Do We Need a “Roger Ebert” of Video Games?

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When Roger Ebert died a few weeks back, one particular tweet stood out among all the condolences in my Twitter feed. I think it was Bitmob’s Dan “Shoe” Hsu who said it, but I can’t remember for sure; at any rate, the tweet lamented the fact that the world of gaming criticism lacks its own Roger Ebert, and it suggested that perhaps this is truly why video games are still not considered “art.” I’ve been wrestling with this argument for a while, and I still can’t definitively say whether I agree with it or not. But hey, I can still talk a bit about what points I’ve been considering.

I’ve always liked to imagine that great art is great art; it can stand on its own, regardless of criticism, and remain “art.” The ideal piece of art would be immune to subjective deconstruction; everyone in their right mind would be able to look at the thing and recognize it as a work of art. Citizen Kane and the Mona Lisa, for example. Of course, the reality is that remaining purely objective is impossible for any human being, and in the end, we’re still the ones bestowing the titles of “art” upon thing we’ve deemed worthy, according to our own rules and biases. It was around this time I was forced to acknowledge that, unfortunately, “art” is far more subjective than I would have ideally admitted, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.

I began to lend a bit more credence to Shoe’s (?) argument. Say that, as gamers, we’re suddenly vastly interested in whether our industry is taken seriously as an art form. Will we have to ultimately depend on another human being to tell us that this is so? Do we need our own Roger Ebert mega-critic to act as the arbiter of all that is Artful in games? It’s entirely possible this will be the case. Like it or not, something can only achieve “art” status if enough people deem it so, and equal weight is not given to everyone’s opinion. People respected Ebert more than most critics because he was smart, prolific, fastidious in his research, and all above all, he was incredibly persuasive and convincing. I’m not a movie guy by any stretch, but I do have a strong opinion of every movie I’ve seen; I sometimes read reviews (including Ebert’s) to see whether the opinions of the connoisseurs jive with my own. Even if Ebert disagreed with me, I rarely became angry while reading his reviews; if anything, they sometimes forced me to rethink my position entirely. No one likes to admit that their opinions are so malleable, but I respect anyone who can convince me that I could, in fact, be very wrong. For me, it has more to do with the words on the page than the name behind them, but I recognize that for many people, the two are inextricably linked and together can exert a profound influence on people’s supposedly “independent” opinions.

The thing that kills me about the video game world is that there are legions of reviewers but no true critics. I’ve seen very few writers demonstrate the ability to critique a game in the measured, intelligent, and thoughtful way Ebert so often did. Tom Bissell has probably come the closest out of anyone I’ve read, which is a shame, because he’s not even a full-time games writer. I think about the handful of games journalists whose writing I consistently enjoy– Brian Crecente (Polygon), Ben Kuchera (Penny Arcade Report), Owen Good (Kotaku), and John Walker (Rock Paper Shotgun)– and I’m still forced to recognize that not one of them could ever do for the game world what Ebert did for film. That role will have to fall to a better writer and thinker than these four blokes, as decent as they may be.

Aside from possessing a sharp wit and an immense amount of comparative games knowledge, the “Roger Ebert of Games” will also have to be as visible as his namesake. I’m sure there’s some brilliant writer slaving away in the bowels of WordPress and writing incredibly nuanced critiques of Bioshock for ten pageviews a day, but if no one reads his work, does it have the same impact? In this context, of course not. Everyone knew who Ebert was, and most people generally respected his opinion. When he decided to declare that such-and-such-thing is/isn’t art, the world took note. The “Roger Ebert of Video Games” will have to achieve a certain level of fame (hopefully through viral recommendation fed by immense respect) so that his or her pronouncements on “art” can achieve a degree of penetration in mainstream culture. In this day and age, I find it unlikely that any critic of any medium will ever reach the levels of fame Ebert attained, but even a moderate amount of celebrity would probably do. As it stands, do you think any content curators at the New York Times have heard of Leigh Alexander or Jeff Gerstmann? And yet these people are famous in our industry.

I suppose I still haven’t answered the main question here: “Do video games need their own Ebert?” “Can’t we just enjoy great games without having to worry about whether haughty critics consider them art?” Sure we can, but I’d like to see them receive more mainstream recognition as well as some serious critical attention. Perhaps I’m blinded by my love of the medium and the industry that supports it, but I think games are certainly worthy of serious criticism, and I want to make sure the rest of the world knows it, too. Personally, I do wish there was an “Ebert of Video Games,” if only because it would mean that the average person would finally pay some goddamn attention to us (by us, I mean the games bloggers/aspiring games journalists I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with for the past few months). And I’d get to read great, thoughtful articles from said Games-Ebert, too, which I guess is really my ultimate goal: to get smart people to write about video games for my own benefit.

The “Always Online” Debacle

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If you’re a dedicated gamer and you have a Twitter account, chances are you’ve heard about the Adam Orth controversy. For those of you just joining us now, Kotaku posted an inflammatory article about Microsoft’s plans to have their next Xbox require a constant Internet connection in order to play games (yes, even single-player ones). Given the article’s total lack of credible (or even named) sources, it seemed like the usual Gawker clickbait, but then Orth, a creative director at Microsoft, weighed in on the controversy with some inflammatory commentary of his own. He claimed he wished every device was “always on,” then told people complaining of unreliable Internet connections to “deal with it” while offering two of the most puzzling analogies I’ve ever heard. If my cell phone has a spotty connection, I don’t not buy a cell phone; I switch providers so I get the service I want. Are you picking up on that analogy, Orth?

