Non-gamers like to talk down on video games, strengthened by the media who bring up games as the cause of mass killings, car robberies, addictions, and social isolation. Without trying to understand games, they conclude that video games are mindless forms of entertainment. We like to see our precious video games as something more than that, but frankly it's quite close to the truth. Video games tend to just offer us several hours of entertainment. That's the definition of a video game, and I wouldn't want them to be any less fun than they are; however, games are an interactive form of media, having a seemingly untapped potential for strong storytelling, relaying messages, and bringing up moral and philosophical issues what relate to the modern world. Let's look at same games released recently that have missed the opportunity to do so.
Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2's infamous airport massacre level (otherwise known as 'No Russian') hit gamers by surprise when footage of this mission was leaked about two weeks before the release date. Naturally, this was followed by massive waves of speculations and rumors about what the context of the level could be. Many people were ready to hand out perfect scores for the game's storyline, predicting that it would be revolutionary in how impactful a game's storytelling could be. Unfortunately, the context of that mission turned out to be much less intriguing than predicted.
(Spoilers) The character controlled in that mission turned out to be a CIA agent trying to infiltrate a terrorist cell by actively taking part in the terrorist act. It should seem that the game would bring up issues about whether lives should be sacrificed for the 'greater good', but the how the game plays out shows no mention of such a message. If Infinity Ward had the guts to put in such a controversial mission into the game, they should have hit it full speed and really worked out that part of the story. Modern Warfare 2 had the perfect set-up for showing the perspectives of the terrorists, how they think, and what their motives are. This would have resulted in stronger emotions when playing out the airport mission and brought out a conflicting sense of sympathy towards the terrorists from the players (I'm not promoting terrorism), truly pushing the storytelling in games forward using immersion and interactivity. Instead, the game becomes a dry, Michael Bay-esque storyline, where you hunt down the villain throughout the world to give IW a chance to show off their great environments rather than fleshing out the plot.
Now Halo is not known for having a great story. Gamers complain about its generic plot and undeveloped characters. On the other hand, there is a rich depth to the Halo fiction beyond the games, explored through the numerous comics and novels created over the years. A part of the fiction, which haven't been integrated deeply into the games' stories, is the Office of Naval Intelligence, abbreviated as ONI. The Halo series had great opportunities to explore ONI's identity, history, and it's dirty secrets, but instead focused on the shallow story about the Master Chief blowing up Halos (although ODST changed that). Exploring ONI could bring up philosophical/moral questions, such as whether kidnapping children to train them into killing machines for the 'defence' of humanity, prioritizing Earth over colonies holding millions of inhabitants, and using propaganda/data manipulation to control people's thoughts on the war are acceptable acts. Introducing players to these ideas can really deepen the story element, and leave something to think about after the campaign is completed.
One can argue that the general audience is not craving for new things and innovations in games, and point at the recently announced EA layoffs. I beg to differ, partly from my optimism, and party from the kinds of games people are looking forwards to. The game industry is always evolving. Guitar Hero and Rock Band, which used to be incredibly well selling franchises, are running out of gas. Although Modern Warfare 2 absolutely destroyed sales records, the franchise has likely reached its peak, and future COD games will never be able to match its sales due to lack of new directions the games can go. In addition Wii sales have decreased, and I blame the lack of quality games released recently on that platform. I believe gamers will slowly move away from cheap, rehashed experiences and start looking for something new, and 2010 will hopefully satisfy those needs. Alan Wake, Heavy Rain, Mass Effect 2, Bioshock 2, and (potentially) Halo Reach are all looking to be quite good. Though we can't judge if they'll truly be tapping interactive media's potential in deep, immersive storytelling, one can only hope.