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.
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.)
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.