The Gaming Club

How Roger Ebert Taught Me To Be a Video-Game Critic
The art of play.
Dec. 10 2008 1:32 PM

The Gaming Club

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

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.

Advertisement

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.

Click here to read the next entry.

N'Gai Croal is a general editor for technology at Newsweek and blogs about video games at Level Up. He can be reached via e-mail at ngai.croal@newsweek.com. Seth Schiesel is a staff writer for the New York Times. He currently writes about video games for the newspaper's Culture department. Chris Suellentrop reviews video games for Slate.Stephen Totilo is the video game reporter at MTV News and editor of the site's blog about games, Multiplayer.

TODAY IN SLATE

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.
Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 11:40 AM The U.S. Has Spent $7 Billion Fighting the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. It Hasn’t Worked. 
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM The Global Millionaires Club Is Booming and Losing Its Exclusivity
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Right of Free Speech
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM The Best Way to Fry an Egg
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 10:43 AM Social Networking Didn’t Start at Harvard It really began at a girls’ reform school.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.