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.


  1. Random Stranger #46 says:

    Old Elite, from Firebird.

    • Nesetalis says:

      this is very true.. atleast for that genra it spawned. Honestly the 4X genra would be nothing without Elite i think.. it set the stage for so many other games, and almost no game has lived up to the vast potential of elite.

  2. Dean says:

    I think what Poole is sort of getting at is that it’s an odd analogy.

    What was the Citizen Kane of music? Of theatre? Of Literature. Film is the only medium which seems to place a necessity on this one defining exemplar. Theatre is closest: the entire oeuvre of Shakespeare maybe. Surely the normal state is to have a huge number of options to choose from?

    Comics are the only other medium I can think of desperate to find their Citizen Kane. Was it Watchmen? Maybe. For superhero comics perhaps.

    Poole’s argument, surely, is that if you keep trying to make gaming’s Citizen Kane, rather than just trying to make good games, then it’ll never get made. It’s something that will (or won’t) happen purely from efforts to make the most perfect game possible. It’s not something that we can force.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      But that’s precisely the point: to aim to make a “Citizen Kane of games” is simply to try and make a great game. It doesn’t mean you will make a game that wants to be a film, unless you don’t understand the analogy.

    • Daniel Rivas says:

      I think a Citizen Kane also has to be very innovative, in terms of technological and storytelling advances. Generally speaking, in games the focus has been almost exclusively on the former and not the latter. In any case, Citizen Kane isn’t Citizen Kane just because it’s really good.

      I wonder what the Citizen Kane of books would be? The first novel, I suppose, but there are so many contenders even for that title. It’s a question that really only works for younger mediums, I think.

      What’s the Citizen Kane of music? The beatles would probably be the answer if we’re talking 20th century.

      Anyway, you’re right, it’s not a silly question.

    • SanguineAngel says:

      Gotta say, I’m with Jim on this one.

      There’s been a lot of this sort of talk of late about moving away from cinematic experiences because they don’t make good games.

      There’s been a lot of chatter about how games don’t tell good stories, can’t tell good stories because of their nature so we shouldn’t try.

      What tosh. Certainly games are more interactive than any other medium, and that should absolutely be cherished and taken advantage of. (There’s plenty of room for a linear experience though!). But to suggest that the very nature of games precludes a story driven or character driven cinematic experience is silly. I can thing of several ways in which player choice and designer’s vision can co-exist not only happily but positively.

      The beauty of computer games is that it can do SO MANY THINGS. All these articles and speeches dictating how games should be designed are what is dangerous because there is no single way. In fact the biggest problem game design currently faces in my own opinion is stagnation. Too many big developers copy other games, successful formulas. Really, there’s a lot of talk that to me seems to be attempting to instill a sort of Game Design By Numbers guide.

      Now I’m not so cynical that I can’t see that there’s still a LOT of promising content out there. I know the indie scene is burgeoning with increadible concepts and designs. I have even seen a few very promising bigger name developers going in interesting directions. I’m also not so naive as to think there was ever a perfect time where every game was a winner. There’s always been crap games, rip off and clones. But I can’t help but feel that people are more accepting of the dross these days, that more money is being made of them. Perhaps it’s just because we have unprecedented access to behind the scenes these days but I also get a much more powerful impression the developers and publishers are on a quest for some magical winning formula for game design.

      It doesn’t exist.

      Sorry, that’s probably very ranty and poorly expressed but I hope you get what I’m trying to say. Basically : I LIKE narative driven games. so there :p

    • JackShandy says:

      Dean, a “Citizen Kane” is a work that stands as a testament to the particular strengths of a new or unconfident medium, and cements the status of that medium as a worthwhile artistic endeavor. Music, Literature and Theatre all got on their feet well before reliably recorded history, so of course we don’t know about their Citizen Kanes. The analogy only makes sense in reference to relatively new things like Comics, Games or Movies.

    • Dean says:

      How long did it take Citizen Kane to be established as the Citizen Kane of movies anyway?

      Jim, you’re right that people confuse the metaphor, but I think the problem is a lot of developers are confusing the metaphor too.

      But even the ones that do, I think if they set out to make something genre-defining, they’ll end up missing every time.

      I’d rather see the “Understanding Comics” of games anyways…

    • Mr Ak says:

      I’d argue the “Citizen Kane” of TV was Oz. In fact, I’d argue it’s more of a Citizen Kane than Kane itself ever was.

      The Citizen Kane of “literature” (as opposed to simply novels) was probably either Ulysses or Proust’s Thing (Rememberance of Things Past is a poor translation, and I can’t be bothered to look up the French). I don’t like Ulysses and haven’t looked at Thing, but their impact is pretty undeniable.

    • AndrewC says:

      Proust’s Thing: in which an alien continually morphs into untold half-formed shapes as it drifts through the endless memories of all the places he’d been. And eaten the populace.

    • Dinger says:

      Long ago, on one of these comment threads, I wrote a brief summary of what the Citizen Kane argument boils down to. Citizen Kane is not just great a film, it is a brash statement of the power of films. The whole frame narrative consists of Newsreel reporters trying to present the obituary of a Newspaper tycoon. Citizen Kane doesn’t just say “Film can be art”; it pounds its shoe on the table and announces it will bury newspapers.Now, PCs are actually burying newspapers, and we want a bold artistic statement for their importance in making fortunes and deciding the fate of history?That’s Portal, isn’t it? Besides, Portal is probably the first B-game (in the sense that a studio sets a small team to work on a more modest project, with access to the full material resources of the studio) and it announces the death of the pre-information-era regime.

