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A response to Roger Ebert

July 2, 2010

I just posted this on his blog, in response to the “Game as Art” debate.

Personally, I think Flower is the best choice that could be made that you may in fact have the patience to appreciate as “art.” The entire game can be played in a single sitting of about 2 hours. I’ve written a critique here on a few of the reasons I think the game is about as close as we’ve come to pure “art” in video game form.

This theme is furthered by the last level, where you are tasked to bring life back to swingsets, slides, etc (things children played BEFORE the advent of videogames, and more than likely rarely do nowadays). Once the game is “beaten,” the formerly quiet, lifeless, dark apartment that serves as the stage select is now inundated with sunlight, voices of children playing outside, and a jazz musician playing from somewhere outside of the apartment. I believe the message conveyed here is again, everything in balance. There is a time and place for videogames, but there is also a time and place to build community instead of holing oneself into an apartment and participating only in an online community.

And here again is where Flower is the most subversive game ever made, in my estimation. On a console that at the time was struggling under its own weight, and whose manufacturer desperately needed it to be a success, a game is published first party that carries the underlying message, “Turn off your Playstation 3, go outside, meet people, and experience real life instead of a simulated version of it.”

This, of course, does the game no justice. Flower has been referred to as a poem in video game form, which I think is accurate. One can appreciate the aesthetic qualities, and possibly be emotionally moved by it without having come from a generation where video games are a perfectly viable entertainment option.

But as alluded to above, only if you are OF this generation and care to look a bit deeper will you understand the subtle themes it conveys, and really, just how subversive it is. In terms of subversiveness, I would compare it to Wall-E. To the untrained eye, both are escapist entertainment, and to the average moviegoer or gamer, both might appear slow and boring. But both have fairly profound things to say (Wall-E about late American capitalism, and Flower about the video game industry, video game play mechanics and their goal-oriented nature, and really, why we as gamers even play games in the first place, and what makes a game a game).

Flower is the only game that ever made me cry, and within the same gameplay session, also made me feel ecstatic to be alive. I’ve been a gamer since the Atari days, and Flower is the best game I’ve ever played, and my second-favorite of all time.

My film equivalents, as a reference point, would be Todd Haynes’ [Safe] as the best film I’ve ever seen, and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures as my favorite of all time.

As much as Shadow of the Colossus is held up to be the poster child for “Game as Art,” I think that only by having a fair familiarity with gaming would one be able to place that descriptor upon it. Which, for most of us like-minded gamers posting here is not a concern. But for Ebert, it might not be the best choice. Flower, I think, is a better example to hold up to a non-gamer.

I make games as a hobby, and actually cycle through inspirations. Lola Rennt, Memento, and various Richard Linklater films are huge influences on my ideas. Lately, though, I’m almost more akin to the idea of “Game as anti-art,” or, because some do not like that term, “deconstructionism.”

Currently, I’m of the mindset with my game ideas of taking games, what they represent, their conventions and play mechanics, and most especially, player expectation, and deconstructing them by subverting all these things (again, especially player expectation) into something completely different.

I do not know if a game made with the intention of forcing its players to confront their reasons for playing games, and exactly what a game even is would even qualify as art, without even looking at aesthetics. Even within the gaming community at large, I have a feeling that only a very small percentage would even understand the intention and what I was attempting to convey. And those who do not have any familiarity with games would no doubt fail to understand the meanings.

So, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the Japanese game designer Suda 51 is sometimes hailed as an “artiste,” mostly for the same reasons that film directors such as Terrence Malick are hailed as “artistes.” They are working within the same medium as many, many others, but have a sensibility and a way in which they convey ideas that are uniquely their own.

Granted, Suda 51’s games themselves run more on the David Lynch side, aesthetically, in that they are sometimes almost TOO abstract and challenging and difficult. And I’m not referring to how “hard” the games are when I say challenging and difficult. I’m referring to the ideas and concepts he is conveying.

So, does this idea of taking one’s preconceived notions about an entertainment medium (in this case, games), and forcing that selfsame person to confront all of these preconceptions to determine for himself (yes….sorry….most “gamers” ARE male) why he plays games, and what they mean, count as art? Or would that be considered “anti-art”? Or can “anti-art” or “deconstructionism” even be considered art?

I liken this to, again, my personal “best film I’ve ever seen,” [Safe]. It’s a film that one more than likely cannot fully appreciate without having an appreciation for the medium itself, and without having the motivation or wherewithall or capacity to view what’s on the surface a bit more deeply. On the surface, to one who cannot or will not look at the film on more than a superficial level, it’s slow, plodding, and boring with no reason to empathize with the characters and no deeper meaning.

But beneath the surface, if one looks closely enough, and takes the time to contemplate what he’s seen, there is a veritable world of meaning, which demands repeated viewings.

I personally strive to make a game with even one iota of that impact. I know, of course, that for every 100 players, percentage-wise, only 2 will “get it.” But it’s really those two who I hope to reach.

It’s been stated in the newest issue of Game Informer by Ken Levine, the creator of BioShock, the Ayn Rand-esque masterpiece from a number of years back, that gamers need to stop trying to compare our….ummm…artform to film, as we inevitably are seeking approval from “real” critics like Roger Ebert. I’m paraphrasing here, but he basically insinuates that we have an inferiority complex about our pastime, and that we need not compare games to film, as they are intrinsically different.

With all the film references I’ve made here, I’m not sure if I’m helping or hindering our “cause.” But that’s my two cents stretched to at least a five dollar bill.

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