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Ebert Likes Hitman, Hates Games

Roger Ebert just gave his first favorable review (as far as I'm aware) to a movie based on a videogame. Naturally this doesn't stop him from bashing games. But at least it's a slight variation in his normal behavior.

The [Hitman] movie, directed by Xavier Gens, was inspired by a best-selling video game and serves as an excellent illustration of my conviction that video games will never become an art form -- never, at least, until they morph into something else or more.

He goes on to explain how the story is not bad and that the movie actually has interesting characters. But this is all undercut, he claims, by the scenes of endless shooting in which 47 appears invincible and in which truck loads of people die. These scenes are "no doubt from the video game," he concludes.

Ebert's status as a crank when it comes to videogames is well documented. Yet it's still interesting to see just how ignorant he is of the medium, let alone the genres, he's criticizing. Anyone who's played Hitman knows that it's not about walking down hallways killing endless streams of people. It's about planning a hit for hours, getting every detail right, and then finally striking in total secrecy. A good player will not kill anyone except the person they are supposed to kill, which means the Hitman games often become excruciating studies at avoiding violence in every possible way.

Ebert is probably correct that the character development in the film (which I haven't seen) is deeper than what's in the game. The Hitman games have very little character development to speak of. 47 is a cold, haunted man who knows nothing but killing. He is a shell the player is meant to inhabit, and it is the player's job to think, plan, and be perfect. Else they're not a proper hitman.

I wonder if Ebert realizes stealth is a genre in videogames. He alludes in his review to the notion that 47 has lives. I wonder what would happen if someone told Ebert that Hitman doesn't have lives, that you quickly die if you run into a situation guns blazing, and that the entire point of the game is secrecy and strategy.

Just because the Hitman games are more about cunning than killing doesn't make them art. But it does make them completely different from what Ebert seems to think they are. It's maddening to think that mainstream critics, who function as cultural gatekeepers for the non-gaming public, assume all the bad bits of videogame movies are taken from the games and all the good bits are not. Any moment of absurd action, shallow characterization, or clunky storytelling is assumed to be the fault of the source material, not the filmmakers. Never mind that there are hordes of bad action movies choking the cinemas yearly that have nothing to do with videogames. Somehow every time a videogame movie sucks, it's the game's fault.

I don't mind if people think videogames are not art. Plenty of videogames are not. Some might be, but that's debatable. It's not such a horrible discussion to have. But if we're going to have it, it might be nice if those participating offered arguments based on more than stereotypes and second hand info. I'm trying to imagine a review where Ebert criticizes Hitman based on the shallowness of its mechanics or its lack of moral consequence for the players actions. Sadly, we seem decades away from this sort of conversation.

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