I am willing to bet that if you have seen a silent movie, it was made well before your birthday. There might be a chance that you’ve seen some obscure art-house silent film made in recent years, but the chances of that are slim enough for me to confidently make this wager. Not having seen a silent movie is nothing to be ashamed of. Some could argue (pompous academics mostly) that there are only a few gems from the silent film era. Those cinematic masterpieces may very well be rife with artistic merit, or possibly entertaining. To some (again, pompous academic types), they are just as entertaining as anything made today that makes use of the advancements in sound, color, and special effects. I personally don’t think they are; entertaining, that is. I wonder if the best selling video games of twenty, or even just ten years ago, will have the same rate of dwindling appeal.
At the moment it is difficult to name a top-selling video game (other than sports titles) of this console generation that is not a FPS. There are quite a few games that rank up there, but they’re often the only representative of their respective genres in any top ten sales list; there’s usually just one RPG, adventure, or sidescroller sandwiched between the latest installment of Call of Duty, Halo, or Gears of War (for the sake of argument, I’m lumping games that use a close-up over-the-shoulder third person view with FPS titles). This POV in games is pervasive not just on consoles; it’s also typical of PC games not made by Blizzard. I am not bemoaning this fact. I’m simply wondering what’s going on here.
Despite a great preponderance of best selling and upcoming big budget FPS games, there are still a multitude of popular titles from other genres. Turn-based strategy games, side scrollers, fighting games, and several others are still being released, alongside newly developed hard-to-define genres. These genres are just made on a much more modest budget and targeted at a smaller audience. This market environment of a big selling genre among hundreds or thousands of others that make up a miniscule fraction is mirrored in the film industry right now. At the moment you’d be hard pressed to name a movie with a total international gross above $200 million that is not an action flick heavily laden with digital effects. Crowded at the bottom are movies that get released internationally but were made with less than ten percent of the budget of a Transformers, superhero, or alien invasion film. Further at the bottom but even more numerous are art house movies, along with locally produced and released films. Why this is the current situation in the film industry is not what gives me cause to wonder. Thinking of the future of video games and the possible similarities with the movie making business does.
Let’s revisit the silent film era, and ask, why did it end? It should be obvious–at least, I think so. The addition of sound enriched the possible dimensions of filmmaking and gave directors greater options for storytelling. Sound brought action to life with audio effects, dialogue actually became worthy of filming, and suspense could be heightened simply by the temporary suspension of audio. If it were the goal of films (at least mainstream films) to tell an involved story, sound is an unquestionable boon to the medium. This path of technological advancement allowed the film industry to fully explore its sensorial capabilities, so much so that a film can now completely engross your sight and hearing, causing you to overlook the more nuanced features of a film. With that much sensory overload, a film can easily be made that satisfies any audience no matter its language or culture.
My wondering brings me to this question: is something similar shaping the future of video games, and is the FPS the form that parallels the special effects action film? Both the film industry and the video game industry are just that: industries. The people, or corporate entities, that put up the money to create these endeavors want their money back, with a little profit. To do this they have to make products that fundamentally fulfill the purpose of their medium, or at least bet on what seems to sell across demographic lines. While (mainstream) movies have the purpose of telling an involving story, the underlying purpose of video games seems harder to peg down. They both share a sense of escapism, with video games perhaps relying on that more. After all, control of at least some aspects of a game are in the player’s hands. Through an FPS, players can escape into a whole new identity where the only the reminder of its falsity is the screen itself.
Technological advancement is what allowed the development of the FPS, bringing the player close to the inner mechanics of the game. Early games featured perspectives pulled far back from the action, accommodating the crude pixelated graphics. With each subsequent breakthrough, the games’ POV got closer and closer to the action and the moving parts became prettier until they were finally good enough to look at up close. Games can now tell a story with cut scenes, voice acting, and characters that emote.
These technological advancements emulate film’s progress and their abuse of certain features as well. The FPS is the closest the player can get to the workings of the game and the easiest in which to forget your own senses. The entrepreneur who is willing to put up the capital for the development of a video game need look no further for a great formula with which to reach the masses at their lowest common denominator.
So if escapism is the general purpose of video games, my thoughts on the progression of video games paralleling movies is actually more of a prediction. This prediction doesn’t bring me down, at least not completely. It would nice to see a turned based strategy game get the same budget of the latest Battlefield, but it’s not that important. As long as the graphics are clean, that’s all that matters to me. It’d also be nice to see a movie made in between the scale of a tiny artsy movie made for nothing and a +$100 million visual feast. There are also some benefits to this kind of game market, especially if you like sounding arrogant (like the pompous academics mentioned above). Soon. when non-phone games become as pervasive as cinematic features, it will be easy as hell to be an art snob just by enjoying any game this isn’t the fifth iteration of the current best selling game series. Or you could just be content with the fact that almost every type of game is still being made, and if it’s not a FPS, and if it’s made by a smaller art-house-type studio, it’s probably priced much lower than $59.99.