OPINION: The Search for Game Journalism’s Roger Ebert

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

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The following views are those of the author and may not reflect those of oprainfall or its staff.

Not too long ago, I wrote about how the search for the Citizen Kane of video games is a fruitless endeavor. To summarize, what it comes down to is that the histories of film and game evolution are two very different arcs, and while Citizen Kane demonstrated importance through its innovations in and impact on the evolution of cinema, no video game is capable of claiming such for its own medium on an equal level. But there’s another topic related to both film and video games that was brought up recently by Warren Spector, the creator of games ranging from Deus Ex to Epic Mickey. In an editorial for GamesIndustry International, he posited the question “Where’s gaming’s Roger Ebert?

Roger Ebert

Ebert, as seen on the cover of Esquire. Surgery to rid him of cancer left him without a jaw in his later years.

Unlike the idea of searching for gaming’s Citizen Kane, the question of finding the video game equivalent of Roger Ebert is a legitimate one. While Ebert was somewhat notorious in later years for his dismissive attitude toward video games as an artistic medium, he was also a widely known and respected film critic. He was not just someone whom the film fanatic crowd latched onto, but a person who was widely known for his televised opinions that were summarized with an easily digestible thumbs-up or down.

In that sense, there really is no one in game journalism who is a match for Ebert. Sure, a few critics, such as Adam Sessler, have been on television regularly, but Sessler’s X-Play wasn’t targeted at audiences in the same way as Ebert’s television program, co-hosted with Gene Siskel and later Richard Roeper. And outside of television, Ebert regularly wrote reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times, reviews that have been compiled and recompiled in published volumes. He’s also notable for being the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize, taking home the award for criticism in 1975. In making a direct comparison between Ebert and Sessler, or any other game critic, Ebert’s credentials and reputation are completely unmatched.

Adam Sessler | The Search for Game Journalism's Roger Ebert

Adam Sessler has frequently appeared on television to divulge game reviews and opinionated editorials, but his influence is still far below Ebert’s height.

So the quick and easy answer to the question of where is gaming’s Ebert is that there isn’t one. And frankly, game journalism has a very long way to go if any critic within its ranks is to have a hope of rising to the same level. Ebert’s career as a film critic spanned decades and was distinguished enough to win him the highest of accolades. Meanwhile, video game critics can’t agree which game is the Citizen Kane of their medium.

With that in mind, if game criticism is to ever rise to the level of film critics such as Ebert or to become a match for the field of film criticism in general, what needs to happen? The short answer is a lot, far more than will likely ever be accomplished in the short term. In my Citizen Kane column, I wrote the following:

The academic angle of game criticism, and game journalism in general, is lacking to the point of near non-existence. Popular game journalism is still focused more on measuring quality against a ten-point decimal scale that has become popularly skewed to the point that anything below a seven is suddenly unplayable garbage. Further, game journalists have, in recent years, begun to use their positions as springboards into development positions. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, where is the motivation to grow the field of game criticism if its best continue jumping ship for the other side of the lake?

Greg Kasavin | The Search for Game Journalism's Roger Ebert

Greg Kasavin climbed the ranks at GameSpot, eventually becoming Editor-in-Chief before leaving to embark on a career in game development.

All of the above applies even more to the current topic. The academic study of film history and analysis is nothing new. And while any formal field of study will give rise to ivory tower intellectuals, they also give rise to people not only educated about their given subject, but have practiced the ability to study further and share that gathered knowledge with others. In the age of the Internet, when anyone with a YouTube account or blog can declare himself or herself a critic, having such an educated background not only provides a leg up in terms of formal knowledge, but also in terms of credentials. And such credentials carry far more weight than a self-declared title like “The Lactose-Intolerant Gamer.”

These days, some colleges are starting to offer courses on the study of video game history and critical theory, but it’s a topic that is still in its infancy. It will be years before the subject gains enough formal recognition and academic standing to award majors in Video Game Studies. And if gaming’s Roger Ebert is to rise, it likely won’t be until after such programs become more accepted.

As for the game critics of today, both professional and amateur, the vast majority of the critical output produced is lacking. Visit any website that publishes game reviews, and it’s likely that the reviews themselves will read less like critical analyses and more like buyers’ guides in which the bulk of the text is more or less an opinionated description of the game’s controls and light descriptions of the story and characters. They’re also frequently coupled with scores that exist on a ten-point decimal scale in which, as I noted in my quote above, anything below a seven is considered trash, and anything between a seven and eight is barely worthwhile.

