Here's the thing: I love comic books. I grew upon them. While my mother gave me life, Marvel comics was my official wetnurse. I subscribed to the Fantastic Four during the mid-ninties (that period was not a high-water mark for the series); like most comic book nerds, I spent my pubescent years attaining a fine-grained recall of the history of the X-Men and admiring the colossal and statuesque slab of womanhood that was She-Hulk. (The Beatrice of my adolescence was a heady amalgamation of Stephanie Seymour and She-Hulk) I left off the habit during high school, not in order to acquit myself of nerdery entirely, but just to seek out other forms of nerdery (read: musical theater) that led to more promising (read: female) forms of social engagement.
But I developed a newfound respect for the medium during college, when I went back and read the work of Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and the critic Scott McCloud. This respect turned partially on my appreciation for the versatility and narrative depth possible within the confines of the traditional superhero genre, but also on the inherent formal possibilities of the medium: the way that the arrangement and organization of images in sequence could be used to reinforce, undercut and shape the meaning of the words and images themselves. There were self-conscious artists, like Moore, who were using these formal tools to expand the expressive range of the medium and tell different stories, stories that aspired to the complexity of characterization and formal rigorousness I demanded from other forms of art.
I could probably tell a similar story about my love of games, which I left off playing during my college years and rediscovered as a graduate student. Games are a young medium with a lot of potential-- maybe even a greater porential than comics-- but they've been shoehorned into catering into the narrative and experiential needs of the teenage male. But like many gamers of my age and tastes, I hope for a future where video games break out of the historical path laid out by comics. The hoped-for scenario goes like this: the audience for video games expands to the degree that the public comes to regard them as one form of entertainment among others, and begins to become economically viable to make products that reach beyond the teen male demographic. There will be, as there is for cinema and television and literature, a creative space large enough to sustain a wide range of games with different sorts of artistic and narrative ambitions. The development of the medium so far offers grounds for hope on this front, especially as gamers mature and come to demand this sort of thing.
But there is also, in the form of the cultural history of comic books, what I call “The Nightmare Scenario.” A confluence of factors (craven self-censorship brought on by public hysteria over the effect of violence and sex on children, lack of nerve on the part of the artists and writers and editors, a business environment that favors creative conservatism) led comic books down the road to ghettoization in popular culture.
Psychonauts developer and writer Tim Schafer offered a well-fleshed out synopsis f the nightmare scenario in an excellent interview with Playboy magazine: “The thing that scares me most about the games industry is what's happened to the comic book industry. Comic books are an incredibly powerful art form as well, but they've been relegated to kid stuff for so long that now the comics that aren't kid stuff are called "underground" comics. So the comic books that are mature and have adult themes and are about emotional issues and are really powerful, those are underground? Those are the ones that should be the most mainstream because they apply to all people, not just the plots that are supernatural or fantasy oriented. So I feel comics is a medium that hasn't found its whole potential because it got locked into a limited corner of popular culture. Games could be teetering on the edge of that. And the problem is that very few publishers want to go in the directions that I'm talking about. A lot of the fans do, but there is no publisher in the world who is saying right now they believe games are art. They just want to go after where the money has been so far. And that's exactly the kind of thinking that killed the comics industry”
I wish I knew how games are going to find a different path; from the perspective of cultural history, they share so much with comics. Even if they have all this potential as a medium, it will matter naught if the audience for the games that realize this potential are a niche within a niche. Shafer's comments are primarily directed towards the business side of things, and as I've written before I think a lot of the responsibility for the creative narrowness of games lies at the feet of the publishers. But as the audience we share some of the blame as well. Who's to blame for Psychonauts being a colossal, developer-bankrupting failure? How about Okami? It might be promotion-- these games have an audience who would love them if they only knew they existed-- but at the end of the day the reality is that there isn't an audience for these games, at least not yet. And where there is no audience there is no economic wherewithal to support creatively ambitious games. Gamers are the only ones who can save the future of the art form from the nightmare scenario, and so far we haven't done much to sustain any optimism for that future.
Addendum: Steve Gaynor has a great article on the comics versus games issue, which raised some hackles and put forth some great points I didn't touch on here. It also led to some good commentary and exchange, so check it out.