Michael Thomsen has sparked a lot of community controversy this week with his IGN article and ABC News segment attempting to answer the oft-repeated question, "When will gaming have its Citizen Kane?" Thomsen asserts that it has already arrived in the form of 2002's Metroid Prime.
To give a little background, Thomsen does not even work as a reviewer for IGN, perhaps due to his aberrant views--he has previously praised Haze and Red Steel, two first-person shooters that were almost universally panned. I haven't personally played Metroid Prime, so I can't fairly agree with nor refute Thomsen's opinion, but I do disagree with his approach to the loaded question.
The games that I might consider art--ICO, Ikaruga, Resident Evil--even as they may draw on cinematic techniques, really strike me as closer to painting or music than to film in the ways that they engage players' emotions. Rather than attempt to tell profound and thought-provoking stories, these games use directed interactivity to construct moments that affect us as powerful images or phrases. Of course, I enjoy a good story as well, but I don't know if there are any in gaming that I would consider close to the best in film and literature. Rather, the closer games get to art, the more impossible it becomes to draw direct comparisons to those other narrative art forms. So the question, "When will gaming have its Citizen Kane?" seems to me poorly conceived in a way. I would agree with the implication of the question, however, that gaming is still an immature form that has yet to produce a work of high art comparable to Citizen Kane. So the real question is how long we will have to wait before gaming matures the way film did, or if it even can grow up and break out of its current narrow spectrum.
To me, what holds back gaming as an art form is, not so much the limits of the interactive medium, but rather the practical constraints of the industry. It is simply not feasible for a single artist to produce a major video game work without the backing of a large publisher, and that severely limits the variety of input. Not only are games very expensive to make, but it is exceptionally rare for one person to have the artistic vision as well as the arcane technical expertise--computer programming and art--to even get off the ground with an idea. Working under a publisher, art becomes subservient to business bottom lines, and escapism, most often taking violent forms, is what seems to sell. I think that is truly what is holding back gaming compared to all recognized art forms. While the movie industry may also be largely profit-driven, there are still independent films that can reach a significant audience.
Take Paranormal Activity, for example. An independent "mockumentary" horror film in the model of The Blair Witch Project, it now stands a chance also of duplicating that movie's unprecedented success. Directed by Oren Peli with a hand-held camera and an $11,000 budget, it has received favorable reviews across the board, even earning the praise of Steven Spielberg, while a quasi-guerrilla marketing campaign has generated a lot of buzz. In limited release, it has already grossed several times its production costs, and now Peli has secured a much larger budget for his next film. I have not seen Paranormal Activity, but the story behind it is what blows my mind. It blows my mind because I used to work next door to this guy.
At Sony Computer Entertainment America, Oren was the senior online programmer on MLB 06: The Show, while I was working in quality assurance as a tester principally assigned to the online component. Online was typically the most unstable part of any game, so Oren's name was quite familiar to those of us who had submitted many reports to the defect database; as senior online programmer, he was often listed as the guy assigned to the bugs I found. The relationship between programmers and testers was a delicate one--they often mistook our work as criticism of theirs--so I only once met him in person, when my thumbs were needed to demonstrate a difficult-to-reproduce crash bug that I had written up.
I had heard stories about this guy from the more veteran testers, but he was seemingly better known for his Israeli accent and tacky sweaters than for any of the work he did. During my brief meeting with him, he was relatively professional, but I also noticed that he seemed rather detached and dispassionate about what was to him just a job. That was not unusual among the programmers that I met, and I guessed that it was the crazy hours spent working on a yearly sports title that left these men hollow at the office. Now I know better that his heart was focused elsewhere on something real.
Oren was not really a young man then, and, although I never felt his inferior, his income must have been already several times my own. Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel inadequate considering where we have each gone since that encounter. But I digress.
The point is that, while money helps, vision and ambition can more than make up for limits of funding and equipment, and a small, independent team can put together a successful film. I just do not think the same is possible with video games, and I think Oren's case exemplifies that too. Because they are so technical, not just anybody with an idea can realize it as a game. And because they are so costly to produce, it is difficult for profit-driven publishers to justify taking chances. Yet that is really the only way for any art form to grow. Unfortunately, I really don't know how gaming can overcome this impasse toward art. Then again, I still have yet to play Metroid Prime, so perhaps I should get on that.