Citizen Kane of Games: Can't We Stop the Comparison Already?

This morning I saw some traffic on an old post I made about people who talk about "The Citizen Kane of Games." I brought it back up here to the top because the question still burns strong enough for people to talk about it on the evening news., the site that linked to my post, pointed to Michael Thomsen's appearance on ABC News in which he cited the Metroid Prime Trilogy as the Citizen Kane of Video Games. The validity of the comparison is addressed much better by Magical Wasteland, unfortunately the other discussion is the one on the evening news.

Here is the old post:

A couple nights ago I had the good fortune of speaking in front of a class of young designers, engineers and business people in USC's game program. They are full of great ideas and I am confident many of them will create things I can't even imagine today. Their young minds are so gooey and malleable and they bring the unadulterated exuberance, brilliance and naivete of youth which has not been beaten down by years in the system. They still talk about what they can do, rather than the reasons things can't be done. Their faces look up, rather than down with hunched shoulders. All the more reason for me to be so disappointed to hear they are being shackled by the insecurities of our generation when they asked whether we have seen the "Citizen Kane" of games and if not, when it will be made. I guess this is appropriate. I mean after all, everyone considers Citizen Kane to be the Taj Mahal of games. No, they really don't because that would be stupid. I wonder how long a medium can survive if it measures its success primarily against another media.

This meme started when Trip Hawkins first ran EA ads asking whether a computer can make you cry. This morphed into the question of when we would see the "Citizen Kane" of games. It is also a function of the chip resting on many game makers shoulders over the film industry, and the number of designers who really want to be directors. The Citizen Kane reference is interpreted to apply only to emotional aspects, and not the unique attributes of our medium. I submit, while this is an interesting question, but it is a completely invalid measure of the merit of a game. Film is a medium uniquely tailored to draw upon emotion, it is one of the few tools available to create a suspension of disbelief. It is also relatively easy as the viewer, by definition, cedes control of the happenings to the director. While the is not best known for ability to convey emotion, George Lucas said, "Anyone can involve the audience emotionally, Just show them a kitten, then wring its neck."

For years, scores of games designers worship at the false alter of film and emotion as measures for their art. Enough is enough. Let's stop this and protect our next generation of game creators from this pain. Each one of these media views itself as a stand alone media. Film directors, musicians, architects, sculptors, painters all do great things measured only be the greatness of the thing they did. Why can't we? You may lose yourself of ran afternoon in a great film, but what film made you lose a month?

To say games must convey emotion, or we MUST care about the main character, is to ignore the rest of the colors in the palate from which game designers create. It is also doing a tremendous disservice to designers like Miyamoto-san, who inspired us all through game play alone. No one who lost a month or so of their childhood - or adulthood in my case - to Mario on the NES reminisces about their connection to Mario. The only tear I shed was when I kept running out of time at the last level and had to call the help line to make my way through. The core conceit in a game control. The disbelief is based on the player's ability to move through the environment and interact with objects and characters in a fanciful environment. We don't put a game done because we don't care about a character. We put it down because the game mechanic sucks. Players may be drawn to continue by a connection to the character or emotions created by the game, but the driving force to continue is the game mechanic. A good one will keep you regardless of story. A bad one will repel you, even if it sat on top of The Godfather.

This is not to say emotion and story have no place in games. They do, in certain games. Let's call those "story driven games." Oh, yeah, we already do. Ico is the example everyone always uses, and more recently people talk about the emotion achieved by the Braid and the story portrayed by Bioshock. These are wonderful games but represent only one type of game. Best selling and critically praised games like Call of Duty, Halo or Resident Evil purport to have stories, but they are really no deeper than premises draped over a porn film. No coincidence, as they too are only there to set up the action. You may argue the stories are rich in Halo or Call of Duty, but the hours lost to play are not in the single player story driven part, they are in the completely emotion and story free lands of multiplayer.

Citizen Kane is celebrated today for a number of reasons. Aside from being a groundbreaking work on many levels, it stands the test of time, and continues to inspire film makers not only to greatness, but to get into the business. When my son watches the film with me, he enjoys it. Even though it is almost 70 years old and he is 13, it is not something Dad is making him watch. He is comfortable with it because it is good. Sure, a lot of things happened for the first time in the film, but he doesn't know it. The groundbreaking elements influenced so many other films they are now mainstream, but the ability to see the original allows us to see a sense of where it came from. Until recently, this concept was foreign to games.