Twilight Princess Review | The Search for Game Journalism's Roger Ebert

And tenths of a decimal point can incite more star-blazing fury among readers than the actual text.

In short, most reviews today aren’t truly critical. They’re opinionated instruction manuals. Some reviewers do a better job than others, and by and large, the professional reviews of today are better than they were ten or fifteen years ago. But reviews still routinely fall short on the analytical level. Are the controls good or bad? Do the graphics look old? Is the story dumb? These are the questions that reviews generally strive to answer. Anything further is an act of generosity.

What reviews typically don’t strive to answer are the questions that require considerate, critical thought—for instance, how games succeed or fail on the themes of their narratives or how effectively music is used rather than merely establishing a soundtrack’s quality with brief superlatives. To truly delve into a critical analysis of a game requires more than simply following the general template of gameplay/story/graphics/sound and checking off each as good or bad. The insight needs to be deeper.

Granted, a deep, thoughtful analysis isn’t necessarily something that can be performed at the same level with every game. The simpler the game, the less there is to analyze. But that doesn’t mean that critics can’t do a better, more thorough job of analyzing what’s present. It doesn’t have to extend to the realm of examining the existential angst and ennui of the square block in Tetris, but making the effort to delve into greater examination where appropriate can go a long way toward improving the quality of reviews.

Dr. Mario | The Search for Game Journalism's Roger Ebert

Though the study of the viruses’ slow march into the endless, pill-induced darkness of oblivion would make a fascinating dissertation.

But the most important aspect of Ebert and his reviews was his accessibility. He didn’t write exclusively for the film buff crowd. He wrote reviews that were meant to be consumed by the average newspaper reader or television viewer. Even today, the majority of the respected game critics on the Internet are writing for sites targeted at video game enthusiasts. And just as I can’t log on to most enthusiast press sites and find reviews that break the glorified manual mold, I can’t open the pages of the local paper and expect to read quality game reviews that even begin to approach Ebert’s level of film criticism.

The point is it’s perfectly possible to be intelligent, informative, and accessible. Ebert was all three. He provided insightful analysis of the films he reviewed, wrote well with an entertaining flair, and wrote with an accessible, intelligent style that didn’t treat his readers like imbeciles. He never put on the guise of being the Angry Film Nerd and never required such theatrics.

Lon Lon Milk | The Search for Game Journalism's Roger Ebert

Lactose-Intolerant Gamer gives this editorial one angry Lon Lon Milk vomit out of five.

Cut away the hyperbolic YouTube superstars and the instruction-manual reviewers, and you’re left with a small subset of writers who put an extra level of effort into analysis. But they’re still a small subset, and if game criticism is to ever have its Roger Ebert, that subset needs to be allowed to grow. Review outlets need to let go of enforcing aging review practices and encourage more thoughtful critique. Scores, for what they matter in this, need to be given more concise meaning so that they better match that analysis, even if that requires abandoning the media-standard ten-point decimal system.

And I say all of this knowing that I myself can do much better as a reviewer. What few game reviews I’ve written for oprainfall generally fall into the same pitfalls that I’m railing against. So I speak not from a stance of hypocrisy, but from a desire to see others do far better than I am, even as I work to improve myself.

In a roundabout way, this brings me to my last point: longevity. Ebert didn’t become the critic he was overnight. He studied film tirelessly. He lived and breathed the medium. And most importantly, he never stopped writing. And for a video game reviewer of equivalent standing to appear, that reviewer must do the same. Video game reviews will never improve if the better reviewers jump ship for pastures that may or may not be greener. That’s not a condemnation, but a simple fact. If the cream of the reviewer crop is constantly harvested to work in game development or stops writing for whatever other reason, the loss of that practice and experience can affect both the community of reviewers and those who read reviews.

In truth, the Roger Ebert of video games will likely not arrive at any point in the near term. It will be years, possibly a decade or more, before video game reviews are able to rise to that higher standard. But the more reviewers and editors focus on improving their work, the better these standards will be down the road. The effort just needs to be made to get there.

About Justin Graham

Justin joined Oprainfall through…belligerence. (Note to others: This is not a good way to get noticed. This sort of thing only works once.) When he’s not writing about games or waxing nostalgic about anime older than a large portion of the site’s audience, he can be found playing JRPGs or beating up lots of dudes in Dynasty Warriors.




  • Russell Miller

    Very nice article. A great read.

  • Karin E. Skoog

    You should consider posting this on Gamasutra. I’m sure game developers would have some interesting feedback.

