In the social media circles I frequent, Seth Schiesel recently unseated Roger Ebert as the punching bag of the moment. It's an interesting displacement when you stop to consider it.
Enthusiasts like me get bent out of shape when Ebert claims games "can never be art" (though, to be fair, his argument is a bit more subtle than that); but we get equally lathered up when the New York Times games critic succumbs to hyperbolic euphoria in his game reviews.
Ebert needs to wake up, and Schiesel needs to calm down, says the Twitterverse.
I mostly agree, but I also think it's possible to consider Schiesel's work in a more positive light. I'll give that my best shot in a moment. First, let's examine Schiesel's case file as a critic prone to gilding the lily. Yes, it bulges. Below are extracts from 11 of his reviews, published in the last 10 months, listed in reverse chronology.
Red Dead Redemption: "...it sets a new standard for sophistication and ambition in electronic gaming... The leading edge of interactive media has a new face."
Nier: "I cannot think of another single game of recent years that more faithfully represents the sheer intellectual breadth of modern video games."
MLB 10 The Show: "...perhaps the most finely calibrated, lusciously animated, fanatically detailed team sports game yet made."
Heavy Rain: "...no single-player experience has made me as genuinely nervous, unsettled, surprised, emotionally riven and altogether involved as Heavy Rain... Mr. Cage and Quantic Dream have put the world on notice that the future of video games may be closer than we thought."
Bayonetta: "...more alluring and more powerful than any big-budget game to come out of Japan in recent years."
Dragon Age: "...easily sails into the ranks of the best single-player role-playing games ever made... masterly in its overall design and conception... I felt as engrossed and simply swept away as any game has made me feel in recent years."
Assassin's Creed II: "...provides an unparalleled historical adventure along the lines of an interactive Dan Brown or James Clavell novel... conveys the unmistakably buoyant sense of a team of developers maturing as artists and growing into the full flower of their creativity and craft... demonstrate(s) just what wonder this relatively new form of entertainment can evoke."
Uncharted 2: "...a major step forward for gaming... no game yet has provided a more genuinely cinematic entertainment experience... the kind of game that will justifiably drive people to buy new televisions... The designers at Naughty Dog have absorbed the vernacular of film and then built upon it...to create something wondrous."
Brütal Legend: "...a deliriously inspired concept... No game so far this year delivers a deeper, more fully realized aesthetic experience."
Beatles Rock Band: "...nothing less than a cultural watershed... it may be the most important video game yet made."
Fight Night Round 4: "...a triumph... the greatest (boxing game) of all time. There has never been a more visceral, precise and natural electronic simulation of hand-to-hand combat."
Like many reviewers, Schiesel tends to evaluate games in comparative, rather than analytical terms. He appears to approach each game with a measuring stick that calculates the degree to which Game X advances the medium, pitted against other similar games.
Applying this metric, Schiesel sees Beatles Rock Band as the greatest music game ever made; Fight Night Round 4 as the greatest boxing game ever made; Uncharted 2 as the greatest cinematic adventure game ever made, etc. - and maybe he's not far wrong with any of those assertions. Nier is another story, but that's another post.
In a still young, fast-moving, technology-reliant industry like video games, it's easy to perceive iteration as milestone. Compare Uncharted 2 to Tomb Raider and ponder how far we've come in little more than a decade. To long-time gamers like Schiesel (and me) who vividly remember playing such games, Uncharted 2 can feel like a certain kind of miracle. Schiesel conveys that gleeful discovery in his writing, and I admire him for it.
Of course, if too many games are deemed 'important' or 'unparalleled,' those distinctions lose their value, and Schiesel has probably rung his bell too often and too loudly. I wonder, though, how Schiesel's distinctive position influences his coverage of games. Writing about games for the most influential newspaper in the world, I suspect Schiesel may frequently see himself as an advocate for games in a traditionally conservative print media environment.
When I read between the lines of his reviews, I often sense Schiesel pleading with his readers (and perhaps his editors) to pay attention, abandon preconceived notions, and give these ambitious games the respect they deserve. He's an advocate journalist, in this regard, for a medium that could use a few more such people in high visible places.
Maybe the rapturous Red Dead Redemption review that appeared in today's Times is precisely the same one Schiesel might have written for a personal blog, but I suspect not. I don't know. Guessing at someone's intentions is tricky business, and I probably shouldn't be doing it.
The problem with hyperbole as advocacy is that it soon begins to sound like desperation. It's the parent who calls me to brag about his kid who's applied for a scholarship. The more superlatives he waves around, the more I dread meeting his kid.
I think many of us, me included, have occasionally fallen into similar traps when we discuss and write about games. We so want our place at the table. We so want the world to understand why we love games and why they matter to us. We so want this game to help us make that case. Sometimes our effervescence overflows. Leave it to gamers to call us on it.