Warren Spector recently wrote an excellent article stating that what video games need to legitimize them as a medium is a Roger Ebert-like figure whose criticism will help interest the general public in gaming.

I’ve often wondered about this myself, but I’ve ultimately concluded that it’s getting the order wrong.  I think the popularity of gaming will lead to the emergence of such critics and not the other way about.  I think the reason for this is that what popular criticism requires to exist is a sufficiently rare set of qualities that you need a large pool to choose from.

Now, that said, I think having a “Roger Ebert of gaming” would be awesome.  In fact, that’s kind of what I dream of becoming whenever I write a gaming post.  Not that I ever will be.  I think the thing few people realize about criticism is that the key quality it takes to be a good critic of anything is to be a good writer.  It’s not enough to know your subject matter and be able to come with interesting analyses of it; you need to be able to do it concisely, intelligently and above all else, cleverly.

Let me cite one of my favorite literary criticism essays: Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses“.  I suggest you read the whole thing–it’s short–but to encapsulate what makes it great, let me explain that I have never read any Fenimore Cooper books, and yet I enjoy the essay tremendously.  For all I know, Twain’s criticism is completely unfair.  But I enjoy the essay anyway.  Think about that: I have no idea what these books are about except for what Twain mentions, but his evisceration of them is fun to read.

So consider that the most important element of criticism isn’t about what you’re criticizing or what you’re saying about it; it’s about how you phrase it.  If you can be witty in your reviews–that’s the real key, I think.   Not that there isn’t plenty of wit in game criticism, but the issue with game criticism is that the humor too often comes from “in-jokes”, or references to other games.  It’s not accessible to the layman.

In contrast, take this quote from Ebert’s review of the movie Armageddon: “The movie is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense, and the human desire to be entertained. No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out.”  I’ve never seen that movie; so I don’t know if I agree or not.  But it’s a great quote.  He could have said it about any bad movie, though; it has nothing to do with the subject of the movie.  It’s just a generally funny line.

I’m not saying that’s all Ebert was about–he had truly interesting ideas about movies, too.  But that’s not what made him famous.  What made him famous was that he was a very witty writer.

All we need then is somebody who loves video games, has interesting things to say about them, and is an extremely witty writer to boot.  So where is that guy?  Everybody who writes about games, including myself, wants to be that guy, but no one yet has succeeded.

Here’s another question: where’s the new Roger Ebert of movies, now that the original Roger Ebert has passed away?  I don’t know that there is a comparable figure in movie criticism.  Spector apparently couldn’t think of one either, or he would have used that person’s name.  He pretty much said on his blog that Ebert was the most famous movie critic he could think of for an example.

I have a theory: criticism in general is not as good nowadays.  People just are not as good at it, possibly because the internet makes it easier to seek out criticism targeted at their specific interests.  Criticism is Balkanized now, unlike in Ebert’s heyday, when there was one movie critic in the city paper, and he had to write to appeal to the widest audience he could.

This theory could be wrong–I don’t like it because it’s a little simplistic, “things-ain’t-what-they-used-to-be” kind of thinking,  but it does account for why there is no Ebert of gaming.

NOTE: Spector’s article has generated a lot of reaction–Shamus Young and Chris Franklin, among others–have written posts in response to it that make some good points about the issue. Young makes basically the same point I did about the need for game critics who can be read by non-gamers.

I hate when people make judgments about movies they haven’t seen based on hearsay. And I’m as guilty of this as the next person, but I try to avoid doing it. But sometimes there are movies you can just tell you won’t like after just seeing the trailer, or reading the advance publicity.

I haven’t seen this new movie Act of Valor yet, so I want to make it clear that what I’m talking about here isn’t what I think of the movie, but rather my suspicions about it based on what I’ve been reading about it.

If you haven’t heard, the movie is notable because it stars active-duty Navy SEALs, and because they apparently used real ammunition in filming it. The critical consensus seems to be that it’s basically a bunch of action sequences without any interesting characters, or even much of a plot. Roger Ebert says:

Much of the movie consists of pure action, punctuated by terse dialogue and few subtleties. We don’t get to know the characters as individuals, they don’t have personality traits, they have no back stories, they don’t speak in colorful dialogue, and after the movie you’d find yourself describing events but not people.

Like I said, I haven’t seen the movie, so what I’m about to say is a suspicion, not a fact, but it seems likely. Mr. Ebert in particular, in the amazingly unlikely event that he reads this, may find what I have to say of interest, given some of his previous comments.

Reading about this movie reminded me a lot of reading about the video game Black. Black is a video game that was designed around combat sequences and making realistic facsimiles of weapons, and the story was put in as afterthought. Needless to say, it is not going to be remembered as one of the great works of our civilization. I’m not sure how well it sold, but I know that for a time it seemed like there were tons of copies of it floating around in game stores.

The other thing I thought of was the game series Call of Duty. It is also a military -themed shooting game with minimal character development and outrageous stories serving as vehicles for ridiculous action scenes, and a multiplayer mode where players’ avatars run around shooting each other. Its latest installment is also “the biggest entertainment launch of all time”, meaning more it is more lucrative than any movie release. And the previous holder of that record was the previous Call of Duty installment.

Even the name Act of Valor reminds one of Call of Duty. The movie sounds to me like an attempt by Hollywood to get in on the most successful genre of video games. And indeed, they have been promoting it with the game Battlefield 3. Even the style of marketing reminds me of how games are marketed–they keep going on about using live ammunition, like that makes it more realistic or something. Game developers will sometimes say things like “yes, we based this virtual machine gun on the feel of firing a real machine gun”, as if to show how realistic it all is, and then produce a game where you can fire the thing continuously without it overheating. (Usually while leaping from one airplane to another mid-air or something similarly impossible.)

And, sure enough, Ebert contrasts Act of Valor with a documentary film about war, Hell and Back Again:

“Act of Valor” is gift-wrapped in patriotism. It was once intended as a recruitment film, and that’s how it plays. The action scenes are harrowing but exciting. Lots of explosions and special effects. At the end, there is a full-dress military funeral, honoring three generations of warriors. The real action scenes in “Hell and Back Again” don’t play like an action movie.

Not surprising.

I’d have to say, this is not how I want video games to prove they are the equal of movies as an art form–by bringing movies down to the level of the simple-minded action game.

Maybe I’m misjudging Act of Valor. Maybe I’ll even go see it to find out. But as of now, it sounds to me like they wasted a bunch of Navy SEALs’ time to make something that isn’t quite as interesting as your typical video game.

P.S. I forget where, but somewhere on this blog there’s a post where loyal reader P.M. Prescott commented that the bestselling video game of 2011 outperformed the top-selling movie. So, thanks to him for that bit of info. I’ll post it if I can find it.