  • madmofo145

    I’m having problems thinking of a way in which an Ebert of the game world could exist. Look at Ni No Kuni vs Tales of Xilia. Two games which come from the same genre, but are incredibly different. While story elements should be important, can a reviewer really do a reader justice without explaining the different approaches to battle taken in the game. Are there not purchasers of the game who are looking at the reviews for the technical details about how characters progress through the games leveling systems? Tales of Grace is mocked for it’s story but lauded for it’s battle system, how can a critic review such a game without at least going into some detail about what makes this Tales battle system different then other Tales games, and can they really do so in such a way that the general non Tales aficionados would respond to?

    I just listened to a debate between two of my friends the other day about whether Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI was the quintessential SNES RPG, and while story was mentioned, and no true answer was accepted, the main arguments had to do with how Final Fantasy had a skill system which allowed characters to be finely tuned to a players preference, or Chrono Trigger introducing the world to non random battles which took place on the field they were initiated on. While points like these can be articulated in a way that may be readable by a non gaming audience, it’s still hard to imagine anyone creating a review that of a 30+ hour game that could be read in a single session without resorting to some of the video game manual journalism that you speak of.

    • Justin Graham

      I in no way meant to imply that gameplay or mechanics shouldn’t be covered in reviews. What I mean by instruction manual reviews is that they mostly revolve around an overview of mechanics without particularly critical depth. Gameplay can be given more detailed analysis than is the norm.

  • Eric

    You also have to consider that movies are between 2-3 hours long, and video games go around 10-20 hours. Heck, even RPGs span 30-40, and some even 100+! In order to get a good review, someone would need to play through the entire game, and experience most of what the game has to offer. It’s not as easily critique’d as a regular 2-hour movie would be.

    Another consideration is that watching a movie is engaging, yes, but playing a video game involves input from you, the player. Not every person is “good” at playing games, and heck, not every “good” gamer is good at every genre of video games. There are many many more variables to being a “good” video game reviewer than a movie reviewer, in my opinion.

    Not to say that game reviews can’t be improved, but just as a reminder that there is a lot more effort involved in playing a game vs watching a movie, and a lot more time invested in a game in order to get the full experience.

  • Siskel was way better anyways

    I’m going to say it’s Yahtzee.

    When I think of a “Roger Ebert”, all I think of is “A critic that
    everyone knows about, and implicitly gives their opinion more weight
    than it might otherwise deserve.”

    Also:

    http://penny-arcade.com/report/article/warren-spector-asks-where-is-gamings-roger-ebert-par-is-confused-by-the-que

    • Justin Graham

      Yahtzee is, more or less, just another Lactose Intolerant Gamer. His Zero Punctuation reviews are laced with sarcasm and vitriol and derive humor from cartoons that aren’t representative of the game he talks about. They are also heavily, heavily geared toward the enthusiast gaming crowd.

      As for Kuchera’s article, he’s free to have that opinion, though I don’t necessarily share it. I would appreciate it if you took the time to state your own opinion on the article rather than just throw the link out and expect that to suffice.

    • SteveThompson1

      His extra punctuation articles are different from his videos. The videos are more humorous while the articles are more something you’d expect from ebert.

  • Siskel was way better anyways

    Also the claim that Ebert’s reviews were “accessible” because they were written for general audiences as opposed to “film buffs” is such a nonsensical attribute – not everyone is a gamer, but EVERYONE watches movies. There is no “non-movie goer.”

    Game reviews dumbed down to the level needed to explain everything to a non-gaming audience would basically make them useless to gamers, and vice versa.

    • Justin Graham

      Accessibility doesn’t mean “dumbed down.” It means being written in a manner that’s targeted at a general audience. Also, not everyone watches movies, or watches movies with any great regularity. Certainly not to the degree which enthusiasts view them.

  • Xaxal_Ravenguard

    The Roger Ebert of gaming could occur. It first requires that a reviewer (And luckily, this number has been on the rise thanks to people like Jim Sterling and sites like Screwattack) must expunge himself of the scorebased review philosophy. That any game, regardless of score, has some value in it.

    The next step would be that games criticism must go beyond money-based value (Things like game length being an example) and must instead focus on intrinsic value (Like discussions on how one little change suddenly transforms something into a completely different beast from the other). It’s why the argument of game-aging is flawed, simply because it is directed as a means to decide whether something is worth your money as opposed to finding the inner value of the game while also acquainting readers to the nature of gaming back in the time that the game was released.

