“Why we need a ‘Citizen Kane’… and why we may never get one.”
“Video games are art? Please, don’t insult yourself” – these are the thoughts that cross people’s minds. It’s true. Video games as a whole, have never held up to any form of mildly analytical, critical analysis from an art perspective. That is why (almost) no one reviews games from a purely artistic perspective… hey, not even me, despite my somewhat pretentious goals. The truth is, if I were to do that, I would only employ half the compliments of my limited vocabulary, double the insults of my extensive verbiage, and there would be no grade superior to a 3, except for maybe one or two games per year. And even if one admits that some video games are worthy of high brow status, that still leaves out 99.999999999% out in the woods to die, as mildly amusing entertaining products with zero cultural relevance. Why is it thus? Why is it, that when someone poses the Citizen Kane conundrum, the answers unequivocally end up being – “Metroid Prime”, “Ocarina of Time”, “Half Life 2”, “Super Mario World”, “Grand Theft Auto 3”, “Bioshock”… as if any of these games could really be seen as legitimizers of an art form. Don’t kid yourself, they aren’t art.
It’s been too long. We’ve spent 40 years of the medium’s lifetime sinking in its flaws and short-comings to the point we’ve grown to accept them. We love video games, do we not? And we love what they are, not what they can be! Forget what we think we believe in – that games could be more intelligent, provocative, emotional – we don’t want that. We want the saccharine aesthetics, the frantic rhythms, the noisy soundtracks, the childish narratives, the twitchy interfaces. And we are many. In the mid 90’s, Mac and PC CD-ROM grabbed part of the male adult demographics, and the Playstation grabbed the male young adult demographics. PS2 dug the casual audiences for the first time, and the Wii and Facebook took the vantage and grabbed the last bastion of hope – the girlfriends, moms, dads and gramps. No one is left to adhere. And all of them know what video games are good for – hedonistic entertainment, devoid of artistic expression, message, story and authorial verve. Hardcore or softcore, it’s all the same in the end: they’re merely different sides of the same expression, none of it high brow, none of it artistic. Admit it, there is nowhere left to run. We have told the world what to expect of video games. The world heard the call, came along for the ride, and the world doesn’t mind at all that games aren’t what we think we would like them to be. Heck, WE don’t mind. Video games are what they are, and everyone’s cool with that.
If a video game equivalent of “Citizen Kane” exists or comes to be in the future, it is hard to imagine anyone caring about it. Really, think about the qualities I’ve pointed out in the previous article. Do you think that a truly thought-provoking work that’s interactive, deep, hard to really put your mind around it, that’s about real people’s lives, not some ridiculous fantasy, sci-fi or epic fiction, but a human drama about life, which has no genre or mediocre tropes about, and that didn’t care about entertainment value as much as it cared about its authors visions on life — do you really think gamers would buy it? It wouldn’t fit with our pre-conditioned notions of what games are, it wouldn’t be as ‘entertaining’ as we expect games to be and it wouldn’t give us what we’re accustomed to experience. It’d be dull, insipid and completely opaque to our soiled minds. Want proof? Just see the sales figures and reviews regarding a game that aspires to be art, and you’ll understand that we’re fighting a battle that cannot be won.
Meanwhile, the industry is giving us what we want. Shallow experiences. Game designers can’t risk one tick to make an interesting game, lest they not make enough money to maintain their jobs at multi-million dollar company number one thousand and thirty five. The scientists are investigating how to make the design process more efficient and lucrative for said companies, and also attempting to find out how to better light a pool of blood, texturize a gray rock and increase polygon count in a machine gun. The journalists are debating on how much “fun” the recently hyped triple AAA game really is, which game is actually game of the year, and when is too much violence just too much. Players are twitching like drug addicts for the next fix: hardcore’s eagerly expecting the new FPS, the new RPG, the new Action Adventure; the moms and dads all pins and needles to throw five bills at the new family entertainment set piece which will make them all grow thin and happy at the same time; and the wee-little girls are having a blast gossiping about the next big avalanche of casual, social games. Who exactly is expected to play the artistic game that will tell the world that video games can be art?
We can’t really afford to wait for a “Citizen Kane”. We need to mature as gamers first, because “Citizen Kane” is only a symbol for a collective change in perspective that has to start inside ourselves. If we change, we will find Kane, either in the present, past or future. If all else fails, we’ll create it ourselves. As long as we’re ready to understand it, to decode it, and to value it, someone will tell the world where it is. If we don’t, it’ll go by unnoticed. And right now, nobody is ready or paying attention. There aren’t enough gamers out there ready to embrace a new concept of ‘video game’. Of course, maybe there will come the time when some visionary geniuses pave way for an artistic model of what a video game can be. Or maybe the industry will crash so hard we’ll be obliged to look for interactive art, because there will be no entertainment left to experience. Perhaps capitalism will perish and games will be funded according to a grand communist committee that decides what is worthy and what isn’t, like cinema was in the Soviet Union. Perhaps we’ll magically realize that by not buying the latest FPS, in the long run, we’re telling the industry to change. Personally, I don’t buy it. We need to change first. Start now.