It's a term you've probably heard passed around quite a bit. The "Citizen Kane" of video games. But what exactly does it mean to be referred to as the "Citizen Kane" of anything? Why is Citizen Kane celebrated as the quintessential, best-film-ever, no-comparison trump card to everything in the movie world anyway? And can video games even compete?
DocSeuss of Kotaku's reader-run TAY community attempts to explain all this, and to present the argument of why a Citizen Kane of video games doesn't exist. At least not yet, but maybe even never.
We’re a bunch of defensive children. Someone says “hey, your medium isn’t art,” and instead of engaging in meaningful dialog about it, we start whining about how we already are art (because we have art assets!), or how we don’t need to be art, or worse, how the things they’re comparing us too aren’t actually all that good.
None of these are arguments worth making, because they’re all arguments that say “we’re good enough as we are,” and simply choose not to make any attempts to elevate our medium. They’re arguments that say we’re comfortable in our mediocrity, in our cultural standing, in letting one of the biggest outlets in video games journalism praise the incredibly pathetic script of Grand Theft Auto 4 of having an Oscar-worthy story.
We are, it would seem, content in our ignorance. Content to praise middling schlock as works of genius. Content to argue that games don’t need better scripts because other elements of gameplay come first. Content to praise games for mimicking the form of the works of minds like Scorsese or Spielberg or Peckinpah, when they not only fail at that, but they fail at mimicking the function as well.
And the irony in all this is that so many of us are demanding or creating more cinematic experiences. We act as though we’re as good as we need to be, then, like hacks, we ape the works of geniuses, like chimpanzees ham-fistedly stabbing paper with crayons in trying to copy the Mona Lisa, and we have the gall to suggest that we’re good enough.
Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to Citizen Kane.
It started as something as a joke; the ‘are video games art?’ debate was starting to pick up steam (it’s a good discussion, but one very easily answered; the more interesting debate is ‘how can games be better at being art?’), and someone goes off and writes asking if Metroid Prime is somehow the Citizen Kane of games. It’s not. It’s a very good-looking game that has a nice environment and can be really engaging at times. But it’s no Citizen Kane, and plenty of people familiar with Citizen Kane and what that “The Citizen Kane Of…” means… well, they laughed.
And gamers got all uppity about it.
Worse yet, instead of going “yeah, Citizen Kane is incredible and the way it changed an entire artistic medium, not to mention culture at large, is really quite amazing, and it would be amazing to have a game that has that kind of impact,” people started diminishing the film, acting as if it wasn’t that good, or as if people shouldn’t aspire to its greatness.
It’s a common trend in games discussion. Rather than taking the topic at hand and exploring it, so many of us are content to say things such as “well, that’s just your opinion,” or “this discussion isn’t worth having.” Instead of striving with people to share our point of view, most of us seem more interested in simply picking up our toys and going home—or worse, screaming at others until they do.
So let’s talk about Citizen Kane. Let’s talk about what it is, what it did, and why it continues to be important. And let’s ask ourselves whether any games have done what Citizen Kane did, or, more importantly, if they can.
The first thing you need to understand is that Citizen Kane is practically perfect. To suggest that being as brilliant as Citizen Kane isn’t worthwhile, or worse, that games already approach Kane’s level, is to suggest that games have art as profound as Mona Lisa or Starry Night, or stories as brilliantly compelling as Hamlet or Catcher in the Rye. Citizen Kane towers above so many other films in the medium, even works of absolute greatness. When people say that it’s the best film ever made, they really aren’t joking around. From composition to lighting (that scene in the apartment with Jim Gettys, with the shorter man seemingly towering over Kane, while Kane is little more than a silhouette, is fantastic) to movement to acting to editing… it’s brilliant. The writing is incredible; I’ve watched plenty of great movies lately, like Annie Hall, The Maltese Falcon, and Goodfellas, but Citizen Kane blows them out of the water.
The telling of the tale is fantastic; every single element of the film works towards something else. While watching, I couldn’t help but wonder if Welles had so considered every aspect of Kane, that he deliberately took advantage of the fact that his movie was black and white, as well as a movie. He uses the film medium in ways that simply couldn’t be done in others, like radio or novels. In one scene, as one character tells his story, we see the opening night at the opera house Kane built for his second wife, the hustle and bustle before the curtains left, the look of horror on the woman’s face as she attempts to sing. It’s messy, chaotic, and then, the camera pulls back, we see the spectacle first-hand, we hear her awful singing, and the camera climbs, up, up, up into the rafters, where a workman pinches his nose, suggesting that her performance stinks.
Later, it’s Kane’s second wife who tells the story, and again we find ourselves in the chaos, but this time, we see it from behind. We see the empty blackness beyond, and instead of dozens of actors on a lavish stage, we see her, one woman, alone, nothing but stark lighting and bare floor around her.
Citizen Kane is an incredibly influential movie because of the genius behind it. It’s a film that continues to influence people to this day, even legendary filmmakers like Truffaut or modern auteurs like Tarantino. It’s a film that, as I understand it, introduced new techniques in camerawork, lighting, and beyond, much of which we use to this day, because we haven’t been able to improve upon it.
I’m not a good film critic. I understand the medium well enough to appreciate it, but I can’t communicate how brilliant this is; I don’t know the technical terms, don’t know all the things I need to be observing. I can appreciate a script, I think, telling you what’s wrong with the story, or how I feel a directorial choice affected a scene… but there are so many other people out there who can better explain Citizen Kane than I.
All I can really say is that Citizen Kane is practically flawless.
But perhaps you believe you’ve found a flawless, perfect game, and perhaps it is.
