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11:29 AM on 08.03.2007

Interactive art

Roger Ebert says games can't be high art, but he has a very specific reason for thinking this: games are interactive, therefore the player can alter the experience. As Ebert puts it, there's no auteurship. It's a response to the games-as-art debate that is more considered than most, which discount the medium entirely because Space Invaders is juvenile and also ate all my quarters that time, stupid game.

Basically, his argument goes that art is created by an artist, and if the player can change the experience then the player assumes some agency and the piece belongs to the artist a little less. I could understand an artist, with a clear idea of what her art means and resistant to any attempt to alter that message, might feel that way. Why a film critic, whose profession is built entirely from the expression of his experiences of art, should take this position boggles my mind. Maybe it's because Ebert hasn't had a worthy counterpoint to his views in a number of years; maybe he's forgotten that the experience of art is always interactive.

I recently saw a film called the Fountain, which I found to be deeply moving. My wife thought it was just ok; others I've talked to found it pretentious and cold. I'll go out on a limb here and say that director Darren Aronofsky (who did not author this movie single-handedly, it's worth pointing out) probably had my reaction in mind when he made the film. How, then, do we account for the variety? Every viewer brings something different to the experience. Different philosophies, different moralities, different memories, all of which form the lens through which they see the world. It's practically a quantum effect -- just by viewing the movie, you change it. You cannot have the same experience as the person sitting next to you in the theatre, because you are different people who will interpret the movie in different ways. You can't even have the same experience watching the same movie twice: you aren't the same person the second time.

All art is interpretive, both in literal ("Was the Fountain a sci-fi film about the flashbacks of a future astronaut, or a contemporary meditation on letting go illustrated by past and future parables?") and thematic terms. The artist can only do so much to create an experience; the recipient must finish the artist's work. Art is created by an artist, yes, but the experience of art is the interplay of minds between artist and viewer. That was why Ebert's two-critic format has worked so well over the years; because the experience is never objective, one man's opinion can never be authoritative.

The video game industry likes to claim that it is the first interactive art form, and it just isn't true. Consider sculpture for a moment: does the artist seek to control the angle from which the viewer experiences the work? Another angle might yield quite a different experience. This isn't simply a difference of interpretation; two viewers are literally seeing different things. Does the artist control the lighting, the setting, the climate control? Can the artist prevent you from viewing the sculpture standing on your head? And more importantly, should she want to?

Auteurship shouldn't be about control. If a novelist became obsessed with controlling a reader's experience, he would have to describe everything in the book in such exacting detail that nothing was left to the imagination. Even then, what would stop the reader from flipping forward and reading the end of the book first? That aforementioned sculptor would have to set up ideal viewing conditions for her work and then snap a picture, but would that have any effect on the viewing conditions of the photo? A film can be fast-forwarded, rewound, paused, and stopped in the middle. No auteur truly controls the recipient's experience; where a piece of art is non-interactive (insofar as anything can be, taking interpretation into account), it is non-interactive to precisely the degree that the recipient is willing to tolerate. Then stop, rewind, back to the video store.

Video games, by their inherent interactivity, do lend more agency to the player in crafting their experience than most art. But this is one of the medium's greatest strengths, not a reason to bar it from the club. That interactivity, whether sweeping or superficial, allows us to internalize and immerse ourselves in an experience in ways we simply can't otherwise. Ebert says that high art should make us "more or less complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical". I don't claim that video games CAN do this. I believe that they have already.

Planescape: Torment is a very complex game, and although no short summary can do it justice, it is about (my interpretation) death and the nature of the self. I am a more thoughtful person for having played this game, and make no mistake: my agency in guiding the story had everything to do with my experience. This game asks of the player, "What can change the nature of a man?" But perhaps more importantly, it asks for an answer. I know more about myself now than I did when I started for answering that question. How rare is the film that truly changes the understanding of oneself?

Art is subjective. I, for instance, don't get a lot out of sculpture. It doesn't speak to me, but I don't have the arrogance to claim that that disqualifies it as art. Many have already pointed out that Ebert seems to be forgetting how similar perception of film was early in the 20th century to that of video games today. Ultimately that doesn't matter, because Ebert doesn't matter. He's a film critic, and his opinion of video games counts for about as much as his taste in poetry or impressionist painting. Art doesn't need a majority vote to be valid.

The next art form to emerge is likely to freak us all the hell out, so I don't blame Ebert for being a little befuddled. Perhaps in the future he'll leave defining art to someone who knows what he's talking about.   read

8:27 PM on 08.02.2007

Why I hate Fallout fans

Fallout fans are some of the most repellent people you can find on the internet. That's right, the INTERNET. I say this as a self-described Fallout fan. Most of "the Faithful" wouldn't count me as such, though, so I'll first detail the sins which bar me from that exclusive group.

I didn't play Fallout in 1997. I didn't play it until 2002. I also didn't like it the first time I set eyes on it. I found the interface to be clunky and the combat frustrating. And worst of all: I liked Morrowind and Oblivion. Those of you who have already disqualified my opinion, you're the ones I'm talking about.

