John P. Hussey
Are Video Games Ready for Critical Acclaim and Commercial Success?
February Editorial: Just in time for the Oscars!
02.27.11 - 8:53 AM

Popular culture saw a dramatic shift between the 1990s and the 2000s. The 90s featured a rare meeting of "high art" and "low art." By this, I mean that art that was popular was also critically acclaimed. In the film industry, films like The Silence of the Lambs, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13 and Saving Private Ryan not only dominated at the box office, but picked up numerous Academy Awards. In television, shows like Cheers, Seinfeld and Fraiser made "must see TV" palatable in an intelligent way. Music featured the rise of alternative rock, and bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and the Smashing Pumpkins defined a genre and also dominated the top of the billboard.

However, around the turn of the century, there was a dramatic shift. Movies like American Beauty, Crash and Slumdog Millionaire became the awards darlings, while films like Spiderman, Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek were mainly shut out by the critics. The most highly-acclaimed TV shows were relegated to cable (The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men), while reality TV began to dominate the big three networks. And in music, promising bands like Death Cab for Cutie, The Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend were only found on satellite, while the top 40 featured Miley Cyrus and Usher.

How did this happen? And why do we care? I think we're on the cusp of a similar transformation in the RPG industry. While it is impossible to track as long a shift (the medium is only 30 years old, as compared to film/TV/music, which are at minimum 100), it is interesting to notice the similarities. In the NES era, video games and by extension RPGs were a niche art form. Similar to pulp novels or B movies shot on the backlot and screened at the local nickelodeon, the NES churned out low budget games that were consumed by the masses. However, because of most games' assembly line feel, low quality production value and weak scripts, games as a form of art were ignored by the mainstream media during their infancy.

As the video game industry began to grow, it helped create a branch of the mainstream media whose job was to review games and grant awards to the best games of the year. Even though the RPG genre began with just a niche following in the United States, Final Fantasy VII took the genre to a mainstream video game audience and began to garner critical acclaim from the new video game media critics. And for around a decade, high and low art met once again. Square Enix became the Dreamworks or Subpop of its time, dominating in both sales and critical success.

However, recent years have seen the rise of the iOS, and some of the most "popular" games by SE have begun to look like they are pandering to the masses. Could we be looking at our "Crash" moment sometime soon? Here at RPGFan, we have already given awards to some non-mainstream games such as Digital Devil Saga and Persona 3 in our yearly "Best Of" awards, but in the next five years, will we go further and hand our Game of the Year award to an indie game that is only released on the iOS and doesn't hit shelves? Will the best games be forced to niche digital releases? Perhaps. But it's too early to say that the mainstream is dead either. After all, games such as Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age, and Fallout 3 have been released in the past couple of years. They sold very well and won RPGFan Editor's Choice awards. But if you've been thinking that we've ratcheted up our iOS coverage as well, you're right. Most Grammy watchers might have never heard of Arcade Fire, but here at RPGFan, we don't ignore the little guy.