Looking back on that old “Can a videogame make you cry?” ad from EA, it’s clear now that the question it posed was irrelevant. If a movie as cynically manipulative as The Notebook can bring an audience of thinking adults to tears, it seems reasonable to ask why “induces weeping” should be numbered among the criteria for judging artistic merit. Yet the sentiments behind this question, with its crude understanding of art and our relationship to it, are the ones that guided gaming into an era where games seem to either take themselves ridiculously seriously or go out of their way to be inoffensive.
In this way, gaming has quite precociously caught up to the rest of our entertainment culture. The sharp division between “realistic,” “gritty” games and bright, cheery “all-ages” games is yet another manifestation of our flight from intellectual complexity and emotional nuance.
Consider the state of gaming in 2008. Mario and Link continue to have adventures in colorful and magical realms, a lot of JRPGs continue to offer classic stories of heroism and self-discovery in the lives of child-like protagonists and Sackboy sure wants everyone to have a nice time. On the other hand, gamers have also been invited to help Niko Bellic lose his soul (several times over in the course of a single game), wage endless, hopeless wars with Marcus Fenix and Nathan Hale or wander the wastes of post-nuclear war America.
None of this is meant as criticism of these games; whether or not they’re good is beside the point. Rather, I would argue that it’s entirely possible for the individual works to be improving in execution while the medium as a whole stagnates or even deteriorates. Sean Sands noticed the same troubling pattern in his “Playing It Safe” piece for Gamers With Jobs:
Individually I can take no exception with any of those games, except perhaps to say that I will look back and remember I liked these games without really remembering anything about them. … Call it idealistic longing for days gone and never to return, but I grew up in a time when games were daring. Now they are commodities, and worse they are so by choice.
It’s not difficult to see why the landscape seems so bland following a year that some might consider embarrassment of riches. Look at some of the biggest games of 2008. Most AAA productions were, for the most part, unsmiling and self-serious trips through hell. They were games like Grand Theft Auto IV, Gears of War 2, Metal Gear Solid 4, Fallout 3, Dead Space … you get the idea. At the other end of the spectrum were games like Super Smash Bros. Brawl, LittleBigPlanet, Wii Music and Mario Kart Wii. We’re in an age where everything is either too hard or too soft, too hot or too cold; and “just right” is nothing but a memory and a hope.
What is important to remember here is that videogames are hardly unique in this polarization. Our culture is beset by the same compartmentalization of emotional experiences. Though I’d never guess it from looking at our present-day mass entertainment, I’m pretty sure there’s more to life than farce, fairy tales and tragedy.
Neither film nor gaming always operated along such stark lines. In earlier periods for both mediums, creators enjoyed greater freedom to explore the characters, situations and feelings that comprise a life.
Let’s start with the movies. Gaming is probably more informed and influenced by film than any other art form. Where they have gone, we may follow. We should think about whether we want what lies at the end of that rainbow.
Consider this dilemma: My girlfriend and I want to go out for dinner and a movie. We go online and assess our options, only to find that every single one of the 32 screens in town is showing something that is either a waste of celluloid or an example of shoot-by-numbers filmmaking. Owen Wilson has a baaaad dog in Marley & Me, but he’ll grudgingly come to love it. So in case anyone missed Turner and Hooch or Beethoven, Fox 2000 Pictures has you covered. Both Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler have a movie out, and each is exactly what you would expect. There are two computer-generated talking animal movies. Alternatively, we could go see a romantic melodrama, or a World War II movie about good Germans trying to kill bad Nazis.
So we decide to stay in, as we usually do.
This is not a particularly unusual week for movies. It is increasingly difficult to find something worth two hours and $20 to go see, and a lot of films that do sound interesting are never screened in my town. The films with all the marketing money and the nationwide distribution are just variations on tired themes.
Compare this situation to films from the period between 1930 and 1960. Consider the list of producers, actors, directors and films that are connected with that era. Ernst Lubitsch and Darryl Zanuck. Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Hitchcock and Hawks. Citizen Kane and The Lady Eve. I could go on for pages listing the treasures.
The most striking thing about those movies is that they seemed able to do it all at once. They could blend slapstick comedy with sharp wordplay, dark menace with gentle humor. They were fun, and bravely so. The results were magical. Pauline Kael, in her discussion of Hud for Film Quarterly, wrote:
What gave the Hollywood movie its vitality and its distinctive flavor was that despite the melodramatic situations, the absurd triumphs of virtue and the inordinate punishments for trivial vice … the “feel” of the time and place came through, and often the attitudes, the problems, and the tensions. Sometimes more of American life came through in routine thrillers and prison-break films and even in the yachting-set comedies than in important, “serious” films. … Our movies are the best proof that Americans are liveliest and freest when we don’t take ourselves too seriously.
Sadly, Kael was writing in an age when American film was on a long retreat from greatness, and the situation has only gotten worse. Women have been marginalized. Entire genres have disappeared. The “screwball” romantic comedy was chopped like a stolen car, its pieces repurposed for different genres. Musicals have abandoned the screen for the stage once again. Suspense and film noir are also history now, supplanted by the infinitely less interesting slasher and horror genres.
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.
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.