The late Roger Ebert set off a major controversy a few years back when he opined that video games were not art. Ebert’s argument is multifaceted and intellectual – he makes a well-deserved attack on Kellee Santiago’s pretentious TED talk that presents the Lascaux cave paintings as mere precursors to art made in subsequent millennia rather than unique masterpieces in their own right. The payload:
“One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.”
Cutscenes and visual novels
Granted, video games have gradually moved toward being experiences, starting with perhaps as early as the oddly bloody (for straight-laced Nintendo) cutscenes of 1989’s Ninja Gaiden: The Dark Sword of Chaos. Lengthy animations, mini movies, tons of dialogue – technological advances have made it possible for video games to be become, at least on the surface, more like accepted art such as cinema. And this mainstream progression, from Ninja Gaiden to Metal Gear Solid to Crysis, barely even touches upon genres such as the visual novel, which have flourished in Japan and on the (3)DS platforms, or the FMV games like Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within from the early CD era, when developer did everything they could to take advantage of the newly expansive medium.
These games have far less emphasis on “winning” than on simply seeing the story unfold. The final case of Ace Attorney: Justice for All contains one of the best-scripted, heart-wringing climaxes of any story, video game or not. It makes you loathe the villain and experience the relationship between the characters, and in this sense I think it’s closer to “art” than any realistic pseudo-movie, since it makes the player almost secondary to proceedings. You are, in a way, just some guys moving things along, as if you were clicking through someone else’s elaborate PowerPoint.
The problem of technological obsolescence
Ebert’s argument could have been even stronger, however. Video games have a unique weakness: they are dependent upon certain types of proprietary hardware.
How much will the first few Assassin’s Creed games matter in 20 years, when no one has access to the original consoles that can play them? Even with emulation, the experience isn’t the same. I wrote in my previous entry about playing Battletoads on an NES emulator. While doing so was a basic necessity – neither I nor anyone I knew at the time had both the game cartridge and a working NES console -, it changed how I played the game on a basic level. I could use save states that by merely existing softened the original’s unforgiving difficulty. I had to use different input methods (mainly keyboard).
The tons of classic NES and SNES games are nowadays mostly playable only via emulation. Imagine if you could only watch The Thief of Baghdad or The Birth of a Nation by “emulating” (or actually using!) an early 20th century era projector and screen. Of course, that isn’t the case – you can watch either one on an device that has Netflix on it. Similarly, imagine if the works of Shakespeare could only be read on 17th century folio paper and were essentially illegible on anything printed after that time. Such a reality would be absurd, but it’s basically the issue that plagues video games: their greatness, with precious few exceptions, isn’t transferrable across eras.
No one will care about Call of Duty – or even be able to play it, without a techno-geek’s setup – in 50 years. Angry Birds will likely become a relic of an era of limited smartphone hardware, no more remembered that those aim-the-canon games from early 90s PCs. Sure, you might say – no one can use an ancient Roman drinking vessel anymore and must just look at it in a museum. But using it was never part of what made it “art” – its design was the key trait. When video games lose the interactivity component over time (due to technological change), they more or less cease to exist.
These same technological constraints – call it the Video Game Disease – are what also make me fear for the posterity of ebooks and exclusive downloadable/streaming content. Making everything proprietary and tied to particular hardware or software is a great way to make money, but it demonstrates how the “digital age” (whatever that means), as it currently exists, is not amenable to long-lasting art.
Of course, none of this makes playing video games any less enjoyable. But it makes it hard to enter them into the “art” conversation. What I wonder, though, is why it’s so important that games be considered on par with cinema, rather than just enjoyed in their own right for the unique pleasures that they bring.
In the summer of 2008, in between spells of supervising future Wall St bankers at Brown’s summer camp, I wasted countless afternoon hours playing Battletoads on an NES emulator. For someone who came of age during the twilight of 16-bit gaming, the 3D wonkiness of N64/GameCube era, and the advent of FMV movie-games, the sheer difficulty and variety of Battletoads was like a kick to the teeth.
The game ferried me breathlessly from a Double Dragon-style beat ’em up to a boss battle (from the boss’ perspective!) to perhaps the most unforgiving biking racing sequence ever. More impressively, the game’s difficulty wasn’t a gimmick; it wasn’t hard for its own sake (or because it was poorly executed), but for the sake of making the player hone her abilities, reflexes, and strategy. Each level was a world unto itself, and it’s impossible to imagine some kid sitting down in 1991 and just beating it straight-through on an unenhanced NES.
Battletoads was a unique mix of challenge and variety, sprinkled with just the right amount of humor – the game’s premise of superhero amphibians is almost surely a parody of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle rage sweeping the world in the late 1980s/early 1990s. It was also a trailblazer, with its gorgeous graphics and faux-3D level design foreshadowing not only the upcoming Genesis/SNES generation but the PSX/Saturn/N64 one after that. It pushed the NES for all it was worth. Since that time, though, no game has really followed its exact blueprint, even if Battletoads’ influence can be seen in platformers like Donkey Kong Country.
Battletoads’ spiritual successor on the Wii U
Until now, anyway. The Wonderful 101, a Wii U exclusive released back in August 2013, is a fantastic genre-defying superhero game with a steep learning curve, unpredictable level design, and beautiful HD graphics. The player controls a massive group of heroes, called The Wonderful 100 (the 101st member is the player) and must collate their powers to fight off earth-invading aliens. To do this, you have to use the Wii U GamePad to draw attack patterns and movement trails (drawing with the R stick on the GamePad/Pro Controller is a bit more cumbersome, I found).
The GamePad is utilized to its fullest here, in a way that hasn’t been seen since the excellent ZombiU launch title. While inside some buildings, the GamePad’s gyroscope (one of its many tricked-out hardware features) is used for navigation, and many scenes perform the patented “look at your GamePad!” move that any player of Nintendoland is likely to be familiar with.
It’s odd how perhaps the two most quintessential Wii U games – ZombiU and The Wonderful 101 – are incredibly difficult. ZombiU’s bleak survivalist ethos – few weapons, power-ups, and health dot the landscape – means that making it through and dying only once is a superhuman feat. The Wonderful 101 is difficult in a different way – while it has plenty of items to restore health or unlock new features, it requires a great amount of coordination to use your team, as well as a certain physical preciseness in timing unite morphs (the giant fist morph may even be a reference to Battletoads’s combat animations).
The learning curve is sharp – The Wonderful 101 unfortunately provides little guidance, forcing players to learn its unique machinations largely on their own. And multiplayer mode requires a pricey Wii U Controller for each additional player. But The Wonderful 101 nevertheless stands as a good indication of what developers can do with the Wii U’s unique hardware and input methods. I hope that the recent sales boost from Wind Waker HD will drive more consumer and developer interest in the platform.