    • TeeJay says:

      @ SanguineAngel

      Better that developers engage in debate alongside looking backwards at sales figures. There is only a certain mileage in repeating or cloning stuff and often attempting to copy the market leader has large pitfalls (eg trying to make a ‘World of Warcraft’). Also there are almost *too* many incredible indie concepts out there – which ones can be invested in with large multi-disciplinary teams? In many businesses there is always a balance between experimenting with exciting new (but unproven) ideas and playing it a bit safer based on what customers have already shown they like buying (or what have been acclaimed as great games / art / ideas /products).

      It’s true that “what makes a good game” makes more sense within a specific genre: “what makes a good shooter / driving game / flight sim” or cross-genre “what makes a good story” as games and tastes are so diverse.

      Also while a solo painter, novelist – or indie developer – can decide to spend a year or a lifetime by themselves living on bread and water creating exactly what they want – for them “what makes a good painting/novel/game” is an inner dialogue or maybe confined to a small group of friends with a shared aesthetic.

      With larger development teams, financing, marketing/retailing and the wider public the “debate” becomes more important both to co-ordinate financing and production, to capture the imagination of a wider public and finally for gamers to talk about our experiences. It’s true there isn’t just one a single “magical winning formula”, but there are lots of smaller ‘golden rules’ and things that deserve praise and condemnation. There are also trends, fashions and new developments and people who want to influence the direction of travel via persuasion.

    • Damien Stark says:

      Another commenter here said it and I’m going to steal it:
      We should be looking for the Shawshank Redemption of video games.
      Accessible and enjoyable while still being expertly crafted and appreciable by the “proper artists” as well.
      It’s been on the top spot at IMDB (rather than AFI) for a long time.

      I suppose it’s heresy on RPS, but Game Rankings will tell us the answer is either Zelda or Mario.

    • tomwaitsfornoman says:


      I actually met Scott McCloud while he was touring the US in ’06, I think. Had a chat with the man, and he was very nice. I mentioned the idea of an Understanding Comics of video games, and he told me about another conversation where this idea came up. With a nice guy named Warren Spector. Apparently, Spector said that HE wanted to make the Understanding Comics of video games.

    • TeeJay says:

      @ Damien Stark: “I suppose it’s heresy on RPS, but Game Rankings will tell us the answer is either Zelda or Mario”

      Last year, frustrated that there wasn’t an IMDB for pc games, I decided to spent some spare time over several weeks grabbing loads of rankings and top 100s for PC games (eg PC gamer, Eurogamer, Mobyranks, Metacritic, PCZone and a couple of specialist sites) and mashing them up in different ways via a spreadsheet to try and compile an “ultimate list” (ha ha ha!) However while I did give a heavier weighting to reader-based scores the numbers below also include critics review scores, ‘Top 100s’, ‘games of the year’.

      My Results (Max = 20 points)

      “19 points”: HL / HL2 / Deus Ex / Grim Fandango / Planescape / Portal
      “18 points”: TF2 / BG2
      “17 points”: Mafia / KOTOR / Fallout / Starcraft
      “16 points”: CoD4 / UT2004 / Max Payne 2 / CoH / Rome:TW / Sims 2 / Psychonauts / World of Goo

      I’ll see if I can do a calculation based purely on “reader’s votes” (ie strip out reviews/critics/etc) but from what I remember there was a fairly consistent bunch of games that kept appearing at the top of the list, whichever way I did things – and they are more or less the games you would expect. The ” wtf! randomness” appears further down the lists.

    • Dave L. says:

      With a nice guy named Warren Spector. Apparently, Spector said that HE wanted to make the Understanding Comics of video games.

      I love this idea. The only problem I see with it is that the language of video games is so radically different between genres. RTSes tell their stories differently than FPSes tell them differently than RPGs and platformers and et cetera. You could probably do one focused on First Person games, but then there are the storytelling differences inherent to the Silent Protagonist (Gordon Freeman, BioShock’s ‘Jack’), the Game Defined Player Character (Garrett), and the Player Defined Player Character (Most FPRPG protagonists). Then you get the combinations of those archetypes (JC Denton).

      Going back to the ‘why cinematic games are bad’ subject: It’s because they hurt games’ ability to stand apart as their own art form. I’ve been saying for years that Half-Life 2 is the greatest action movie I’ve ever played, but it’s not a great game, because the main narrative is so completely rote and on-rails. Valve’s big strength in the ‘language of games’ arena is their diagetic world building, because it forces the player to actively seek out clues and piece together the bigger picture of just what’s going on in the world, but the storyline of the game is just handed to the player at specific points, and there’s nothing that they can do to even change where those points are.

      If they could marry their world building with the more organic and dynamic narratives of, say, Deus Ex, then you’d probably have the ‘Citizen Kane’ of gaming.

    • Tom Davidson says:

      Whew. That’s a relief, because it’s not.

  3. ts061282 says:


    • Daniel Rivas says:

      Gosh, I hope not.

    • somnolentsurfer says:

      It’s Half Life 2. What does it say about the state of the medium that the perfect example was a sequel?

    • Daniel Rivas says:

      What does it say about the state of the medium that that’s the best we could come up with?

