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.

We Need More Real Games Criticism

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Finishing up Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter the other day left me somewhat hollow and empty, not because the book was bad, but because I was saddened that there were so few pieces of literature like it in existence. Extra Lives is a collection of critical essays penned by a war reporter who just happens to also be a severe video game addict; unlike a lot of games writing, Extra Lives is extremely well-written, thought-provoking, and sincere. Bissell, as wordy and educated as he seems, is just like the average hardcore gamer in the sense that he’s sunk hundreds of hours into a library containing games as diverse as Grand Theft Auto, Mass Effect, Eternal Sonata, and Braid, and he alone seems to be moved to actually dissect these games in a meaningful way and explore what it is about them that is so compelling. I’ve tried reading a lot of books about video games over the last few years, and they seem to be evenly divided between rote histories of the industry’s origins (All Your Base Are Belong To Us by Harold Goldberg) and pseudo-sociopolitical analyses of gamification written by “game designers” who aren’t really game designers (Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal; anything by Ian Bogost). Neither is as compelling as the critical-yet-personal essays presented in Extra Lives.

So why is Bissell the only one in the industry (and he’s not even in “our” industry; at the end of the book, Bissell admits he’ll likely never write about games again) attempting to write semi-serious games criticism? I love reading stuff like this, and you can find tons of similar material in the film and music industries, so why is “intellectual” games writing mostly limited to historical accounts of the industry and discussions of the associated culture, neither of which is really about the games themselves? Sadly, Bissell provides the obvious answer in his preface: on the Venn diagram of people who enjoy reading criticism and people who enjoy playing video games, the overlapping section is very small.

I suppose another problem is exactly how to critique video games without relying on traditional methods of criticism more suited to other media. You could talk about how emotional and uncharacteristically soft the music is in the JENOVA fight immediately after Aeris dies, thus ensuring that the boss battle is merely an afterthought, and your attention remains focused on the surprise death of a pivotal character only minutes earlier as you go through the motions of JRPG battle conventions, but that’d be music criticism. You could talk about how stirring the cutscenes are in Metal Gear Solid 4, or even how stirring the lack of cutscenes are in Half-Life 2, but those both require criticism of cinematography. You could talk about how Wind Waker‘s art design is loaded with expression and timeless to the point that the upcoming HD remake really doesn’t look like much of an improvement, but then you’re critiquing the art. How do how argue about how one’s game’s design is superior to another, especially when genres of games typically have far less in common with each other than genres of music or film? 95% of films share common themes of story progression, dialogue, and the actors’ portrayal of characters, while 95% of music is about melody and key. Video games, however, are a bit harder to pin down. Do Super Hexagon, Pokemon, and Uncharted really have that much in common in terms of gameplay? And how can you comparatively critique a bunch of games that are so dissimilar in their design?

About the closest thing we have now to “critical essays” (my preferred form of video game criticism) are the typical game reviews you see on IGN, Gamespot, and the like. As vapid as this type of writing tends to be (often the fault of the writer, not the medium; I find “professional” game reviewers to be far worse writers than film or music reviewers), I’m not totally against it; I think it serves a good purpose in telling the reader whether the product is worth buying. As long as the skeptical reader understands that game reviews are business and marketing tools first and critical literature second, a well-written game review has a welcome place in the pantheon of games writing. But for games writing to transcend the layman’s “review” and become actual intellectual criticism, we’ve got to be able to examine these games beyond whether this year’s iteration is better than the last and, as is becoming increasingly common now that the $60 retail standard is being muddied by the digital marketplace, beyond their price tags and their supposed hour-by-hour “value” to the consumer. We won’t be able to do this until we can write about games the same way top critics have been writing about other forms of media for the better part of a century.

Some say all criticism should be objective, and for the most part I agree. What made Bissell’s book so compelling, though, was that it was equal parts objective analysis and personal anecdote. He would explain why the unique mechanics or presentation of a game made it so fun to play, then go on to recount exactly which emotions said game stirred in him over the next thirty hours of gameplay. This particular style of criticism was a poignant reminder that no review or essay should ever be treated as anything more than one person’s opinion, no matter how far they go to remove all traces of themselves from the argument. Now, if we want games criticism to be at the highest level of pure, “serious” criticism, then we can’t write this personally (Extra Lives doesn’t shoot for the “serious” peak anyhow), but I still consider this objective-anecdotal blend to be a far more real, intellectually stimulating style of writing than any game review from IGN. At the very least, it tempers its philosophical extrapolations with entertaining contextual side-stories, thus expanding the pool of likely readers.

My search for intelligent games commentary is actually what initially led me to WordPress. After a lengthy internal debate about whether I could successfully defend my opinions against the vicious Internet hordes (previous interactions with legendarily savage communities like GameFAQs and Kotaku had soured my outlook on online discussions), I finally decided I just wanted to share my opinions and practice my writing, and if people didn’t like it, I could always turn off the comments and operate in a vacuum (which admittedly defeats the purpose). Fortunately, the community here turned out to be composed of enthusiastic, intelligent, articulate, opinionated people who shared my desire to discuss the games industry in a meaningful way, and it’s become my most positive experience with an online community to date. I’ve found blogs that have delivered both scathing objective criticism and deeply personal accounts of gameplay, both of which were exactly what I was looking for from “real” games writing. Games bloggers seem to write for their brethren; they understand that most of their followers watch the industry as closely as they do, or have played as many games as they have, and their writing skills are good enough to deliver an articulate, thoughtful response. It’s this kind of passionate, well-informed writing that I truly wish would make the jump to professional literature.

Extra Lives was an excellent book, but it shouldn’t be the only one of its kind. We need more people who actually understand the ins and outs of the industry to write intelligent, critical essays designed to be read by other people who follow the industry extremely closely. There needs to be a tacit agreement between the author and the reader that they both understand the topic at hand, and thus can they both dive into a dense, difficult critical article headfirst without wasting time explaining game mechanics that are universally understood among hardcore gamers; no more of this condescending “In Super Mario Bros., the goal is to jump and grab coins…” stuff. In fact, one of my favourite parts of Extra Lives is in the appendix of the second edition, where Bissell posts an excerpt from an interview with Leigh Alexander in which she attempts to dissect the metaphors of Metal Gear Solid 4. Recognizing that no book would be long enough to explain MGS4‘s massively convoluted plot, Bissell simply prefaces the interview by warning that the next bit is “for Metal Gear Solid brown belts only.” If you’re writing a book about games criticism for intelligent hardcore gamers, that’s how every essay should be prefaced. The game industry is still young compared to other types of media and its fans are still being dismissed as mindless, antisocial, violence-loving drones, so perhaps once we finally break out of this stereotype (and we’re inching ever closer to it as games continue to permeate mainstream media), we’ll finally have proper, thought-provoking games criticism of an intellectual nature.