TW Opinion by Andrew Vanden Bossche
Why Roger Ebert Got It Wrong
When I was six years old, I fell in love with Metroid, a 1986 Nintendo game.
In Metroid, you descend deep beneath the earth on an elevator of light, into a cavern of deep-blue stone filled with strange monsters: spiny balls that climb the walls like spiders, spinning bats that dive from the ceiling like manic corkscrews. You are covered in shiny, yellow-orange armor and armed with a squeaky laser beam that hits no farther than two feet from your face.
Metroid is as obtuse as a silent film, crude as a pictogram, an endless winding maze without a human soul.
If Metroid has a story, we have to imagine it. All the sound comes from the electric musical instrument contained in the Nintendo, which produces a dissonant series of blips and bloops in a haunting music-like pattern. Metroid sings with alien, ambient noises that are sometimes mournful and sometimes chilling.
Anyone who was older than ten in the late 1980s would likely consider Metroid to be either insignificant or terrible: crude, obscure, baffling, boring, weird. But to me (and many others), Metroid is not terrible. It’s beautiful, scary, and strange.
I understand how difficult it is to see this side of a twenty-five-year-old game; even I can barely stand to play Metroid nowadays. It’s boring and difficult; I’ve lost the childhood tenacity that let me crack it open. Designers still barely knew what games were when they made Metroid, and it shows. Yet as a kid, I responded to its cold and cavernous world, to those creepy aliens and blue caves, as art, not unlike the way a budding filmmaker might have been obsessed with Night of the Living Dead in the late 1960s and 1970s (or as Tim Burton has recently said he felt “freaked” by the original TV soap Dark Shadows).
It hasn’t been easy convincing those who love the arts that Metroid and other more brilliant games are something worth talking about, let alone playing. There’s been quite a bit of opposition from concerned parents, politicians—even from Roger Ebert, who’s proclaimed that video games will never be art.
The famous film critic made this claim in April 2010 in a Chicago Sun-Times blog post. Many people became deeply upset. Within a few months, the post had generated over 4,500 comments, prompting Ebert to admit in a follow-up post that, while his opinion about games remained the same, his lack of familiarity with them should have prevented him from expressing that opinion.
As concessions go, this is pretty lukewarm. Acknowledging that he was unable to come up with a fully satisfying definition of art, Ebert concedes that, “I had to be prepared to agree that gamers can have an experience that, for them, is Art.”
That “for them” is key. It preserves the distance between games and art in a way that shows Ebert thinks it matters—even though he has professed puzzlement that gamers would think so. Near the end of his original post, he asks a question I find tremendously funny, coming from a movie critic:
Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?… Why aren’t [they] content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves?
If anyone should know the answer to this question, it’s Roger Ebert. For over forty years, he has failed to be content to watch his movies and simply enjoy himself. Something compelled him to go farther: to analyze the movies, write about them, talk about them, and take them seriously in a way that made the world take him seriously, too (he was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism).
And yet, he apparently can’t understand why gamers might feel the need to do the same with respect to games. That leaves us standing outside the great halls of art, shouting to get in. If the rest of the world saw games as art, we wouldn’t be nerds, talking about something the world considers terrible; we’d be Roger Eberts, talking about art.
Not that we aren’t already; there’s a gaming intelligentsia, an Internet community of critics and scholars who are already saying smart things about games and have been for some time. But gamers who write serious criticism are not the people who tend to get heard.
My deepest worry is that, if I talk only as a nerd to other nerds, what really matters about Metroid’s blue caves isn’t going to reach a wider audience. I’m worried about the insular, nerdy cage around video games, which keeps us from having a meaningful conversation with the world. It’s partly Ebert’s fault this cage is here, and it’s partly our fault.
Many nerds are fanatical about the recognition of games as art because they love games. But art depends on more than love. Art is something you rip into because it rips into you. The curse of the nerd is that the stubborn, defensive love we feel can sometimes turn into an unearned sort of love, in which we talk about how great games are without anyone challenging us to make them better.
So, let’s open up the conversation. Let’s talk about Metroid as art—terrible, enchanting art—and delve deep into its primitive blue caves, until we get down to what it confronts about being human: the truth of feeling alone and spooked and full of wonder.
- “Video Games Can Never Be Art” by Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, April 16, 2010.
- “Okay, Kids, Play on My Lawn” by Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, July 1, 2010.
- "Tim Burton on Dark Shadows: 'I Always Felt Like an Outsider," NME, May 14, 2012.
- “Ice Cave” © ezioman; Creative Commons license
- “Ice Tunnel on a Glacier” © Colin Higgins; stock photo
“Feeling good is nice, but sometimes it’s okay to feel sad or wistful or even a little uncomfortable. We remember that stuff—and it makes us think.” — “Your Summer Indie Game Guide”