The Art of the Virtual

Are video games starting to--gasp!--mean something?

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Steven Spielberg spoke out on video games last month at the EA Game Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California. "I think the real indicator," he said, "will be when somebody confesses that they cried at Level 17." Spielberg was talking about video games and art, and the increasingly less absurd question of are-they-or-aren't-they. The mere fact that U.S.C. has a Game Innovation Lab is probably an indicator that something is afoot, but I'm here to accept Spielberg's challenge and come clean. A video game made me cry.

The game is called Halo, and it wasn't actually Level 17; it was Level 5. I had been slugging it out for what seemed like--and probably was--hours with a bunch of aliens in an icy canyon. Just as all hope was fading, I seized an alien aircraft and made my escape. I sailed up into the darkening sky with light snow sifting down around me. Moody music, like something from Carmina Burana, swelled in the background. The sounds of battle faded beneath me in the dusk. It was like the end of Platoon, and I was Charlie Sheen. Then the waterworks started.

Listen: I am a grownup, no-dorkier-than-average person. I don't consider myself susceptible to hysterics (my eyes remained miraculously dry throughout The Terminal, Mr. Spielberg). So what happened on Level 5?

Right now video games are the world's largest cult phenomenon. Those who play them (fully half of all Americans ages 6 and up) love them, and those who don't play them regard them with virulent distaste. It's time that changed. Those of you in the latter group, if you have any curiosity about the future of your own culture, and if you haven't already put down this magazine in favor of Flaubert or croquet or whatever, take a look at three new video games that expand our notions of what a video game can do.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (for PlayStation2) sounds like a game that glorifies delinquency, juvenile and otherwise. And it does. But it's also an extraordinary experiment in interactive storytelling. You play a playa,a Snoop-style gangbanger wandering through a vast, absurdly detailed virtual version of California. There's no hard-and-fast narrative. You go where you wish and do what you like, and the game makes things interesting accordingly. This is something that's possible in no other medium. San Andreas combines the richness of art with the freedom of real life to create something entirely new, totally unclassifiable and really, really cool.

I've already confessed my unmanly affection for Halo, which may be the single most perfect video game ever made. Halo 2 (for Xbox) hits stores Nov. 9, and it offers more of the same adrenalized, flawlessly orchestrated, hyper-realistic combat (the new game lets you rock two weapons simultaneously, John Woo--style, which is not actually that useful but hella fun), but its real genius lies in its architecture. It's staged like Wagnerian opera: you fight through vast, Olympian structures, combating mind-hurtingly titanic forces, and the effect is precisely that mixture of awe and terror and wonder that the philosopher Edmund Burke called the sublime.

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