Roger Ebert Gives Videogames Thumbs Down.

Over at Shacknews, there is a post titled, “Ebert on Video Games: They are Inferior” which basically talks about Ebert dissing videogames without even playing them. In his review of the Doom movie, Ebert writes:

The movie has been “inspired by” the famous video game. No, I haven’t played it, and I never will…

Wow, nice open mind you have there, Roger.
In his Answer Man column, the debate over the relative merits of videogames has continued with readers writing in attempting to defend videogames, and Ebert basically saying that he doesn’t know anything about them, but because he doesn’t know anything about them, that must mean they suck.
The October 30, 2005 Answer Man column begins with this Q and A:

Q. If “Doom” were just another action thriller, then I would have to say you were too generous by giving it one star. The movie frankly deserves zero stars. But is not just a movie. “Doom” was to games what “Rashomon” was to movies. It invented a way of showing something that had never been done before — what you call the “point-of-view shot looking forward over the barrel of a large weapon.”

“Doom” the movie is a tribute to this seminal event. This movie isn’t about clever camera angles, witty dialogue or subtle directorial touches. “Doom” has no pretensions, aspirations or delusions about what it is about. You aren’t supposed to wonder about the origins of mankind as you walk out of the theater. “Doom” the movie is “Doom” the game brought to the screen without messing around too much with the original. “Doom” works as a tribute because it fails so utterly as a movie. There is a reason so many video game-based movies suck: They are fundamentally different forms of representation. Thus by being faithful to the game, the movie pisses off the critic and pleases the gamer.

Vikram Keskar, Kirksville, Mo.

A. With friends like you, what does “Doom” need with critics? Surveys indeed show that more than half the movie’s opening-weekend viewers had played the game. I suppose they got what they were expecting. I am a believer in the value-added concept of filmmaking, in which a movie supplies something that a video game does not. Seen as a moviegoing experience, this was not a good one. There are specialist sites on the Web devoted to video games, and they review movies on their terms. I review them on mine. As long as there is a great movie unseen or a great book unread, I will continue to be unable to find the time to play video games.

Darn those “specialist sites on the Web” and their reviews of movies…
The critique of videogames continues in the November 13, 2005 Answer Man column:

Q. I’ve been a gamer since I was very young, and I haven’t been satisfied with most of the movies based on video games, with the exception of the first “Mortal Kombat” and “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.” These were successful as films because they did not try to be a tribute to the game, but films in their own right.

I have not seen “Doom,” but don’t plan to, nor do I think that it’s fair to say that it pleases all gamers. Some of us appreciate film, too. That said, I was surprised at your denial of video games as a worthwhile use of your time. Are you implying that books and film are better mediums, or just better uses of your time?

Films and books have their scabs, as do games, but there are beautiful examples of video games out there — see “Shadow of the Colossus,” “Rez” or the forthcoming “PeaceMaker.”

Josh Fishburn, Denver

A. I believe books and films are better mediums, and better uses of my time. But how can I say that when I admit I am unfamiliar with video games? Because I have recently seen classic films by Fassbinder, Ozu, Herzog, Scorsese and Kurosawa, and have recently read novels by Dickens, Cormac McCarthy, Bellow, Nabokov and Hugo, and if there were video games in the same league, someone somewhere who was familiar with the best work in all three mediums would have made a convincing argument in their defense.

That’s good thinkering there Roger. It is nice to know that Roger Ebert is omniscient and knows what everyone everywhere has done…
Although in the same column, he defends Dark City, a film I found to be incredibly silly and lame, so what does he know?
Not content to let the issue go, the November 27, 2005 Answer Man column contains yet another Q and A:

Q. I was saddened to read that you consider video games an inherently inferior medium to film and literature, despite your admitted lack of familiarity with the great works of the medium. This strikes me as especially perplexing, given how receptive you have been in the past to other oft-maligned media such as comic books and animation. Was not film itself once a new field of art? Did it not also take decades for its academic respectability to be recognized?

There are already countless serious studies on game theory and criticism available, including Mark S. Meadows’ Pause & Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative, Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan’s First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, and Mark J.P. Wolf’s The Medium of the Video Game, to name a few.

I hold out hope that you will take the time to broaden your experience with games beyond the trashy, artless “adaptations” that pollute our movie theaters, and let you discover the true wonder of this emerging medium, just as you have so passionately helped me to appreciate the greatness of many wonderful films.

Andrew Davis, St. Cloud, Minn.

A. Yours is the most civil of countless messages I have received after writing that I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

Well, there we go, “videogames represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultures, civilized and empathetic.” Even though the letter writer lists a couple of books I have no love for, Roger ignores them and says that he doesn’t know of anyone who has cited a game “worthy” of his high level.

You know, I”m not fan of “art” because I’ve read Bourdieu and hate the smell of elitism in the morning. However, Roger Ebert goes beyond mere Auteur theory and venturing into pure elitism land. Of course, I tend to get feisty when I think people are being elitist. So it isn’t his denying the artistry of videogames that I dislike, it is his pure illogical snobbery about it. Of course, this is why I am opposed to people getting into the art thing. Some people just don’t get it and no matter how much we try, then never will. Pointing out cinematic games isn’t going to do it. As I said in my comment over at shacknews, “art” is just as meaningful a term as “beautiful.” We each have our own notions of what is or isn’t beautiful and we can argue about that definition without ever coming to a satisfying definition.

I hope that gamers will let this go and not go after Ebert. He’s never going to change his mind and we don’t need someone else taking Thompson’s side. Let Roger read his literature and watch his cinema. A friend of the devil may be a friend of mine, but someone who doesn’t like Doom is no friend of mine.

3 Comments Showing 50 most recent
  1. Paul Herzberg

    Dark City may have been silly and lame, but it had a still-curvy Jennifer Connelly singing “Sway” so it gets an extra star from me…

    Anyway Ebert’s a hack. The far greater movie critic David Thompson has this to say about video games ( from ):

    CP: What do you think can or should be the role of criticism in this polluted context?

    Thomson: Well, I think it’s a great moment for critics to talk about the medium as a whole rather than individual films. I think there’s a lot going on in the world of screens–which is a much larger world than just movies per se and it’s very interesting. I mean, at the moment I would almost rather review some video games than movies–not only because more people are looking at them and because my children are looking at them, which are good reasons, but because I think they’re almost more interesting.

    “Almost more interesting” is odd phrasing. It seems Thompson finds games as interesting as movies and that he acknowledges that they are the medium people are spending more time with.

    Actually this seems to clarify Ebert’s position, in that it suggests that games are encroaching on the movies’ territory, Thompson sees this as a challenge and as the future. Ebert sees the challenge, too, but defends movies by simply deriding video games (surely the easiest defensive position to take).

  2. Anonymous

    “Mediums?” (13 November Answer Man column). Mr Ebert, surely you learned better than that from Dickens et al.

  3. meredith

    Ebert wrote “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” And he still defends it as a pretty good movie. That is all.