    • Nobody Important says:

      @Daniel: Not only did your failed troll fail to take into account that a Citizen Kane of Games would not be “the best” by every known parameter, but also failed to recognize that games are a subjective art and thus the only “greatness” that can be achieved will be, of course, purely perspective based. Naturally, not everyone will be satisfied with the choice, because the nature of opinions leads one to blowing them about on game forums with a bluster as if, oh, “that’s the best we can come up with!” sort of whining is the best this conversation has to offer.

    • Daniel Rivas says:

      I think Half-Life and its sequels are fun and neat and occasionally affecting, but also inherently limited and stilted by their medium in terms of story-telling.

      I also think more can and must be done for games to be taken seriously.

      Aside: I’ve been thinking recently about this sort of thing, and I can’t think of a single narrative-led game – especially shooters – that hasn’t had the game bit get in the way or that wouldn’t be better as a novel or film. Really, all we have to distinguish them from other media are choices, but wouldn’t that be served better by focusing on high budget seamless choose-your-own-adventures? Are they games?

      I’m not saying there’s no worth to games with stories, but I’m starting to think most of that worth for me has been in the novelty of it, rather than some special quality of the medium. Not that it matters what I think, of course, for I am the Failed Troll.

    • DrGonzo says:

      I think Half Life is as good as any example.

      Citizen Kane was a turning point for film and I think Half Life was a turning point for games.

    • Daniel Rivas says:

      Or Super Mario Brothers, popularising the scrolling view as opposed to static screens? Or Wolfenstein 3D, popularising the first person shooter?

      I think a big problem (problem being perhaps the wrong word) with turning points in games is that we’ve had a lot of them and they aren’t all necessarily related.

      You’re right, though. Half-Life was enormously influential and perhaps I was a little snippy. I’m still more inclined to agree with the “we’re still in the silent movies stage” crowd, though.

    • DrGonzo says:

      I would say there can’t be one Citizen Kane of games. Half Life is completely different to minesweeper. But both are games. Because there is more diversity in games than film there must be lots of different examples in different genres.

    • somnolentsurfer says:

      I don’t think there’s any suggestion that the Citizen Kane of a medium needs to be the enduring best example of the form for all eternity. But I think Half Life 2’s technical innovation, combined with it’s telling a fine story through through methods entirely unique to gaming. The fact is that Half Life 2 (and, to a lesser extent even Half Life) perfected the form in ways that that should have been lessons to developers everywhere, but which have still only very rarely been repeated by anyone but Valve themselves. One day all developers will learn techniques like the communication of story through level design, and Half Life 2 will be looked back on as the game that defined the medium. Portal, or course, refines that prototype to shiny perfection, so I guess that makes it Touch of Evil.

      So, with that settled I think there are a whole bunch of other more interesting parallels we could try to find. Defcon, for example, is gaming’s Dr. Strangelove.

    • somnolentsurfer says:

      It seems I entirely broke off midway through a sentence there. Whoops.

    • DMcCool says:

      Its got to be Half-Life. There was nothing like it before and since (once the industry cought up) every FPS has followed it. Like Citizen Kane, Half-Life popularised the princibles on which its artform could, well, be an artform. If you argue games will primarily always been a vehicle for fun then some Miyamoto Nintendo game from the 80s will do, if not, so far Half-Life is the nearest we have to a Citizen Kane.

    • Mischa says:

      As a game, not a story, my vote would go to Ms Pacman.
      Also a sequel.

  4. Chris Hansen says:

    The Citizen Kane of games is Portal. Mmhm.

  5. NieA7 says:

    Ico. Console game I know but it ticks the technology box as it still looks better than most games being released today, and it ticks the medium pushing box by creating an experience that simply wouldn’t have worked the same way (and I would argue that it wouldn’t have worked as well either) were it any other kind of thing like a book or a film.

  6. Salazaar says:

    It’s Farmville isn’t it…?

  7. KingCathcart says:

    Citizen Kabuto, surely?

  8. Ninja Dodo says:

    For all the talk it still gets I think Clint Hocking’s point earlier comparing Deus Ex to Citizen Kane (in the way of summing up the medium so far) is not necessarily wrong…

    But I agree that setting out to create a defining statement of some kind is a dead end. Significance is attributed only in hindsight…

  9. AndrewC says:

    I get the feeling that, as with so many memes, the preciseness of the analogy isn’t important. It doesn’t matter if films were already respected before Kane came out – this phrase is all about the game that will change culture-as-a-whole’s opinion of the worth of games. It is a poltical argument, and using intellectual exhortations about ‘just making good games’ isn’t going to latch on to the underlying motivators of using that phrase – which are emotional, non-rational ones about being accepted, respected, not laughed at, getting back at the old bullies etc.

    And the answer, i reckon, is that there will *never* be a game that will fit our culture’s definitions of worthy, but games may (actually probably) change our culture’s definitions of worthy. I hope they don’t change them for the pooier.

  10. Dinger says:

    The real question nobody wants to ask is: “Where’s the Fantastic Four of video games?”

    • Jake says:

      Or, where’s the film of Doom?

      Oh wait.

    • Gotem says:

      Why wont somebody just make a game about the movie and we all be done with this? where you acquire other newspapers by knocking the execs with a Cane while riding (spoiler warning) Rosebud

    • Sonic Goo says:

      That sortof spoiled my joke there. Behold, gaming’s Citizen Kane!

      link to

  11. M says:

    As others have said, it’s hard to define what the ‘Citizen Kane of sculpture’ might be. Whilst your explanation of it as an analogy is useful, it’s only useful if everyone understands it in that way.

