I enjoyed the conversation launched by Roger Ebert’s thesis that the video-game form cannot rise to the level of art, and have found myself considering the art-or-not-fulness of this or that; particularly in light of having recently played a videogame and watched some TV.

The Game · I’m talking about Portal, which I played through again recently because it showed up on the Mac. I am by no means a heavy gamer, but I’ve done a few over the years, and I’ve never felt the slightest temptation to think of any of them as art, even as I admire beautifully-immersive environments or elegant atmospherics. Portal might be an exception.

Portal screenshot

Some aspects of Portal make me think of a well-crafted short story. There is character, albeit only one and (charmingly) not the protagonist. There are engrossingly-parallel crescendi of revelation; of GLaDOS’ corruption and the Enrichment Center’s seamy underbelly. There is a useful leavening of humor; who could fail to smile at the poor doomed military androids? And even though there is no real suspension of disbelief, there is an uncomfortable resonance between Aperture Science’s corporate values and those we too often encounter in our daily dealings with this institution or that.

And Portal also cleverly avoids the problem of choice, as elegantly dissected by Anthony Burch in Why Heavy Rain proves Ebert right; there is only one path through the story.

These notions of art first occurred to me back in 2007 on my first run through, at some point late in the last level when I found myself growing grumpy because part of the journey was out of tune with the larger pace of the narrative, and realized that the way I was thinking about this was very much like the way I find myself internally criticizing a story or a movie.

As for the sequel? I’ll be amazed if it’s even remotely interesting; Portal’s victory’s in its minimalism.

TV · Well, Lost, of course. Think about it this way: When Dickens was grinding out his serial novels or Trollope was auctioning his manuscripts, suppose you’d suggested that the typical undergrad in subsequent centuries would be forced to demonstrate that they’d thought over their themes, and narrative techniques, and linguistic tropes. You’d have got blank stares.

Hurley and Sawyer play ping pong

Am I suggesting that a suffering Lit Crit sophmore in 2118 might find herself faced with an essay on the Meaning of Mr. Eko or the Jughead Subtext? Well, there’s no way to know; looking back, it may all seem utterly silly in only a decade or so. But maybe not.

I’m not suggesting that Lost is flawless, or even free of egregious botches; the most obvious is that the characters all look like TV stars not real people — see Battlestar Galactica for an existence proof that this is unnecessary. And there were way too many dropped threads, either forced on Lost’s creators by the exigencies of casting and timing, or simply because they just didn’t care enough. Also, situation after situation is entirely contingent on the writers’ flat refusal to have the characters either demand or provide an explanation of just what the hell is going on here?

But on the other hand the core characters are consistently compelling, the management of mood is masterful, and some of the set-pieces are going to stay lodged in my psyche more or less forever.

And something I value very highly: Lost, while it samples from many other TV idioms, really wasn’t much like anything that had come before it. And in its defense I would also point out that large-scale works from time immemorial have suffered from large-scale inconsistency, dropped threads, and forced situations: Homer, Herman Melville, and James Joyce come immediately to mind.

OK, now you can all laugh at me.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Masklinn (May 28 2010, at 02:29)

Sadly, given Ebert dismisses Braid which *is* a well-crafted linear short-story masterfully recounted, I doubt there is any chance for Portal to pass his (mostly ignorant on the subject, I would submit) judgement.

Oh, and I strongly disagree with your conclusion that Portal's sequel — if any — will suck. Valve has proven themselves time and time again masters of storytelling and sequelling.

But I doubt there will be a Portal 2, instead Portal's ideas and concepts will be merged back into the "main" half-life storyline for either Episode 3 or Half Life 3.


From: Charlie Wood (May 28 2010, at 04:47)

I don't know if it was art, but Zork scratched the same itch for me that Portal and Lost do, and that some art does. And I love all three of them.


From: TimW (May 28 2010, at 05:19)

I always felt Rez, originally for DreamCast and PS2 and recently Rez HD for the 360, was pretty close to art. In a modern abstract sense.

The creators talked about Kandinsky and synaesthesia. And there's a Travelling option where you move through the levels without dying. All as a character within a virus infected computer system.

I've never played anything else quite like it!


From: GaryZ (May 28 2010, at 08:52)

Admittedly I haven't played many games recently, but back a number of years I was quite enthralled with Myst, more so for its "art" than for the puzzles. I also found (imagined?) occasional Myst like scenes and happenings in Lost over the years.


From: Charles Oliver Nutter (May 28 2010, at 10:39)

Here's a simple proof why Ebert is wrong.

