Recently, gaming has had a number of smart, subtle games that are a credit to the medium. Games like Braid, World of Goo, and Portal are examples of what is possible when smart, passionate developers have the freedom to try something new. But these games evince the same segregation we see in film. Two of them were about as indie as you can get, and the last was produced by Valve, a private company largely free from the influence of faceless investors and successful enough that it can take risks. All these artists produced their best work in spite of a system dominated by studios and publishers, respectively.
That should be a big warning to anyone who is passionate about this medium, because right now the business of gaming is forcing the art of gaming to the fringes. Gamers who want games packed with sophistication and nuance are increasingly relying on flash games and low-budget indie productions, while the AAA experiences for the "mass gamer" slide by on slick production values and sullenness masquerading as gravitas. Kael could have been writing about us when she described the tragedy of the movies in The New Republic: "The mass audience gets the big empty movies full of meaningless action; the art-house audience gets its studies of small action and large inaction loaded with meaning."
There are those who don't see a problem in any of this. After all, "business is business," and artistic concerns will always give way to commercial considerations. But before we accept such complacency, we need to ask whether this really is good business.
The movies offer some evidence that it's not. The Golden Age of Film was not one of commercial failure. In many ways, the movie business was healthier. Discussing the Golden Age in The Whole Equation, film historian David Thomson points out that it could rely on much, much larger audiences then as opposed to now. From 1929 to 1950, "when the population went from 120 million to 150 million," at least 60 million people went to the movies each week. In 1946, it was 100 million each week. Think about that: When Hollywood was producing its best work, at least half the country went to the movies every week. That's big business. Toward the end of the book, Thomson talks about the state of the movie business in 2003 (as The Lord of the Rings trilogy came to its close). Weekly attendance was 25 million, in a country of 270 million people.
The endgame of the blockbuster business model is an industry that borders on cultural irrelevance and caters to the ever-shrinking audience that it knows how to reach. The game industry, embracing that business model and its condescending assumptions about audiences' intelligence and sophistication, has started giving gamers the kind of simplistic choices and worldviews that make for decent, predictable sales and limited creative risks. But forcing audiences to choose between "gritty realism" and "feel-good fun" leads to no feeling so much as indifference.
Rob Zacny is a freelance writer. When not focused on gaming, he pursues his interests in Classics, the World Wars, cooking and film. He can be reached at zacnyr[at]gmail[dot]com.