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Gaming's Prismatic Citizen Kane

Nick Halme | 1 Jun 2009 21:00
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I recently overheard a conversation on Twitter -- as much as a few tweets back and forth can be construed as a conversation -- concerning what Citizen Kane meant for film. Deep breath, here it comes: and what is "our" Citizen Kane? What is that revolutionary piece of redefining work for videogames?

Citizen was a step forward in filmic technique and storytelling; cinematography and narrative delivery. It didn't make you cry; it didn't achieve some artistic plateau -- it just admirably advanced the craft.

The closest equivalent to "filmic techniques" in videogames, I think, is game mechanics -- or more specifically what I'd like to refer to as "mechanical trends". A nifty game mechanic alone does not necessarily mean that that mechanic will spawn a trend and influence other games. Noby Noby Boy might be extremely unique and innovative, but it will not create copycat games that feature "getting longer" as a game mechanic. These sorts of experimental mechanics are just that, experimental, and are good for the industry for different reasons.

I'll take a second here to put the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room out of its misery (life is hard for a primate of that size) -- it's been established that we do not have a Citizen Kane, and we never will. What we have is a number of games that each take their own small steps forward. Call it cumulative iteration.

So what is a mechanical trend? Take games like Devil May Cry, Shinobi, and Shenmue for example -- they established certain genre benchmarks for 3D action-adventure games. Ninja Gaiden and God of War didn't start from scratch, but were able to use older games in the genre as a foundation and reach new benchmarks of their own. They weren't forced to reinvent the wheel, which allowed them the time to install spinning rims and illegal neon running lights.

In the real-time strategy world relatively simple things like unit control groups (binding a selected grouping to a number key) or having many units operate together as a single unit are mechanical trends that have become saturated, time-tempered ideas in the RTS genre. It's like they're adding building blocks to the communal design pool. One of the reasons Noby Noby Boy won't spawn its own genre is simply because developers would be starting at the bottom of the totem pole; there aren't many building blocks available -- it's risky business.

That's about as close as the Citizen Kane comparison can get, save for the very prominent advancement of visual style seen in Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead. These are advancements in technique (defining silhouettes for gameplay recognition, etc) but not in technology (which, rather than being Citizen Kane, would be equivalent to the invention of color or digital film.)

Videogames are so hard to relate to film because they can simply be so many different things. In film, genre pertains to story content, narrative delivery, cinematography and so on. In the end all films are about visual storytelling; they really have a lot more in common with comic books. With videogames each genre is a different beast altogether -- Final Fantasy and Starcraft and Tetris are very different things. The game industry, therefore, is always advancing technique on myriad fronts simultaneously, like a branching path compared to film's more linear development. While Citizen Kane can be cited as a landmark in filmmaking, we'd need quite the list for videogames.

The videogame industry has spent a long time thinking of itself as the wimpy nerd at the party, while film is out there talking up the ladies and drinking out of funnels. But really the pace and range of advancement within videogames has begun to turn the tables. The party is over: Fast forward twenty years, and the videogame nerd has a six figure salary while the film jock spends his time drinking himself to death and telling anyone who'll listen about that one time he drank through a funnel.

Nick Halme is a freelancer prone to giving undue attention to a medium consisting mostly of big swords, guns, polygonal boobs and dinosaurs. Gaming's Citizen Kane list is sure to contain its fair share of these things. Which is, admittedly, awesome.

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