Peter Travers – The Anti-Ebert

As a lifelong fan of film and game alike, I’ve been increasingly frustrated in the seeming critical divide between these two art forms.  Roger Ebert, famously has stated that games can never be art, my open letter to him drew a lot of attention, and has yet to yield a response from anyone at the Chicago Sun-Times.

This month, however, Peter Travers, the famed film critic of Rolling Stone magazine, still one of the premier print magazines for music, politics, film, and increasingly gaming, started his movie reviews column with a rare 3 1/2 star review of… Grand Theft Auto IV.

The bright red headline screams from the page, below a shot of GTA IV’s protagonist Niko Bellic

“Screw Hollywood, Go Game”

Travers, as much a giant in film criticism as Ebert himself not only headlines his monthly reviews section with Grand Theft Auto, he revels in it.  As if speaking from Dan Houser’s subconscious, he slyly slams the anti-game crusaders.  He’s played the game, he’s beaten the game, he understands the game, from the tragic storyline to the biting satire.  Of the game’s supposed threat to society he muses “Note to the moral hand-wringers: Yes, GTA IV is brutal, bloody, debased, debauched, and likely to corrupt the innocent after, say, 400 hours of play.  But let’s keep the innocent out of this.”

Of the game’s script he writes “It’s a rare video game that enters territory marked by Scorsese and Tarantino.  But writers Dan Hauser and Rupert Humphries have created the vid version of film noir with dialogue that crackles even in the film’s darkest shadows.”

Even for all his praise of GTA IV, he recognizes the distance games have to go, and the challenges ahead of it.  It would seem to me that Travers, as entrenched as he is in the art of Film, is pulling for a revolution in interactive storytelling.

“I’ll resist to the last, trading human drama for virtual reality.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t wonder for a minute what it would be like to grab a controller and follow the characters in No Country for Old Men and There WIll Be Blood into corners their creators never imagined.”  Travers wonders who the visionary might be to “raise interactive video to the level of cinematic art”.

He suggests James Cameron, he derides Michael Bay.  I would add Steven Spielberg to the short list, as I would Ken Levine, he of the brilliant BioShock, and Dan Houser of Rockstar himself.  I’ve long been of the opinion that video games have a far broader definition of artistic merit than film.  Just as there are arthouse films, there are arthouse games.  One need look no further than Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and Rez to find the sorts of wonderment video games are capable of, things beyond the reach of even the most skilled cinematic auteur.

Peter Travers represents to me the Anti-Ebert as far as video games go.  As he ends his review, he claims that artistically, “GTA IV qualifies as a wow of a start.  It’s not this game that spits you out feeling brain-numbed and dead-ended.  It’s Hollywood.  You leave GTA IV – if you ever do – thinking, “So many possibilities.”

So many possibilities, indeed.

Is Grand Theft Auto IV Actually the Best Popcorn Movie of the Summer? – The Travers Take (Text identical to review appearing in RS issue 1055)

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