    Then there’s another problem; Citizen Kane exists because film is widely acceptable now. The term ‘the Citizen Kane of <something' works because the kind of people interested in the limits of media are also the kinds of people who accept/claim that Citizen Kane is a defining moment for film. In many ways, we have already have many defining moments. Maybe Levine is our narrative-upturning Agatha Christie; we have our Pixar-like Valve and their constant work towards accessibility and fun.

    It's too hard to do. I think people reject it for the same reason you dislike the word 'fun' being used to describe games. It's not that the word doesn't say anything, it's just that it can be used lazily, and it leads to lazier statements.

    • TeeJay says:


      classical: The Terracotta Army / The Sphinx / The Elgin Marbles / …
      renaissance: “David” by Michelangelo
      modern classical: “The Kiss” & “The Thinker” by Rodin
      modernist: Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso (various pieces)
      dada/readymade: “Fountain” Marcel Duchamp (a urinal placed on it’s side)
      minimal/environmental/sound/light/installations/robotic/etc: …. ??? anyone ??? (my own favourites are the environmental and ‘walking based’ work by Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy)

    • TeeJay says:

      Out of these Duchamp’s “Fountain” was a turning point of sorts in “sculpture” (or ‘non-sculpture’) except it was maybe going in the opposite direction: from ‘acceptable’ to ‘unacceptable’.

  12. BigJonno says:

    There is a definite difference between trying to make the Citizen Kane of games, as defined by Mr Rossignol, and just making a great game. I’m a firm believer in games needing to emphasise what they can do that film can’t; exploration and interactivity. You can have a great game, with a great story, that are entirely separable. Uncharted 2 is a great game, but the story wouldn’t be at all lessened by being a movie instead and the actual shooting and platforming could be removed and plugged into any number of different settings.

    Compare that to Deus Ex, where the two are intrinsically linked. JC Denton is an integral part of the story and you have almost total control over JC Denton. As a result, everyone’s experience of the game will be different; it belongs just as much to them as to the people who created it.

    It’s been said that gaming’s best emotional trick so far is making you do something you really don’t want to do. That’s a pretty shitty trick if the alternative is to stop playing the game. Gaming will have its Citizen Kane when a game makes you do something you really don’t want to do when there is a viable alternative.

  13. qqq says:

    My main problem is that I don’t really believe Citizen Kane has the status that this question suggests.

    It’s just a good film, you know. It doesn’t define the medium and it isn’t the irrefutable proof that it is an worthwhile medium. It’s just a film.

    (Hell, it wasn’t even appreciated in its time. Its current status owes a lot to the French New Wave rediscovering and promoting it. Most people still fall asleep while trying to watch it, mind you.)

    I think it can be quite harmful to have such a position – the number 1, the champion, the one that everyone should strive towards. There are very many ways to approach a medium and none of them should be stunted by the fact that it’s not how the Citizen Kane of the medium did it.

    Consider what it would mean if Portal (chosen from above comments, randomly) is declared the Citizen Kane of gaming. Does that mean that Civilization and games with that kind of structure are not as worthwhile as story driven ones?

    It would be just as arbitrary as saying that Citizen Kane is the pinnacle of film making.

    • M says:

      This misses the point a little, I think, in that most people disagree with you (I can’t say either way, having never seen it). The fact is that it is regarded as such. You might disagree with the choice of ‘the CK of games’ too.

    • Ozzie says:

      I just watched it a year ago. It’s not boring at all! It’s actually quite accessible, and while there’s lots of depth to it, you don’t have to search for it. The most of it is easy to understand, easily graspable, on the surface. But if you look for more, you will find it. Accessible on the surface, with hidden depth below.
      One of the greatest movies shouldn’t be boring anyway, should it?

  14. Cinnamon says:

    Citizen Kane is an obscure reference for most people. Most people who are not movie nerds probably have not watched or think that is a bit dull. There was a brief period when people were wondering what The Wire of videogames was but that was quickly dismissed. Probably because it was comparing games to something from TV that is still current and not some legendary thing from the past so people realised that it was a bit silly and felt sheepish for taking it too seriously.

    I suppose that people like novelists, directors and comic book writers have used things like the Odyssey, a lot, but at least that was in a way that used the actual content as inspiration. It does make sense to compare something like 2001 to The Odyssey but the Citizen Kane of games thing is a cargo cult. As if people start talking about games like movie critics talk about Citizen Kane then suddenly everything that movies get in terms of respect and acceptance will transfer to games.

    I think that Poole has it right.

  15. golden_worm says:

    The Citizen Kane of Games:

  16. Diogo Ribeiro says:

    Super Mario Bros. was the Citizen Kane of gaming before anyone started making the question. It took a simple handful of tools, showed what the medium could do with them when applied well, and went on to influence just about every game afterwards in one way or another. Visual characterization, checkpoints, secrets, emergent gameplay, bosses, progressively harder enemies and obstacles, a narrative that’s informed by the gameplay experience and rarely about cutscenes (although cutscenes did occur at a castle’s end).

    • Clovis says:

      I really wanted to reply with this:

      “Thank you Diogo Ribeiro!

      But our CITIZEN KANE OF VIDEO GAMES is in another castle!”

