label. Approaching it that way, though — extracting the recognized artistic element and evaluating it separately from the whole — is a fundamental misunderstanding of video games. I may have speculated on how you could turn Dragon Age into a movie, but when you get down to it, a well-done game deliberately implicates the player in its narrative. You don’t just sit there and watch story happen, then go back to killing things; you make choices that shape the way the story goes. And if it’s done well enough, that produces an emotional reaction: I actively felt bad when I sided with the werewolves in the Brecilian Forest, and only followed through to get the achievement before reverting to a previous save and making a different choice.
No, video games haven’t yet produced a Michelangelo. They’re in their infancy, though. Ebert’s little trick with the cave paintings, arguing that instead of being primitive beginnings, they’re just the earliest examples we have of a more-developed form, doesn’t prove what he thinks it does. Video games are still in their infancy — or maybe their toddler years — and still have the potential to grow. They may not be mature enough yet to earn his bestowal of the title “art,” but I don’t agree that his authority as a cultural gatekeeper means he’s right that they are not and never will be an artistic form. In this instance, sorry to say, I think he’s just being a curmudgeon.