Monday, July 27, 2009

Editorial Rant: This is a Spectacularly Stupid Article.

Okay so the vidyagame press is not expected to be on the same level as the Wall Street Journal (and honestly I wouldn't want it to be) but reading this article makes me wonder if some in the profession are even capable of understanding the basic argument they're talking about.

So yeah, it's a "What's the Citizen Kane of gaming?" article. As the author points out it's a dumb question, clearly you're not going to find any game that's perfectly analogous to Citizen Kane. And Citizen Kane largely doesn't represent what a lot of people think it represents. But if you break the debate into the implied questions you can actually make some headway into proving games as a culturally important medium.

The implied questions are

1.) Can games achieve a thematic complexity (or in game terms Narrative complexity) similar to Citizen Kane?

The answer to this is yes, as long as whoever is writing the thing is good enough games can be as thematically complex as any other medium. There is an argument that because games allow interactivity they are thematically alterable and therefore can not be as complex as older immutable media. This is of course 90% rubbish. Try as hard as I can Mario will never be about the experience of war in the same way as Call of Duty. I concede that it's possible that in some rare cases the player's interaction can alter the thematic content but I think it's important to remember that emergent gameplay is the exception not the norm (in that the majority of videogames contain none). Now are there any examples of existing games with the thematic complexity of Citizen Kane? Well I'd argue Planescape: Torment takes a good stab at it, in fact it's even remarkably thematically similar, both are about uncovering the identity of a man, a man who changes constantly, who wears and discards masks at will and more importantly they're both also concerned about what makes someone, well, someone. Or to put it like Planescape: Torment "What can change the nature of a man?" Of course Roger Ebert is going to argue that Citizen Kane deals with the subject matter much better, but honestly I preferred Planescape: Torment's meditation on the matter more. It's worth noting that literally none of the games on the list come close to featuring Kane's thematic complexity.

2.) Can games achieve a formal complexity (or in game terms Ludic complexity) similar to Citizen Kane?

Of course they can, in fact most videogames already have. You want to know what's so formally complex about Citizen Kane? Simple deep space photography and the way Orson Wells used it to create Realism. Oh and I don't mean realism in the sense that it looked real or that it was about realistic subject matter. No I mean Realism in the cinematic sense to say that it attempts to capture a time and place honestly, without the use of flashy techniques to artificially heighten the drama (Actually it does this too but considerably less than say Einsenstien or even the other Hollywood pictures of the day). Deep space photography is not important because it allows you to keep everything in focus it's important because keeping everything in focus allows for staging techniques that are much more naturalistic (and give the viewer more freedom in what they watch) than constant editing. All the other stuff people go on about Kane innovating was widley used before Citizen Kane hit the scene. Anyway, what would I use as an example of a game with the formal complexity of Kane? Well if you wanted, like, mathematical complexity then a first edition dungeons and dragons book should do it but that feels like cheating. I'd say Half Life 2 would be the better bet. It's streamlined level design is easily as sophisticated as anything in Kane and perhaps more importantly it's all done for a reason, it's all deliberate. To me that sounds like a grown up art form (though not necessarily an art form for grown ups).

3.) Can games achieve a level of mainstream acceptance and influence similar to Citizen Kane?

Oh god this one is hilarious and to fair the author of the article in question does get this right. See the beauty of this question is that it goes to show that the people who ask it know literally jack shit about Citizen Kane. To set the record straight, Citizen Kane was a massive commercial failure. The studio RKO almost went out of business the thing was so unsuccessful. It wasn't even particularly loved by the industry. It only won the academy award for best screenplay. What's worse is it isn't even a particularly influencial film. The building blocks of today's Hollywood were already in place before Citizen Kane, it's dark character driven drama is hardly the standard, and even it's stylistic techniques are rarely used outside of the art house. PacMan has more mainstream influence than Citizen Kane. So why do people even talk about Citizen Kane? That brings us to final and perhaps most important question.

4.) Can games achieve a level of academic acceptance and influence similar to Citizen Kane?

This is the real stumbling block. See the reason Citizen Kane became the official Greatest Movie Ever is because Andre Bazin became the world's most respected film critic (mainly for that Realism stuff I talked about earlier) and he loved Citizen Kane. I know that sort of paints film critics as a bunch of group thinking sycophants, and well they sort of are. Most academics sort of are. You've heard "great minds think alike?" Well so have they. And if you want to be taken seriously you need to familiarise yourself with the important theorists. Now videogames are gaining acceptance in academic circles, game studies topics are sprouting up all around the place, which is a good sign. So the thing is, for anything to gain the kind of zeitgeist cultural legitimacy Citizen Kane enjoys it's going to need champions. Importantly, champions who know what they're talking about. Which is why it pains me so much to read about Tomb Raider

Pioneered: Three-dimensional exploration, climbing puzzles, breasts.

Really that's how you want to roll Gamesradar? You're going to put Citizen Kane against Tomb Raider and say Tomb Raider is as important because it has breasts in it? I may be over simplifying the dude's argument here but you know what? Fuck you. Look I have no beef with this list as some sort of general "Here's a bunch of games that we think are really important to the medium's history and culture." But you want to play with the big boys of discourse and compare these things to Citizen Kane? Well that means grow up and read some real theory.

Try starting here.

Man and I don't even like Citizen Kane.

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