The Citizen Kane of Video Games

For those of you who maybe groaning at the title of this post let me assure you I am not going to declare anything the “Citizen Kane of video games” and am instead going to explain the pointlessness of the debate in the first place. And for those of you now disappointed, I implore you to please continue reading anyway.

The debate has been around for quite a while. The necessity of making this point came about thanks to the recent ABC webcast about the very subject. That’s right, ABC. It’s a short segment that can be seen here. Destructoid’s response here mirrored my own immediate reaction.

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Out of every game that could have been chosen and explained…Metroid Prime, doesn’t even make my top 20, but regardless of that even the explanation for why it is the “Citizen Kane of video games” is completely absurd as is the whole idea of a “Citizen Kane of video games.” But first…

For those who do not know, the idea of the “Citizen Kane of video game” is the concept that there will be a game that when it comes it will mark the point when games will have reached maturity and legitimacy on the level of cinema. This mythical game is also supposed to be the culmination of all that gaming has been up to this point and bring about a revolution and be haled almost universally 40 years from now as the best game to date.

Having to write that out makes me realize really how utterly stupid the concept is. Sufficed to say Metroid Prime doesn’t meet those standards.

Also the argument that something has to prove itself as artistic is a very American idea. Film was always thought important, but nothing more than a curiosity at first. The Russians, French, German, Italians and others all thought movies were artistic. The Japanese presently think of video games as artistic. To them there is no debate.

Next, to paraphrase DemonicMurry from his twitter feed: Citizen Kane is a good movie, but highly overrated. I agree, it is a good movie, but not the greatest (Casablanca IMO). To quote him from elsewhere “Even Citizen Kane doesn’t exists as Citizen Kane.” The movie has been over hyped through out the years. Yes it is a tremendously great film and phenomenally important, but the repetition of those phrases a couple of dozen, hundred times and suddenly you aren’t looking at a film anymore, but the inflated vision of a film. I reckon few people clamoring for a Citizen Kane have ever watched the movie. After all the hype it does not live up to the leviathan of expectations. The mythos and aura that surrounds Citizen Kane has long since exceeded the actual movie and it has become this unattainable ideal. If you’ve ever heard someone that has watched recently for the first time ask ‘what is the big deal?’ That’s because it has morphed into far too big a deal. The idea that a video game can live up to that ideal is laughable, especially when Citizen Kane can’t live up it.

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It is overrated in the effect it had towards the cinematic medium for another reason. Time for a little history lesson. When it came out it was refused advertising by William Randolph Hurst, who owned most of the newspapers in America at the time. Other papers followed suit. He was powerful enough that what he said went. The man launched a campaign to kill the movie; he practically held a vendetta against it, before it had even finished filming. It was refused showings from movie theaters around the country and no one could publicly support the movie for fear of suffering the same fate. Orson Wells was blackballed for directing because of it. Hurst even tried to force RKO pictures (never heard of them, now you know why) to destroy all celluloid copies and was thought to have succeeded. It was only found in a forgotten canister a decade later. Some filmmakers and critics at the time saw it, but the majority of the public didn’t. See Citizen Kane couldn’t change public perception of film because NO ONE SAW THE FUCKING THING. It wasn’t haled as a masterpiece until the French rediscovered it almost 10 years later. It certainly did not revolutionize the industry overnight like so many people seem to think.

Finally, using the argument that Metroid Prime resembles the thematic elements of Citizen Kane, while interesting and definitely an arguable point I wouldn’t mind reading an essay on, is like saying that one is culturally equal to the other which is absolutely stupid. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein has the same general thematic message as Plan 9 from Outer Space, but I would hardly call the latter equal to the former. Don’t believe me, look it up. Plus, Citizen Kane is important and celebrated for its formal contributions to the medium, not for its conceptual ones, no matter how deep and profound they may be. The argument is about what a single video game can show us about the medium not a theme.

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There are other things that point against the whole debate of the “Citizen Kane of video games.” Like the debate being completely pointless and unhelpful. The arguments produce only hot air and no actual theoretical or practical foundations. That one game can’t provide cultural legitimacy; it takes movements to change perception. That there are more important things to fix in our insular culture than finding a nicknamed video game, like the piss poor journalism, sequelitis, weak mainstream coverage (that this video happens to be apart of), horrendous portrayals of women and minorities, juvenile and rather insulting marketing ploys, etc. etc.

Critically it is important to look to those works that our medium is founded upon. It is important to look at those works that did blaze the trail and try new things with the elements that make video games a unique medium. I find that to be a much more valid discussion, because it actually creates discussion instead of a flame war. Instead of Citizen Kane we should be asking what were our Lumieres brothers, A Trip to the Moon, The Great Train Robbery, Battleship Potempkin, The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and so on.

Of course, everyone first has to realize this is only a metaphor, which is the main problem with the original idea behind “Citizen Kane of video games.” That too was only a metaphor, but most people discussing it didn’t realize that and the mythos of Citizen Kane moved in and derailed the whole discussion. If we change the title without that understanding we’ll end up producing the same drivel. The ‘Citizen Kane of video games’ is a metaphor for the concept I detailed above, a rather pointless one that I just reasoned why.

I gave a lot of reasons why the “Citizen Kane of video games” is a fundamentally flawed idea, but here’s the most important one of all: One medium should not have to draw comparisons to others for any reason, because no two mediums are alike. Each has its own unique materials and formalistic basis that require the work based in that medium to fit those foundations and standards. It means one medium is not better or worse than another and certainly not equal, just different. In other words, books are not plays, are not movies, are not video games.

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I listed a bunch of movies that each contributed something to the formal development of film as a medium. If you need to use a metaphor of film to video games for a comparison, use those I listed, because then there will be some thought put into it. When you think of what those movies did fundamentally to their medium, comparing them to a video game will force you to think of what it actually contributed to the formal aspects of the video game medium, rather than a best game ever debate. Honestly, when anyone tries to engage me in the Citizen Kane debate I counter with the Birth of a Nation question. They look at me quizzically, which forces me to explain what I mean and I actually end up in a fascinating discussion. One I’d like to have more often.

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