      However, I think you might be right ;-)

    • Diogo Ribeiro says:

      But it would have been a great answer, nonetheless :)

  17. qqq says:

    Oh, and one more thing: even if we’d agree that Citizen Kane is the Citizen Kane of films, we have to note that it gained this status very much in retrospect. Its status started growing only 10-15 years after it was made and solidified as time went by (and I mean, decades).

    So, of Portal is the Citizen Kane of gaming, our grandchildren will be the ones to find out.

    Most of them will find it a bit dull and pretentious, though.

    • AndrewC says:

      I’m not sure about that – the smarter examples comedies of the 30’s and 40’s are still funny today. Quality lasts quite a long time.

      Now, the ‘accessibility’ of Portal might come over as weird and simplistic to future us’es, like the over-the-top and theatrical performances of those earlier Hollywood films come over as bizarrely unnatural to now us’es.

  18. qqq says:

    If we’d actually HAVE to choose, Diogo Ribeiro’s nomination isn’t half bad :).

    But the thing is (and I suspect that Steven Poole is aiming in the same direction) is that the type of people who ask this question aren’t the type of people who would choose Super Mario Bros.

    For one, they think that the Citizen Kane of gaming hasn’t been made yet and that gaming has still to mature, wake up and become something different than it is (which I really don’t believe – gaming has defined its heart and will never metamorphose into something else).

    For the other, I think they are the kind of people who would push for something more narrative driven as the choice. Something that made them cry or whatever.

  19. bill says:

    Personally I’m with poole. It’s an annoying question, and the vague sense that many game makers really wanted to be movie directors is annoying too. But feel free….

    What was the citizen kane of movies before citizen kane btw?

    • Sonic Goo says:

      Journey to the Moon? Metropolis? Great Dictator? Wizard of Oz?

  20. Pidesco says:

    Thinking about the Citizen Kane of games is really getting ahead of ourselves. I’m still waiting for the Sunrise of games, The Passion of Joan D’Arc of games or The Rules of the Game of games.

    On the other hand, I could argue that the Alien of games has already been released so perhaps things shouldn’t be looked at like this.

  21. qqq says:

    (Man, I’m spamming now!)

    To AndrewC: I was just making a dig at Citizen Kane :). I don’t now what people of the future will think about Portal.

    There are a lot of old films that are still very watchable by today’s standards and Citizen Kane is one of them, but it’s still not a film that the majority of people can enjoy, since it’s such a ‘heavy’ film. My Girl Friday would probably be more successful.

  22. Berzee says:

    “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
    ~ C.S. Lewis, hooray!

    • Starky says:


      Which just underlines why Devs striving for “innovation” is such a poisonous thing to have as a target.

    • golden_worm says:

      To be fair C.S.Lewis also said :
      “A man who is eating or lying with his wife or preparing to go to sleep in humility, thankfulness and temperance, is, by Christian standards, in an infinitely higher state than one who is listening to Bach or reading Plato in a state of pride or playing Portal in his underwear.”

      I may be paraphrasing.

    • Berzee says:

      So that’s two awesome things C.S. Lewis said.

  23. dudekiller says:

    I’ve been doing a fair bit of research into the development of games and film as artforms as part of my master’s dissertation.

    As others have pointed out, it wasn’t like Citizen Kane was released and then the world went “Oh! Right. Films are art now!” The widespread acceptance of film as art only really came about in the last 50s and early 60s, propelled by societal forces like the earlier downfall of the studio system, a more educated film-going populace, the rise of film academia leading to specialised vocabulary and theory, and so on. The 60s saw a wave of reinterpreting past films and the discovery of “lost masterpieces”. In other words, film as an artform isn’t a form of film-making, it’s a form of film-watching.

    The idea that games are art exists, but it’s not common, and it’s treated with suspicion even by many people sympathetic to the medium. This places it at a position very similar to the idea of films as art before the 1960s. I think we’ll get there, but it’s going to take time, and it’s not going to be because of any one particular Citizen Kane.

    • dudekiller says:

      Late 50s, sorry. Shut up, I’m hungry. Have you seen my crisps?

    • AndrewC says:

      Nice. The Mona Lisa would have no artistic value if we just treated it like wall-paper. We have to be *looking* for the meaning. Same with games. While even most gamers keep up with the ‘it’s just a game’ rhetoric, that’s exactly all they’ll *just* be. It is, as always, entire our fault.

      And what I wouldn’t give to have an MA certificate awarded to the name ‘dudekiller’.

    • Tom Camfield says:

      The major French critics embraced auteur theory, and as Welles produced, directed, wrote and starred in Citizen Kane he was seen as the ultimate auteur, and CK was the ultimate expression. It therefore had a massive head start as far as “greatest film” was concerned.

    • Starky says:

      Andrew, his point still stands though – Leonardo wasn’t trying to paint the worlds most well known portrait when we put paint to canvas – he was just doing a commission for the pay check.

      Assigning the value of greatness comes after, often decades if not centuries after, most works of great art were probably not intended to be such, simply we decided as a collective that they should be.

      The bottom line is the medium just isn’t old enough or mature enough for that to happen – and trying to force it will fail every single time. Just like it usually fails in other mediums (with a few rare exceptions).
      So yes for now all game are just games, trying to force artistic merit from them and thrust that into mainstream acceptance is just pointless, even if that artistic merit is real.

      Yes we should talk about it, yes we should examine it, but we can’t expect the wider world to give a damn.

