Saturday, April 17, 2010

Playing Super Mario Bros. with Roger Ebert

Braid trailer 1.2 from David Hellman on Vimeo.

Roger Ebert, who is actually really awesome about films, and about all kinds of other things, seems to be really (disappointingly) weird about video games.

About Braid, he writes: "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."

He's basing his review of Braid on a YouTube video of Kellee Santiago's 2009 talk at a TED conference:

Instead of playing these games, Ebert is basing his opinion on a description of the games, not on actually playing them. No one would write a review of a film based on seeing a lecture about the film, so I don't get what he's doing.

Examining games in an old-media context is weird, because the "art" happens in the interaction, not the storyline or the explanation of the game's gimmicks. Experience changes the 'meaning' of those gimmicks in a tangible way - you transfer yourself into the screen, so it's not the same as "taking back a move" in chess (That's Ebert's comparison) but more like watching a film rewind itself precisely when you need it to, and being able to see a different output.

You can't like Run Lola Run without loving video games, or understanding them as art. That film follows Lola as she runs through three 'levels' of 'missions' to save her boyfriend; Ebert was lukewarm on the film, but he made an odd note (even after acknowledging the video game parallel in his lede). "Film is ideal for showing alternate and parallel time lines. It's literal; we see Lola running, and so we accept her reality." It's weird, then, that he so easily dismisses video games when they achieve the exact same end.

Ebert says games are closer to the chicken scratch end of the art spectrum, but notably, he's not a gamer. You can't get the culture of games - or understand something like what Braid does differently, without knowing what the culture of games is. Maybe that's an indictment of gaming's insularity as an art form. But the context of mediocrity - there's a lot of bad movies, and a lot of bad games - actually kind of defines what happens when a movie dodges, expands, or devastates the cliche's of its genre. That may be meaningless on its own. Perhaps you won't have your mind blown by reversing time in a game if it's the first game you've ever played. But I do think it's important.

Ultimately Ebert is a film guy, not an images guy, it seems, but the "it ain't art" argument is dead, dead, dead. I mean heck, I was writing about Video Games as Art back in like, 2009, guys.

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