This blog is coming off a little angry and I wanted to find something more positive to write about. Problem is though, I feel a stronger urge to write about stuff that bothers me. Yet I don’t really want to be incredibly negative all the time. However, I have just read an article on Kotaku and reminded myself why I don’t read Kotaku. The article was a badly written, incoherent mess. Those are great for blog posts, but for an article on a major website that probably pays its employees, it’s ridiculous.
The article was “Allow Me to Apologize for E3 2012” written by Tim Rogers. His snobbishness is impressive. He clear is a better person than any of us, one of gaming’s master race of intellectual indy snobs. Trust me, I know one when I see one. Thus far I have written mostly about video games on this blog, but video games isn’t really my main passion. It’s something I do because I don’t watch a lot of TV, but when I do watch TV…I watch Breaking Bad.
My primary passion in life, the one thing I geek over more than anything else is the movies. I am a hardcore cinema junkie. I have compilation dvds of films made in the 1890’s when they were still be viewed through narrow slots. I know who people like Edwin Porter and W.K.L. Dickson are. I have three different versions of Nosferatu and two different versions of Metropolis. I have an unopened extended cut Hard Boiled. I have several Ingmar Bergman films on dvd and Blu-ray. I have Criterion’s Blu-ray of Fellini’s 8 1/2. I own movies that come from every decade that movies were made, starting in 1890 and on up to whatever the last one I just bought was. Probably Mission Impossible 4.
The point is, I watch a fuck-ton of movies. I read and watch documentaries about film history and read in depth critiques that analyze every shot, frame and cut in a movie. While I’m not nearly the expert that someone like Roger Ebert is, I know enough about movies and world cinema to the point of it becoming slightly embarrassing, as if it is my entire world.
The reason for that tangent and really, this entire article is this: as a film nerd, I’m really, really fucking sick of people saying that we need the “Citizen Kane” of video games. Anyone who has ever listened to Roger Ebert’s commentary on Citizen Kane and was also a big fan of video games, would reject this statement outright. Citizen Kane is considered the greatest American film of all time by the consensus of film critics. If you talk to most critics individually, there are probably movies that they like better on a personal level. However, Citizen Kane is the film that most of them agree is a stunning triumph of technique, ingenuity and creativity. The film is completely unique, there was nothing like it before it, there is nothing like it now. Most people who haven’t seen it, assume it is a deep, esoteric evaluation of the human condition. Spoiler warning: it’s not.
In his commentary, Roger Ebert concludes that Citizen Kane is a masterpiece but a shallow masterpiece. That’s not a negative criticism, merely an accepting of the film for what it is, not what we want to be. There are no great revelations, no great insights into humanity, society or even the title character himself. We learn more about the people around him than we do of Charles Foster Kane. The reveal of the central mystery, that of Rosebud, is anti-climatic and it’s supposed to be. We follow a reporter as he investigates the life of Kane. He believes that Rosebud is the key to understanding Kane. Since the reporter is our portal into this world, we identify with him and the audience believes that Rosebud is the key to understanding the movie. In the end, Rosebud explains nothing at all. The film is an elaborate magic trick, a light show with smoke and mirrors.
This of course, doesn’t diminish the film. It strengthens the film and makes you admire it even more. It liberates you and let’s you focus on the execution, the great dialogue, the incredible performances, all the stuff that we really love the movies for. That is why Citizen Kane is considered the best film ever. Not because it is a deep and meaningful experience, it’s simply the best.
But shouldn’t we want video games to achieve that level of creative excellence? Absolutely.
The problem here is that when Tim Rogers says he wants the Citizen Kane of video games, he isn’t talking about Citizen Kane. He’s talking about a bunch of other great movies that he may or may not have seen. What game critics want is more narrative depth, less arch-typical/more original characters, a greater diversity in point of view, a better emotional bond with the characters, more meaning, more depth, more introspection, and intellectually and morally challenging concepts. None of these is found in Citizen Kane. They use Citizen Kane as a short hand for “meaningful, artistic masterpiece.” This does a disservice to Citizen Kane because that is not the movie that Citizen Kane is.
Brainy Gamer has a much better article, comparing the modern shooter climate in video games today to that of High Noon. It’s a much more apt comparison, historically as well.
This is precisely where Rockstar has tried, but mostly failed, to go with its recent genre-inspired games. Red Dead Redemptionand L.A. Noire contain the stylistic trappings of their filmic influences, but little of the complexity. To be fair, the interactive dimension goes a long way toward bridging this gap, and RDR, especially, makes inhabiting John Marston feel more personal than any film could hope to do.
A commenter wonders when we’ll see the Unforgiven of shooters. Unforgiven took old western tropes and applied an honest and often introspective understanding of violence to them. Narratively, Unforgiven is a simple film. It’s complexity lies in its themes and character. It’s almost the exact opposite of Citizen Kane. Both great films, but great for very different reasons.
I don’t think there will be a Citizen Kane of gaming, because those in the game industries don’t understand Citizen Kane. AAA game developers keep trying to make cinematic games without having a clear understanding of what makes cinema work. Things like pacing and narrative structure are tossed out the window for more shooting and explosions. There is a severe lack of fundamental storytelling in most games. In thirty years they haven’t come to grips with how to best integrate story, character and themes into a interactive structure.
In 1894 we had the flickering images of a girl dancing being played in a shoe store.
In 1903 Edwin S. Porter directed the Great Train Robbery, the first narrative film.
In 1915 D.W. Griffith released Birth of a Nation giving film its definitive narrative form.
In 1922 F.W. Murnau directed the crown jewel of the German Expressionist movement with Nosferatu.
In 1927 F.W. Murnau gave us the final word on silent films and a true masterpiece with Sunrise.
In 1939 technology and imagination was pushed to the limit with the Wizard of Oz.
In 1941 John Huston directed The Maltese Falcon and created the greatest of American film genres, noir.
In 1941 we also saw the release of Citizen Kane, which captured the elegance and sophistication of film making technique.
The early 1894 films we can clearly equate to Pong. An early curiosity driven by Americans’ love of technological progress.
The Great Train Robbery and The Life of an American Fireman can be equated with Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. Early examples of each of their forms, but not all of the elements have come together yet.
Birth of a Nation can be equated with Super Mario Bros. For each, all the innovations and elements had come together to create the definitive form.
Where we start getting into trickier waters is Nosferatu and Sunrise. What about M? Or Metropolis? What about Rashomon? What about Annie Hall or Taxi Driver?
Instead of “we need the Citizen Kane of games,” why not “we need the 2001: A Space Odyssey of games?”
Indy developers and game journalists constantly say that we need the Citizen Kane of games. Or they wonder where it is or if it had already been made and we just haven’t seen it for what it is yet. The point is, be a bit more creative. There are hundreds of films that redefined what film and movies could be and could be about. Let’s set Citizen Kane to the side for a while and come up with something new. Hell, right now I’ll take The Adventures of Robin Hood of gaming.