Prior to this generation games that stood the test of time were relegated to the scrap heap of non-compatibility. Sure we could go back a generation, and with MAME I can show him the games that ate my time and discretionary money quarter by quarter. But he couldn't play the ones locked on the carts. Gamers and students of the medium, were forced to treat these things like the microfiche I used for research in elementary school. They were oddities, playable only through old systems owned by few and traded only on ebay. With the advent of Xbox Live, Wiiware and PSN, my son, and all gamers can play the original Mario, Joust and Twisted Metal as they were meant to be. We are now inviting a new generation of gamers to see everything and help us define the "classics."

So in our search for the medium defining game, let's shed the blinders of Citizen Kane and ask where we have truly seen greatness. Did one game inform every game we see today? Did one game drive the great designers of today to be a part of the business? Does one game make a team to collectively cry because they know they will never make something so great and come together trying to do it anyways?

When we limit ourselves to emotion, everyone answers Ico. Consensus is building around this one game for the single element. Not to detract from Ico, which is truly a great game, if we expand our view to judge only within our medium, considering all the tools and elements we bring to a game the list would change and consensus would build around a game. It could be the first Mario, Pong, Karateka, Prince of Persia, Madden, Doom or something else. These are just the ones off the top of my head. It may be too early to tell, but I don't thinks so.

As the debate continues, let's keep it in our medium. Rather than asking our students whether the Citizen of Kane has been created, let's see the film school ask whether the Mario of film has been achieved.


Mike said…
So that was me. I started that small tempest in a teapot. What's been interesting in following everyone's reactions is that I don't disagree with most of the people who position themselves as critics of my argument. My assertion is not that Metroid Prime is brilliant because it's like Kane. My point, and this has been lost, is that they share similar and timeless themes.Full stop. I know it's the zeitgeist of the time to say games don't need this and that to be legitimate, but if you read what I wrote and how I wrote it, I'd be surprised if you found a sentence where I make any such claim. That's not my baggage and to me, it's irrelevant to my larger point. Both works are legitimate to me, and I wrote about why that was.

And comparative analysis is worthwhile. Kane could, likewise, be compared to Beethoven's 9th, King Lear, or Beowulf, and it wouldn't be heretical at all to do so. I'd be happy to write about that, but I don't think there'd be anywhere to publish it at this point. But look, cinematography comes from painting, screenwriting comes from theater. Truffaut and Hitcchock talk about Shakespeare all the time. Jordan Cronenwaithe spoke about impressionism and abstract art. Other media inform new media. Full stop. Fact. We gain from this. Learn new undestandings of how these new media form work. We don't learn from asking whether or not they can be compared, but we do learn from the actual, unapologetic comparisson.

I have no interest in legitimizing or deligitmizing games. To me they're already legitimate. They were before and remain so now. And that should be inherent in my choice of Metroid Prime, a game whose primary method of communicating is through interaction. I glean a similarly timeless experience with those notions of universal loneliness, hope of great achievement, solidarity with the ghosts of the past, and great plans gone horrifically awry in playing it. The interaction in the world teaches me that. Not a cutscene, nor an audio diary. It's the procession of the core mechanics combined with the ambiance of the world that speak to me.

The medium is different, but the human value is equivalent to me. That's it. That's the argument. That's the art. Human experience doesn't change. We face the same fundamental questions about our lives and existence generation after generation, and civilization after civilization. What you find when you look back far enough is a great consistency in theme and struggle. Kane didn't just appear, it came from 700 years of artistic evolution. But most of us writing about games grew up at a time when we didn't have to question film as legitimate (though I'd maintain it's not exactly high art in the first place -- I don't believe anything deserves to be called high art or low art). That artistic evolution continues in games, and I think it's an act of both critical and human ignorance to insulate games from comparrison to everything that's preceded them. They are their own form, part of a new medium of pure interaction. But they didn't form in a vacuum and they ought not to be considered in a vacuum.

So I submit there are two arguments to this question. On my side, Metroid Prime, through its interactive system is about human loneliness, universal isolation, self-betterment, and the ultimate failure of that self-betterment to resolve any of the fundamental isolation one feels in life. On the other side, MP is about shooting space aliens in the face.

To say it can't be compared to Kane is to validate the latter over the former. And that says just as much about the critic as it does the object of their criticism. I'll argue the latter point and feel no shame at all forwarding it along any lines that make the subject relevant, interesting, or controversial because, at the heart of it, I believe wholeheartedly in that essential truth about MP. That's the kind of critic I have been, and will continue to be. Which would you rather read?
XIX said…
I know exactly how to make the citizen kane of games.

Hire a busy professional to write a story for your game primarily featuring journalism (I suspect such a thing may appeal to journalists).

Then remove them from the credits.

Job done.

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