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The Citizen Kane of Videogames and the Godfather of Soul

It started with Michael Thomsen comparing Citizen Kane to Metroid Prime. Then Anthony Burch rebuts him on Destructoid.

I agree that the ABC news piece was silly. But what I wish was that Thomsen had made an effort to explain why seeking the Citizen Kane of videogames is a mistake and something we should move beyond.

He could have done it by reference to the fact that in games it will always be much harder to point to, see, and explicate the aesthetic qualities because they are woven into the player’s experience in a complex, invisible web of perception, choice, performance and emotion that doesn’t correspond neatly to tangible aspects of the work. (Note that this is also true of film, but in a way that is harder to recognize.)

Or he could have just said the search for Citizen Kane analogues in other forms is boring, old-fashioned, middlebrow nonsense regardless of the field of culture under question.

But while Thomsen just willingly buys into the search for Kane and takes a brave, if ungainly, swing at it, Burch seems to want to double-down on the whole enterprise. His rebuttal is filled with language that reinforces the worst aspects of the whole Kane-search business.

Here’s where I think the problem lies in a nutshell. Burch shares the widespread, mistaken belief, that games are, (or can be) meaningful only to the extent that they express ideas. For a game to be truly meaningful, it must “say something” about the world, and therefore we should focus on a game’s thematic, representational layer (and the way that layer is integrated with the game’s underlying systems) for indications of its potential greatness.

If on the other hand you see games as I do, as having a relationship between form and theme that is closer to that of music (ie. complex, shifting, ambiguous, different from work to work, and often entirely absent), then this endless capitulation to theme and representation is as frustrating and tiresome as a critical discussion of songs that privileged lyrics above all other aspects.

Let’s take the music of James Brown. Is it meaningful? Well, yes, obviously, if by meaningful you mean does it contribute something of great value to the lives of the people who love it. Does it express ideas? Well, you could certainly frame its meaning as a form of idea-expression. You could say that it expresses the powerful idea of on the one, for example. You could say that it expresses ideas about the relationship between precise execution and improvisational messiness, repetition and novelty, religious ecstasy and sexual profanity. You could even say that, in how it is made and consumed, it expresses ideas about race and culture in America.

But none of these ideas are expressed in the way that the “search for Kane” game wants it – via a directly rhetoical mode in which the work refers to some aspect of the world through representation. If Metroid prime is, as Burch puts it, a game about “a woman with a bazooka on her arm [...] shooting space pirates in the face” then Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag is a song about some guy bragging about the new dances he’s learned to impress a girl (or the consumer habits of mid-century African Americans?)

Burch makes his stance very clear when he says that “[Thomsen is] likening a work of incredible thematic depth and emotional complexity to a game which is about nothing more than having fun, solving puzzles, and shooting stuff.”

But what Burch is talking about here are ingredients. Solving puzzles and shooting stuff are ingredients in Metroid, and thematic depth and emotional complexity are ingredients in Kane. The mistake is to see the expression of profound ideas such as “war is hell” or “power corrupts” or “love hurts” as the acid test of great art and its very purpose. Actually, the expression of “great ideas” of this sort (through language or images that refer to and represent the world) is not the purpose of art, it is just an ingredient. You can make great art with different ingredients, you can make terrible art with those ingredients, and you can make great art where the subject matter is somewhat beside the point, like the lyrics of Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag and the narrative surface of Metroid Prime.

Videogames look like they’re about the things that they picture, but they are not. They are intricate rituals carved out of physics and thought and math and emotion. They are about the relationship between freedom and constraint, brute force and intuition, success and failure, spiritual transcendence and animal violence. And, like music, they are less about those things and more, simply, those things themselves. Space Pirates are beside the point.

11 Comments

  1. Walter wrote:

    While I agree that games don’t need to be overtly thematic / expressive of an idea to be meaningful, they clearly can be. A world without those games is missing out on a great deal of meaningful experiences, and as it happens, there’s a distinct lack of such games.

    Ultimately what’s unfortunate about pretty much every debate about the “medium” is that they boil down to people prematurely pigeonholing what games are or should be. The only appropriate stance, as I see it, is simply to advocate possibilities not yet or inadequately realized, and to explain why something doesn’t work in the event that it doesn’t.

    Saturday, October 10, 2009 at 9:43 pm | Permalink
  2. I really wish I could sit down with all the Citizen Kaners and explain to them that the film was lauded by a single polling of critics and directors half a decade ago for one reason and one reason alone: it killed soft focus, forever.

    If Frank could make a game that forever killed the message model of meaning, he’d so be a more skinny but less sexy Orson Welles.

    Saturday, October 10, 2009 at 10:22 pm | Permalink
  3. Frank Lantz wrote:

    Walter, I’m not saying subject matter can’t be an important part of a game, or a song, sometimes *the* important part. I’m just saying a lot of progressive game critical commentary overemphasizes subject matter, and looks for the expression of big thematic ideas as the *exclusive* test of greatness.

    Simon, good point. What is hard to see is that sometimes the expression of big ideas is simply an excuse to use a certain kind of lens and not the other way around. Also, stfu I’m pretty sexy.

    Saturday, October 10, 2009 at 10:54 pm | Permalink
  4. Walter wrote:

    Frank, I hear you on that, and agree. Although it’s sort of hard to read “Burch shares the widespread, mistaken belief, that games are, (or can be) meaningful to the extent that they express ideas” and not think it’s saying games shouldn’t express ideas *ever*, even though your discussion of ingredients counters that somewhat.

