Friday, November 10, 2006

The Citizen Kane of Games

"Where is the Citizen Kane of games?"

Run around the interblog long enough and you're bound to run into the old much-vexed question of "are games art?" And dig deep enough in that topic and you'll find someone asking, "Where is the Citizen Kane of games?"

By this they mean, where is the game that shows us that the medium of games can be used to produce serious work.

Which is, I think, misunderstanding the importance of Citizen Kane.

Citizen Kane is, essentially, a 1941 melodrama about an unhappy rich man. Produced and co-written by Orson Welles, and starring Welles in the title role, it is a post-mortem exploration of the life and times of eccentric billionnaire Charles Foster Kane, and a search for the meaning of his final utterance - "Rosebud".

There is nothing particularly unique about Citizen Kane's plot, acting, theme, or soundtrack. The power of Citizen Kane lies in its mastery of cinematographic technique. In Citizen Kane, Welles takes the technical tools of film-making - lighting, framing, editing, angle - and treats them not merely as a way to record a story, but as part of the story themselves. They are not the limits of the medium - they are the medium.

Over the course of Citizen Kane, Welles makes use of jump cuts, extreme low angles, extremes of light and shadow, deep focus, in-camera effects, and montages, as well as pushing makeup and special effects past what had previously been done. Never had this combination of techniques been used together in one movie, and never had they been used to produce such powerful results.

So where is the Citizen Kane of games? And how will we know it when we see it?

We may not even recognise it.

The person who makes the Citizen Kane of games will be someone with a firm grasp of the technical aspects of game design, both as it relates to the hardware and software aspects, and to the art of game design itself. He or she will know not only a wide range of game mechanics, but also have a keen appreciation for what kind of play they promote, and how they influence the player.

For example, they'll know how to work their reward schedules. They'll understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of paidic and ludic gameplay. They'll be able to deliver a social experience as easily as a horrific one, and they'll know how to balance gameplay conventions against the desire for immersion.

The Citizen Kane of games will not use all the rules all the time. It will be context sensitive, and use gameplay to promote mood, atmosphere, plot, and characterisation. It may extend beyond the limits of the software or it may be tightly focused and self-contained. It's possible it will be entirely unconcerned with whether or not it's "fun", but will probably end up being fun anyway.

The Blogs of the Round Table this month is on the topic of "the grammar of games". This left me a little cold to begin with - it's something that Chris over at Only A Game talks about a lot, but it's a somewhat academic subject, and I've never been really convinced that it's the worth the time it takes to think about. What's a "grammar of games"? Grammar's a concept of language; games are not language, in as much language is a symbolic code, not a medium. The grammar of games is the syntax of Java or of C++. It's like talking about the "taste of theatre" or the "Picasso of punk rock".

It's a little like talking about the Citizen Kane of games.

But if you use a little philosophical licence, and allow as to how "the grammar of games" may be a way of saying "the art and science of using games as a medium of communication", then maybe it's possible to work with the topic a little.

That's where Citizen Kane was genius - the combination and mastery of the art and science of using film as a medium of communication. Every aspect of every shot was chosen, was planned, was intended, and was used to speak to, inform, and manipulate the audience. An extreme low-angle doesn't just look kind of cool - it denotes the subject both as a person of subjective power, and at the same time alienates that subject. Important parts of the frame don't just fall on the one-third lines by chance - they go there because that's where the eye instinctively looks first. The use of special effects to enhance the perceived size of areas and crowds isn't just clever - it conveys by association a sense of grandeur and epicness to the entire proceedings.

Creating the Citizen Kane of games will be about doing things not just because you can, or because it's new, or because it will look good. It will be about making conscious technical and stylistic decisions with the aim of producing a specific describable effect, and about understanding your art to the point that such decisions can be reduced to the level of scientific cause and effect - I use X gameplay, and so the player has Y response.

And we're still a long way off from that. We're still in an industry that doesn't always distinguish between technical excellence and artistic excellence. We're still in a place where the difference between good gameplay and bad gameplay is not always well understood. We're still seeing relatively few games that can be said to be the artistic product of a single person's vision.

Are people trying? Yes. For all its narrative and gameplay faults, 2003's Fahrenheit from Quantic Dream and director David Cage was a fantastic attempt to move in this direction, with context sensitive gameplay, an emphasis on the merger of gameplay and storytelling, and a cohesive mood and theme to the entire proceedings. I'm really hoping their forthcoming PS3 title Heavy Rain keeps up this tradition.

Likewise the much more successful God of War did a great job of putting a AAA budget to work, again making use of context sensitive commands to broaden the scope of gameplay, and utilising specific sequences to emphasise the emotional content of the narrative.

But neither one is the Citizen Kane of games.

They're more like the Birth of a Nation of games, except, y'know, without the racism.


Phrancq said...

I think the original Metal Gear Solid should also be in your "Birth of a Nation" list. Or at least "Battleship Potemkin". I think it may have been the first game I played which blended all those elements, at least in some form.

GregT said...

Yeah, fair enough. It definitely took advantage of its medium in ways that no game before it ever did. It's probably a lot closer to the goal than either Fahrenheit or God of War, for that matter.

Corvus said...

Excellent entry, Greg. Simply excellent.

GregT said...


Jey said...

I like it when you write gaming posts that I can understand and appreciate.
Not that I bother reading the other posts that I assume I wouldn't understand, and not that it matters, as I'm not your market.
But, yeah.

GregT said...

I assume you're inferring that this is such an understandable post? 8-)

Thanks Jess.

Grant said...

Surely the Citizen Kane of computer games was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time...

GregT said...

No, Ocarina of Time was the Wizard of Oz of computer games, maybe.

For all the things it did well, Ocarina was still bogged down in a lot of traditions of what games are "supposed" to be. It rarely attempted to manipulate the player directly using mastery of every aspect of the medium; it achieved most of what it did indirectly on the strength of how well it implemented a lot of the same-old-same-old.