July 22, 2007
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Game Debate

Roger Ebert constructs an interesting debate (technically a Fisking, but constructed as dialog) with Clive Barker on whether games can aspire to art.

Ebert is deeply skeptical of any art form in which the narrative is malleable.

Barker: "I think that Roger Ebert's problem is that he thinks you can't have art if there is that amount of malleability in the narrative. In other words, Shakespeare could not have written 'Romeo and Juliet' as a game because it could have had a happy ending, you know? If only she hadn't taken the damn poison. If only he'd have gotten there quicker."

Ebert: He is right again about me. I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist. Would "Romeo and Juliet" have been better with a different ending? Rewritten versions of the play were actually produced with happy endings. "King Lear" was also subjected to rewrites; it's such a downer. At this point, taste comes into play. Which version of "Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare's or Barker's, is superior, deeper, more moving, more "artistic"?

This is walking right up to the argument I call My Friend, Hamlet: if we let allow a sane, sensible reader a modicum of free will and agency in the tragic universe, everything collapses. Everyone knows what Romeo and Juliet need: someone needs to have an urgent, frank talk with their mothers. Everyone knows what Hamlet needs: he needs to get drunk, he needs to get laid, and he needs to go back to school. He's supposed to be in school, time is on his side, and it will all work out splendidly in a few years. Everyone knows this: no one can say it.

A cautionary note appears, however, when Ebert starts talking about alternative Shakespeare and different endings. It can be done, and it's not necessarily tasteless: Jakob Gordin's Konig Lir is an ornament of the early Yiddish theater and a play of immense influence, and it seems to me that for Arthur Miller and David Mamet and Tony Kushner, you're looking back more to Gordin than to Shakespeare.

There's plenty of range available for wonderful art in which some aspects of narrative and presentation are malleable. Malleability, after all, is what performance offers us. But the particular range of malleability that games offer us seems strangely limited.

A very interesting work in this vein which I haven't yet had time to see properly is the new hypervideo, HBO Voyeur.