I may have missed some more recent games, but I think that I'm justified in saying that artistic merit has gone down. As games have become larger, more complex productions, and the industry has evolved, they are now produced somewhat mechanistically, like other products.
For those of you who don't work in the realm of product design, there are various methods for creating a new product, depending on what type of product it is. A one-off creation like a movie or a museum building is different than a design for a refrigerator that will be manufactured by the thousands. Nevertheless, profitable companies have processes to get the job done and ensure success.
Work is divided up and scheduled and conducted with efficiency that increases with each new product, as the company gets better at its craft. In this case, the game ships with better graphics, fewer bugs, more artwork etc. I'm not criticising recent achievements like World of Warcraft or Oblivion. WOW is brilliantly designed to appeal to the maximum number of users and keep them playing, thus making Blizzard Entertainment absurdly rich. Kudos to them.
Nonetheless, I feel that there is now a complete lack of artistic merit to these games. No one is trying to create a magnum opus here; in fact, the number of great painters that starved in their time, compared to the number of successful, though mediocre, portaitists, tells us that great art doesn't have a wide enough appeal to be commercially successful. This bothers me, although I can hardly complain. I'm no artist myself.
One of the great CRPGs of all time was Fallout. The setting was retro-scifi, which is an obscure genre if ever there was one. It was satirical. The combat sequences played out like chess with machine guns. The characters were so-so, and some aspects of the game engine were laughable. Even so, I found myself playing it this week.
I'm also pirating Fallout 2, which is supposedly of equal quality to the first one. I purchased it several years ago, but the disc exploded in my cd-rom drive. Curious.
Needless to say, I was thrilled when it was announced the Fallout 3 production had begun. It should come out in 2008 or 2009.
However, the original creators are long gone. Production will be done by Bethesda, which is a good company that will produce a polished game with little artistic vision. Here's a funny quote from wikipedia:
"Bethesda has also stated the game will be rated M for mature, and will have the same sort of adult themes, violence, and depravity that are characteristic of the Fallout series."
So... once again, my "depravity" is vindicated.