I think at this point, most of us have come to hate hearing, "When are games going to have their Citizen Kane?" It's an inane question for a lot of reasons. But it's also drawing the wrong comparison.
Games have far more in common with The Sopranos than they do with The Godfather. There are a significant number of similarities between the fundamental form of games and television. As developers and as audiences, by looking at games through this lens, instead of comparison them to film, there is a great deal we can learn about both mediums. I talked about this briefly in the past, but this discussion is greater than just the context of sequels. Plus, the fall TV season is about to start.
On the recent flight to Hawaii for my honeymoon, I read Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You. If you haven't done so, I would highly recommend it. The core of the book discusses how modern media is substantially more complex and demands far more from its audiences than most give it credit for. He convincingly challenges the widely-held notion that modern TV is a race to the bottom that panders exclusively to the lowest common denominator.
Comparing Dragnet and The Wire, his argument is obvious. An important distinction he notes, and this is relevant for games as well, is the distinction between form and content. The content of older media is almost always going to seem a little hokey and dated. In contrast, modern media's content may be more excessive, explicit and morally grey. The implications of this bear discussing, but at least to me, are far less interesting than the staggering evolution in form that television and games have seen in the past 20-30 years.
Old television especially was characterized by simple, stand-alone storylines that demanded little retention from audiences. Even if you've never seen Three's Company, if you watched the seventh episode of the third season, I imagine it would be more or less intelligible. Now imagine showing someone the seventh episode of the third season of Lost or 24. Additionally, old tv rarely had any depth and offered little value on repeat viewings. My wife is watching Carnivàle again with a friend on Friday evenings and even though I've seen the entire series twice, there are still new things I notice passively watching with them for a third time.
Film can rarely offer this kind of depth due to one fundamental limitation - running time. There is only so much that can be done in 90 to 150 minutes. One season of a television drama is probably between 12 and 24 hours, similar to the core playtime of most games.
In terms of creation, there are more similarities between games and TV as well. Film almost always begins half-made, at least. Usually a script has already been written and the final film will not deviate from that significantly. A game may move from pre-production into production with a design document "written," but I can promise you that the vast majority of games will deviate from that document significantly. Similarly, even when the pilot of a TV show is finished, the season's narrative arc will still be flexible. Future episodes will evolve and change as they are written. Future seasons only exist in the show runner's imagination.
I discussed this with Steve Gaynor and Wes Erdelack on Michael Abbott's Gamer's Confab 25 Extravaganza. This is all separate of actually creating games episodically, which has all kinds of complexities and is the subject for another post entirely. But just looking at the form of most games and a complete season of a TV drama, the similarities are significant.
Some games, especially level-based games, have a very similar structure to TV shows like The X-Files or House. There will be a core cast of characters and a general overarching storyline, but there will be many moments that simply exist in the fictional world. And ideally, these moments still manifest the core themes and aesthetics of the show/game.
Steve said that it may be difficult to look at large, free-roaming games like Fallout 3 this way, but I think it's actually a fantastic way to look at games like that. In Fallout 3, there are moments that contribute to the core story, the search for your character's father, but many, many moments in the game are completely independent of that. And honestly, that's often when the game is at its best (much like how The X-Files was at its best with stand-alone episodes like "Humbug", "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose", "The Post-Modern Prometheus" and "Small Potatoes"). Whether I go to the Dunwich Building or the Oasis in Fallout 3 before or after finding my father doesn't affect that portion of the game's narrative.
There are other games more similar in structure to Lost, Deadwood or 24, where they are heavily serialized and rely heavily on experiencing all the content from beginning to end. In games, this may be due to an intricate plot, but it just as easily could be due to a set of mechanics that grow increasingly sophisticated and complex.
The more we put good games and substantive television shows next to each other, the more similarities we'll see. Maybe we could learn something about pacing and production from them. Maybe they can learn something about engagement, creating invested audiences and experimenting with content from us. Regardless of the exact lessons to be learned, we've got allies in television and it would be great if we reached out to them more (even if that reaching out is just looking each other's projects with the same lenses).
And if it means I never have to hear someone ask, "When are games going to have their Citizen Kane?" again, well, that would be great too.