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.
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.
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.