Wednesday, August 4, 2010

PZ and Ebert can criticize video games as much as I can criticize modern jazz

I don't get a lot of types of jazz. I'm not talking about the groovy sort of big band-ish stuff like "The A Train" and "Take 5" and whatnot -- that stuff is riffy and cool and I totally get it. It's the jazz where everything just seems totally chaotic and fast and, to an untrained ear like mine, random. You know, maybe it will be a jazz trio, and the drum is doing some sparse super-fast jazz beat, the piano is constantly soloing, and the bass is doing a walking bassline that is moving about 150 bpm and constantly changing, never repeating.

My problem with that kind of jazz is, if I asked you to say, "Oh, how does that song go?", I don't think you could do it. You'd have to play me the actual song. What's the theme? I just don't hear one, at all.

But you know what? That's probably my fault. I know a fair bit about music theory, but I have not "practiced" at listening to jazz, and in general I've found that the really out-there variations-on-a-theme-type stuff -- in any genre -- is a little beyond me.

I feel like I do have one legitimate semi-objective criticism of that type of music: In my opinion, the highest aspiration for a piece of art is for it to appeal simultaneously on both a deep level and an accessible level, i.e. there is enough substance there to please a connoisseur of that type of art, but it also functions on a level that is immediately understandable to the uninitiated.

But if I were to assert on that basis -- and admittedly not having any concept of the finer points of that type of music -- that it could never be art, well, I would come off like like a boorish ignoramus, don't you think?

I know I'm months out of date here, but so it is, I think, with Ebert's and PZ's respective slamming of video games as an art form. How you can you look at a form of entertainment whose advocates spend countless hours practicing in order to fully appreciate it, and then come in and announce that you are more qualified to judge it as an art form than they are? That's exactly the equivalent of someone who has spent almost no time practicing listening to jazz (like me) announcing that because he doesn't understand it, it must suck. That is a boorish and ignorant attitude.

What inspired me to write this was that I just recently finished playing through Limbo, an art-y puzzle platformer similar to the highly-acclaimed Braid in its aspirations (though completely different in both mechanics and tone, of course). It occurred to me that it would have been more difficult to appreciate some of the artistry of the game if I had less experience/skill with video games. If you get really stuck on a particular puzzle, for example, that can interrupt the flow of the narrative and disrupt the atmosphere. Proper pacing is only achievable if you have sufficient skill. Imagine if, for example, one of the ridiculously cool set pieces in The Matrix (the original one, please!) could either be compressed into a slick hyper-adrenal three and a half minutes -- or drawn out to a tedious 20 minutes of posturing and flailing about, depending upon how many action movies the viewer had seen previously? In that alternate reality, would you lend any credence to the verdict of someone for whom all the scenes were tedious and drawn out? Of course not!

This is even more true of Limbo than of other similar games, because it goes out of its way to avoid acknowledging that you are playing a game. There is no status display to speak of. There are no subtitles or exposition. It doesn't even tell you how to play, except for a very simple screen that you can access via the pause menu, that simply tells you that one button is "Jump" and another is "Action". (And you are not at any time shunted to this screen -- you could play through the whole game without seeing it)

For Limbo -- at least for an experienced gamer -- this is no problem, because it makes creative use of various video game tropes to quickly build up a repertoire of environmental interactions, without having to coach the (skilled) player. I mean, dude, if there is a ledge I can't jump to, and there is something vaguely crate-shaped nearby... Yeah, I'm pushing the crate. Other more beginner-friendly games might tell you to push the crate the first time you see one, but Limbo assumes the player already knows this. Which I do, of course.

By doing this, the game accomplishes two things. First, it keeps the atmosphere intact. I'm not taken out of the sense of being a lost boy wandering through a shadowy nightmare-like forest by the incongruity of a pop-up screen telling me what buttons to press. Second, by assuming the player is already familiar with these tropes and then immediately building upon them, complex and original gameplay mechanics are achieved almost immediately. You don't spend 20 minutes collecting twenty trinkets scattered about some beginner's sandbox. You spend more like 60 seconds doing some jumping and pushing to get a feel for the physics and BAM! you're into real gameplay.

Now, how the fuck are Ebert or PZ supposed to understand that? That experience is as foreign to them as is to me the experience of hearing a fast-walking jazz baseline outlining an augmented 7 chord. We both have no clue what is actually happening. Oh, we may have some abstract concept of it if explained to us (you could use an augmented chord in a different, more stable, type of music and I'd probably get it) but at the moment we can have no real appreciation of it, because we have little to no practice at it.

I did mention that I felt my criticism of that type of jazz as inaccessible was at least somewhat legitimate. And if Ebert and PZ want to criticize video games for asking too much of the audience in order to appreciate them... yes, for the most part I agree! Listen, I've been playing video games since I was probably six years old, and with these modern consoles, I still say, "Oh shit, wrong button!" way more often than I ought. The Wii was a big step in addressing this but... I would agree that a lot of the more accessible games don't necessarily qualify as "art" (nor are they necessarily intended to).

It's one thing to criticize a genre of art that you have difficulty grasping as being too "inaccessible", yet it's another thing altogether to decree that it can never be art. I am big fans of Ebert and PZ, but that is a boorish and ignorant opinion, and they could do with a big heaping dose of humility when it comes to video games.


  1. If a motion picture can be art, how can an interactive motion picture not be art? Mass Effect (for example) could be characterized as an interactive motion picture, and I consider it to be a work of art, literally.

    You can define the concept of art, but I don't think you can define for someone else what qualifies as art to them. That's kind of like telling someone else what they're allow to say tastes good to them.

    From wikipedia:

    "Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions"

    Mass Effect, the video game- check.
    Arguably many or most modern video games- check.

  2. Yeah, I tend to be of the mindset to answer "Yes" to the perennial "If you hang it on the wall, is it art?" question. If somebody considers a particular thing to be art, the worst I can say about it is that it's really crappy inane worthless art -- but I can't say that it's not art, because if somebody experiences it that way, even ONE PERSON, then it is.

    But I recognize that not everybody feels that way... and for those who don't, I say, "Fine, but if there is a genre of entertainment that many people who are far more knowledgeable in the genre than you consider to be art, calling it not-art is willfully ignorant."

    Which does not cause me to not be a PZ fan! Heh, actually part of PZ's appeal is his criticize-first-ask-questions-later bluster. He's often unfair and rushes to judgment, but goddamn it's entertaining. (And usually, if after a rush-to-judgment it's pointed out to him that he was full of shit, he will correct it. Not always... not with video games! But still, for somebody who's appeal is a take-no-prisoners level of acerbic rhetoric, that he ever admits his mistakes is a high compliment!)