Comparing films and video games is a dangerous thing to do. Why is that? Well it's because of how similar they are as well as how different they are from one another.
There's the obvious difference of how passive a movie-watching experience is vs. how interactive video games are. However, when you really get down to it: a lot of films require more active engagement than some video games. 2001: A Space Odyssey takes a much more active imagination to enjoy than Pong. While some movies can be appreciated on a very superficial, "this happened and then this happened and then this happened" level, the greatest films of history generally require the audience to reflect on the film and think about the nuances of it. They require context and interpretation.
Games, however, tend to be very unsubtle and extremely explicit. Though there certainly are some games with artistic ambition and poetic subtlety (like Braid and Rez), most games--even ones with narrative--focus on the obstacle-clearing rather than the emotional engagement that is required for a game to really be considered a work of art comparable to works within existing, better-established forms. For a game to succeed artistically, it needs to respond to the real world and not just its game world. There's something to be said for creating a massive, detailed fictional universe, but at the same time it means that the experience begins and ends with the game console's power button.
I'm not saying it's bad to make a game that focuses on gameplay. There are plenty of great games that do just that. Though players can become emotionally invested in their created player or franchise in NHL games, the point is very much to overcome challenges to make a number associated with you be greater than a number associated with your opponent (goals scored).
However, we're at a point in game design that most games have a very muddled design. Story-telling (and, therefore, art) is limited to non-gameplay sections of the game and the sections which are recognizable as a game are totally separate and completely different. Even the Mass Effect franchise, which succeeds tremendously in creating engaging fiction to accompany quality gameplay, is largely guilty of this sort of duality. Mass Effect has striking cinematography and a sci-fi universe that may rival Star Trek's.
But how can you talk about a video game's cinematography? It seems like an oxymoron. We don't call good movies boring games, so why do we appreciate Mass Effect like we would a good movie? The cinematography and story have more to do with older forms of media than video games.
Is the artistic future of games in the subtlety and--at the same time--severity of players' decisions? With games like Fable and Mass Effect arguably spearheading story-driven games, is the art form of video games simply going to be a more sophisticated version of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books? If so, and if the story engages us emotionally, do we credit the game's creative director or do we credit the player? If a game's story is so dependent on a player's choices, then it's the player who is responsible for the content of their experience to some extent. Does the creative director's vision only come across once the player has exhausted all possible options in all possible playthrough styles? Do we have a responsibility to play through Mass Effect as both renegade and paragon? Male and female?
What if we, as a player, decide that we want to do something that the game won't allow? What if I want to, as Commander Shepard, transfer command of the ship/mission to Garrus? Is it what we can't do that defines the creative director's vision?
And as a final concern: video games tend not to be about real, recognizable people. Other than games inspired by real-life military operations, games tend to have characters who are nothing like anybody you'd meet in real life. So many films are about ordinary people, so why can't games take that turn? Is it possible to make a good game that is about dramatics rather than pyrotechnics?
This blog isn't supposed to be an answer to questions; it's a question itself. How do we think about games as a special, unique art form when their artistic merit is so married to cinema?
(I wonder if these thoughts would be better saved for a thesis or something. Oh well: nothing wrong with a hastily-considered blog, right?)