I should preface this post by disclaiming that this is not, in fact, about Pacman. This is adapted from a PowerPoint presentation I delivered to my school, mainly about how the media talks about videogames. Enjoy!
I am going to be incredibly strange by beginning this post about videogames by exhibiting something that has nothing at all to do with videogames.
For this post to progress smoothly, I’d like you to watch the following clip:
Having now seen that clip, it might surprise you to know that what you just saw was not, technically speaking, fiction.
In 1988 director Isao Takahata released this film as an adaptation of the novel (of the same name) by Akiyuki Nosaka. The novel was somewhat autobiographical, as Nosaka himself lived life as a Japanese citizen during the American firebomings of Kobe in World War Two, and as a result, had two of his sisters taken from him by sickness and malnutrition. This is the only film I have seen, and certainly the only animation I have seen, that shows in such detail the lesser known tragedies of World War Two: the undocumented killers like diarrhoea, sickness and abject hunger.
To say the least, this film was unexpected, especially for its time (below image from Wikipedia).
It was released as a cinematic double feature alongside Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece My Neighbour Totoro. Even though Grave Of The Fireflies appears to have received a better critical response (based on review aggregator websites) than its counterpart, it was a commercial disaster. So much so, in fact, that it almost jeopardised the state of the company of Studio Ghibli. If this tells us anything, it is that the Japanese people of the 80s did not prefer to view culturally provocative animations, if this is of any indication.
If you don’t know who Roger Ebert was: he was the first ever critic to win the Pulitzer critic’s award for film criticism. He was widely regarded as the most intelligent and successful film critic to have ever lived (below image from his official website).
He says of Grave Of The Fireflies that its nature is a subversive one, and that its legitimacy as a moving piece was not hampered by the fact that it was also an animation, however the most interesting part of this review extract, I think, is that he said Grave Of The Fireflies outdoes its animated peers because it provides a deeper catharsis than simple tears.
This is an idea that he expands upon in his review of Saving Private Ryan (image below from his official website).
He said, to quote, “Weeping is an incomplete response […] after the immediate experience begins to face, the implications remain and grow”. I personally feel that these are very powerful words. What I gather from these two reviews of Ebert’s is that he considered these two great pieces of art to both share one thing in common: they are not only on an emotional level evocative, but on a cultural level provocative.
Ebert had more than once annoyed my people by claiming that videogames can never be art (image below from his official website).
One of the main reasons he explained this with, is that where videogames are systematic, things like films, literature, theatre and dance are not ruled by objectives and systems. And, ultimately, he thought that this disqualifies them as artistic.
I would like to argue the opposite.
The following are three sets of diagrams I made demonstrating how three types of media would give the consumer the experience of exploring a house, just as an example.
When reading a book, one page might describe a kitchen in vivid detail, and when you turn the page the author then transports you into the garden, and so on.
With a film, the first 30 minutes might capture the nuances of the kitchen area, the camera moving to examine everything visible, and then as you sit through another 30 minutes the cameraman takes you through the other areas of the house.
However, if, in an open-world videogame, you happen to come across an explorable house, there is no predetermined path of progression. You are free to choose your path of progression where you aren’t in other media. Sure, if you wan to revisit a certain page or a certain shot in a book or film then this is possible, but you’d have to turn back thirty pages or rewind by thirty minutes.
If you do this, you are regressing. By breaking the intended method of progression you aren’t experiencing the creation as it was intended. In a videogame, you could retrace your steps and explore different paths and routes within the house, and you would still be experiencing the product as it was intended.
This isn’t to validate videogames as art of course, but it is to argue against Ebert’s proposal that videogames cannot be art because they are somehow less experiential than other media.
To drop Ebert for a second, videogame essayist and personal idol of mine Satchell Drakes has written about how the media perceives videogames as beneath considerable for art because they are not redeeming in their content, i.e they are too violent or sophomoric to really be considered art.
In response to this, Drakes brings up the example of Scorcese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street. Drakes points out the fact that in 2014 John Patterson wrote an article for the Guardian in which he said that:
It is not the job of an adult’s film, in this case The Wolf Of Wall Street, to be morally prescriptive, to tell us how to act or think, because as adults it is not necessary for us to be moralised, we can use our own discretion to judge the actions within the film. This applies also to any kind of unapologetic media, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, or anything by Quentin Tarantino for examples.
