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Keep On Asking About Citizen Kane

See what I did there?

We’ve trundled methodically over the relationship between games and films fairly recently with the Spector article – and I shall come to that another time – but what caught my attention this morning was this column by Steven Poole, in which he addresses the question of the question “What is the Citizen Kane of games?” Bad question, says Poole. But I disagree.

Here’s an important bit of Poole’s piece:

an awful lot of videogames are trying to be films, which is doubtless why the Citizen-Kane-of-games trope has arisen. It has come about because of a reinforced mistake: a mistake made by videogame designers, and then repeated by their uncritical fans as well as their ignorant critics.

And that’s half true. Lots of games are trying to be cinematic, and people do get confused about how to compare and contrast the two media. But the question hasn’t necessarily arisen because games are trying to be films. It still made sense in the 8-bit era, before games were really able to aspire to be cinematic. “What is the Citizen Kane of games?” really has little to do with games wanting to be films, and everything to do with the question being an analogy. Asking “What is the Citzen Kane of games?” is simply asking what game critics might be able to look to for a single, highly accomplished instance of the medium. Poole seems to recognise this,

presumably the incantation of this film’s name has just become anxious shorthand for something like “a medium-defining masterpiece”

That’s precisely what it means. It also means that the question has only been misinterpreted or misused by some, not that it’s not worth asking, or that it doesn’t make sense. Poole’s argument, then, is that any analogy which compares games to films is dangerous precisely because it connects games with films and drags us closer to silliness like attempting to directly contrast Red Dead Redemption with classic Westerns. This leads Poole to:

The Kane comparison, in sum, is not only stupid but actively harmful, insofar as it might prompt more developers to try to ‘make a Citizen Kane’ rather than making a really good videogame

Or, if read correctly, it might prompt developers to examine what they are doing, and look at what Citizen Kane means in the wider context of culture. The film is important because it was both a technological accomplishment that pushed the field of cinematography, and a feat of story-telling. Games can aspire to similar achievements, particularly in terms of pushing the boundaries of technology. Kane was about exploring what film could do in terms of telling a story, structurally and in terms of blending fiction with real-life subject matter. It was about how figuring out what the medium was for, and how it could do more. That’s exactly what game designers are (or should be) doing with games.

Read like this, then, asking what the Citzen Kane of games is could be fairly instructive, because it’s asking which games have both made the best use of technology at the time, and which have told stories in a way that expanded what it means to tell stories using games.

A more pernicious reading of the question is touched on by this Gamasutra article, in which it’s suggested that it’s really about finding a game that validates games as a whole. However, as the article points out, films were already considered a legitimate and sophisticated aspect of culture by the time Kane came along. All Welles was doing was driving home that point by making a really good film that would be discussed for decades to come. And that, for me, is precisely what the question “what is the Citizen Kane of games?” is all about. We’re not asking for inspiration from or parity with film, nor trying to find the game that legitimises all the time we spend playing games. We’re asking for the game or games that drive home the point that games are a mature, complex expression of all the other stuff that’s going on in technology and culture, and doing it in a way that is unique to gaming.

Keep asking that question. The only real danger is that we’ll end up having too many candidates for the answer.

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Jim Rossignol

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