There will never be a Citizen Kane of games

This post is not going to answer the question of whether games are Art.  (Although:  I think they can be, if they want to be, but that’s not the point.)

No, this post is meant to respond to a series of Kotaku’s Talk Amongst Yourselves editorials written by one GB ‘Doc’ Burford, at the amazing site Forget Amnesia (see also Twitter: @ForgetAmnesia), in which he argues if there will ever be a Citizen Kane of video games.  You should read his posts in their entirety:  (1) in which he asks the question, and (2) in which he offers what such a game might look like.

Citizen Kane is held up as a paragon of artistic creation; a “perfect” film, a film that even now still appears ahead of its time. The phrase “Citizen Kane of video games” has become such an overused cliche that there’s even a tumblr for it, one that attempts to collect each and every use of the phrase in the mainstream enthusiast press.  But that said, it’s an apt metaphor, because there’s not really a suitable example in any other medium – would there be a [insert Shakespeare play] of games?   Would there be a [Beatles song] of games (not counting the excellent Beatles Rock Band, of course)?  Video games have this inferiority complex only when it comes to movies, most likely because both games and movies tend to look similar, especially as game technology has advanced in recent years – the last 2 Uncharted games were rightly lauded for looking almost as good as film.

Anyway, look – read his pieces, and then come on back.

Here’s the first one, “Citizen Whine“, and here’s the second (which doesn’t have as catchy a title).

In that first post, the ultimate point he comes to is:

If you want to make The Citizen Kane of Video Games, you’ve got to make a game that’s great—really, truly great—on technical and artistic levels. Then you have to make a game that influences the way society thinks about your medium. Whatever The Citizen Kane of Video Games is, it’s going to be the game that gets mainstream scholarly attention. It’s going to be the game that quells many of the debates about the medium. It’s going to be something that people look at and are inspired by, something that lets them improve upon it. It’s going to be real art, not simple entertainment with decorative bits.

We don’t have a Citizen Kane right now, not in a climate where most people feel comfortable asking a guy like me why he chose game design, instead of a degree in something useful—no one’s uttered a peep in regards to my current film degree pursuit.

Citizen Kane, in other words, gives Gaming a kind of legitimacy it doesn’t have yet.

I agree with all of these points, most especially the bit about how the Citizen Kane of games would have to be able to influence the way society thinks about your medium.

That’s also the tricky part.  Because the reason that this will never happen is actually quite simple; a gamer has a completely different relationship to a game than a non-gamer (or “society”) does, and that is because a gamer knows how to use a controller, and a non-gamer does not.  A gamer has had years of experience with control inputs, and developers have had years to learn which control inputs make  the most sense, and so a gamer knows intuitively how to move forward, how to shoot, how to drive, how to jump, how to crouch, how to choose the correct dialogue option, even how to navigate menus.

I’ve sat a few of my non-gamer friends in front of the first hour or so of Portal 2, which I consider one of the finest games ever made – and which also goes out of its way to make sure you understand how the game itself works – and they almost always struggle and fight with the controls, not being able to look and move at the same time – or even just knowing how to point the camera where they want to.  They get frustrated and annoyed, and hand over the controller after 30 minutes or so, and say “Yeah, it looks cool, I’m just no good with controllers.”

The Wii was supposed to fix this problem – it certainly attracted a much wider audience of non-gamers than any console before it, and the controls, for the most part, were intuitive and easy to learn.  If you wanted to play Wii Tennis, you simply swung the Wii remote as if it were a racket – this made sense to gamers and non-gamers alike.  The problem, of course, is that nobody really did anything with it; third parties stopped developing for the Wii almost immediately, and Nintendo was left holding the bag with more of the same first-party experiences that they’d always made, and the non-gamer crowd didn’t go for it.

In that second post linked to above, Burford argues that if there is a Citizen Kane of games, it will be a first-person shooter – or, at least, it will take from the first-person perspective.  It very well might be – his reasoning is sound, and Portal 2 would still fit the bill – but if it is, I think it’s quite possible that it’ll be an iPhone/touch-screen game.  Touch controls, when done correctly, are generally very intuitive, and very easy to pick up and play without having to figure out what you’re doing.  (Ironically, though, touch screen devices haven’t yet mastered first-person controls.)

He says:

The Citizen Kane of Video Games, in other words, is a game that is going to have broad appeal while putting players in a unique headspace and making them reflect on who they are and what they’ve done. Instead of being a game that tells us about the world, though it will do that, the Citizen Kane of Video Games is going to be a game that tells us more about ourselves than we’ve ever known.

This is all true.  But only as long as the gamer isn’t fighting the controls.

