Roger Ebert is widely considered a master of movie criticism. The game industry is still looking for its version of him. Will he find him/her soon?
It’s an ever-evolving quest: To be the first renowned games critic, to write even-handed but fearlessly, or without remorse, and to understand what qualifies as pixel perfection. I am far from close to achieving that as are so many others. That’s not a problem with style or substance or any game writer’s comprehension of the medium–in fact, there are some fabulously gifted yet underrated critics expounding words to the masses whose work will never get recognized.
Games criticism, at its barest, is a consumer’s guide. This is good, this is forgetful, etc. Compartmentalizing a title to its roots and evaluating each portion is fine, so long as the reviewer has a distinct understanding of the message. As games stretch to or exceed twenty hours, it’s hard to grasp this message, because certain aspects of the formulaic flow of the experience take priority. That’s just natural in anything: the longer we do it, the better we remember the most recent events. It’s no coincidence that Oscar-caliber films release in the dead of winter.
Games criticism, at its most complex, is more focused on the emotionally gripping corners of a digital experience. To leave the reader with the reviewer’s sense of spectacle when playing, but at the same time not to drown out valid points of criticism. This is where games benefit from non-play-by-play commentary–we establish the groundwork of how we would choose to play, therefore shifting the mechanics of our time with that game.
By design, games are deeply experiential. Unlike films or books or TV, we find meaning through interaction, not some external figure dictating the action. We play director. Thus, the potential for Ebertesque criticism remains untapped, covered by a topsoil of reader expectations, economics and the culture of the Internet. The success of such criticism would depend on a consumerist press willing to change its mannerisms in a way that may affect its bottom line.
Readers like the bulletin point style of reviews: gameplay is good, plot is decent, multiplayer is crap. And decades of this format has trained our collective conscious to examine games anatomically, and from those parts piece a score together. Not to consider the entire game as a whole, how things flow, how gameplay flows with combat, how music enhances the adventure. Games don’t last an hour or two, or if they do they don’t get reviewed, so we instinctively divide and grade sections to give ourselves room to process.
Plus, there remains the issue of what readers prioritize in their games, further proving that games are self-tailored. Some would trade a competent and complete story for dragging gameplay and vice versa. Again, books, TV and film don’t suffer in this arena except for, maybe, pacing being an issue.
The economics of games reporting are, to put it bluntly, depressing. Every site featuring paid writers is presented with the struggle to compete against other sites and against AdBlock, as Destructoid vexingly recalled last month. The point is to maximize readership using reviews, these outlets’ primary livelihood, and some drastic change to the established formula could be potentially devastating.
In the downtime between major releases, sites have found clever methods to extend the conversation. Second opinions written by fellow staff, getting the reader’s take, crunching reviews from other places into one handy spot (like Joystiq does with their Metareview) and podcasts to name a few. Any excuse to namedrop a popular title. It works and will continue to as long as games writing exists. And since these added efforts won’t receive the number of hits as a review, it gives writers the opportunity to go wax poetic if they so choose.
The most polarizing game in some time, BioShock Infinite, has stirred the proverbial pot. In games reviewing that was no different as reviews gave nines across the board, and to give anything lower was dismissed as some lonely blogger looking to make a splash. Many features after a time questioned the game’s use of violence, and if it positively affected the game overall. Critiques post-release, like Leigh Alexander’s personal take on the game (reprinted on Kotaku) explored at length where it treads rightly and wrongly. But she invariably draws too many comparisons to “BioShock the first” and her argument loses meaning over time. What starts as an intelligent analysis turns into a bitter rant focusing on how the first BioShock and Infinite are in fact two different titles.
But that’s also one major obstacle facing games criticism: to draw back to previous titles in an age of sequels and be disappointed, or to take the game in front of you as is with no previous expectations. It’s the decision of the outlet publishing the review and not always the writer’s. Ebert never had to deal with legendary franchises reaching their fourth iterations because either the studios or the audience knew better than to invest money into something blatantly used as shovelware. Gaming fans pay most attention (especially adamant games media readers) to the many numbered titles released in a calendar without so much as a second thought. (Fairly, if you count Scary Movie or Saw as fabulous examples in the long history of film, you are mentally disturbed.)
There was a moment last year approaching Ebertesque criticism–reverting back to Kotaku, a new writer named Patricia Hernandez had the daunting task of handling their Black Ops II review. It would be read by many denizens, and it was a proud way to convey relatively new talent. Copious ignorance made the review famous that week (“Oh my God, a woman writing a review? She doesn’t know video games!” was a loud one) but an unrecognized fact was her approach.
She discards the “near-future” concept in Black Ops II and relates the game back to modern times, connecting how quickly Saddam Hussein’s hanging video reached YouTube. For the rest, Hernandez drifts in-and-out of traditional criticism interspersing her own opinions about the game’s stances on modern-day society, from politics to technology to the nature of warfare. The unwelcoming Kotaku audience largely disproved of her approach.
The top comment courtesy of ReverendMalerik reads:
“I’m sorry, but what the heck did I just read? Five pages waxing lyrical on the nature of man and the detachment of modern society in the internet age? How about some feedback as to how the graphics are? Whether the soundtrack is good? Maybe more than a paragraph on the multiplayer and zombie modes?”
That quote manifests the general opinion towards the review. Many comments questioned if she had even played the game before giving the “Yes” grade. Apparently, adding personal insight and analysis should only be reserved for college essays and philosophy papers.
However, that is simply one example. There is a collection of undiscovered cases of this happening. But then, one could make the argument Hernandez didn’t know Kotaku‘s regular readership–notorious for their refusal of inclusion.
It may be that video gaming has a Roger Ebert in the making, or someday soon, or never at all. If he or she were to exist now, currently writing for a magazine or outlet, are the conditions right to display such fervent criticism? Or would it depend on an audience to demand more of its writers they usually disagree with anyway? I think games writing is close but not there yet. The right game, the right writer, the right readership, first to break through then to excel at doing so and show the gaming world it’s ready for this sort of criticism.
Roger Ebert once said video games would never be seen as art. In his passing, sadly we cannot prove him wrong. But we can start for everybody else.
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