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Here It Comes

Written By mista sense on Friday, May 9, 2008 | 11:42 AM

Is it just me, or has gaming been suffering a little identity crisis lately?

First up, the pace at which we hear film adaptations announced is picking up. We've got Street Fighter, Prince of Persia, and in case you haven't checked your feeds this morning, guess what? BioShock, to be directed by Gore Verbinski.

I've written before about entertainment media convergence -- both the case in favor, and the case against, with each standpoint arguing why this sort of progress could be either good or bad for the industry. Just yesterday, Activision saw a mindblowing ratcheting-up of its profits, announcing a record fourth quarter without even releasing any games during that period. The lion's share of that windfall is entirely thanks to two franchises: Guitar Hero and Call of Duty. And you know what that means: get ready for more sequels and tie-ins than you can shake a controller at.

Why has this distinctive games-as-Hollywood vibe come flooding in all of a sudden? For one thing, gaming continues to thrive as a big-money industry, even in the face of high, high risk and what may or may not be an American economic recession. The industry was worth something like $9 billion in 2007 and is expected to keep growing.

Despite the stigma of ignorance that still surrounds a major release like GTA IV, resulting in advocacy groups lobbying congress for retailer-penalty legislation and slinging hyperbolic (not to mention inaccurate) language like "you get points for driving drunk in this game," we have heartening signs of increasing respect in the mainstream for games: a fine GTA IV writeup by the Times' Seth Scheisel, dignified GTA IV review in Slate by Wired editor Chris Baker, and increasingly thorough and relevant industry coverage by Variety's Ben Fritz (disclosure: I've written for Baker and regularly write for Fritz, and have a high opinion of them both).

Variety's news on Gore Verbinski's directorship of the BioShock flick is currently the magazine's top story online, and in searching the links for this post I also discovered another cool Slate piece on GTA IV's portrayal of illegal economies. Though Newsweek's N'Gai Croal believes "the mainstream" still has a ways to go in effectively writing about games, I don't necessarily agree - I was recently talking with an Entertainment Weekly writer who agreed that the mandate for mainstream outlets might be more about sharing game culture with the curious or the casual, at this point, than satisfying the needs of game consumers, who are more likely to turn to the trade publications for reviews. Different audiences have different needs.

The second big story after GTA IV's bar-raising release and the sophisticated acclaim it's received is the advent of Wii Fit, which looks set to raise another bar -- the one set by Wii Sports when it changed the way society at large thinks about video games. I want Wii Fit, but not the way I normally want a new video game. I want it like I wanted my iPhone, or like people want a GPS for their car. I want it like it's the hot new "lifestyle product." And it is.

You know, though we always hoped this day would come, the games industry isn't really used to this -- we've begun questioning our own practices, since the value and context for gaming is so much broader. Weighing methodology for game criticism against that of music and film has become the norm, regardless of whether or not the comparisons are relevant. We're wondering how we can embrace and leverage this evolution; for my part, the only thing I'm wondering is: Can we please finally dump review scores?

With all of this broad and unexpectedly "sophisticated" attention shining on us, I'm reminded of that archetypal episode always seen in sitcoms of a bygone era, the one where a poor schlub's shoe-polished and wealthy boss makes a short-notice promise of a dinner visit to his coarse employee.

The unfortunate soon-to-be-host scrambles about his little castle, making sure his wife looks spectacular, dressing the kids in stiff little suits and instructing them how to behave, planning the perfect menu and making sure unpredictable variables, like the slovenly drunk uncle or the rude Grandma, are well under control.

It's worth noting that those TV episodes rarely go well for the hero -- hilarious disasters tend to ensue.

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