It took a few attempts for me to come around on Fallout. (In fact, the same is true of Morrowind.) It's one of those games that's become so famous that even people who never played it have to hear about it all the time. I figured something must be there, so I kept coming back to it. It's often hard to fairly judge an old game unless you played it when it was fresh; the dated graphics and gameplay conventions tend to hamper a game's attempts to draw a player in. Fallout managed to overcome those challenges and really draw me in, slowly dismantling my earlier objections until they became either untrue or irrelevant. By turns I came to actually like the combat (my satisfaction inversely proportionate to the percentage of attacks that missed), and though the interface never felt natural, my immersion into the setting and plot served to distract me from its shortcomings. And what I experienced in the Core Region was quite unlike anything I'd played before. A whole article could be devoted to what makes Fallout great, but not what I'm here to write about.

Many years later, Bethesda Softworks has purchased the rights to make a new Fallout game. As soon as it was announced, the "fans" went apeshit. Bethesda was going to ruin the franchise. Bethesda couldn't RPG its way out of a paper sack. Bethesda was just going to make Morrowind with Guns. (Yes, that is what the phrase started out as. The same shit has been repeated for that long.) All that anyone knew was that after nearly a decade, Fallout 3 was finally coming, and it was coming from the Oblivion guys.

This was good news to me. I like Bethesda's games. Not everyone does, so I understand some trepidation. But the alternatives I hear bandied about are absurd. Troika doesn't exist anymore, and that writing had been on the wall for quite some time. Obsidian, though staffed with many talented people, can't seem to bring its abilities to make a game that doesn't fail outright on a technical or artistic level, if not both. (They also can't seem to get out from BioWare's shadow.) And BioWare's done the Big Name IP thing before with Kotor -- fun, no doubt, but not nearly as profitable for them as it should have been considering that it was the best thing ever to come out of that mythos. Phosphors flared on monitors as fevered minds imagined what a great game Fallout 3 might be if only reality wasn't what it was. Instead the Faithful were stuck with the Oblivion Guys.

I'm with you, dear Fallout fans, up to a point. I can understand being worried about this change of developer, particularly since so many seem to have such contempt for the new developer's previous games. I'd say it definitely warrants a wait-and-see stance. Even with live demos of the game being shown, at this point we still know very little. Perhaps enough, for some, to decide that this game is not being made for them. Fine. Fair. At this point, the rational thing to do is say, "This game will not be Fallout, as I know Fallout, and therefore I wash my hands of it. I will not support this game financially, nor contribute to its public awareness by creating further buzz."

The internet is not a place where rationality reigns, I recognize.

The thing to keep in mind is that Fallout was such an unusual game that the ways in which it is quite unlike its fellow RPGs outnumber the similarities. As a result, although fans of Fallout love it passionately, they love it for reasons which are myriad. This fellow here enjoys the tactical, methodical combat and the freedom to go where he chooses, whereas this one thrills to the rich milieu and sharp writing. Others may love the broad roleplaying options, the subtle morality expression, the SPECIAL system, or just the music. These are all valid reasons to love the game, because all were brilliant in their own (often interconnected) ways. But the result is that the only way to make a game sure to please all the fans is to re-release Fallout: 10th Anniversary Edition with a Vault-Boy keychain and a cloth map.

It's not possible to make a sequel without changing things. Take Fallout 2 as a case in point: the very same engine, music, and art assets were used, and still many fans found it too different for their liking. Bethesda has the task of translating Fallout to modern PCs and consoles ten years later, and some things are going to give.

For the record, I am not one of those who claim that turn-based combat and an isometric perspective are irrelevant in this gaming age. I have no deeply-entrenched love of either, but neither do I discount them as antiquated. That said, they are simply not commercially viable. I read arguments holding up obscure Japanese RPGs which retain these conventions as proof that they persist into modern times, and I cannot help but shake my head. Yes, but how many copies did that game sell? The Faithful seem to be under the impression that by the power of their passion and vigor for this franchise, they can hold aloft any developer who grant their deepest RPG desires. The simple fact of the matter is that a developer like Bethesda is not structured to make niche titles. Ah, so I admit, Bethesda is the wrong developer! No; a small indie house couldn't have fronted the obscene amounts of cash Beth paid for this franchise, and it would still be in the clutches of that dry old harpy, Interplay.

In short (too late!), changes will need to be made to include a larger demographic than "crazy fuckers ranting on messageboards about Fallout". Maybe you agree with the changes being made, maybe you don't. But kindly disabuse yourself of the fantasy that whining will somehow change the world. This game is being made, and I for one am cautiously optimistic. If you have decided that it will be an abomination not worthy of the name Fallout, that is your right. Furthermore, it is your responsibility as a consumer not to purchase the end product unless your mind is changed between now and release.

Your dollar is the only vote that counts, so kindly shut your fucking mouth. Thank you.   read

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