The Ten Games Roger Ebert Should Play

By James Hawkins in Lists!
Thursday, July 29, 2010 at 9:00 am
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The Ten Essential Artistic Games
 months ago, Roger Ebert wrote an essay claiming that video games, in principle, could not be art. His reasons were concise and logical -- he systematically took apart the arguments of a specific gaming professional, citing many high-minded doctrines and quoting other non-gamer figures in the art realm.

More recently, he has withdrawn his statement, saying that though he was right, he should never have voiced his opinion in the first place -- especially since he has no experience with video games firsthand. 

But his insistence to write thousands of words on the subject has opened up a discussion that has become the progenitor for some of the most articulate and thoughtful debates in the short history of video games.

And though his simple placating of the masses has hushed the discourse, his opinions and axioms have forced we gamers to think about why such statements can be made about the games that affect us so deeply.

So, here at Joystick Division, we have compiled a list of games that, if played, would give someone the requisite knowledge and understanding of the video game experience to allow them to make an educated judgment on the medium. 

Someone very much like you, Mr. Ebert.

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10. Psychonauts
In Psychonauts, we get to experience a collage of artistic elements wrapped up into a tightly narrated, well-developed story. Surrealism, fantasy, allegory, self-discovery.

Our hero has the ability to see inside the minds of those around him. Each mind he encounters is unique and nuanced. The surroundings are permeated with symbols and motifs that explain the characters' inner motives, literally, though they are often clandestine.

The the narrative is steeped in themes of defiance and discovery. The main character Raz typifies one of the classic literary heroes: he is cast into a world where he has no control, where the understanding of his self must coincide with his ability to protect those around him.

Though it is cartoonish and self deprecating, Psychonauts succeeds where many series works of young adult fiction and film do: on a superficial level, it seems to be targeted to a younger audience, but the dialogue is rife with complex subject matter and humor that can be appreciated by a much more mature player.

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9. Portal
Portal is a prime example of the true video game storytelling method. Many of the stories in games are told with a cinematic grandeur, using famous cinematographic methods, story devices, and plot vehicles that are found in movies. Portal utilizes none of these -- it divulges a story to the gamer in a purely un-cinematic way.

It is told entirely though the first-person, where the events unfold as you, the gamer, encounter them. Comprehension of the setting, the characters, and the events must be achieved, like a belabored turn of a page in a science-fiction novella. The puzzles aren't simply fantastic gameplay mechanics that are intended to impress -- they are pieces of the world that must be put together. And they create a tense, hilarious place.

The villainous AI GLaDOS, video gaming's HAL, is a quintessential science fiction character.  She charms and humors, slinging witty vitriol at our poor heroine, while wielding a dangerous power and gruesome motives.

The story itself is akin to any story of struggle. Take themes from 1984 or Brave New World -- the story of the One trying to overcome the stranglehold of the power structure is a classic device -- and put it in a world where, to discover the outcome, you must work for it. That's a video game narrative at its essence.

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8. Braid
Mr. Ebert has already written this game off before, claiming that it "exhibits a prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie." To be fair, though, we must look at art not as a measure of fidelity, but as a measure of content. 

Joan Miro, one of most acclaimed surrealist painters of his generation, was extremely limited when it came to technical ability. Instead, his works succeeded on his ability to manipulate real life on canvas in a way that was thought-provoking and affecting. He is merely one example.

Braid's narrative brillaince isn't revealed in the way the words are arranged on the screen. It isn't even because of the time-reversal mechanic. It is found in how the story blends memory, motivation, and regret to explore how they can plague one another -- how our psyches are fluid and often untenable.

So, when adjudicating a human creation, it is important to look beyond the technical. Braid's story is one that any person can connect with -- the story of mistakes and guilt, of lost love and a realization within ourselves that we want to put away and never look at again.

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7. Shadow of the Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus is an epic tale -- one that draws upon mythology and medieval epic poetry. The plot is simple, but the story is resolutely not. The hero, named Wander, must kill the sixteen colossi that reside in the world so that he may resurrect a girl that has been sacrificed.

The game deals directly with killing these beasts, and it is a straightforward journey. But in the long silences that rest in Wander's ears as he gallops along to slay his next victim allow for reflection and give the gamer a chance to sort out the paradox of the quest. Does the life of one person take precedence over the lives of the sixteen you slay? Are you a hero for saving the girl? Or do you represent the unrelenting destruction that man has loosed upon the world to perpetuate his own luxury -- wiping the creatures from the earth, creatures that cannot be replaced or recreated.

In addition to these difficult questions, the game has one of the most breathtaking, grandiose presentations of any game in history. Each frame looks to be crafted by a skilled hand holding a paintbrush. And in many ways, they were.

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6. Red Dead Redemption
Rockstar's latest game is one that wears its cinematic influences on its sleeve. It is one of the most filmic video games ever created, and it is unabashedly a salute to the great Westerns that came before it. There have been plenty of great films that have showcased obvious elements from other works, teetering between parody and homage. Red Dead Redemption does that brilliantly, while still keeping its own distinctive voice and originality.

The story is chock full of references to The Wild Bunch, Rio Bravo, and The Ballad of Josey Wales. It appraises the rituals that precede violence like Once Upon a Time in the West. John Marston, the stoic main character, is a shining example of the kind of booze-soaked, shit-kicking outlaw that is trying to reform.

But it isn't an exercise on plagiarism -- not in the slightest. The story of Red Dead Redemption is more than a two-hour feature at the cinema; it is the exploration of an entire world during a pivotal time in history. The actions of the characters and the changing of the landscape are permeated by a bullish sense of decay. One that pulls you along with it.

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