Electronic games are dead. Long live electronic games!
Originally published in May 2002.
Historical note: This is a pure opinion piece - I must have been between games.
Back when I started playing, in the early 1980s, computer games were the sole province of geeks, nerds, eggheads, and other assorted socially-marginal types. That legacy of a small target market has hampered the acceptance of computer and console gaming as a “legitimate mainstream” form of entertainment. Coupled with the collapse of the console market in the mid-80s, the electronic gaming industry has been fighting an uphill battle to establish legitimacy as medium for delivering entertainment to the yearning masses.
However, during the past few years the electronic game industry has witnessed a major change in attitude from the more established entertainment mediums, especially movie-makers. The crossover of movies into electronic games and electronic games into movies has recently achieved an aura of standard operating procedure. Both sides of the equation seem to take it as inevitable that action games will be transferred into movies and action movies into games. This turn of events leads to the unavoidable question: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Unfortunately, many of the game-based movies of the past have been – well, lousy. No real plot, no vision, bad acting, bad directing, and bad writing have all played a part in making these ventures both an artistic and economic flop. These previous forays into game-based movie making were obvious attempts at exploitation and not serious attempts at making a movie.
But I have been encouraged by the last three movies with game lineage that I have seen. Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy, and Resident Evil all had something more to give in terms of movie making then just rehashes of electronic games. These movies were made by people with an understanding of both movies and the games from which they stem. Perhaps we are witnessing the dawn of a new generation of filmmakers whose life experience include both a love of movies and of electronic games.
I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille
At the risk of sounding like a history professor (and a bad one at that), in the early years of movie making that medium also suffered ridicule and critical panning. Movies were considered a novelty, mildly intriguing, lightly amusing, but not really entertainment and certainly not art. Over the years, not only has film making become a mainstream form of entertainment but it has also become an art form. The sequence is similar for the television medium.
This transition from novelty to mainstream entertainment art form has not been fully realized in the electronic game industry. The status of electronic gaming must rise to the level of an art form, not only in the developers mind but in the mind of the public. This also means that game developers have to take their craft to the next level. By that I mean, games must be created from the ground up as a medium to tell a story. The interactivity inherent in computer games married to human imagination can transport players into places and events they could not experience in real life nor in movies. The true potential of the medium has not been reached, but this next generation, having grown up in the information age, is poised to reach that potential.
I have been encouraged by many of the recently released games. Game makers seem to have renewed their commitment to quality and craftsmanship. While many of the games are not groundbreaking or very innovative, they definitely exhibit a level of attention to details that was missing just a year ago. For example, most of the recently released games have not required the immediate download of a patch to make the game playable. Last year, smart players downloaded patches and had them ready to go before they actually purchased the game.
The beauty of the art work, the sophistication of the programming, the detailed writing and even some acting are all evident in so many recent games that I am giddy at the prospects of what comes next. Much of this renaissance in game development can be traced directly to the increasing status of electronic games as a mainstream medium for entertainment. The influx of creative influences from other industries is pervasive and the influx of new investment is reflected the in quality of the games.
However, with this influx of money comes a demand for a return on that investment. This has lead to a certain amount of industry contraction as developers are laid off and development houses are closed. Unfortunately, many of these game developers were also considered by the gaming consumer to be the best at their profession. The closing and absorption of these creative people and companies has created a vacuum that must be filled by independent developers. Just like independent filmmakers, we must look to these independent game developers for the next innovation in computer games.
When I'm good I'm very good, but when I'm bad I'm better
So that that brings us to my initial question, is this good or bad? In the long term, for the health of computer games specifically and electronic games in general, I believe this is a good thing. The new influx of talent and investment will increase the quality of games developed and make those games more accessible to the general public. It will also increase the number of available titles and genres as companies try to reach the largest number of consumers. As electronic gaming becomes more mainstream it becomes more marketable and more attractive as an investment. The quality and sophistication of games, technically and artistically, will only get better.
But I also believe this transition means an end to the unfettered pioneering spirit of game development. Games developed in garages and basements will still be around, but they will be hard to find and definitely not mainstream. The crossover of games and movies has convinced me more than ever that electronic gaming has become big business with all the benefits and pitfalls that that may bring. My little obscure obsession has succumbed to capitalists and is now an attractive investment. I’m feeling nostalgic for the good old days already.