Throughout my life, few people have influenced me with their words more than the late Roger Ebert. I collected the majority of his bound works and kept up with his blog posts after his courageous (not a flippant one-offed usage; truly courageous) battle with cancer started in the early 2000s. His insight and wit were razor sharp and his words were effortless and human. I’m really going to miss him.
And while I won’t write too much about the man – only tangentially related to video games – I will point you to the definitive profile of him written in 2010 on Esquire, here. It’s a simply incredible read.
In our corner of the Internet, he will most vividly be remembered for his stance on video games. He said they cannot be art and this statement sparked one of the more constructive arguments we’ve had as a community. One that bordered on healthy and intelligent. One that should still be talked about.
Now, admittedly, I disagree with Ebert’s stance. But to admire a man’s intelligence and perception does not mean you must agree with everything he said. Doing what I do, I feel video games have the capacity to be art, breaking from the simplistic restrictions of a zero-sum. They can tell stories and develop narrative elements; it’s obvious.
But we need this sort of lancing skepticism. That, too, is obvious because games frequently fall so short of that standard. We’ve gotten to a point where technology is growing faster than the storytelling or even the gameplay itself. This has been painfully apparent as the next generation of consoles have started cropping up. Where is the jump towards a more thoughtful medium? Why can’t we have a child’s game that is both a good game and cleverly written? [Editor’s Correction: Why can’t we have a child’s game that is a good game, cleverly written, and NOT made by Double Fine for Kinect?”] Why am I still shooting at a gazillion cookie-cutter men?
Games certainly can be art – so many titles show that – but perhaps the audience we need to pay the most care towards are the non-gamers. To them, we are still twiddling sticks to “win” at something totally irrelevant and temporary. And, hey, it’s true for most games. I’ll admit it. At times, I look at the thing I love the most and I can’t defend it. But this is the sort of ass-kicking we need sometimes. We need to constantly be striving for legitimacy and higher standards because stagnation leads to decay.
Before I wrap this up, I’ll leave a quote of his, speaking of politics but easily applicable to us. One that asks for higher levels of argument and discussion. “I think both the left and the right should celebrate people who have different opinions, and disagree with them, and argue with them, and differ with them, but don’t just try to shut them up.”
As the news of losing one of our greatest cultural voices is still fresh, consider his message and those goading, poking, honestly-blunt words. It’s a hard thing to admit that we’re not there yet but we need to. We always need critics like Ebert to motivate us with ideals and not sales. We need them to ground us and rattle some sense in our skulls. Games can be art and I’m sad Ebert never had the rich experiences we’ve had with titles like Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy or even BioShock Infinite or Journey. Until the whole world sees what we see, there is still work to be done.