Just as each generation of free-thinking scientists, artists, authors, and philosophers must pass the baton of innovation to the next generation, so too must they receive the baton of crotchetiness from geezers past.  One would think that, in the information age, such cliches would be actively avoided.

Last month Roger Ebert reaffirmed his arguments that games are not art.  Many other sites have already torn into him, with some vivisecting his arguments independently and others crushing them on simpler terms.  Not much can be added here; his arguments are built on ill-formed – or nonexistent – definitions and red herrings.

I only wish to comment on one point that he made in a previous rebuttal to Clive Barker’s defense of games as art.

Barker: “We should be stretching the imaginations of our players and ourselves. Let’s invent a world where the player gets to go through every emotional journey available. That is art. Offering that to people is art.”

Ebert: If you can go through “every emotional journey available,” doesn’t that devalue each and every one of them? Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices.

This “storyline inflation” (or is it “creative marginal utility?”) that Ebert describes is inconsistent with his own film reviews.  How can one seriously argue that a story is devalued with each variation after giving 3-star reviews for both Groundhog Day and Run Lola Run, and a 4-star review for The Last Temptation of Christ?

Ebert, on Groundhog DayIn another sense, tomorrow will never come. Groundhog Day will repeat itself over and over and over again, apparently until the end of time, and Phil will be permanently condemned to cover it. He’s trapped in some kind of time warp.

As Phil figures out the rules of his dilemma, we do, too.

His world is inhabited by the same people every day, but they don’t know that Groundhog Day is repeating itself. He is the only one who can remember what happened yesterday. That gives him a certain advantage: He can, for example, find out what a woman is looking for in a man, and then the “next” day he can behave in exactly the right way to impress her.

This sounds like nearly every game I have ever played.  The other characters are unaware that the story is being repeated; only you experience the growth from variation to variation.  With each new attempt, the lesson is learned, but the consequences are wiped away.

Ebert, on Run Lola Run: And the story of Lola’s 20-minute run is told three times, each time with small differences that affect the outcome and the fate of the characters.Film is ideal for showing alternate and parallel time lines. It’s literal; we see Lola running, and so we accept her reality, even though the streets she runs through and the people she meets are altered in each story. The message is that the smallest events can have enormous consequences. A butterfly flaps its wings in Malaysia, causing a hurricane in Trinidad. You know the drill.

Yes, we know the drill.  Mr. Ebert argues very well that multiple variations on a story is acceptable.  The question is where the line must be drawn; does the story cease to be art when a controller is placed into the viewers hand?

Ebert, on The Last Temptation of Christ: And in the hallucination itself, in the film’s most absorbing scene, an elderly Jesus is reproached by his aging Apostles for having abandoned his mission. Through this imaginary conversation, Jesus finds the strength to shake off his temptation and return to consciousness to accept his suffering, death and resurrection.

Ebert clearly argues in this review that the alternate story presented in The Last Temptation of Christ makes the regular story stronger. That is, knowing the alternative adds value to the original.

To be fair about this, Ebert did give a two star review to the 1998 film Sliding Doors, a story with two parallel time lines.  He explains why.

Ebert, on Sliding DoorsI submit that there is a simple test to determine whether this plot can work: Is either time-line interesting in itself? If not, then no amount of shifting back and forth between them can help. And I fear they are not.

I agree with the Roger Ebert that wrote this in 1998; I only wish that Roger Ebert in 2010 could do the same.