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Video games are art

By: Jeremy D. Wells

Carter County Times

I haven’t watched The Last of Us yet. Honestly, I probably won’t, no matter how heart wrenching and compelling the reviews say it is. Zombie movies and series aren’t really my thing, even if they’re myco-zombies. (The only mushrooms allowed on my mind are morels and chanterelles, thank you very much.)

I’m sure it’s fantastic television; it’s HBO after all, they don’t halfway do things.

And the studio behind the source material, Sony’s Naughty Dog, have a history of telling compelling stories. Their Uncharted series has helped scratch my “I want to be Indiana Jones” itch for years, and even their early platformers for PS2, like Jak and Daxter, showed a real depth of story and world building that set a standard for what video games could be.
I don’t want to watch the show, but I will probably still play The Last of Us some day. I picked it up during a digital sale a while ago, and it’s in my (long and still growing) to-play queue.

But the success of the HBO series, along with the success of shows like Netflix’s The Witcher, and plans for new shows based on video games, like Amazon’s upcoming Fallout series – and rumors of Amazon series based on God of War and Mass Effect – point to something I’ve said for a long time; some of the most compelling stories being told today are being told in the medium of video games.

I got a lot of pushback saying this 15 years ago. Not from my personal peer group, of course. I was working in the game industry at the time. They all knew the quality of the product we were putting out; and the talent of the writers, programmers, and artists working together to bring the creative vision to life.

But many people still didn’t see video games as anything other than fancy children’s toys.

Film critic Roger Ebert famously said that video games not only weren’t art, they would never be art – adding the caveat of at least not in the lives of anyone alive at the time.

Though he refused to discuss his statement for years after that, he did finally speak again in a 2010 blog post – doubling down on his assertion in a blog post while admitting he still hadn’t tried any of the multiple examples of excellent story-telling that could have disproven it.

BioShock was three years old at that point, and was a game I repeatedly pointed to at the time as an exemplar of what video game storytelling could be – with real consequences for your choices that impact the story while still maintaining a consistent storyline and creative vision. (One of Ebert’s criticisms was that player choice in video games negated the impact of authorial control.)

Dragon Age: Origins, which released the year before Ebert’s second word on video games, not only made choices central to a compelling, engaging storyline, each of its individual origin stories set a new precedent for character creation and how much that impacts the following gameplay. It’s exactly this freedom of choice, and the way the creators were able to allow for that while still advancing the story toward a coherent and logical conclusion, that points to the art involved.

Dead Space, the first person space horror thriller, actually answers a lot of Ebert’s criticisms about freedom. Not only does the game have a linear storyline, no matter how much you wander, therefore allowing for the authorial control he lamented losing to video games choice, it actually showed you exactly where to walk to your next goal, providing a template to walk you through the experience without putting the player “on rails.”

Not that it mattered, since he was never willing to give it any more of a chance than any other game.

But with more and more of the traditional media that Ebert heaped praise upon inspired by the art form he dismissed, I wonder what he’d say today, about a series like The Last of Us? Or the Witcher?

Would he still insist they weren’t now, and never would be, art?

Contact the writer at editor@cartercountytimes.com



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