  24. BigBallsMcHugeNuts says:

    to aim to make a “Citizen Kane of games” is simply to try and make a great game

    I don’t think that’s true. What makes Citizen Kane the, er, Citizen Kane of movies is not just that it’s a great movie, but that it’s (apparently) the greatest movie of all time.

    I think what Poole is getting at is that to attempt to make a “Citizen Kane” is to attempt to make the greatest game of all time, a game that is in some way more important than other games. The developers focus then would be more on how the game is received than the game itself.

    As an artist, I find my best work is always done when I’m not actively trying to create my best work.

  25. TeeJay says:

    I don’t like the constantly citing of Citizen Kane as it doesn’t really seem to be head-and-shoulders above many other films, or at the very least it is not ‘typical’ of movies…

    For the sake of simplicity I’ll refer to the imdb Top 250 link to

    Even after you have mentally filtered out large mainstream box-busters and any psychological voting bias favouring the most recent films, you are still left with other 40s/50s “classics” higher on the list, for example:

    12 Angry Men (1957), Seven Samurai (1954), Casablanca (1942), Rear Window (1954), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Sunset Boulevard (1950), North by Northwest (1959).

    (NB. Citizen Kane = 1941)

    Moreover, if we are talking about “modern” videogames (let’s say in the last ten years) then the movie comparator group would be more like: Memento (2000), Spirited Away (2001), Amelie (2001), Lord of the Rings (2001-03), City of God (2002), The Pianist (2002), The Departed (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), WALL·E (2008), Inception (2010), Toy Story 3 (2010).

    …and if we look at 70s movies: A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Godfather (1972/74), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Taxi Driver (1976), Star Wars (1977), Apocalypse Now (1979), Alien (1979).

    You could argue that the 70s movies had the biggest impact on videogames, and by the 00s videogames were having a big impact back onto movies. Since I have just invented this theory off the top of my head I will just check if the 80s and 90s movies bear me out…

    …80s – not many made it to the top of the list … Raging Bull (1980), The Shining (1980), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Das Boot (1981), Back to the Future (1985) … maybe everyone was more interested in playing PacMan in the arcades? (Of course there are loads of pulp 1980s action movies not on the imdb list that share plenty of similarities to games).

    …90s – Goodfellas (1990), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Schindler’s List (1993), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Pulp Fiction (1994), The Usual Suspects (1995), Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999), The Matrix (1999).

    OK so I have left out the 60s, so just for hell of it: Psycho (1960), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

    So as to 70s movies having the biggest impact on videogames: Gangsters, psychos-horror, war and sci-fi as genres seem to be directly connected to 1970s movies (I’ll let someone else trace the chronology and linkage between written fiction and movies/games) rather than 40/50/60s movies.

    80s movies provided a pulp/action explosion/car-chase/gun-battle template (also martial arts movies)…

    The best 90s movies took the same genres (war, sci-fi, crime) but tried to take them to the ‘next level’, both with more complex and thoughtful approach and visually/cinematically with CGI and complex editing and cinematography.

    It’s hard to summarise a trend for 00s movies (more quirky and introspective maybe?) other than they seem to have included more tolkien-esque ‘fantasy’, comics and superhereos alongside the ‘usual’ (war, sci-fi, crime) genres … although we need to note various middle-east-related and ‘political’ movies and some action franchises (bourne/bond) haven’t made the top of the imdb list.

    To come right back to Citizen Kane then:

    I’d argue that none of the 40s/50s and even 60s “classics” are as relevant to videogames as the 1970s/early 80s (Godfather, Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, Alien, Raiders of the Lost Ark) or 1980s pulp action/shooting/fighting … and that arguably videogames got to fantasy and comic/super-heroes *ahead* of movies and have increasingly influenced movies.

    What contemporary “genre” of movie does Citizen Kane or any of the other 40s/50s classics sit within? What would be a similar contemporary movie example (let alone videogame example)? I will be cheeky and say “the people standing around and talking” genre – one that is very niche these days, even for movies – and in videogames… well maybe some text-heavy adventure game perhaps?

    So that is my nomination:

    The Citizen kane of videogames (aka people standing around and talking) is…

    …Planescape Torment.


    • Sonic Goo says:

      There’s something to be said for being first. A lot of the things that CK did may not look so spectacular now, but they were revolutionary then. And a lot of things that highly rated more recent movies do, aren’t that great, since they’ve been done before. By Kane, for example.

  26. BigBallsMcHugeNuts says:

    Wow, I suck at both reply and bold.

  27. mcnubbins says:

    The real question is, Where’s the Pac-Man of movies?

  28. Igor Hardy says:

    I think you ask a different question, Jim. Your question is more like “What games are the kind of impressive break-throughs as was, for example, Citizen Kane for the film medium?”. And it is indeed a much better question.

    Because, as I understand it, the question “What is the Citizen Kane of games?” presupposes that CK was the one film that single-handedly elevated the cinematic medium to a new level (which can be understood in very different ways depending on who is asking the question), and that we’re still waiting for a video game to do the same (whatever it means).

    The fact that most people can’t even agree on what the question means is for me the strongest suggestion that this is not a good question. However, I also think that is not a well chosen comparison. For one, Citizen Kane’s importance is among other things based on a specific real life controversy, as well as on the whole Welles persona. We also have to remember that cinema struggled for a long time to prove it introduces something new beyond what theater can offer and that it can serve greater purpose than showing new magic tricks. Games never had this problem – from day one they are perceived as providing a different experience than the other available mediums.