The First Few Hours: GTA V

[Editor’s note: I am very much wanting to write about my first few hours with GTA V right now, but I’m also in the middle of a work-related anxiety attack.  I apologize in advance if whatever follows is gibberish.]

My weirdness about GTA V continues.  This weekend I was having GTA dreams; then, on Sunday night – the night before the game got reviewed – I got no sleep, and instead was having some sort of weird anxiety attack, part of which might very well have been triggered by review anticipation.   A wide assortment of badness happened on Monday morning and so I ended up staying home from work, and so I juggled taking care of the baby while also power-reading through the reviews from all the major sites (while being very careful to avoid the comment sections).

The reviews were more or less what I expected them to be – perfect or near-perfect scores, though not without some caveats, cautions and concerns.  And while I did manage to avoid the comment sections, it was the gaming press themselves on Twitter who reposted the commentariat’s vitriolic, frothing rage over point deductions.  Only on the internet does a 9/10 score get almost 20,000 comments simply because the reviewer dared to point out that the game engages in some misogynistic and racist behavior – behavior which is not unusual for the series but which, in this case, is especially troubling because it doesn’t necessarily seem to be as satirically designed as the rest of the game’s social commentaries.

Anyway, my copy of the game arrived on Tuesday, and I played it for 3-4 hours or so.  And now I’m all sorts of fucked up about it.

On the plus side: it’s technologically impressive as all hell, and by far the best looking game Rockstar’s ever made.   This is the first disc-based AAA game I’ve played on my 360 in months, I think, and I’m kinda blown away as to how good it looks.  I played Red Dead over the weekend and that game still looks terrific, but GTA V really takes it to the next level.   The city is colorful and crisp, the art direction is impeccable, and the animation is among the most convincing I’ve ever seen – especially the ragdoll physics, which are borderline creepy.

And as for the stuff on my wishlist, they pretty much nailed everything I wanted:

  • Failing a mission is much less punishing, and merely results in a mid-mission checkpoint restart.  YES.
  • Ambient events – I haven’t seen these for myself yet, but I watched some gameplay video yesterday and so I know they’re in there.  YES.
  • Miscellaneous challenges – GTA is a different sort of beast than RDR; I don’t know if there’s a treasure hunt yet.  Surely there are hidden collectibles, as there are in all GTA games, but I’ve never been good at finding them.  That said, the tennis mini-game isn’t terrible (though the camera is a bit low), and the golf isn’t terrible (though it’s not great, either) – I’m not sure I’ll play them again, but it was nice to see that there was at least some effort into putting those things together.  Still, I’ve only played for a few hours; there’s a million things I haven’t done or seen yet, and so the  JURY IS STILL OUT.
  • The combat system is very much improved.  Takes everything that worked from RDR and MP3 and further refines it.  Cover system works the way it’s supposed to; targeting works the way it’s supposed to; the radial menu works just fine. YES.
  • I threw in that bit about navigation almost as an afterthought, and yet that was addressed as well.  The new GPS system has a subtle 3D tilt to it, which makes navigation a lot easier (even if I find myself looking in the lower corner more than I’d like).  Still, I wasn’t expecting that, and they addressed it anyway.  YES.
  • Last but certainly not least, there is now a much-needed quick-save option.  This was the very first thing I tried once I had the opportunity.  YES YES YES.

On the negative side:  the short version is that I’m very, very glad that I was wearing headphones.  In the first few hours alone, the script uses more “n-words” than Quentin Tarantino writing a Sam Jackson monologue on 6 cups of coffee.  And I’m using Tarantino as an example because the Houser brothers, as far as I know, are just as white as Quentin is, and so it’s a little weird.  All the dialogue in the game has a stilted quality to it – I suppose it’s meant to sound very naturalistic, but it’s also a little over-eloquent and in love with itself.

And the characters themselves are not what you’d call “nice guys”.  It would be hard to expect them to be, and I’m not necessarily sure I’d want them to be – it’s weird enough playing Uncharted and pretending I’m the charming rogue Nathan Drake while killing 700+ people.  But these characters are ugly, and from what I hear they don’t necessarily get any more endearing, and if this game is as large as it appears to be, well, that’s a lot of hours I’m going to be spending while feeling rather uncomfortable.

I think my larger issue is that the GTA franchise – arguably the most important and influential gaming franchise around, and certainly my personal favorite – has the unique opportunity to do bold and interesting things.  (In fact, Rockstar does do bold and interesting things – in their non-GTA games, like Red Dead and Bully and even The Warriors (and, lest we forget, Table Tennis)).  The rest of the gaming world gets the hell out of the way whenever a GTA game comes out – it’s a special event, it’s something that everyone pays attention to.  These are important games.   And so I guess what I’m saying is that it would be nice if the narrative could rise to the occasion, and not just the technology.