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.