* He obviously believes movies are an art form

* The most banal videogame possible would be little more than button-pushing your way through a movie

Therefore, if a videogame can in essence *be* a movie in some form, then it inherits the rights granted by Ebert to movies.

And of course the choice argument is absurd; there are load of examples of interactive art forms in classic bricks-and-mortar institutions that have many elements of choice. Choice at its worst breaks a long, contiguous piece of "art" into several smaller ones. It's laughable to refuse artists the right to create any interactivity at all, lest they be ousted from the art party.

Whether video games are "high" or "good" art, I can't be the judge. But for me, they evoke the same physical and emotional responses any other art form does. That's proof enough.


From: len (May 28 2010, at 14:12)

Lost was/is a lot like The Prisoner. It suffered the same problem of having to extend a plot line suited to a few episodes into six years. Plot analysis is ultimately fruitless when the aim of the authors is not action but character studies in cooperation.

I suspect when our lives end, we'll have problems with threading too. Last week I discovered that my old friend at college, George DeMerle really was who he said he was and did what he said he did. That's one of the web's contributions to serendipitous knitting of past events. It could happen to Lost too.

Games are art. Some good; some bad. Critics who deny that are failed cooks trying to fry tomatoes that are too ripe, at the wrong temperature with bad batter. The knowing is in the eating.


From: Eric Johnson (May 28 2010, at 14:45)

Wait, did you really just compare Lost to Homer, Melville, and Joyce!?!?

Every single episode across all the seasons had black-hole sized holes in the plot that never got filled. Maybe Dickens is a closer comparison, in that he wrote in episodic form, with the natural consequence of odd ramblings that don't resolve themselves.

In any case, Lost never decided whether it wanted to be science fiction, supernatural, or just plain soap opera. That definitely detracted from it, because without that decision, everything in the plot then suffered, since you could never know when to expect deus ex machina. I found it to be a fun diversion, for sure, and pretty much watched the whole thing from beginning to end. But Homer, Melville, and Joyce, really? I'm laughing.


From: Paul Boddie (May 28 2010, at 17:54)

I'm sure that in the 4000-plus comments on that article, someone has already made this point, but here goes. Waving the hand at some modern first-person shooters (and various "indie" games) and claiming that "video games are not art", hedging the statement in a cowardly fashion by using terms like "in principle", whatever that is supposed to mean, really denies the way video games have developed in various periods to take advantage of the limitations of the medium at that time - "art" as a programmer might define it - as well as the ways game authors have attempted to communicate a scenario through such a limited medium, much as a novelist would do so, and with considerable success.

Some people point to games like Elite as engaging the player's imagination, as art is supposed to do, but perhaps a better example from my experience is Exile - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exile_(arcade_adventure) - where an entire plot, actually provided with the game in the form of a short novel, convincingly fits on top of a game engine which provides an almost open-ended style of gameplay with a whole world simulated on screen, modelled in somewhat less than 32 kilobytes of memory.

Just as a reader will identify with the characters in a novel, so does the player of games like Exile identify with the predicament of the characters in such a game, the struggle to progress, each little victory and defeat, and so the storyline is enriched by the player's own emotions.

To criticise and to appreciate art, one must first have the capacity to recognise it. By regarding things that are already well established as art as being genuinely artistic and excluding every other endeavour, Ebert comes across as a snob, although one can argue that Santiago makes a poor case for video games herself (perhaps because she appears to belong to a culture where business "success" is first and foremost, dictated by a formula). But down that road is a man stating that art is "an oil painting of a man on a horse" and nothing else.


From: Matt Liggett (May 29 2010, at 08:24)

I see The Wire as the pinnacle of TV as narrative art, something Dickensian and incredibly well crafted that is likely to be included in a future comparative lit. class.


From: Paul Ford (May 29 2010, at 11:30)

I love Ebert, but he's gone kind of Andy Rooney on this. No one expects him to get videogames. It's not his thing. But because it's not his thing it's also kind of a goofy choice for him to bring the hammer down. I'm not much of a gamer--maybe 20-30 hours a year?--but I mean, come on. There's stuff going on in there. All forms can be used to create art (including HTML forms, dammit). That's basically what art, i.e. artworld art, is about now, best I can tell. Anyway, videogames are still a pretty new form. It took a long time for movies to be anything more than filmed plays or vaudeville hijinks. And people thought radio was incredibly dumb at first. You have to be kind of nerdy and fannish to get into new forms. And the fans of the new form tend to get a little too excited and John Perry Barlowish about everything. Gonna change the world and redefined (storytelling|entertainment|politics|.*).

