In an editorial titled "I'm Tired of Saving the World," Jason Lomberg at Joystiq writes about the trouble with video games:
Most games would rather task you with saving the world than with rocking a baby to sleep or patching up a failed relationship. This intransigence on the part of developers to create idiosyncratic stories that resonate with the individual is holding the medium back.
Why should gaming's prime inspiration be Michael Bay instead of David Lynch, David Mamet, Paul Thomas Anderson, or even Mel Brooks? An interactive medium like this has the potential to tell complex stories in ways that are sublime, irreverent, and evocative.
Gaming could explore the human condition by interfacing with the player like books, movies, and TV never could. Instead, we do battle with rogue Russian nationalists, storm Normandy for the 47th time, or fight off an alien invasion. I can't relate to any of this.
Outside of the occasional casual game (Jetpack Joyride currently owns my cortex) I don't play video games, partly because my hand-eye coordination is atrocious, and partly because I choose to read books instead, and I know that video games would swallow up all my spare time. I don't own a console—do they still call them consoles?—and while I try to keep up on what's popular in the gaming world, I basically don't know what I'm talking about.
But that's never stopped me before, so...
I don't think video games are quite at the point that Lomberg mentions here. Video games still seem, to me, to be very branch-oriented. You're given a binary choice of yes or no, and the game responds to that choice. I've played around with and enjoyed free-roaming games like Grand Theft Auto, but the first thing I do when I play those games is I try to figure out where the ends of the world are. I feel my way around the boundary and figure out what's possible and what's not possible. Soon enough, everything feels very small and closed-off. And games that I've played which are more story-oriented have long cut-scenes that basically take the choice out of the player's hands, reverting back to movies.
I have no doubt that video games are art. And I have no doubt that they are genuine narrative devices. But the thing that makes them a unique and exciting medium, to me, is that you are the protagonist of the story, and your choices affect the narrative. Maybe I want too much choice, and that would make the game cease to be a game? I want a Batman game where I can play a manic-depressive Bruce Wayne who just decides not to fight crime, or decides to reveal his secret identity to the world. Or a crime game where I can try to become a legitimate businessman on the earnings from a big bank heist.
It's entirely possible that I expect too much out of games right now. Maybe that's why my attention has always been more focused on "games" that are just online worlds, in which real human beings interact with other real human beings and the binary branches open up into virtually infinite possibilities, as they always do when other real human beings are involved. (I was interested in the idea of Glitch for a little while, but then when I started reading the forums, I became disillusioned pretty quickly.)
I just don't think a Paul Thomas Anderson-esque video game is possible yet, because the great thing about P.T. Anderson movies is that they each feel like enormous alternate worlds, where people make nontraditional choices and have to deal with the strange consequences of those decisions. If somebody made a video game that dealt with human situations like death and heartbreak and grief as patiently and as skillfully as The Descendents, I would be forced to buy my very first console. Or whatever they're called nowadays.