The Freedom to Kill Horses, and What That Does

“The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.”

G Man (Half Life 2)


The ongoing re-realization that Roger Ebert is dead and will remain so from now until I join him has been difficult for me.1 This is not because he managed to see every movie I ever have and more, and to write reviews for nearly all of them which, though never fully getting away from the malignant expectation of a star rating or a firm yes-or-no recommendation, managed to contain a level of consistent thoughtfulness which stood out from the majority of review-criticism.2 Nor is it that he managed to eschew much of the common ire and vitriol that plagues criticism in many circles today: I never got the impression that Ebert saw movies as some sort of obligation, or that his main focus was in trying to find movies that weren’t worth anyone’s time and then writing angry screeds about them. Nor is it even that he is a major reason that so many of the critics and filmmakers I love are who, what, and where they are. He did do all these things, of course, and they do make his death frustrating, but the relevant issue here is that this means there will never be a time when the person I and everyone I know immediately think of when we hear the word “critic” will be able to properly have The Video Game Discussion. And this is difficult not just because it has far too much finality in it for me to handle, but because one of the world’s foremost critics being actively engaged in the game community could have been enormously helpful indeed. Of course he didn’t singlehandedly spark the world’s interest in film criticism,3 but he was a big part in it, and this ability to both engage the public mind about something and also to reliably articulate a thoughtful position on that very thing is one thing among many that game culture needs right now. This is not to say that I would like to have seen him live long enough to change his mind, though.4 Rather, I would have liked to have seen him put his considerable analytical and writing skills together with an actual working understanding of the gaming medium, so as to come up with a rigorous critique of the medium. This is partly because Ebert had a pretty massive cultural reach which isn’t shared by even the most prominent contributors to his eponymous website,5 but mostly because his failure to do this makes me feel the need to do it myself, which I’m sorry to say is a bit of a step-down in both reach and ability. Continue reading

  1. I suppose he’ll remain dead after I am as well, but I doubt I’ll mind as much then.

  2. I am, with the term “review-criticism,” enforcing what is largely an artificial separation between it and what one could call longform criticism. But regardless of the distinction’s artificiality, I find it useful to keep in mind that some reviews are written more or less as buying guides—the operative question always being “should I pay money to see this?”—while others are written without such concerns—the operative questions being myriad, complex, and usually far too wordy.

  3. Pauline Kael helped, obviously.a

    a Though, notably, only semi-film nerds will know who that is or understand that it’s tongue-in-cheek.

  4. For those who are somehow simultaneously interested enough in game criticism to read this, but not interested enough to know Ebert’s history with it: he was firmly in the “games can’t be art” camp.

  5. NORMAL PEOPLE, CALLING ALL NORMAL PEOPLE: do names like Matt Zoller Seitz, Anthony Lane, Kristin Thompson, David Bordwell, Peter Travers, Armond White, David Edelstein, Mike D’Angelo, Dana Stevens, A.O. Scott, André Bazin, and the aforementioned Pauline Kael mean even one twenty-fourth of a thing to you? Exactly: most of these people could find a cure for cancer in one of their pieces and we wouldn’t even notice, and this despite many of them being excellent writers and thinkers. This is more our problem than theirs, of course, but it’s illustrative of why having a big mouthpiece like Ebert on your side is helpful, for marketing if nothing else.