How Roger Ebert Taught Me To Be a Video-Game Critic

Hi, everybody. Sorry for coming late to the party. I wish I could tell you that keeping late hours had nothing to do with my sniffle this week, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate.

I come to our conversation from a bit of a different place than I was in last year. And in order to understand how I feel about video games these days, you need to understand how my relationship with games and the game industry has changed.

It has been an exhilarating, daunting, rewarding, and at times frightening journey in 2008 as I have become what amounts to the New York Times’s first staff video-game critic. Since joining the culture department in 2005, I have always written some reviews and columns, but until this year I had mostly focused on news and features about games, gamers, and game makers.

Over the course of this year, starting in earnest with my review of Grand Theft Auto IV, I’ve been asked to shift toward building a critical voice through reviewing as many of the top games as I can get to. As a practical matter, that means spending a lot less time talking to and hanging out with people in the game industry and a lot more time sitting at home actually playing games (and writing about them).

The hardest part is that I have had to begin to distance myself from people in the game business. (I removed all my industry contacts from my Facebook!) As a reporter, you want to get close to people. You want them to like you and to want to give you information, especially in a scoop-crazed industry like video games. And a news reporter is able to maintain those relationships because he is not absolutely compelled to write for publication that his personal opinion was that a particular game had significant problems.

The critic does suffer that compulsion. And it can’t matter whether or not the lead designer is a good guy or how bad you feel about how many millions of other people’s dollars he has interminably wasted bringing his vision to the small screen. And it can’t matter how much you have enjoyed socializing with the (often quite sociable) people whose job it is to get you to write nice things about their employers.

I had to confront this most squarely in my review of Fallout 3. I love the Fallout franchise. The first two installments are among my favorite role-playing games. And I really like the team at Bethesda Softworks. But I felt the game fell down in places and I had to say that.

One of the things I have really embraced about becoming a critic has been the process of learning to become a critic. Thankfully, at the Times I’m surrounded by some of the best in the world, whose work I now study much more closely than I used to. But as I struggled to come to terms with my ambivalence about Fallout 3, I finally discovered the touchstone of insight I needed from outside my paper, by way of both Roger Ebert and Robert Warshow. In a delightful item about his unorthodox review of Tru Loved, Ebert writes:

As the critic Robert Warshow wrote, “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.” In other words, whatever you saw, whatever you felt, whatever you did, you must say so. For example, two things that cannot be convincingly faked are laughter and orgasms. If a movie made you laugh, as a critic you have to be honest and report that. Maybe not so much with orgasms.

For a variety of reasons that we will leave aside for the moment, there still aren’t any decent pornographic video games, so game critics don’t face all of Ebert’s dilemmas. (And it is not a coincidence that the flap over Ebert’s Tru Loved review revolved around the fact that he did not finish the movie: exactly the same issue Stephen is slagging Chris and N’Gai for here.)

Yet the point still stands. For those of us who have, as Stephen so baldly put it, “structured our lives in a way that allows games to dominate our entertainment-consumption food pyramid,” we have to be honest about that to the public. For example, Blizzard was probably not entirely thrilled that my write-up about the new World of Warcraft expansion was in many ways an exploration of my concern about playing the game so much in the past. But I had to cop to it.

Over the course of this year, plowing through game after game, what surprised me most was simply how good most of them were. Though the crop of 2008 has demonstrated its talent in different ways, it seems clear that the overall level of production quality and creative talent is higher now in video games than it has ever been. This is the real golden age of gaming because only now is the audience large enough, variegated enough, and mature enough to support high levels of investment in such a broad portfolio of genres on such a wide range of devices and screens.

The major publishers have finally figured out that schlock is not a business strategy that can compete in the long term with producing a high-quality product. I have played through and reviewed most of the biggest games of the year, with a few formal reviews still to come, and the one word that keeps coming back to me is professionalism.

Of course, some people don’t want their games to be professional—or polished, for that matter. They want their games to be art. They want to be inspired to grand heights of emotion and struck with epic depths of profundity. I understand that. I even succumb to it once in a while. (OK, a little more often than that.)

What made Portal and BioShock stand out last year was that they were different, in tone and narrative technique and, of course, in some basic play rules. And I agree that with the exception of Braid, we have not seen a ton of “wow, I never thought of that really working” new game concepts in 2008.

But what if I don’t find time manipulation fun? Or what if I don’t enjoy teleporting balls around in Portal or exploring a creepy underwater warren in BioShock? These are all very particular, perhaps even peculiar, games. And the strength of a creative form is not judged solely by its ability to deliver a few quirky new art projects every year. That strength is judged by the overall depth of output and in the ability to provide a suitably high-quality entertainment experience for everyone.

I don’t think there is a single genre or demographic of gamer that hasn’t benefited from a number of excellent games this year. As Stephen rightly said, only the hard-core Nintendo fan has had something to complain about. But across the board, if you are a gamer and you haven’t been able to find anything you really like this year, maybe it is time for a new hobby, because the bounty of 2008 has been rich.

P.S. Hey, Stephen: For mobile, my DS is locked on Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution. I can beat Deity level maybe half the time these days.

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