Enlarge /. The film critics Roger Ebert (center) and Gene Siskel appear on December 12, 1986 with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.
Gary Null / NBCU Photo Bank / NBCUniversal via Getty Images
To update: Fifteen years ago around Thanksgiving, legendary film critic Roger Ebert sparked a mini-storm in video game journalism circles by going to his column and using the medium poo-poote. And since the Ars staff were free for the holiday weekend, we thought it would be interesting to republish this analysis of Ebert's criticism from Ars staffer Jeremy Reimer. While there have definitely been a few game-to-film types in the past few years (ahem, Assassin's Creed), there has been no shortage of stunning video game storytelling (Her Story) or Hollywood looking for new titles ( Last of Us on HBO, This track originally aired November 30, 2005 and appears unchanged below.
Roger Ebert, the famous Chicago Sun-Times film critic and co-host of the syndicated television show Ebert and Roper at the Movies, stated on his website that video games will never be as artistically worthy as films and films are literature. Ebert does not believe that this quality gap can ever be overcome as he considers this to be a fundamental limitation of the medium itself:
There's a structural reason for this: video games inherently require player selection, which is the opposite of serious movie and serious literature that requires author scrutiny.
Whether or not interactive art can still be art is an interesting question. Modern artists like Chin Chih Yang, who design interactive multimedia projects and create "traditional" art, would probably tell you that it depends only on the artist and the audience whether something is "art" and not on the medium itself. There is but undoubtedly more conservative artists who would dismiss "interactive multimedia projects" as not worthy of the term art. Of course, this debate is neither new nor limited to video games. Both movies and comics struggled (and still struggle) to earn the same respect as traditional media such as literature and dramatic plays.
But is it really the "interactive" part of video games that Ebert criticizes? To me, it seems like a convenient excuse to ditch forever a new form of entertainment that has influenced more than just movies (with endless releases of video game-themed films like Tomb Raider, Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, etc.). but sometimes it even seems to compete with the cinema itself. Every time movie sales go down, some experts consider the video game industry to be the cause of the problem.
I don't think Ebert is really railing against the "interactive" nature of video games here. While giving a bad review to the movie Clue, which had multiple endings, he admitted in his review that it would have been more fun for viewers to see all three endings. He seemed to be indicating that a choice of endings would have made the movie even more entertaining if it had been of higher quality. Like Clue, video games can have multiple endings or storylines, but they are all written in advance by the author. The fact that the player can choose between them makes none of the choices less of a creation of the game developers.
Closer examination of Ebert's comments seems to suggest that he criticizes the artistic value of the games themselves, not their structure:
I am ready to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from getting beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To the best of my knowledge, no one in the field or outside of the field has ever been able to quote a play worth comparing to the great playwrights, poets, filmmakers, writers, and composers. I accept that a game can strive for artistic meaning as a visual experience. For most gamers, however, video games mean a loss of the precious hours we have available to become more sophisticated, civilized, and empathetic.
Some might want to tell Ebert about games he might never have seen or played, like Star Control II or Planescape Torment, where the story has a higher focus than the graphics and is at least comparable to literary fiction. Or games like ICO, where the atmosphere and the feeling of the surroundings and the characters are equal to any "serious" art film. But maybe Ebert hasn't heard of these titles yet because video games in general are inundated with an endless parade of eye-catching sequels and film bindings that prefer graphics to gameplay. Perhaps Ebert could change his mind if video games became a viable analogue of the independent film industry. But is that likely?