Blockbuster or Art House Indie?

Opinion by Jonathan Barnes,
If you're anything like me, and who's to say you're not, you spent at least a few minutes watching last night's Academy Awards show and probably had a favorite or two for whom you were rooting. With such cultural events, my thoughts (and likely a few of yours) attempt to draw parallels between the event at hand and video games; the Super Bowl Top Five List being the most recent instance.

As I watched Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel take home a slew of gold, I kept thinking about the ongoing culture clash that is seemingly being waged between game critics and the general gaming public and how it actually has a direct correlation to that in the film industry.

On one side of the aisle, you have film critics who love work like Boyhood, Birdman, Whiplash, and The Theory of Everything. On the other side of the aisle, you have the majority of the movie-going public who is willing to shell out money and brain space to movies like Guardians of the Galaxy, The Hunger Games, and Captain America.

Similarly, in the gaming world, critics will extoll the virtues of shorter, more niche titles like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Monument Valley, and 80 Days while the general gaming public shells out the cash for the latest Call of Duty, Madden, and FIFA.


Another interesting similarity is that both artistic outlets occasionally have a rare intersection of mass consumer appeal and critical plaudits. In the case of movies, this year's audience darling that gained critical recognition was Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, which grossed almost $260 million and was nominated for a bucket-load of awards. In video games, the behemoths of 2014 seemed to be games like Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Achievements and Dragon Age: Inquisition Achievements which both did very well in sales (although the nature of the industry makes exact figures hard to pin down exactly) and secured many critics' choice awards.

Movie fans and critics also vent and grouse in the same way that game fans and critics do when favorites get snubbed or a beloved franchise doesn't get the review score that fans think it deserves. One only had to spend a few moments on Twitter last night to hear the grumbling of fans who felt Richard Linklater was absolutely robbed for not receiving any awards for his twelve years of work on Boyhood or that Michael Keaton was unjustly snubbed for his work in Birdman. That grumbling is all too similar to that of critics who maligned the fact that Grand Theft Auto V Achievements took home several major awards from the BAFTAs in 2014 or average gamers who get upset when experiences like Gone Home beat out their favorite AAA franchise for honors.

Heists 12/16/14

I'll be the first to tell you that games and movies are like apples and oranges: completely different products, with completely different creation paths, to completely different distribution services, that cater to completely different audiences. For as much as games sometimes wish to become movies, they are, at the end of the day, completely different. The one thing that unifies these endeavors is the nature of art (both common and high) and the corresponding nature of criticism. Movie-goers long ago made the realization that there was a separation between the type of movies that the Academy honors and the type of movies that they honor (which is why things like the MTV Movie Awards came about). As video games continue to grow in popularity and bifurcate with more artistic (versus commercial) experiences that are being more openly distributed to more gamers (via platforms like Steam and ID@Xbox), I would venture that we'll continue to see a similar separation in popular versus critical recognition/awards as well.

Movies were around for almost thirty years before the first Academy Awards were handed out. As games grow and mature, so will their awards and recognitions. While different organizations like the GDC and the BAFTAs already have large awards and every outlet under the sun awards a "Game of the Year", I venture that at some point, we'll have a utilitarian equivalent similar to the Academy Awards, MTV Movie Awards, or Golden Globes. In fact, I think having awards that celebrate the popular favorites and awards that honor the critical favorites would serve the industry well and allow criticism to go down new routes. Rather than saying, "This game is popular so it must be good," or "This game is good so it must be popular," such award delineation would allow conversation for both and allow our blockbusters to be compared to our blockbusters while our art house indies are compared to our art house indies in a more public and promotable way.
Jonathan Barnes
Written by Jonathan Barnes
Jonathan has been a news/views contributor since 2010. When he's not writing reviews, features, and opinion pieces, he spends his days working as an informal science educator and his nights as an international man of mystery.