Thing is, Citizen Kane isn’t just immaculate perfection. I could go write a dozen essays on a dozen games I believe to be similarly fantastic—well, no, I couldn’t, because I don’t think any game has a script as good as Citizen Kane’s. I want to write that there’s some exception, some brilliant video game that totally manages to be as brilliant, as multifaceted and human as Kane, and I can’t think of a single one, not even Marathon: Infinity.
Kane transcends film. It’s just one of the greatest stories of all time, period.
Because it’s ultimately about being human. It has something to say. It’s not just an adventure story, where events happen and people respond to them, it’s an exploration of one man, one idea of a man. It’s a journey into genius and self-destruction, an examination of human relationships in a media-driven time. It’s so much stuff. The deepest a video game’s ever gone? Maybe Marathon: Infinity’s discovery that the player is the game’s destiny, its most important part. Or, god forbid, Modern Warfare 2’s whole “let’s put the player in the role of terrorists, and then in the shoes of the people falsely accused of supporting terrorists, so that players can empathize with people in Iraq and Afghanistan!” Or it might be Bioshock 2’s tale of divorce, family, and father/daughter relationships. Actually, yeah, Bioshock 2 is probably the best video game story ever written, which is kinda sad, even if it is a pretty good story.
Citizen Kane is one of the few stories that manages to cover a contemporary event that still means something years and years and years later, much like Les Miserables. It’s not like those procedural TV shows or games that rip news from the headlines about PMCs or what have you and try to make an episode about it. It’s a story that, even divorced from the way it’s a scathing criticism on William Randolph Hearst, still matters, because it identifies the humanity in its subject and talks about that rather than merely the events behind them.
So far, we’ve got a film that’s essentially technical perfection, highly-influential, and brilliantly-written to the point where it’s still meaningful today. But it’s more than that.
At the time, films were, well, escapist entertainment. The Wizard of Oz (which I personally feel is a better movie than Citizen Kane, for various reasons totally not relating to my current status as a Kansan), for instance, can feel overly-saccharine, telling the audiences that the power to conquer their fears has been inside them the whole time. It’s light-hearted, happy, escapist fun. Most of the movies of the time served the purpose of entertainment. Not all, of course—Fritz Lang’s M asked whether anyone had the right to murder a murderer and touched on elements of mental illness.
But Citizen Kane was a sort of watershed moment for Hollywood. It was the moment where people—the public especially—started to realize that film, as a medium, could be more than just pure entertainment, more than enjoyable images on a screen. If the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane is to be believed, Orson Welles’ masterpiece is the film that helped erode journalism’s power base, showing people that film had teeth, that film could talk about social issues, that film could be just as important and influential as journalism.
And this, really, is what it means to be Citizen Kane.
If you want to make The Citizen Kane of Video Games, you’ve got to make a game that’s great—really, truly great—on technical and artistic levels. Then you have to make a game that influences the way society thinks about your medium. Whatever The Citizen Kane of Video Games is, it’s going to be the game that gets mainstream scholarly attention. It’s going to be the game that quells many of the debates about the medium. It’s going to be something that people look at and are inspired by, something that lets them improve upon it. It’s going to be real art, not simple entertainment with decorative bits.
We don’t have a Citizen Kane right now, not in a climate where most people feel comfortable asking a guy like me why he chose game design, instead of a degree in something useful—no one’s uttered a peep in regards to my current film degree pursuit.
Citizen Kane, in other words, gives Gaming a kind of legitimacy it doesn’t have yet.
Films were legitimate in the 20s and 30s, but they weren’t venerated as truly important things, within a social, human context. Games haven’t quite gotten that yet. Oh, sure, they’re important in a pop cultural context, or in a financial context, but so are reality television series and Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. They’re important more in the here and now than down the line; do you think, in forty years, that anyone’s going to care all that much about Red Dead Redemption’s awful attempt at capturing Peckinpah’s “The West is Deaaaaaaaad” sentiment without understanding what that meant? Does anyone have anything to learn from Red Dead Redemption?
It’s got nothing of value to say beyond “the government totally sucks,” but, to be frank, Tenacious D said it better several years before.
Can we have a Citizen Kane of gaming?
I’m going to be honest, I don’t know. When chatting with people about the possibility of another Ebert, one of the big talking points was whether or not, in a world where everyone can have a voice over Twitter and blogs and comment sections and whatever else, in a world where newspaper circulation is dwindling, a single voice can truly stand out.
We live in a world where games are released constantly, where games are crafted far differently than films, where it’s unlikely that a big studio like EA or Ubisoft would give a blank check to some twenty-five year old kid, as RKO did to Orson Welles for Citizen Kane (but, uh, if you want to, I’m sitting right here!). We live in a time where our medium’s myopically focused on gameplay as its end goal, rather than a crucial part of crafting a human experience.
We live in a time where people are able to release indie games in a way that couldn’t have happened back in the day, games that can already tell these stories and create these feelings. We’re inundated with games—big releases are going to hit just about every week this fall, often multiple releases a week. We’re inundated with discussion, most of it, even from the professionals, sub-par (remember, GTA IV was said to have an “Oscar-worthy story” by one of the most influential sites in the business).
I’m not sure we can have a Citizen Kane of games, but I think having one would be good. It’d be really cool to have a game that isn’t simply perfect, in terms of gameplay, presentation, and storytelling, but a game that’s so big it changes the way designers make games. Oh, what I’d give for a video game that is so powerfully good that the people who come after it realize that Naughty Dog, Irrational, Rockstar, Bioware, and plenty of others could have been doing it way differently, way better.
I know, as arrogant as I am, with a blank check, I could come damn close, but it probably won’t be me.
If a Citizen Kane of video games can happen, then regardless of who does it and what it is, I know one thing: It’s going to be awesome.