A few weeks ago, IGN editor Michael Tomsen committed one of the worst sins a game journalist can commit: he reminded the world that video games still are just games for kids. Invited by ABC news to come forth with a name for “our” <<Citizen Kane>>, he chose “Metroid Prime” as the most eligible candidate for that honor. I won’t bother you with the justifications he used to back up his choice, as Anthony Burch, in his somewhat truculent style, already addressed them with the necessary criticism in this interesting read. Suffice to say, IGN’s editor might’ve been better off not saying anything, instead of spewing such ridiculous statements, that serve only to show the lack of culture most game journalists possess.
The formulation of this question is not new. Where is the <<Citizen Kane>> of video games? This problem is very ambiguous, and the way in which it was phrased can lead to a host of misinterpretations on what is being discussed. The most important disclaimer in this regard is – I am not, in any way, about to compare cinema with video games, they are different mediums with different expressions, and we would do well to accept the differences. The truly relevant question which lies hidden in the “Citizen Kane” conundrum is this: what video game can you show the world that will convince it of the medium’s legitimacy and maturity as a means of expression?
Whether someone chose “Citizen Kane” or “Metropolis” or “Nosferatu” or “Birth of a Nation” or any other film for the comparison is irrelevant. The reason why someone thought of “Citizen Kane” probably derives from its relative closeness to present day, and to the profuse knowledge most of us possess regarding film and its history (as opposed to the illiteracy we show towards older art forms). It is easy for us to track the relevance of film as an art form as a consequence of the study of certain works, in which “Citizen Kane” plays a major role. Also, film, being a product of the XXth century, emerged in a somewhat similar social and economic climate to that of video games, making its process of maturing from a purely commercial business to a wider, more encompassing artistic medium, seem replicable in our means. This is why we should crave a “Citizen Kane” – we want video games to achieve the same status as cinema did, and so we await eagerly the prophetic light of a piece of art so profound, that it can turn the blindest of skeptics into an illuminate, devote follower of video games. But what features made “Citizen Kane” relevant enough as to establish film as more than a form of entertainment? The answers are many and highly subjective. What follows are my own answers, and anyone is free to give theirs to help the debate.
The most important of “Citizen Kane’s” qualities is, without a shadow of a doubt, it being a true film. It isn’t a piece of theatrical performance set in an intangible stage, it isn’t a novel with its text hammered into spoken words by both narrator and actors, no! It was pure image and sound in narrative form. The cinematic language employed in Welles’ masterpiece was so powerful and visionary, that it would take more than a quarter of a century for someone to even consider updating it. Welles took all the potential of cinema and attempted fulfilling it, by virtuously condensing a story into an expressive piece of celluloid, captured thanks to a beautiful (and revolutionary) cinematography, exquisite soundtrack, and an outstanding work in terms of actor performance. Every framing, mise-en-scéne and camera movement serves as a vessel of metaphor for the telling of Kane’s life – these are the only true words of the language used by this audiovisual book. This is what eventually lent artistic legitimacy to cinema – “Citizen Kane” was a work that could not be replicated in other formats without losing its greatest strengths as a work of art.
The second, sometimes forgotten, quality of “Citizen Kane”, stems from its universal, perpetual appeal. “Kane” may bear a special figure as a man, being a magnate like we have seen so few, but his story was personal, human… familiar. We can all relate to his life in some way, to his desperate attempts at happiness through all the wrong ways, his wild spiral of triumph and decay, his moral and emotional contradictions as a human being, his ever frustrated obsessions with money, power, love and immortality. Forget the outstanding nature of the characters, this film addresses life, period. These are the challenges that all our lives hold in storage for us, our own existentialist anxieties and psychological dramas. And “Kane” doesn’t touch these subjects with superficiality or carelessness, it is pondered, ambiguous, profound and life-like. As Roger Ebert put it: “Its surface is as much fun as any movie ever made. Its depths surpass understanding. I have analyzed it a shot at a time with more than 30 groups, and together we have seen, I believe, pretty much everything that is there on the screen. The more clearly I can see its physical manifestation, the more I am stirred by its mystery.”
Last, but not least, there is the matter of it being a work that is unique, personal, authorial, unbound by genre conventions or pre-determined notions of what films should be, and, of course, not oriented in any way with a commercial logic. It was not only ahead of its time, as it was honest and true to its authors’ visions. This is their tale, their ideas, their craftsmanship, their art. This is a movie about their message, and it’s that notion which governs everything in it, from the seemingly meaningless stage prop to each earth-shattering dialogue. This is probably why it wasn’t a commercial success and why it was shunned by the producers of the time (despite marginal profit!), eventually leading to a troublesome dispute with Welles throughout the remainder of his career, with several unauthorized edits to his works that, still today, rob them of their artistic value. “Citizen Kane” is a work of art, something which in the world of money… is usually misunderstood. Despite all this, “Citizen Kane” lives on still today, thanks to the continuous recognition by many critics and scholars (heck, even the Academy recognized it with several Oscar nominations!), and by a growing interest of the public in the work throughout the 1950’s and beyond. It became a symbol – a popular one at that, I might add – that film can be art. Many haven’t seen it (and if you’re one of those, stop right now, and go watch it), but everyone knows that “Citizen Kane” is considered the greatest film ever made.
Now returning to what lead us to this film. Where is our <<Citizen Kane>>? What video game has become a symbol of our medium’s maturity and legitimacy as art? So far, I’d say none. No one sees, and rightfully so, video games as artistic objects. Perhaps the question then is, does a game with the qualities I’ve mentioned before even exist? Namely, a game that fulfills the medium’s potentials, that has an adult and universal discourse, and is an authorial work? And if it does, how can we make that game a symbol? Is that even possible? How and where can we find our own Rosebud?
“Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn’t have explained anything… I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a… piece in a jigsaw puzzle… a missing piece.”
[More unanswered questions in the next article concerning our <<Citizen Kane>>.]