Adam Sessler. He could be considered the progenitor, his career a genesis. The things he says and does have gone from shenanigans on television to poignant soapboxes on the Internet, but they’ve all been on the forefront of something that probably should not even exist for an industry half the world seems to only begrudgingly accept. For me, he was the realization that games journalism could even be, like, a thing.
Yet his retirement from his post as the old guard came and went without much fanfare. Perhaps it’s because he’s not leaving the industry completely or—and understandably so—it was the shooting at Fort Hood, but even then, that passed just as quickly, and far more regrettably so. But it seems to be a statement that we simply don’t intuit impact as readily as we once did. Internet memes and the rise of websites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy are likely to be the blame for that.
Sessler, however, did have an incredible hand in shaping the industry as we know it today. Whether you like him or not, he legitimized much of what you consider, well, normal. Since emerging on TV in 1998 with ZDTV, Sessler took his English literature degree and applied the same in-depth analysis deserved by the likes of The Catcher in the Rye to games like WWF Attitude.
Well, maybe not immediately, but he certainly got there. Games back then (and currently, as well, but that’s for another time) struggled with their identity as something beyond an evolution of quarter-sucking machines. They needed someone to go beyond the idea that only those enmeshed in their creation and their playing could develop opinions about their content and their context. They needed someone who could comment simply on their existence.
It started slowly. Skits were dominant especially in the early years of X-Play (shifting from Extended Play and GameSpot TV before that), perhaps the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine not get coughed up like a dry, lumpy rock. But eventually, and likely subconsciously, it was taken as a challenge when legitimate criticism was put on a nationally televised stage.
Almost like a starter pistol, it was like a sign that we, as an audience, were ready for games that did more than suck away our time. There’s nothing wrong with that just as there is nothing wrong with movies that exist solely to show off explosions and cool fight scenes, but games lacked the analog to the film industry’s growing collection of society-shaping and culture-defining movies that did what they did by virtue of their content rather than their simplistic existence.
Obviously a collective, interwoven series of consequences and implications, our current state of the gaming union is now there. Or at least it’s close. Even if the technology necessary to produce the experiences of games like Gone Home and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons existed back then, would anyone have appreciated them? Doubtful. And now here we are.
After helping pave the way for such growth and maturity, Sessler then took to his analytical roots once more. After showing that there was a need and an audience for games journalism beyond magazines full of cheat codes and “fun factor” review scores, he decided the bar that he just told everyone about needed to be raised.
And he continued to nudge it higher and higher. It’s no accident that some of my favorite (and other journalists’ favorites, too) content of his is his more recent work. In the opening moments of his review of BioShock Infinite, he nails with surgical precision every theme the game stands upon and the reason why it’s so damn impressive. Then, in his review of The Last of Us, he shows off his English muscles and sculpts art with his words, sentences that demand an audience in a museum.
Even with less thematically dense games, he pulls of the same degree of critical thinking. He extracts the single most interesting thing from one of the most dauntingly large games in existence with Grand Theft Auto V when he mentions the idea that Franklin’s roots also prevent him from growing. With Infamous: Second Son, he breaks down with deft hands what makes the colors of the game so interesting. The colors.
To me, Sessler’s thoughts on games are always worth hearing, even if you don’t agree with them. His mentality towards the practice is something more people—not even just critics and journalists—could hold dearly. There are still others in the field that continue to work so dutifully and artistically in the role. Kirk Hamilton at Kotaku. John Teti at Gameological So—err, The A.V. Club. John Walker at Rock, Paper, Shotgun.
But few expanded the arena we find ourselves in every day as much as Sessler. His move into consultancy makes sense; he forged much of the path we walk when we comment on the meta and the context of the industry and not just simply report on it. He even became the figure for it when Fox News discussed violent video games. But hate him or love him for all his gravelly voice, balding head, and evocative opinions, his presence in this broken, angry, exciting, endearing field of games journalism is something to be missed.