By Neil Merrett
“We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” – Roger Ebert, Life Itself
“Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle.” – Japanese proverb, circa 1985
I appreciate it may now be a little late – in fact, utterly too late for you to read this – but considering your ability to set out and share what was a lifetime passion for great visuals, storytelling and the overall experience of art with others, it still feels fitting.
Years after your passing, this is something of a response to your long-held view about the inherent artistic value of video games beyond their simple appeal as a toy, or timewasting indulgence. It is an issue you later wished not to have raised, based on the number of responses received and not having any real experience with games.
“At this moment, 4,547 comments have rained down upon me for that blog entry. I’m informed by Wayne Hepner, who turned them into a text file: ‘It’s more than Anna Karenina, David Copperfield and The Brothers Karamazov.’ I would rather have reread all three than vet that thread,” you wrote.
“Still, they were a good set of comments for the most part. Perhaps 300 supported my position. The rest were united in opposition.”
Perhaps it may be heartening to know that for an emerging generation of people around the world, there is a similar eloquence to your own writing from individuals trying to convey the role gaming can play in helping millions, if not billions of people around the world to try and better understand life.
At your best, your writing was as much about the individual and collective experience of going to the cinema as it was about the merits or failings of a film.
As with the films you loved and detested, culture and art are extremely subjective, often providing insight and enlightenment in entirely personal ways from something that may seem simple or base.
When it comes down it, anything can probably be considered art.
Should a person have the right disposition, smatterings on a pavement, the collective contents of garbage in a kitchen or bedroom, even the interactive arrangement of pixels on a screen can appear to be art or inspire, if someone is so inclined to view it that way.
To put it simply, art – to this writer at least – is a term for something designed to elicit a reaction, whether in the way intended by its author or not.
Just look at us as a species. We love to be told and discover things about ourselves – if this can be done in bed, possibly through listening to an album or consuming a 13 hour miniseries, even better.
With the billions if not trillions of very real world currency spent on videogames the world over, many more people are inclined to view games as art now there is something tangible to profit from or invest in.
Many have sought to argue the artistry of games through the merits of others forms of media. they have pointed to the graphical flourishes of something like Journey, where game design has evolved to capture a kind of hyper photo realism of both our own world and countless alien lands.
But these arguments often seem to lack the key fundamentals of what all games, and perhaps art as broader a term, is about – namely recreating the human experience and how we react to both the everyday and otherworldly, even in the form of a cartoon plumber.
Graphics and meandering story choices, as well as the more standard shoot-to-kill and save the princess plotlines that litter all forms of popular culture – are just fragments of this process.
The real story behind a game is the utterly individual interaction with it. Each playthrough is a narrative about how the player themselves either fails or succeeds in overcoming specific challenges. It is about trying to have some influence on the artificial world and characters around them. More importantly game design and narrative – potentially even more so with virtual reality – can also influence the real world and people are around us.
Of course, some games are more artistic than others, but even that statement has its difficulties with regard to why someone may love or hate a title.
We are asked not just to emphasize with characters, but to become that character and play out the role in our own terms, with our fears, cowardice, bravery, humour, caution and general sense of aggrievement all in tact and forming part of our choices. This is the case whether playing alone or interacting with others online.
Gaming has evolved, much as films and novels, to not just become more cinematic, but also engaging in terms of scale and scope, trying to create worlds with direct, and unpredictable consequences that the player is charged with influencing.
With the predicted advances in technology relating to storage, processing power and creative abilities that underpin videogame world building, this process will surely only get more sophisticated.
How games accurately recreate, fear, madness, family, friendship and in the case of Yoshi’s Island – even intoxication – and test our responses accordingly, is a key part of their appeal and ongoing innovation for developers.
Like all art, the medium is increasingly trying to understand its limitations, ultimately by subverting them, with the ultimate aim being to recreate and perfect the very experience of life itself.
Even if games never reach this milestone, the medium is at its best when trying to recreate or convey not entire worlds, but the very human experiences of love, life, death and sacrifice, by show us how we might react in those scenarios.
Ultimately, it may just lead us to berate and demean each other in a shitshow of obscene put downs and bullying that comes with online interactions. But this is not always what gaming is.
It is both thrilling and terrifying, to think that games may one day replace, or entirely subvert, life around us. But shock and awe of art and innovative media is nothing new, not least allegedly, for the early cinema goers that watched in wonderment, and perhaps fear, at the first recorded images of a train moving towards them.
But like music, politics and society around us, games will come to represent both the best and worst of us as a species. Here’s hoping we get what is ultimately deserved.
Games at their best are not necessarily about conquering and destroying, although that that can be a satisfying part of their appeal. They can create empathy between human beings that will never meet, yet will nonetheless share experiences that will amaze, infuriate, entertain and define them in wholly unexpected ways.
That can’t be a bad thing.
Yours with respect and eternal admiration,
Roger Ebert (1942-2013) was a Pulitzer prize winning film critic and writer. He loved and lived film.
He was not a gamer.