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Halo 3 and its place in the art debate: A New York Times counterpoint

5:53 PM on 09.28.2007 // Jim Sterling

I've just finished reading a very interesting article by New York Times writer Daniel Radosh, in which he discusses Halo 3, its artistic merits and its impact on the 'games as art' debate as a whole. While these types of articles are normally written by self-interested, unresearched individuals like Roger Ebert, I find myself in the rare position of being unable to find true fault with this well written piece.

I might not totally agree with him, but Daniel Radosh has done something that very few can do -- use experience and education to sensibly and legitimately debate the argument that videogames are not truly art. The mark of a good article is one you can disagree with but still respect. I certainly respect this one.

First of all, this is a man that actually has a degree of knowledge on the subject of games. The article is written after a three-day Halo 3 binge. He also doesn't try and belittle games just to make another medium seem superior as others have done in the past. Most of all, his arguments are actually tainted by reasonable statements and attacks of logic -- something that astounded me. 

Please read the article as it really is impressive even if you don't agree with it. When you're done, hit the jump as I intend to point/counterpoint Mr. Radosh's article. For once I have an argument worth debating.

[Thanks to Mono for pointing out the article]

Thirty-five years after Pong, fans and critics still debate whether video games can legitimately be called art. Certainly, whatever artistic potential that games have, few, if any, have fulfilled it. Halo 3 hasn’t changed that.

At this point I was prepared to laugh the article off as just another uneducated viewpoint. I admit, it is true that when compared to the sheer volume of games out there, few can be considered the kind of highbrow storytelling you'd find in a novel. This is, however, very true of movies as well. For every Seventh Seal, there are a hundred Die Hard knock-offs. We still say that movies are an artistic form of entertainment, however.

Truth is, volume of what one could possibly call 'high art' within a medium does not qualify that medium to be considered artistic as a whole. Of course, I am also of the opinion that art is a very personal and subjective thing, which would invalidate the entire article from the beginning. However, I am willing to discuss art as the generally accepted ideal -- something we can emotionally engage with -- for the purposes of debate. 

Games boast ever richer and more realistic graphics, but this has actually inhibited their artistic growth. The ability to convincingly render any scene or environment has seduced game designers into thinking of visual features as the essence of the gaming experience.

This is true of many games. Hell, the search for more photorealistic graphics can even impede graphics themselves. While everyone strives for more grey, muted, 'realistic' visuals, we lose out on some truly beautiful, but far from believable looking titles like Ratchet & Clank. Now, the PS3's upcoming Ratchet & Clank Futures is truly beautiful, but nothing like the dreary 'realism' that many games go for these days. So not only does gameplay take a backseat to visuals, so do many examples of true visual beauty in gaming. 

With that in mind, I do find myself agreeing here.

Many games now aspire to be “cinematic” above all else. In Halo 3, as in most games, the plot is conveyed largely through short expositional movies that are interspersed throughout the action. These cut scenes undermine the sense of involvement — of play — that is games’ authentic métier. Games have become a backward-looking medium. Because game designers rely on the language of cinema, they have not sufficiently developed a new form of storytelling based on the language of video games.

Again, Daniel makes a good point and there are those within the gaming community that agree with the theory that cutscenes are a blight in gaming. Whether you subscribe to that or not, there are still many games that do not rely on cinematics -- Half Life and BioShock are two such examples.

I do, however, disagree that in-game cutscenes and a desire to be cinematic are detrimental to a game. What I love about videogames are their ability to merge many forms of media into one -- books, visual art, movies, music, all combine and add interactivity to provide a truly unique and varied experience. As artistic entertainment has evolved, it's always been about adding more while remembering where it evolved from. I think videogames do that too.

Yes, videogames often borrow from movies, but then movies borrow from books and plays. Does a movie not start out as a script, as a screenplay? A book of sorts? As we evolve, so too does our art, but the foundations remain the same. 

But as much as everyone enjoys summer blockbusters, “Transformers” is not what we have in mind when we talk about the art of cinema. Film achieves its artistic potential by offering experiences that are emotionally and aesthetically profound — stories that resonate deep inside us, reveal truths about humanity, and alter our perception of the world. It’s hard to think of a single video game that can match the artistic accomplishments of the most mediocre Oscar bait.