  • zeezee

    Roger Ebert was important at a time where access to information about a film was made solely through television, radio, and news journalism. The whole mechanism of accessing information changed with the Internet and its early-adopters; Specifically, younger people who more often than not were part of the Playstation generation (and the tail-end of the 16-bit era).

    This is not to say that he was any less notable afterward. He had simply achieved notoriety *from the film companies*. He was a recognizable name that film companies could use to advertise their film; “Siskel and Ebert give it two thumbs up”. When did you not see a Summer blockbuster that used this advertising mechanism to convince you to see a film?

    This is carried-over where comments from larger game sites are posted on the advertising media (and sometimes even the boxes) of new games. This is how advertising works.

    I would argue that Ebert’s reviews were no better as a whole than anyone else’s. They simply had more weight because of his name and the number of media that published them. Now that we all have access to the Internet, more often than not we turn to IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes for a composite review from the *whole world* to get a better picture of whether or not something is a flop.

    I cannot tell you that I’ve ever looked for Roger Ebert reviews to gather an opinion on film. In fact, I more often than not disagreed with his critiques. In the case of game journalism, there are simply too many reviewers that are swayed by advertising dollars. I place more value on the real gamer’s opinion on GameFAQs than on any one gaming site. Metacritic and popular YouTube channels can be a quick and easy way to sift through reviews as well these days.

    My point is… There will not be another Roger Ebert and there will never be such a person in gaming. It might be said that the closest thing that we’ve ever had would have been reviews from one of the big game magazines in the ’90s. The whole state of both industries is at a point where it relies more upon the opinions as a whole than the opinion of one authoritative source.

    Coincidentally, GameSack just recently posted a video on retro game magazines: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltr6lJ-EdCQ

  • Coarse

    Ebert was nothing without Siskel. Just my 2 cents.

  • smacd

    I have a hard time with the idea of wanting the type of person reviewing games that can so easily dismiss other media as not being “art” without having any real knowledge of them. Ebert was little more than an arrogant elitist, especially after Siskel passed. Having a person like that in the games industry will lead to someone who dismisses a genre as being garbage just because of the genre it is, not for the quality or content of the game. The gaming world is too broad to have just one person. We need more people, and people need to find reviewers that have similar tastes. I recall Ebert disliking a lot of movies I did like, probably because of his elitism mentality, so why would I want someone like that in the industry?

    • Justin Graham

      Or did Ebert simply not like some of the movies you liked because he felt that they weren’t of particular quality? His disliking of things that you or I like doesn’t in any way discredit or disqualify him. That goes for his dismissive attitude toward video games, as well. He might not have felt that games are art, but he was entitled to that viewpoint, even if a large number of people (myself included) disagreed with him.

      And as far as finding reviewers that match our tastes, there’s also something to be said for the reviewers that don’t. Reviews are meant as expressions of critical thought rather than simply confirmation of one’s own opinions. If I only seek out reviews that I agree with and that don’t challenge my reasoning, then that leaves me as more or less a yes man for those I do read. I’ve read reviews I’ve disagreed with and reviews that have irritated me, including film reviews written by Ebert. While I may not agree with them, opposing views (at least, those that are well-written/well-spoken) are just as important as those that match my own taste and thought process.

    • smacd

      You completely missed the point I was making. It is one thing to ‘dislike’ something, it is another to outright dismiss an entire type of media because you know nothing about it. It shows a serious lack of comprehension abilities as far as I’m concerned. It is exactly the same as if someone dismissed the entirety of what we consider classical art (paintings, etc) because you don’t care to look at static images someone painted. Ebert was an intelligent man, but he showed himself to be a fool with that commentary.

      Moving passed that, why would we actually want someone who would actively dismiss an entire media, or say a genre, just because they know nothing about it? Ebert and anyone like him can dress in fool’s motley for all their opinion is worth to me.

    • Justin Graham

      You’re missing my point, though. I’m not saying that this theoretical game reviewer should be dismissive of other media. Only that (s)he be more analytical and be more capable of targeting a wider audience. You seem to be focused specifically on an aspect of Ebert’s tastes and personality that is in actuality not that relevant to the discussion at hand, which is not about Ebert the person, but his abilities as a film critic.

    • smacd

      And what I’m saying is that a person who is so capable of dismissing one form of media HAS no abilities as a critic. For someone you claim has “analytic” capabilities, he really showed his lack of them with his commentary about video games not being art based on his lack of understanding. And yes, because of that, I can summarily dismiss everything that fool ever said, because he clearly never understood what art really is.