    Still, just in case, I’m currently putting a “Rosebud” reference into my new game. ;)

    • Ozzie says:

      Well, “most people” can’t agree on a definition of the word art either. Does this mean that art isn’t a good word?

  29. Tom Camfield says:

    The question is dumb, because it’s demand is not aimed at game developers, but at the critics.

    Orson Welles didn’t make Citizen Kane “the best film”, critical consensus did.

    If we just need something technologically advanced to represent games, hell, take your pick, from Pong to Left 4 Dead it’s all technological innovation.

    If we need critical consensus, then that’s just asking for critics to be dull and limited in their tastes, and why would we want that?

  30. Gnarf says:

    Just curious… do you all mean videogames when you say games, or do you mean 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.

    And ouch. Whatever happened to the analogy? That there’s just something about Citizen Kane, with a “movies”->”games” search and replace…

  31. Pilou says:

    Tetris is the answer.

    • LordCiego says:

      That is the real Answer and i dont know why most people dont get it. I think everybody is just searching somewhere else for our Citizen Kane when it has been under our noses all the time.

  32. qqq says:

    The “and which have told stories” bit that hurts the most – it invalidates a lot of the best games ever by raising the importance of the story.

  33. KeenanW says:

    As far as I’m concerned, we’re still in the silent movie-era of video games. The ’80s and before was Vaudeville.

  34. ts061282 says:

    Citizen Kane is held aloft by the way it standardized so many technical techniques. It took many “artsy” or “experimental” elements and made them stock standard by executing them excellently. The film is so watchable today because it bears the elements we come to expect, invisibly, from a movie.

    The analogy of Citizen Kane to video games is weak because, unlike film, which has a single experiential mode (passive viewing), video games and multiple experiential modes (f1st, 2nd, 3rd person, abstract narrative, non-narrative) and no single element is necessary to define a game, except maybe interactivity. That is, a game need not have narrative or puzzles or dialogue or shooting or goals. The Citizen Kane of rhythm games is almost certainly not the Citizen Kane of FPSs or Connect 3 games. And because the video game genre is so fractured, it is almost certain we are some years or decades off from a true Citizen Kane of any one of these sub-genres, with their different experiential modes.

    • Jad says:

      Exactly. In a number of ways film is the most heterogeneous of the major art forms, it is one of the only that really can even have a “Citizen Kane”. Who is the “Citizen Kane” of music? What kind of music? What instruments? You could make a good argument that Jimi Hendrix is the “Citizen Kane” of the electric guitar — he took a new instrument that was an off-shoot of an old instrument and did new and amazing things with it that inspired many other electric guitar musicians, and he was very good at making music with the electric guitar. Maybe you could even call him the “Citizen Kane” of rock ‘n’ roll, although I think you’ll get a lot more argument on that front. But is he the “Citizen Kane” of African-American-derived musical forms, like rock ‘n’ roll, the blues, jazz, etc.? Is he the “Citizen Kane” of music in general? Who is more of a “Citizen Kane”, Beethoven or Jimi Hendrix? How do you even answer that question?

  35. OOS says:

    In all seriousness, I agree with this: as of now, Portal is the closest thing we have to a Citizen Kane of games. Not that it’s the best game ever or anything, it’s just the only one that comes to mind that tells a well written story in a way that can ONLY be done in games. You couldn’t adapt Portal; it’s too reliant on it’s gameplay mechanics to further the characters and plot. There’s probably others that do this, but Portal is the best un-obscure example I can think of.

    • ts061282 says:

      It’s true, Portal is the Citizen Kane of First Person Puzzle Games, which is just about meaningless.

    • OOS says:

      That’s also true, but then again Citizen Kane itself is only the Citizen Kane of drama. I suppose then that the question should be discussed by genre: Citizen Kane isn’t the moment that horror films came into their own, for instance, so really the whole analogy is moot.

    • BigJonno says:

      I have to disagree. I think Portal would make an excellent short story and I’m sure someone could make a good short film from it as well. You could tell exactly the same story without the portal gun; it was the reason for the testing and the tool of your escape, but GlaDOS was the indispensable aspect of the game. Portal is an excellent example of storytelling that isn’t reliant on exposition or dialogue; you glean the story from the environment and the wonderful antagonist, like a condensed, perfected version of Half-Life’s principles.

      I’d go so far as to say that Portal’s narrative is somewhat at odds with the gameplay side of things. The game could have gone far deeper into the puzzling possibilities of the portal gun, but to do so would have meant stretching out the narrative to the detriment of the overall experience.

      Portal is a wonderful game and I think it’s a shining example of how to tell a story without removing the player from the experience. However, it’s still a basically linear tale in which your only options are to succeed or stop playing and in that respect I feel that it only scratches the surface of what games are capable of.

  36. [21CW] 2000AD says:

    Who says it has to be a single player game? I’m going with Team Fortress 2 as my flag bearer for games. Endless replayability, regular updating to keep it fresh and the characters make even the most basic things enjoyable. Of the 3 years I’ve been playing it I can only think of 3-4 times i played it and didn’t have a whole load of fun.
    It’s the epitome of a game being a game, not a game trying to be a film.

