There is a fundamental catch-22 when an artist in any entertainment industry decides to create something intended to provoke thought. Generally speaking, the more thoughtful, esoteric, abstract, or emotional the work is, the less accessible or palatable it is to the mainstream. I don't mean this in a haughty, condescending "the public simply is not ready for our works of genius" sort of way. I just mean people are people; at the end of the work week, There Will Be Blood or Chinatown or Hotel Rwanda just hit too hard on too many cylinders. They're too serious. They're important, and they're powerful, and they're impressive on so many levels. But they are not as accessible or appealing as the new Judd Apatow flick.
Well, so what? 90% of everything is crap, and that includes the mass market consumers of the various arts, right? Unfortunately, a piece of artwork can't have any effect on the people that rejected it out of hand merely for being serious. As an artist, I dislike the idea that some percentage of humanity would skip over or find nothing of value in a work that was important to me. Obviously there is always going to be some slice of the population that you can't win over, that's a given. Out of the remaining majority, however, it would be grand to include as many of them in the experience as possible!
You may be able to tell that I've been thinking about movies a lot, while mulling this thing over. I'm going to attempt to arrange some examples that show some different ways of tackling this problem. By my estimation, all of these movies are entertaining in a really pure, accessible way, but also offer some evocative and provocative content without alienating mainstream consumers. The parallels to game design may not be immediately apparent, but I will try and make what sense of it that I can in the conclusion, I promise!
Entertaining Drama: Least Complicated, Pretty Accessible
When you sit down to watch a movie like these, you know what you're getting into ahead of time, and know what to expect. Your mind is receptive to the idea that you're going to be watching a kind of topical entertainment.
Children of Men: Alfonso Cuaron's thriller oscillates between incredible action scenes and tense moments of personal contact and conspiracy as he explores human nature and security and all sorts of heavy stuff.
Fight Club: Between scenes of manly fist-battle and acidic one-liners, Fincher's last decent film pokes fun at our obsession with the little commercial things in our lives. It's not revolutionary or important, necessarily, but it's still full of accessible provocation.
Blade Runner: A future-noir meditation on what it means to be human. Questions of sentience and the soul, and a stark vision of Los Angeles in the near future.
Stealth Provocation: Fairly Complicated, Very Accessible
Again, when you sit down to watch one of these you know what you're getting into, there are no big surprises here. But you might start picking up on little bits and pieces that illuminate a deeper vein of meaning or thought in the work.
Being There: Hal Ashby's classic comedy about a stupid gardener who becomes one of the most powerful people in the world. On the surface it is a wonderful, carefully constructed story full of genuine humor and wit and incredible characters. If you scratch a little deeper, you find themes about populism and celebrity, and if you go deeper maybe even religion...it has lots of tasty layers, but if you only find the top one its still very satisfying.
The Stunt Man: Peter O'Toole plays a mad director who collects a John Rambo type alienated veteran to be his new stuntman. A kind of absurd, action-packed romantic comedy, The Stunt Man is pure entertainment. But here and there, little things start to stand out. They keep deliberately confusing the fantasy of the film inside the film, and the reality of the characters in the film. Then, Peter O'Toole's character explains how if you want to really get your message across, you hide it inside something entertaining, put some sugar on the pill...
Y Tu Mama, Tambien: Yeah, Cuaron is on the list twice, it's not my fault he's such an amazing director! Y Tu Mama is a kind of sexy road trip melodrama that takes place in Mexico, but in between scenes of emotional and/or physical bonding between the wealthy characters, Cuaron slips in these images of rural, third-world Mexico. Any observant viewer can't help but begin to draw comparisons between the "real" Mexico and the kind of sexual fantasy that plays out between the main characters.
Emotional Suckerpunch: Complex and Risky, Accessible if Successful
These tend to be films with particular expectations that are shattered with surprisingly meaningful segments that, despite the change in pace or tone, do not seem to alienate most of the audience.
The Orphanage: This is a wonderfully devious film that subverts horror tropes in service of real drama and heartbreak. That's all I'm going to say. Just watch it!
Pan's Labyrinth: Leaping nimbly back and forth between fantasy and reality, Del Toro ponders the power of imagination and reality. This is I think the movie that Terry Gilliam always wanted to make, but couldn't. The tragic/euphoric ending leaves you with questions and some pretty big thoughts.
Tekkon Kinkreet: A fast-paced anime film about rival gangs shifts gears and invites you to ponder emotions of fear and loneliness when the two main characters from the Cat gang are split up.
At this point in time I think video games as an art form are at a tricky stage, at least as far as they relate to their audience. I'm not convinced that the relatively simple approach of just making a topical drama is the kind of thing that the game-playing mainstream is ready for. Pulling off the emotion suckerpunch requires an enormous amount of care and tact, and I think is beyond the reach of most designers at this point. But I feel like we should be able to really excel in that area of "stealth provocation". The Grand Theft Auto series probably operates in that space already, but they deserve more neighbors I think!