Eventually the barriers melt because people die or move on or give up and everyone starts to work together. Youngsters grow up and realize that they don't know everything and there's stuff to learn from the new form. It's happening with web publishing; it'll happen with videogames. We're what, 30 years since Pac Man? Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_years_in_film -- it took ~30 years for film to get sound. The Jazz Singer was far from the finest film ever made; even putting the blackface aside it's pure corn. And what I notice is that history has a lot of advocates for one form, who derive their power, authority, and base cultural understanding from that form, who then spend time criticizing the new, goofy-looking form. Vaudeville dudes hated radio; radio people hated TV; etc. Sufficiently mature forms become a kind of tribal affiliation--think of how badly people want to become filmmakers or work in publishing. Because you get power from affiliating. New tribes must be beaten down mercilessly or they'll take your cultural-currency-Simoleons.

Eventually it all achieves equilibrium because the kids don't care as long as they can buy it and enjoy it on their platforms of choice. Videogames keep learning from film, and film is starting to absorb lessons from videogames (this happens most at the permeable boundary of 3D rendering, I guess). Plus Centipede was an extraordinary experience; there's all sorts of cultural finagling going on in gameplay. And I still remember how the bridge creaked in Half Life 2.


From: Dan Lewis (May 29 2010, at 11:54)

I was fooled. I really thought in the last episode we were going to learn the golden light was a Nanobot cloud from the future, trapped on the island by The Incident, which became sentient when the nameless one floated into the cave. And the crash was intended to unwind the events folded in and out of time, so that one timeline didn't happen (explaining the parallel time streams). Et cetera.

The masterful head fake when they flashed back to Season 1 finding the stones in the cave led me to believe we were coming to a final clash of good and evil of King-ian proportions, one that had indeed been planned from the beginning. In other words, a genre story. But instead, they punted on all the major story elements in cussworthy fashion.

The comparison to The Prisoner is apt. Remember when Rover takes off in the rocket ship? I thought we were going to see the smoke monster do something very similar. And Sawyer says "I'll be seeing you" in the last episode too. But the difference is that The Prisoner was episodic and every storyline resolved in the space of one hour. There is debate about which order to even watch the episodes in because there is so little continuity.

There can't be any such debate about the right order to watch Lost in. It was all so plotted and deliberate, or really (now) deliberate-looking. But in the end the climax fizzled out.

So on the one hand, I think people will be studying Lost the way they study great art. But I take it as kind of a failed experiment in making art without catharsis, and ultimately without the unities.


From: Ryan Allen (May 29 2010, at 20:18)

I agree with your sentiment that Portal could be considered art. It was a short game (which drew an awful lot of criticism), but it was to my mind clearly a deliberate decision. I think its execution was brilliant, and while I have played many games, I can't say I had ever played a game like it before. Compare this to Halo 1, where despite the story you spend hours and hours getting through levels that are clearly inverse copies of each other, that take away from the story telling.

If you have more time to dedicate to games, I suggest playing Half Life 2 (not episode 1 or 2, play it in order). It is made by the same publisher (Valve) and while it's a longer game, it has the same kind of story-telling qualities that Portal had (with more characters, and you're the protagonist).


From: Phil (May 29 2010, at 22:55)

> I would also point out that large-scale works from time immemorial have suffered from large-scale inconsistency, dropped threads, and forced situations [...]

Tell me about it--what was up with the suitor scenes! Not exactly a tidy resolution.


From: Ivo Wever (May 30 2010, at 03:20)

@Charles Oliver Nutter

Ebert considers video games and movies to be disjoint sets of things. You can't prove Ebert wrong by redefining video games to include movies. If you want to argue his point, you have to start from *his* definition of 'video game'. If that definition is unclear or inconsistent with that of 'movie', then that is a valid point, but simply redefining a key term in the argument isn't.


From: len (May 31 2010, at 06:03)

The Prisoner was written to be about seven episodes. Then the financier ordered it to be extended to make it suitable for the American markets. So they spun up episodes in place. Even Rover was a last minute but brilliant improvisation when the complicated mechanical monster fell apart.

The Prisoner can make sense as long as it isn't dissected looking for literal plot. I think there is a valid comparison with games.

I'm a bit surprised that some of the negative feedback is based on the religious aspect of the ending. A true deus ex machina, but it was there from the beginning. Lost is not an action series. It is a character study. If that fooled and infuriates the sci-fi/comp-sci demographic, they are exactly the right demographic for the show. It's a gotcha and it worked.


From: Dustin (May 31 2010, at 19:08)

Tim, do yourself a favor and try out the game Braid. It's one of the most beautiful pieces of art I've ever experienced. You can download it online for Macintosh.


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