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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Citizen Kane and Gaming: Or, Stop Talking About Citizen Kane and Gaming

Every once in a while, there's a rash of articles stating that Game X or Game Y is the Citizen Kane of gaming.  This invariably leads to be wharrgarbling for a while, then collecting myself, taking some pills with smiley faces drawn on them, and returning back to the blog with the glow of someone on heavy pharmaceuticals.

And with good reason:  People who talk about the Citizen Kane of gaming usually don't understand what Citizen Kane was.  I mean, everyone knows that Rosebud is the name of the sled, and everyone's seen that picture of Orson Welles in front of the giant Kane poster.  However, there's a lot of people who haven't actually seen the movie, so they don't quite get what it was about.

The key of Citizen Kane was not it's plot.  If you unwind the plot, it's just about a man who gets very, very rich and becomes miserable.  That's it, in a very small nutshell.  It's not what Kane is about that makes it great, but rather the way it's presented.  It was light years ahead of anything else at the time, with camera angles that still astound.

For instance, there's one shot toward the middle where a group of people sing and dance a song about Mr. Kane that looks like it's two separate composite shots.  Everyone is in focus, the people sitting in the front row watching, the man singing the song, the dancing girls behind him, and the long room behind them.  That was all the same shot, filmed with a special type of lens.  No one was doing that sort of shot at the time.  It's still hard to find shots like that in movies.  It was an achievement far ahead of its time.

However, those are where the comparisons end.  Citizen Kane wasn't really watched at the time.  It drew the ire of powerful men who blacklisted it, and in the end it only made back the cost of the film.  So, some people think that when you look at a Citizen Kane-ish type of game, it has to be one that's widely ignored by the gaming public but then brought back because it was just SO GOOD.  This is great for a lot of game writers, because then they have a chance to champion some random game as the Game By Which All Others Should Be Judged and make themselves look like Cool Insiders.

Here's the whole problem: There doesn't need to be a Citizen Kane for gaming.  There won't be.  I mean, what's the Citizen Kane for books?  What's the Citizen Kane for music?  What's the Citizen Kane for comic books?  There isn't, because Citizen Kane was a one-shot, one-time deal.  Plus, it's not like movies stopped evolving after Kane, either.  Movies keep on changing and incorporating the lessons learned from past movies while continuing onwards.

The reason why people keep on looking for some supposed Gaming Savior is because they want something to legitimize gaming somehow.  It's not enough that gamers like gaming, it has to be beloved by all, and if there's something that's legitimately artistic, then everyone will HAVE to love gaming!  It goes back to gaming's stigma.

As soon as you mention you're a gamer, nongamers look at you like you've mentioned that you got herpes from a toilet seat.  If only there was some way to show people what it's all about, then they would understand!  Then maybe I could wear my "I Am Murloc" shirt in public without being openly mocked!  Then I could maybe kick back with my PSP without getting rolled eyes and disapproving glares!

Well, the problem is that until nongamers start dying off, there will always be a stigma around gaming.  The literati of the time thought that movies would dumb down culture and become a social problem.  After that, they referred to TV as a "vast wasteland."  Comic books and D&D were singled out as Satanic and destructive.  Gaming is no longer viewed as outright evil, but it's certainly not beloved by millions.

So therein lies the problem.  If we get rid of our embarrassment about being gamers, we won't have to look for a watershed moment for gaming.  As it is, we've had several already, and if someone's not on board by now, they won't be.  Let 'em ignore one of the biggest cultural revolutions of our time.