Yesterday, my favorite movie reviewer passed away after a long struggle with cancer. Roger Ebert was 70, and he had spent his entire professional life reviewing movies in print, television, and eventually online. Even though he didn’t consider video games to be on the same artistic level as films, he was still my biggest influence when it comes to writing reviews.
Watching Ebert’s weekend review show with co-host Richard Roeper was, to me, like Neo from The Matrix downloading a kung-fu skills pack to his brain. In the space of half an hour, the two critics would cover a half-dozen or more full-length movies, condensing their storylines, notable performances, and technical achievements into clear and concise reviews.
Without paying a dime or spending hours at the theater, I’d be left with a full rundown of all that was new in the world of movies that week. I could even form some basis of my own opinion based on the critics’ opinions, without having seen the full movies myself. Like other journalists, they used their first-hand experiences to share stories, and offered access to physical and intellectual places I couldn’t reach on my own.
Ebert and his colleagues demonstrated that reviews can be entertaining in their own right, and that watching a critic respond to a movie can be like watching yourself in a mirror. You can respond to the same stimulii– a particularly brain-dead plot hole, for example, or a moving emotional climax– by watching someone else go through it first.
Ebert taught me that reviews can deepen our appreciation of their subjects– an entertaining review of a bad movie can be a lot of fun to read, while an insightful review can lead you to discover new details you might have missed otherwise. He also demonstrated the power of reviews. Reviewers constantly pass judgment on someone else’s creative endeavor, after that creator has spent months or years developing it. Roger was careful not to use this power to maliciously tear down others’ creative efforts, but rather, to try to shape the industry into something more meaningful.
Even though he was a master of the movie review, Roger Ebert never seemed to grasp this generation’s primary entertainment experiences, video games. Like movies, video games are made as both a labor of love and a financial investment. They can be enjoyed individually, with friends and family, or with a larger community. But unlike movies, games require a player of some skill to really shine. Ebert never struck me as a skilled gamer, which is why he failed to see the artistic value of games like Bioshock or Shadow of the Colossus.
At Slide To Play, we try to apply Ebert’s legacy of concise, entertaining, and insightful reviews to the highly diverse App Store. Mobile games aren’t usually as long as films, but they do have the potential to suck up more time, or deliver visceral or social experiences that even the best movies rarely touch. Beating a game’s tough boss fight with just a sliver of health left can be more exciting than watching a hero win in a movie’s final act, because it’s you at the controls, and you who determines the ultimate outcome. As critics, we often get to play first, and then give our readers a chance to see the game through our eyes.
Roger Ebert wrote tens of thousands of reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times, and on Slide To Play, we’ve published thousands of game reviews. Each of those articles is our opportunity to virtually transport you into our point of view, so you can perceive a ghost of the memory (good or bad) that our reviewer experienced.
This is more than just a Consumer Reports-style stamp of approval, telling you to buy this or skip that. It’s about seeking deeper meaning, and trying to understand the hidden psychology of the games we play, why we respond to them, and how creative people are using this brand-new medium to express themselves. Ebert understood this about movies, and he was starting to come around on video games. Our job is to pick up his precedent, apply it to the world of mobile gaming, and see how far it takes us.