I was actually browsing Orth’s tweets the minute his account was locked; one minute, I’m seeing misguided aggression toward a consumer base, and the next, a corporate muzzling. Sure, you’ve got guys like Cliff Bleszinski (who has a natural talent for missing the point of every major video game controversy) suggesting that Orth was a pussy for protecting his profile, but I think there’s very little doubt that one of Orth’s bosses at Microsoft told Orth, in no uncertain terms, to shut the hell up. Bleszinski has also been defending Orth by asking detractors, “Have you never said anything stupid on Twitter?” Well, sure I have, but I’m not a creative director at Microsoft spewing aggressive rhetoric regarding potential company secrets in a highly public forum. Context is everything, Cliffy B.

The last two blow-ups over always-online DRM were the Diablo III and SimCity incidents. I have to admit that at the time, I found the public outcry more amusing than anything else; neither game was really on my radar at launch, and to this day, I still don’t own either of them. I felt kind of bad for the fans who had bought these games out of loyalty or interest and were punished at launch because of an uncompromising authentication requirement and a melted server, but the sheer ridiculousness of the situation still tickled me. But even as I thought that the lengths to which a company would go to protect their sales were kind of hilarious, I could still recognize that, some day, this kind of draconian DRM could infect a game I’m actually interested in, especially given that all that hate over the DRM did little to slow sales. Imagine my surprise when it was suggested that Microsoft was planning to do this to an entire console that I was interested in.

Like pretty much everyone on the planet, I am vigorously opposed to an always-online console. I live in Canada, where our Internet is apparently both expensive and slow compared to the rest of the world. The way my living arrangements are set up, my bedroom (where my 360 is currently located) does not get Wi-Fi, and there is no ethernet port within range of the Xbox. Because of this, I’m pretty much forced to stay offline (no great sacrifice, since I don’t have Live Gold and I’m not a big fan of online multiplayer games). However, if I want to download some DLC, I have to physically move my Xbox and my bulky TV (always a two-person operation) into the basement so I can get a wireless connection. Keeping my setup in the basement for extended periods of time is not an option, so I have to move everything back upstairs if I actually want to play said DLC.

Before you ask, yes, my computer is continuously connected. But it’s in my den, where there is still no Wi-Fi, and my only Internet option is a single ethernet port. So the “you’re always online with your computer, so you can be always online with your console” argument is neither applicable nor feasible. And even though I’m supposed to have a “constant” Internet connection, it drops out periodically, even via ethernet. Have you ever seen me sign in and out on Steam a bunch of times in a row? Really annoying, right? That’s my Internet cutting out. And if you want a really good picture of how terrible Canadian Internet is, I’ve been getting 70 kbps download speeds lately via ethernet on the fastest available network. We’ve had countless service technicians come and go, all of them puzzled at how none of their quick fixes ever seem to patch our Internet. So I’ve done my part to fix my terrible Internet, but ultimately, I’m at the mercy of the service providers. An environment like this is not conducive to having an always-online console. Adam Orth’s suggestion of “move to the city” doesn’t fly, since I live in the damn city.

If my Internet cuts out (which it surely will from time to time), I’m suddenly unable to play my Durango games, even the single-player ones. If I lose the Internet and want to play a single-player game on Steam, I simply start it in offline mode and it works like a charm (those who put forth the incorrect notion that even Steam has always-on DRM seem to conveniently forget this little fact). But what happens when my Internet is fine and dandy, and it’s the Xbox Live servers that go down? Come on, it’s not like this has never happened before. If the authentication servers crash, no one will be able to play any of their Durango games. That would be a public relations disaster of the highest caliber. And the best Internet connection in the world couldn’t save you from this travesty, since the issue is on Microsoft’s end.

As someone rightly pointed out on Twitter, we should be asking why Microsoft wants us to be continuously connected to the Internet. They can hide behind fluffy smoke and mirrors like cloud computing (???), helpful push notifications, and silent, automatic updates, but I don’t think there’s a person alive that doesn’t believe this is really about DRM and putting the kibosh on the hordes of modded, pirate-commandeered consoles out there. If your console is not online and connected to Microsoft’s official servers, your game will not be authenticated, and you will be unable to play it. Gamers were already vehemently opposed to DRM even before 2012, but Diablo III and SimCity have whipped them into a frenzy. I’m not at all shocked that Twitter blew up the way it did in the wake of the Kotaku article; a decision like this, if it turns out to be true, could easily be a console-killer. I think it’s even worse than the Diablo and SimCity situations because it affects every single game released on the console, not just a select few titles (read: Ubisoft games in previous years) that can be safely ignored if you don’t want to deal with the DRM. If you want to buy any game for Durango, you will have to deal with its always-online DRM every single time. Historically, many games released on Microsoft’s consoles have also been ported to Sony’s; I can imagine tons of people picking up the PS4 version instead of the Durango version simply because it means no wacky DRM.

I’m not a boycott kind of guy, mainly because I know that I’ll eventually cave and buy something if I want it enough, despite the fact that some things about it might piss me off. However, if Microsoft goes through with this always-online plan for Durango, I will not buy it. I can’t! With my Internet environment, it would be like buying a $400 brick that sits on my bedroom counter, taunting me with error codes about not being able to find a Wi-Fi signal. I was already thinking about the PS4 after the fantastic specs dropped, but now I’m strongly considering making the switch next generation.