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I do not mean to argue that realism alone makes a game worth playing or that all games that try to be cinematic are masterpieces. In recent years, it’s become common for studios to pepper their games with movielike “cut scenes” in an attempt to wrap human-interest stories around the actual game missions. Rockstar Games, creator of the controversial Grand Theft Auto series, is a leader in this area. Unfortunately, the writing and voice acting in most cut scenes are schlocky. As video game critic Clive Thompson wrote for Slate in early 2005,

These Hollywood flourishes are good for dazzling mainstream journalists and pundits. That’s because there’s still a weird anxiety about adults playing games. Most people still think that video games are sophomoric kid stuff; the ones that have a narrative and emulate the movies seem more serious and, well, mature. In fact, I think the truth is almost the opposite. The more video games become like movies, the worse they are as games.

Thompson would be quite right – if, that is, cut scenes were the only way to give a game sweep and drama. But that’s no longer the case. With hardware as fast as Microsoft’s, designers can build drama into the missions themselves. Call of Duty 2, for example, has no cut scenes; a few old newsreels suffice to explain the setting for each campaign. Anything more would get in the way, making players into passive lookers-on in a game that’s all about lifelike experiences.

Of course, even if I’ve convinced you that the Xbox 360 is the best thing since the Lumiere brothers patented the cinematographe in 1895, you may have trouble buying one. Manufacturing difficulties limited Microsoft’s production run to about 600,000 units between the machine’s November 22 launch and the end of the holiday season, according to market research firm NPD Group. That wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy the enormous demand for consumer electronics; by way of comparison, Apple sold 14 million iPods over the 2005 holidays. Xbox supplies were so low in January, when I was preparing to write this review, that Microsoft itself had run out: an apologetic person at the company’s public-relations firm explained to me that it might be several months before a loaner was available. So I resorted to eBay, where I found a man in Corvallis, OR, who was willing to sell his Xbox 360 core system (without accessories such as a hard drive and a second controller) for $499, a mere 60 percent markup over the retail price. Fortunately, production picked up after the holiday season was over, and Microsoft says it expects the shortage to ease by this summer.

Thirty-four years after Pong, video games are finally maturing from arcade-style tests of fine-motor skills into an independent art form. That lag time shouldn’t be surprising: it wasn’t until 1915, fully 20 years after the invention of motion pictures, that The Birth of a Nation set down the basic grammar of movie storytelling, and it was only in 1977, almost 30 years after the birth of network television, that Roots introduced the first art form truly unique to TV, the miniseries. Now that video games can credibly evoke emotion and borrow elements from movies and other media without slavishly imitating them, it’s time to welcome them into our museums, libraries, and living rooms.

Xbox 360 Core System
Microsoft, $299.99

Call of Duty 2
Activision, $59.99

Project Gotham Racing 3
Microsoft Game Studios, $49.99

Home page image by Tim Bower.

Wade Roush is a senior editor at Technology Review.

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