For years gamers have lamented that for years other gamers have lamented that blah blah videogames blah blah Citizen Kane. Right?
“…it’s become increasingly popular to lament that the medium doesn’t yet have its Citizen Kane.”
Mikel Reparaz on Games Radar in 2009
“…won’t be taken seriously unless we recognise a landmark achievement within the history of gaming; the video game equivalent to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.”
Jens Erik Vaaler on The Gaming Vault in 2010
“…nothing new for a gamer to read the words ‘the Citizen Kane of’ within a review or editorial. But it has become such an old trick…”
gamesbeatxmlrpc on Venture Beat in 2013
“There’s been a lot of chatter, in recent years, about the Citizen Kane of video games.”
Jason Schreier on Kotaku in 2013
“…what everyone on the Internet was assuring me was videogames’ ‘Citizen Kane moment’. Although I ridiculed that cliché several years ago…”
Steven Poole on Edge Online in 2013
“What is the Citizen Kane of videogames? In the constantly churned field of gamer chat, this is a zombie question…”
Steven Poole on Edge Online in 2010
“What's with the ‘Citizen Kane of videogames’ thing?”
GunslingerPanda on the Giant Bomb forums in 2011
I’m still going to write about it
It’s the weekend! Let’s fantasise a little. What does it mean to say games need a Citizen Kane? My take is this: CK wasn’t just a good film, it was a landmark in defining what cinema is, as a medium, and in contrast to other storytelling media.
Games don’t have a landmark like that. Some games do things with storytelling that other media can’t do, but there isn’t one standout game that collects all the best techniques arrived at so far, adds a couple of new ones, and proves what the medium is. Now, I don’t think gaming needs that, but it’s true that it doesn’t have it.
In this post, I’m going to gather some great ideas I’ve seen in games, then posit, with no credible authority whatsoever, that that’s what Citizen Game would be. Because it’s the weekend! Let’s fantasise a little.
But first, a false history of cinema
The following history of cinema is not true, but what it tells us about the potential of videogames is true. Alright, that might not be true either, but let’s fantasise a little. (It’s the weekend!)
Before Citizen Kane, cinema was plagued by an identity crisis. When those old guys with all curly moustaches and monocles and stuff first got cameras, they went round pointing them at things. Oh look! A train! And then all those old simpletons in the audience — in their corsets and top hats and long skirts and that — thought the train was going to hit them. Dear me.
Then they made films with actors, and eventually someone had the bright idea of getting them to talk, whereas they had previously acted in silence. This opened the door to telling stories just like in the theatre, but with a few great practical advantages, such as editing out set or costume changes, and only having to perform the thing once before playing it back repeatedly in different locations. Awesome: film had earned its place.
Then we get to Citizen Kane. Orson Welles says, “Why would you just film theatre plays? Yes, you’re beating theatre at its own game, but that’s a stupid game! I mean, who watches theatre, anyway?” So instead of just filming stuff that’s going on so people can see a record of it later, he starts creating new experiences that only exist in film.
Example: there’s this scene in Citizen Kane where the first shot is the exterior of a building. The camera flies in over the building, and through a sign on the roof of the building towards a skylight, then we fade to an interior shot of a conversation inside the building, under that skylight. Whoa! What just happened? For one thing, the audience isn’t occupying a space shared with the characters any more, and when we watch the film, we’re not just seeing what we would have seen if we were there. Now we’re able to understand the world of the story in a new way, without having a spatial relation to it.
That wasn’t something that happened in theatre. Although theatre audiences aren’t usually part of the world of a play, they do always stand in a fixed spatial relation to any particular scene. Although a camera stands in clear and apparent spatial relation to any particular shot, the shot can be treated as merely one tiny element in the presentation of a scene, and a scene can be a whole bunch of different spatial representations. That was a new freedom for cinema.
Thanks to Citizen Kane, instead of just recording stuff that’s happening, cinema now had the potential to do things differently, to create a new world: it was a new way to tell stories. The important part, though, is only the potential to do things differently — films are still free to record theatre plays, but that’s now an artistic decision, not a lazy assumption. Case in point on that one: 1967’s Wait Until Dark was set in one small apartment, which it viewed from just one perspective, like a theatre set. That was used as a device to convey claustrophobia and familiarity with the protagonist’s surroundings. Or that Hitchcock one with the wheelchair and the binoculars.
Citizen Kane made the mere reproduction of theatre into an artistic choice — just one among cinema’s new, broad repertoire of storytelling techniques.
So what’s Citizen Game?
If cinema was bogged down in theatre, gaming is bogged down in cinema. Games have taken cues from action movies forever, to their detriment. Citizen Game would need to exploit the new and unique potential for artistic expression that videogames offer as a medium, and open those up as new options for storytelling. Citizen Game needn’t debunk the typical tropes of game design and presentation, it would only need to prove that there are worthwhile alternatives, and so make the standard ideas merely one option among others.
Imagine an FPS that successfully and deliberately exploits the plasticity of player-character identity, so that strong identity’s no longer the only known path. One that plays with the possibility of the player taking the roles of different characters, and with the game’s control over when the player knows who they’re controlling and when they don’t.
Imagine a game that takes gaming’s potential to depict physical interaction, and knowingly and creatively leverages and then abandons that potential for artistic effect. One where the growing detachment of the player-character from his/her actions is mirrored in the reduction of accurate, depictive motion controls to mere representative button presses.
Imagine a game where system and metaphor are tied together and then deliberately pulled apart, so that the metaphor is revealed to be a mask of what is “really” going on in the system. One where a story of subterfuge and cover-ups is revealed, and the player learns that a new superficial metaphor applied to the same interaction mechanics, can represent things in a different light, and hide or reveal the truth.
Imagine a game that non-player-centrically manipulates the presentation of its goals so that whether it’s solvable or not — and what constitutes its solution — is unclear. One where a path is set out for completion, but is too hard to complete, and where an apparent side-quest offers a route for the player to discover a different value to the game, and to interpret that as the true resolution — or to just keep trying along the main path: maybe it would be possible to “beat” the game, but at what cost to your enjoyment?
Imagine a game which gathers all those ideas and more, all together, harnesses all the unique expressive power of games at once, and tells a riveting story, and causes a thousand games to copy it, and thousands more to choose not to. That’s what Citizen Game would be.
Now, that might not even be possible — it might not even make sense — but, hey, it’s the weekend.