While this article makes a strong statement, in 2013, however, The Guardian also published an article slamming a then novel Grand Theft Auto V for precisely not being morally prescriptive.
Instead of addressing its intended adult audience appropriately, it uses language to subtly infantilise the consumers. This is not to excuse anything unapologetically ultraviolent or misogynistic, but I only wonder why we remain to speak so inflammatory,
And why people love it when we do, when these two pieces of media are really not that different.
And you might be thinking: okay, art does not inherently have to be redeeming, but I haven’t actually seen an example of a videogame that is in any way truly evocative like the films Ebert describes.
I would now like you to watch the clip below, which I hope would at least make you consider:
Having now watched that clip, it may surprise you to know that what you just saw was not technically fiction.
It wasn’t even 10 minutes but it feels like hours, and that is the intention. Ryan and Amy Green are real people, the audio you just heard is really Ryan Green’s voice. When Ryan and Amy’s son Joel was 12 months old he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. To the Green’s surprise, Joel managed to survive for four more years until he died in 2014. The Green family are Christians, and they decided to make this artistically interpretive and autobiographical game not just as a exercise in memory but also as an exploration of their own faith, their relationships with God and with their baby boy and with themselves as their realities are very much tested.
In the section that the YouTube clip exhibits, you feel a bit of what Ryan felt when Joel was still alive. He wails and wails because he is in pain and you are powerless to do anything but simply wait until he falls asleep because he is tired of wailing. It is not even necessary to play the game to get a sense of this, you can simply watch it and still feel a fraction of this, but a player would have undoubtedly been more immersed and more uncomfortable during this section.
The Greens chose deliberately not to make their creation a documentary film or an autobiography, because these are things that they believed cannot evoke in the consumer what a videogame can. They believed this was the better option for their intention. And, believe me, this made critics weep, so it passes the evocative criteria.
And if you were being cynical, you could subscribe to Ebert’s sentiment, that once a videogames loses objective then it ceases to be a videogame but rather an experience.
But then is That Dragon, Cancer not a deeply moving experience that happens to be a videogame, in the same sense that Ebert described Grave Of The Fireflies to be a deeply moving experience that happened to be an animation?
I only ask: why do we still call Brechtian Theatre theatre?
It defies all institutions of theatre, and even though there are no absolute and official regulations of what make theatre theatre, if there were, Brecht defies them. And yet we still call it theatre. These expressions, like ‘play’ or ‘videogame’ are idiomatic expressions, they cover the traditional and the non traditional.
And even then, if you were to insist that: with art not having to be redeeming, traditional, or evocative, it must then have lingering implications and cultural relevance to be art, then I would like you to then watch another clip.
Gone Home is a videogame where you explore a seemingly abandoned household, and as you examine and click on various domestic items, you are issued audio logs that progressively tell its story of how Sam, a high school student, begins to fall in love with Lonnie, an older student of the same gender, despite Sam’s parents being less than encouraging in the matter.
To me, this ending in particular as well as the prescriptive message of the entire game, is decidedly provocative on a cultural level. It says that ‘we don’t care how much you hate us gays, we’re going off in a Volkswagen camper van to have a smashing time without you’.
So, I’d like to end this post by imploring my readers not to decide what is and what isn’t permitted to be art.
Because you get into a lot of awkward conversations with subjective grey areas.
The same applies to conversations about what is kitsch,
Or what makes you cry. In the cinema, you might be weeping at a certain scene where I’m in the back row cackling to myself and jostling the seats next to me. None of these things are ever going to be qualifyable.
To me, this entire conversation about whether videogames can or cannot be art really begs the question: if we could raise the dead, what would the conversation be like between Ebert himself and film’s harshest contemporary critics in the 1920s?
If we keep all of this in mind, and if we keep in mind that while modes of expression can and should be different,
But that what you actually have to express does not have to change, maybe we can finally see the death of the idea that just because something is kind of new, it must also be viewed as kind of primitive.