Here is a comment I wrote that's too big to fit over at NewSavanna. Check it out.
You may have heard that Ebert’s been kicking up a fuss about video games. He doesn’t think that they can ever be art. This little tempest in a teapot led him to Tweet and then blog a simple question: “Which of these would you value more? A great video game. Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.” The answer came back 13,823 to 8,088 in favor of video games.And so Ebert posted that result to his blog, while also admitting that there was nothing remotely scientific about his procedure. It’s just an informal question, with an answer that didn’t please him. And he launches into a defense and justification of literature without, however, saying anything more against video games. For the moment, that’s done and gone.
Right now there are legions of video games that allow you to walk in the shoes of characters with different backgrounds. The best of these provide and extraordinary experience. None so legendarily riveting as one of the early Call of Duty series that put you on Omaha Beach. It was, in just about every way, equal to the cinematic experience of Spielberg's opening to Saving Private Ryan, except that your character dies. You die over and over again from acts of violence whose origin you are incapable of determining. There is no strategy or tactic you can use to think your way up the beach. You simply die 10 or 12 times, and then by sheer luck you live and continue the game.
There are few ways to express the horror of war that are more impressive than that. You get your orders, you have your rifle, you move forward through chaos expecting to win, and you lose. Over and over again, you lose. You contribute a pile of bodies to the gory landscape as you recognize that there actually can be no war narrative as subtle and compelling as your game experience. Nobody survives it.
The power of historical simulations in the narrative form of Call of Duty may be instructive, depending on the intent of the authors, but nothing is quite as immersive as those 'period pieces' we refer to as sandbox RPGs.
An RPG is a role-playing game. You inhabit a character which is either a pre-selected individual whose skills you can modify slightly through gained experience, or whose appearance and characteristics you can modify greatly. A sandbox game in one in which you are given a very large area in which to play - a realm as it were, and whose specific narrative is addressed at your leisure.
In a game like Call of Duty, you are assigned missions and you work with your squadmates (either real people online, or AIs) to accomplish them. There is nothing else to do and you must walk a narrow path. For example, you are walking through a shallow river in a jungle on a Pacific Island - your mission is to destroy a Japanese weapons depot. Enemies snipe at you in the river canyon. All you can do is evade them, shoot back and get to the ammo dump alive, then blow it up. Mission accomplished. Next mission.
In a sandbox game, you are in a wide open space, 1945 Brooklyn perhaps, and now home from the war you are to find a job in the mob. But you can stop and shop, talk to neighbors and waste as much time as you like interacting with people who are non-essential to the primary plot. These may be mini-missions, like find a cheating husband, or a missing child which only serve to shape your character independent of the primary mission. It is almost unanimous that the two greatest sandbox RPGs are Grand Theft Auto 4 and Red Dead Redemption. One set in contemporary NYC and the other on the border of Texas & Mexico circa 1900.
Games such as these challenge designers to create a verisimilitude that will engage gamers as long as a good book would. One generally expects to finish a straight mission based game like Call of Duty in under 10 hours. But a sandbox RPG like Mafia 2 or Fallout 3 contain easily 60 hours of immersion. To complete every main and side quest in such games can easily take double that amount of time. And recall that in most sandbox games, your actions change the character. So often gamers will play the entire game as a good person and then replay the entire game as an evil person.
The opportunity for critical evaluation of video games as literature is enormous. The difficulty is that the bulk of the industry is perceived callously by intellectuals, who are invariably not gamers. And because games are sophisticated, it's not easy to become one.
One commonly cited reason that games are dismissed is because of their violent content. It is reasonable to note that violence is part of the attraction of many many video games. But the same can be said of Western movies. A war simulation as a first person shooter is about as hacked a genre as cowboys and indians. But there are better and worse, and the proper role of the critic is to nudge the art along.
I think this will inevitably happen because the bandwidth for games is so broad. Unlike with hiphop, I think the lack of intellectual criticism will not hinder the aesthetic value of video games. They are much too expensive an enterprise and require too much collaborative creativity to continue on momentum alone. And quite frankly, outside the MSM, there is some serious gamer crit.
Even though he is employed by Microsoft, a cat named 'Major Nelson' sets a fairly high standard for commentary. The most widely know critics are G4TV's Adam Sessler and Morgan Web. They've been in the business for over a decade, and more and more often, in almost every one of their daily shows called X-Play they queue the phrase 'brutally honest review' for games you know are going to suck.
There are artists in the realm of video game design and production, and while blockbuster titles tend to make all the moola, there is an 'indie' spirit that is alive and well in the industry. But overall, the industry is just at that point where technology is beginning to matter less and less, and richer stories, characters and experiences are required. I don't think you'll find anyone who could dismiss the richness of the worlds created in games like Bioshock and Mass Effect 2. Is it art? If anyone could possibly consider Roger Corman an artist, then video games have been art for a long time. Is it fine art? It's getting close.