I can think of several. In fact, I can think of several that not only match, but beat many of the movies I've seen. I can wax lyrical about the Metal Gear Solid series, how it made me feel about world events, how it shocked and thrilled me. I can talk about the ending of Metal Gear Solid III and how it makes me teary-eyed as Eva says "She was a true patriot" (I even got chills just as I typed that). I may never shut up about Silent Hill 2, how I found it to be the most bleak and haunting game I've ever played, how its twist horrified me and how the 'bad ending' I got made me feel so depressed, yet completely absorbed. 

Don't get me started on the triumph that was Killer 7 -- a game to rival your most pretentious indie film -- or a myriad RPGs that take you on a journey and truly make you feel like you've had an epic adventure.

What's more, because these are videogames, they let you do more than just watch. Yes, there are passive moments, cutscenes and the like, but because you earned the right to these moments, they become yours in a way that movies cannot. Yes, we might see a villain in a movie and be glad when he finally eats a bullet, but can movies let YOU put that bullet in him? Can movies make you hate that villain because he was so hard to personally put down? Can you be satisfied in his demise because YOU worked hard and caused it? Nope. Videogames can truly stand up to any film. Not to take anything away from the art of film, but videogames can do things that movies cannot, and several of them do so with pride.  

A handful of popular games, like the recently released BioShock, flirt with moral ambiguity or pose questions about the nature of identity. But their ambition has always exceeded the result. The games that come closest to achieving artistry tend to be non-narrative: manipulable abstractions of light and sound, whimsical virtual toys or puzzle adventures that subvert the gamer’s sense of space, time and physics.

Games fail to achieve their ends not always, and this leads me to believe that the writer needs to play more games. Yes, BioShock did fall slightly short of its higher concepts, its story more shallow than first appearances would suggest. This does not mean it failed to become what one might call 'art' however, or that it did not affect one's emotions. I found the game most compelling, despite where it might have missed the mark.  

What's more, the idea that a narrative is integral to artistic classification bemuses me. There are those that take artistic satisfaction from a preserved sheep cut in half and held in glass. There is no story to it, no reason, it just is, and some people find it highly rewarding. We call these pieces art, do we not? To call a preserved sheep art while ignoring a non-narrative game that looks really pretty is not truly fair. Even conforming to prehistoric artistic logic as I am doing, this argument does not hold water.

If games are to become more than mere entertainment, they will need to use the fundamentals of gameplay — giving players challenges to work through and choices to make — in entirely new ways. The formula followed by virtually all games is a steady progression toward victory: you accomplish tasks until you win. Halo 3, for all its flawless polish, does not aspire to anything more. It does not succeed as a work of art because it does not even try.

Aside from the fact that many games these days take different approaches, whether it's the never-ending feel to games like Warcraft or Oblivion or puzzle games that have no ultimate goal, how is the videogame setup different from anything else? Are nearly all paintings not something you merely stand and look at? Are nearly all books not something you just read until all the pages are finished?  

Is it right to use Halo 3 as the basis for judgment on its medium? We could easily use Rambo as the basis upon which to judge movies as well. Moreso, maybe Halo does not aspire to be anything more than entertainment, but what is any art if NOT entertainment? Halo 3, like any action movie, could even be called art in a pure form -- free of pretention, of so-called higher meaning -- just entertainment, which might very well be all art before we arrogantly attach these personal, deeper contexts. 

Halo does not try to be art -- but maybe it doesn't have to. 

Like cinema, games will need to embrace the dynamics of failure, tragedy, comedy and romance. They will need to stop pandering to the player’s desire for mastery in favor of enhancing the player’s emotional and intellectual life.

Again, this writer needs to play more games.

Since I've taken up much of your time already, I will just close with one important point that Daniel makes -- videogames are still in their infancy. That Daniel understands and respects that is something I respect of him as a writer. Unlike Ebert, who wishes to compare videogames to mediums that have centuries of history and the time to evolve, Rashod's open mind and acceptance that, in his mind, videogames at least have potential is what sets his article apart.

Maybe we gamers don't have a War & Peace to call our own yet, but it's early days. I still say that every game I have played is art, because I say it is and nobody can claim that something is not art if someone else sees it as such, but I also accept that this industry has a lot of growing up to do. When society lets videogames evolve, and when videogame developers themselves exercise such powers of evolution maturely, then this debate will end.

For the answer will be clear as day. 


Jim Sterling, Former Reviews Editor
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