    I actually didn’t read Burch’s post before I commented. Now that I have, I think he’s being incredibly reductive (about Metroid Prime in particular, but of other things more generally) and that you do a good job of rebutting him on that.

    Saturday, October 10, 2009 at 11:06 pm | Permalink
  5. Frank Lantz wrote:

    Perhaps I should more clearly state that the mistaken belief is that games can be meaningful *only* to the extent that they express ideas. I went ahead and edited that sentence to make my point more clear. Thank you for the comment.

    Sunday, October 11, 2009 at 2:38 am | Permalink
  6. JP wrote:

    Great post, a particularly effective expression of an argument I’ve been making for years.

    I think people miss just how prevalent the “capitulation to theme and representation” is; it’s a hidden status quo of sorts that frequently derails peoples’ ability to think broadly about the position and potential of our medium.

    In effect, it puts us into a competition we have very poor chances of “winning”. Here’s to more mature perspectives like the one you’ve elucidated above.

    Saturday, October 17, 2009 at 6:54 pm | Permalink
  7. Matthew Weise wrote:

    I think this fixation on “big ideas” as a supposed litmus test for art is a problem that is corrupting our entire cultural discourse, not just that of video games. I think viewing art in such a way is limiting to film as well as games (though for different reasons, some of which you mentioned).

    One thing seldom discussed about the “Citizen Kane of Gaming” debate is just what a limited view of cinema it assumes. Thomsen’s notion of why Kane is a great movie would be laughed out of any film class I know of, and I really wonder whether he or anyone else involved in this debate understand the film as a film rather than as an abstract cultural idea. I doubt many gamers who try to seriously answer this question have even seen Citizen Kane in its entirety, let alone understand the history or context behind its dubious ascendancy to being regarded as “the greatest film ever made”.

    I certainly agree that games should not be judged against such petty notions, but I don’t think films, music, or anything else should be either. I think there is a genuine misunderstanding of what games are at the core of this debate, but I also think there is just as big a misunderstanding of what art is.

    Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 3:05 pm | Permalink
  8. Frank Lantz wrote:

    Matthew, I agree completely.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 3:48 am | Permalink
  9. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Frank! I’m a bit embarassed I only just now am reading it.

    I find I agree with you very much on this case. But I’d still like to add a little context. When I first pitched the piece to ABC it was not intended to be a search for Citizen Kane. I had done a few game pieces with them before (Six Days in Fallujah, Madden, Wii Sports Resort) and I knew that Metroid Prime Trilogy was coming out and I pitched them a piece on it. I love the game, as is probably obvious by now, and I wanted to tell people about why. My reasons are personal, and resonant with emotions and experiences that have deep root in my own life, but the game touches on those and I wanted to make an argument to the public at large that spoke about a game, one drenched in sci-fi genre conventions that make it seem like the embodiment of every stereotype about commercial videogames, on a purely personal and emotional level.

    ABC was interested but they wanted the argument put in a larger context, and over several iterations of the piece, we mutually settled on the framing of it as an argument that games have produced a masterpiece that doesn’t need to be separate form other masterpieces. My mindset in making the argument was the exact opposite of arguing that games should legitimate. They already are, to me, and long have been. The point of comparison of Kane is arbitrary on many levels. I have, in the past, compared Prime to Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and King Lear. There are obvious difference among all the different forms, but as an individual member of the audience, I honestly feel as connected to and move by each of them.

    Throughout the history of art there have been two constants: people who create things, and the people willing to give their time to experiencing those creations. The motivation and the great unknowns that we have all wrestled with, and continue to, remain the kernel that inspires both. Art is just the widget of choice that separates those two groups of humans. Arguing about the legitimacy of widgets is absurd to me. My point was to argue about the value of one kind of experience in a medium to which I’m dedicating my livelihood. And, in respect of the platform I was making the argument on, I had to use a point of reference that, rightly or wrongly, might have resonated most strongly with the people watching.

    Matthew: I worked for 5 years in the film industry, and spent a lot of time scrounging around Melnitz Hall when I was an undergrad at UCLA. I was assistant to the producer on the productions of Brokedown Palace and Donnie Darko. I spent a year working for Michael Ovitz. I was a manuscript analyst for the head of the book department at ICM. I worked on the set of The Prestige with Christopher Nolan. I’ve yet to be laughed out of any film class, pitch meeting, development meeting, or movie set that I’ve been on. Which is to say I’ve seen the movie in its entirety. I’m also pretty fluent in film history, cinematography, and editing theory (which, as I quibbled in the comments on Anthony’s article, is what I think the real technical marvel of Kane– but then who really cares about technical marvels? I prefer emotional marvels. Which is not THE way, but its MY way as a writer and critic, and I think that has a valuable role yet to play in game writing and criticism, an under-represented part of the spectrum of humans reacting to the abstract, especially as it applies to games).

    Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 9:26 pm | Permalink
  10. Anyway, sorry for rambling a bit, and thanks for adding some wonderful ideas to the conversation about the piece. I never wanted to inspire agreement, just hoped to engender the sharing of some ideas in an even broader setting. Very much appreciated reading yours!

    Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 9:30 pm | Permalink
  11. Frank Lantz wrote:

    Thanks for dropping by Mike. Your additional context is illuminating.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 3:48 am | Permalink

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