Let's forget for a moment that games are supposed to be fun. Fuck that. I'm going to argue on the basis that contemporary games are striving for one thing: respect as a medium, like film or poetry. Modern video games should want to be experiences, they should want to be more than just button-mashing. Hell, most contemporary games cost three times as much as a movie, contain ten times more content, and cost more people and more time to make. I'd be willing to contend that there is an even bigger independent side of video games than there is to the film industry, since making games is easier and more accessible now than making independent movies. Anybody can get ahold of a copy of Flash or Processing and make a game in a few days if they want to. A lot of people do (and there are a lot of shitty flash games because of it).
But there's something killing games more than all the shitty flash games combined, and that's multiplayer. Not multiplayer as a general concept, no, but rather the way multiplayer is driving the creation and marketing of games. Today, the best-selling and most far-reaching games are multiplayer-focused. Modern Warfare 2. The Halo trilogy. World of Warcraft. This is what's killing the future of games, and it's the same mistake movies made so long ago, an error that I hoped video games would learn from. But greedy people are everywhere, and video games turned big and corporate very quickly. The formula is simple, and we can painfully see it all the time at the box office: make a movie that has a highly marketable and simple plot and then make sequels. Video games are falling into the same formula.
People have praised games like Modern Warfare 2 and movies like The Dark Knight because while they were big-budget highly-marketable titles which made lots of money, they took risks or were generally unconventional. Immediately what springs to mind are the whole ideas of a superhero movie being successful and the now-infamous terrorist mission. Critics love this shit. They say these films and games deserve to make all the money, because they're close to art. I fail to see what makes the MW2 civilian slaughter mission anything close to art. I read a similar critical review on Destructoid or something, but I'll reiterate the point again, and with a broader focus: the whole point of video games and what sets it apart is the interactivity of it. I, as a player, have the power of choice. I control a character. But nowhere in the process of killing civilians in an airport can I choose to do anything else. There is no interactive narrative, just a linear sequence of events. However, most people ignore this and just go online to play the multiplayer.
Multiplayer... used to be a secondary thought, where it belonged. If anything, I wish more games just didn't have multiplayer. We haven't gotten close enough to properly expressing things through interactivity, let alone interactivity while playing with other humans. What do I mean? Well, take Modern Warfare 2. The single player campaign is remarkably short, it took me about four and a half hours to beat, and there was no real focus to it. You switch between characters so fast that you forget who you're playing as, and every mission is so needlessly intense that you forget why you're even fighting. Just run, shoot, throw a grenade, keep going, because if you stop another wave of enemies will respawn. The whole single player campaign just seems to be emulating a multiplayer environment. Nobody can say that the subject matter isn't completely open to numerous possibilities for deep experience: a lot of extremely touching human dramas center around warfare. And what could be more dramatic than experiencing that warfare through the eyes of a soldier? But those stories haven't been told through games yet. War games have only been simulations so far, instead of being stories.
But anyway, when you play MW2 online, the whole game is just running and shooting each other, over and over again. Same as Halo 3. And this is popular. Mindless, contentless interactivity. I don't see a difference between playing MW2 online and playing a point-and-click flash game online, because you're doing the same thing with the same goal (pressing buttons to collect points). The only difference is it took a lot of people to make MW2 and you paid $60 for it, whereas the flash game probably took one guy and it's free. Therefore, why is MW2 worth anything? We're paying only for how pretty it looks. (A lot of people paid to see Avatar for the same reason.)
There aren't many examples of single player done right. There aren't many instances of capturing and evoking emotion from a player through the medium of interactive storytelling. There are a lot of games that make you think; a lot of great indie games that inspire thought. But there are very few games that contain experience and emotion. There are plenty of movies that contain experiences, that when we watch them we feel something human from something external. I don't think there are any games that really amount to the same thing. There are a lot of games that try, and that make one or two good moves, but never quite get there. I think of Shadow of the Colossus, the Marathon trilogy, Half-Life 2, Ocarina of Time. Games that reveal things, and the experience of playing them reveals not only things in the game but reveal things in the player.
A counter-argument to my claim, one I hear often, is the idea that games exist on some kind of a different scale than movies or novels: that because of its interactivity, they inherently detach the player from becoming emotionally involved, which makes it harder to create experiences. The passive nature of movies allows a person to forget that they're watching a movie and open up to its story and characters. I believe that's complete bullshit. Well, the bullshit is that movies have anything over games. If anything, movies have it easy. It's easy to have someone sit down and zone out and feel something from a movie. Games require investment and involvement, an active hand in the story through the skin of a character as played by a human player. We, as players, are inhabiting the body of a character in a story, much the same way a first-person novel works. But novels also have it easy, but requires more thought than a movie. A book has to be read, you have to keep turning pages. A movie just requires hitting the play button. But books, obviously, contain stories and characters that have touched us. Why can't games?
Games require more, and because of that I'd say that the possibilities are much deeper for a game than for a movie. But we're ignoring those possibilities when we allow EA and Activision to pour millions of dollars into Guitar Hero and Call of Duty sequels. We care too much about graphics cards and voice acting and motion capture. We keep thinking that if we make games more like movies, they'll have a better chance of causing an emotional reaction. What we really need is simplicity, and we need purpose. Games don't allow room for a purpose. To feel empathy, we need to have a reason through some kind of relation to the character. These are the basic tenants of good storytelling: keep it simple, relate to us in universal ways. Make me, the player, feel as though I am the character. It's honestly so simple that people screw up, we get lost trying to make everything prettier and more realistic. Fuck realism. Star Wars isn't realistic. Citizen Kane is in black-and-white. Picasso didn't make the female form immediately apparent. Some of the best poems are not about anything easily recognizable. Realism has never been needed for artistic merit.
I'm going to use this last paragraph to provide two prominent exceptions to the whole "multiplayer sucks" complaint: Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2. These are biggest examples of multiplayer done right, nearing artistic merit. Perhaps it is because these games are purely multiplayer, and are supported by an awesome company that has extended the life of these games indefinitely. And it's simplicity that makes them topple games like Halo from a critical standpoint. Team Fortress 2 just provides characterization to its class-based gameplay, but that alone and the skill used to create those small glimpses is enough to enrich the experience of playing the game, so much so that you forget about really just playing a game and you are invested in the character you embody. I believe Left 4 Dead accomplishes this more than L4D2, just because the first game is simpler, and you had time to focus on the story more than the new weapons and maps.