Gaming has started down the same road. Leaving aside the question of whether games were better in the past, what kinds of stories were told a decade ago as opposed to now? We had the adventure genre alive and well; LucasArts put out brilliant comedies right and left, sparkling with the sharp wit and interesting characters that drove the comedies of old Hollywood. Sierra had people like Jane Jensen crafting great stories that made the adventure genre live up to the name. Lawrence Holland's World War II flight sims (Their Finest Hour, Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe) gave audiences the excitement and daring of the air combat of our popular imagination. These are games whose like we rarely see anymore, if at all.
It's no accident that the experiences offered by videogames are becoming as unvaried as those we find in movie theaters, because gaming looks up to film as the senior medium. The games business resembles the movie business more with every passing year, as evidenced by the way both increasingly lean on sequels and proven intellectual properties. Both game developers and critics look to the movies for inspiration, comparisons and instruction. Together, both economics and technique are dragging games toward an artistic cliff.
For years, game developers talked about making experiences that were more "cinematic." That ambition hasn't completely vanished, and is sometimes treated as an absolute good. In a piece on "Missing Gamers" (people who used to play games and no longer do), Andy Robertson challenged these former players' preconceptions about gaming by having them play Heavenly Sword. He writes, "Once we got them playing it, though, they were genuinely impressed at both the well-directed storytelling and general filmic quality of the experience. 'I actually forgot I was playing a video game and not watching a film at one point,' was probably the highest praise we had from one of our gamers." The implication is clear: When games are more like films, they are a more legitimate form of entertainment and expression. What good is legitimacy, however, when there are such strict limits placed on how mature, smart, incisive, discomfiting or wry a work is allowed to be?
Let me be clear: Great games, full of wit, whimsy and poignancy have managed to reach audiences. Just as there are still some films that express more than a few simple thoughts and feelings. Here too, however, the similarities between the two mediums are quite striking.
An artist like Woody Allen chose to avoid the major movie studios altogether. In the last decade, Pixar has emerged as one of the few places left where great American filmmaking is still happening. Appealing to children and their families, with plenty of solid hits behind it, Pixar can smuggle a lot of complexity and nuance into its films. Heath Ledger was able to create the most memorable, haunting and elusive character in American movies of the last decade, because the character he portrayed was The Joker. The strength of the property freed the cast and crew of The Dark Knight to be daring.