    • Justin Graham

      Your choice to ignore the body of his work as a critic is up to you. But Ebert’s personal feelings on games don’t have an impact on the faults in game reviews that I’ve highlighted. And whether you agree with him or not, do you agree or disagree that game reviews should change?

    • smacd

      Should they change? Sure at some places. Are IGNs reviews worth anything? Not really. In fact, any review where the reviewer did not have to finish the game, and is limited to only giving 7 to 10 on a 10 point scale is pretty much worthless. Even the Operation Rainfall reviews I find mostly worthless, as it seems like there aren’t games reviewed at under 3 stars. If you only “review” games you like, what’s the point? And whats the point in having a 5 star scale, when 3 stars is the worst you give out?

      Personally I’m a fan of RPGamer’s review style, which uses a 5 point scale and they don’t hesitate to give a 1/5 for bad games. And they actually tell me WHY.

      What I do think needs changing is development studios and publishers using Metacritic as a tool in calculating the bonus pool for the developers. Especially after hearing about what happened to Obsidian over Fallout New Vegas.

      And no, we don’t need some really famous snob reviewer like Ebert. We need standards that are fair and make sense, and we need to abandon the “school scale” where a 75% is average.

  • RagunaXL

    this was quite the article. more interesting than I thought it would be. I elect Justin graham as games’ ebert

    • Ibi Salmon

      The basketball player?

  • Ashitaka

    One thing to think about; the overriding purpose of a game is to play it and have fun, where the overriding purpose of a movie is to watch it and enjoy it. It’s not a great example, but think about it this way.

    Reviewing a movie might be like discussing who the greatest baseball player in history is; you discuss the player, how they played, when they played, where they played, who they played against, and how they performed. You’re discussing what you witnessed someone else do. You can quantify it with numbers (batting average, etc.) to compare him to other players and arrive at an answer.

    On the other hand, it’s harder to discuss whether baseball or football is the more enjoyable sport, because it’s such an opinion-based exercise. One person might love baseball and just like football (that would be me) while another might love football and think baseball is boring. How to I convince him that what he finds boring isn’t actually boring? You can’t do that. It’s that person’s own experience and preference. How can I convince a guy that loves Madden and Call of Duty that those games are boring (which is what I personally feel) but level grinding up your party so you can fend off a massive dragon, get a mystical sword and gain access to a new part of a magical fantasy world is worth-while and relaxing (which I find it to be)?

    While I think video games can be art, in a sense, this is one area that Ebert used to hammer on when he would say they aren’t; video games, because they require user input, are inherently not artistic because it requires the audience to put something into it in order to get something out of it.

    In other words, each person’s perspective will be different, though they view the same movie, and have the exact same experience. However, the EXPERIENCE itself will be different in a video game, depending on how many items you collect, how much optional story you uncover, how strong your characters are, your style of play, etc. The “artist,” the one who created it, does not have total control over what you experience, so you can’t properly review it because it’s inherently different for each person.

    I’m not saying meaningful reviews can’t be written or that we shouldn’t try to improve, but the mediums are different in very fundamental ways, and we should keep that in mind.

    • Ashitaka

      More:

      What made Ebert great was that he wrote reviews based on whether movies accomplished their goals and did so well. Some movies that most people panned, he gave good reviews to, because they effectively portrayed the writer and director’s vision, and Ebert knew that the target audience would appreciate it. When you read a review by Ebert, you know you’re going to get a review on what the movie actually did right and wrong, and why, rather than just him saying whether he personally enjoyed it or not.

      A better example above would probably have been that writing a movie review would be like writing on which sport is better; you can attack that from angles, e.g. if you’re desire is to find a sport that has a lot of action but is relatively safe in terms of not getting serious injuries, you might argue in favor of Tennis, rather than baseball (slower pace) or football (huge risk of serious injury), and so you can say, for the people who want a fast-paced sport with lower injury risk, tennis is a good choice; even if the reviewer doesn’t personally like tennis, they can see those benefits and make the recommendation.

      On the other hand, it’s much harder to tell someone which sport they’ll enjoy actually participating in if they’ve not tried it before; the level of competition, seriousness of the game, equipment available, environment the games are played in will all be different for different people, and they won’t know until they try it themselves with a certain set of factors, and there’s no way to tell how GOOD they’ll be at it. You can review a game as being a great game, but to someone who, for whatever reason (age, reflexes, mental capacity, etc.) finds the game to be too difficult, they won’t enjoy it even if the story is good or the level of challenge is just right for you.

  • Francisco Martins

    Yahtzee, anyone?