Early in Casablanca, there's a scene of a turboprop landing on an airstrip. It is the plane bringing Nazi villain Major Strasser into the film. Cinematography and special effects being what they were in 1942, the shot is manifestly of a small model plane suspended with wires. You can't help but notice it. You might even titter involuntarily.
If a director re-made Casabalanca today (I know, heaven forfend, but bear with me), he might shoot it in black and white. He might use some of the same corny dialog. He might keep the same period music. But he would clearly not shoot the plane scene with a cheap balsa wood model. In a remake, the shot of the plane landing, if it was not a real shot of a real airplane landing, would sure look like one. And yet--here's the key--the fact that in the 1942 film the shot looks fake and unsophisticated in no way detracts from your enjoyment of the film. You recognize and accept it as a necessary limitation of the time.
The earliest thing we can call a film is generally thought to be a 24-frame assemblage of pictures of a racehorse named Sallie Gardner, shot by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878. The earliest surviving motion picture was shot in 1888 in England and is called Roundhay Garden Scene. It lasts all of two seconds. The first copyrighted film in the United States is the five-second Fred Ott's Sneeze from 1894. These films, and hundreds of others from this era, are interesting curios to students of film history, but none of them will inspire you to curl up in front of the television with your partner and some Chinese food. Neither the technique nor the technology, neither the art nor the science, were sufficiently advanced for these films to be truly "entertaining" in the modern sense.
And yet, at some point, completely without fanfare, suddenly they were. We can argue and debate exactly when that point occurs. I might go with Birth of a Nation (1915), but I could understand if you want to make a case for the sound era--let's say 42nd Street (1933) or It Happened One Night (1934). Certainly, I think we would all agree, that by the Wizard of Oz (1938), film craft had advanced to the level that even today, three-quarters of a century later, you would not hesitate to watch a film from the era, or to recommend it to others. The art and science of film-making didn't stop at that point--it has continued to evolve steadily year after year since then, but at some point it was "good enough" to create art that is timeless.
Love Me Tonight (1932). Not just "good enough"; sublime.
The same is true of music. The earliest recordings are faint, scratchy horrors that utterly mask the talent of the artists. But at some point it became "good enough." Tell me that Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" or Coleman Hawkins's "Body and Soul" would sound any better in a modern recording studio, and I will call you a fool.
This, then, is my theory: any art or entertainment form will eventually evolve to a point in which it is "good enough." After that point, no matter that it continues to evolve, its creations become timeless--accessible to modern audiences, entertaining, and moving, despite their age and lack of technical sophistication.
When do we hit this point with CRPGs? I haven't decided yet, but I'm beginning to suspect that, for me at least, it's with The Bard's Tale, on which I hope to blog later this week*. But then, I'm something of an archaeologist of CRPGs, maybe a little like the film historian delighted at Fred Ott's Sneeze. Where would you put the "good enough" point for CRPGs? Ultima Underworld? One of the "Gold Box" games? Daggerfall? Surely not as late as Baldur's Gate? Post your answer in the comments--or disagree with my theory if you must.
*I'm on the road this week and will, alas, have limited time for gaming and blogging. This is too bad because I was really getting in to The Bard's Tale before I left.