  37. golden_worm says:

    Ok, imagine trying to describe the potential for games to a non gamer. The Citizen Kane analogy is just fine. You are placing games in a context of early films by citing a most well known breakthrough in technology, ambition and story telling, even if it wasn’t recognised at the time.

    It helps because it puts games now in a pre-Kane state, so many of non gamers preconceptions about the limitation of the medium can be put in context. We are now talking about an expected “Citizen Kane of games” this is how far we have come.

    If you were to look for “the punk of games ” or “the jazz of games” we could probably come up with examples that meet the genre descriptions and wouldn’t get too upset by the appropriation of another medium. Citizen Kane however is not a genre, it is a challenge, one that cannot be answered by “games aren’t films”.

  38. Ogun says:

    Diogo Ribeiro says “Super Mario Bros. was the Citizen Kane of gaming before anyone started making the question.”

    Yes, definitely – but it’s still a really flaky question. The IMCO Triplex Super is the Citizen Kane of petrol lighters.

  39. Nate says:

    It says that the interactive medium is much more complicated than the non-interactive one. Also, that it takes a ridiculous amount of resources to make use of the latest technology, be innovative, and polish to a sheen all at once.

    I’d say HL2 would be a great candidate, actually.

    My question is would we even recognize a “Citizen Kane” if we saw it? Perhaps, with the medium being so interactive, authors need to embrace player choice creating narrative instead of trying to drive their own, but that becomes quite a bit more complicated, especially in a single player setting. Perhaps the Citizen Kane will necessarily be a multiplayer game, then, but so many MP games are focused on gameplay first that most of them don’t really generate very compelling narratives. We’re talking orders of magnitude more difficult than making a great movie, here.

    • golden_worm says:

      With multi-player games, so much is down to the people you play with. Maybe a multi-player could be Citizen Kane of games if Orson Welles was playing all the roles?

    • somnolentsurfer says:

      The area where Valve still excel over everyone else I can think of, is in telling a story that is theirs, but in such a way that it feels like it’s your own. The story in Valve’s games isn’t told, it’s found. And it’s that manipulation of what’s unique about videogames that have allowed them to define the medium this century.

  40. Jayt says:

    He wasn’t the first to think the question was the fucking worst thing ever

    link to

    I agree with Jim though.

  41. negativedge says:

    Yawn yawn Mario etc. please move on.




  42. The Sombrero Kid says:

    It seems to me steven poole, ironcally, has misunderstood the question.

    In my opinion deus ex is the closest thing to citizen kane we will ever have because anything approaching the level of mastery & confidence of citizen kane will have been built on the shoulders of deus ex, and so will not have come out of the blue like citizen kane seems to have.

  43. Uhm says:

    So we deride film critics for applying their standards to judge our games and then look for the Citizen Kane of games.

  44. Jake says:

    World of Warcraft might be the Shawshank Redemption of games. As for Citizen Kane, oh let’s say Civilization II.

    • sfury says:

      Jeez, is this a joke or you just blurted out the 2 most random things off the top of your head? :)

    • Jake says:

      A little from column a, a little from column b. But that’s kinda the point, it’s impossible to give a real answer because it depends on what you think makes Citizen Kane important. I think Civ is a good example of an art form doing something unique and interesting, not revolutionary or unsurpassed, but it’s a game we should look back on and go ‘hmm, all games should be at least that competent’. And it’s a game as a game, not game as a film or book.

  45. Noct says:

    Everyone knows the new relevant question is, when will we see the Citizen Cane of Games of books of movies of music?

  46. Sébastien Richer says:

    I’m not sure about Mario, I would think more about The Legend of Zelda, but no way around it, Shigeru Miyamoto is no doubt the Orson Welles of video games.

    • DrGonzo says:

      Only if Orson Welles remade Citizen Kane every 2-3 years exactly the same with slightly different styling.

    • Tom Camfield says:

      Shigeru’s known as the Spielberg of videogames, so I’d stick with that. Both are happy and outgoing, very populist, have started a few franchises, and produced far more than they’ve directed.

  47. jpfabre says:


  48. Kadayi says:

    My perception of Citizen Kane as ‘the greatest movie ever’ has always been from the viewpoint of it not necessarily being a great film in terms of story (I can’t say it’s ever gripped me), but more from at perspective of the innovative cinematography used within it, which transformed many directors approaches to film making afterwards.

    Games are too broad a medium to really cite one example as universal, however I’d say that given how it transformed both players expectations and developers ambitions in terms of what could be achieved using the FPS framework in terms of storytelling then the original half life is probably in with a strong shout. Deus Ex and System Shock 2 are pretty good candidates also.

  49. pilouuuu says:

    An easier question would be:
    What is the Plan 9 from Outer Space of games?

  50. reginald says:

    Silent Hill 2, Portal, Shadow of the Colossus, ICO, Metal Gear Solid 1, possibly Shenmue.

    theres an argument above that states that games are sort of stuck in the influence of the 70s and 80s, which makes sense, as that’s really the birth of the medium; all game developers at the time would’ve been inspired and influenced by the latest films. it feels like its taken us 20 years to look outside the “70s/80s box” and actually start pulling from other genres and eras.

    citizen kane is a black and white drama film. the CK of games would be restricted to something similar (in terms of thematic content). pick a genre and an era, and their you can try to link up the analogy. looking at the current Game Culture, you’d think that the question would be “whats the Aliens or Saving Private Ryan of videogames ?” seeing as thats all anyone seems to be making.