This Whole “Citizen Kane of Games” Debate

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Empire Online’s calling The Last of Us paramount to Citizen Kane for video games has earned quite a lot of ire for the very idea of such a comparison. The emergence of a tumblr for every time “Citizen Kane” and “Video Game” are mentioned together has pointed out just how ridiculous games writing can be sometimes.

I should say that I think the line in Empire’s review of Last of Us was pretty innocuous — an attempt by a mainstream publication to say something major that might resonate with non-gamers. I don’t pay as much mind to Empire saying such things as I would if IGN or GameSpot said the same thing.

After having finished Last of Us I can definitely say that, like a lot of other publications that have compared games to Kane in the past, Empire misunderstood the impact of that film in the first place and what something similar would actually be like in games. Other bloggers have already chastised those searching for a “Kane” of games as insecure people searching for the medium’s acceptance by artists, academics, and other grown-ups. Simply searching for a game that tells a real, meaningful story, at which Last of Us certainly succeeds, isn’t the point anyway.

I haven’t even seen Kane but I’ve heard and read quite a bit about specifically why it is seen as the landmark it is in film. It wasn’t so much about telling the world that films could tell good stories just like books and stage plays. It was more about showing the world films could tell stories in ways impossible in other media. As good a game as Last of Us is, it doesn’t do this at all.

Just like all three Uncharted games, Last of Us is extremely cinematic, with most of the meat of its narrative told in cut scenes. Naughty Dog has unapologetically taken the path of telling stories in their games by basically cutting a four-hour movie in to each one. It relies on older media to tell its story much like early films relied on stage techniques.

One thing a lot of critics have gotten caught upon in regards to Last of Us is how earnestly it tries to break down the narrative dissonance that dogs games like Uncharted or Tomb Raider or pretty much most modern action games. Last of Us manages to avoid undermining the story whenever the main characters are forced to murder dozens of people, at least to an extent. Its survival and stealth-focused combat not only feels a couple steps more believable than your standard cover shooter combat, but also makes for a deeper gameplay experience.

Ultimately this makes the overall narrative experience in Last of Us feel more complete than most action games. That does not however make it an innovative or groundbreaking game in terms of video game storytelling and gameplay mechanics, which is ultimately what Kane’s impact to film was.

The reason Kane even stands as tall as it does is because it happened to pioneer a whole lot of camera and storytelling techniques at once. It’s very unlikely that video games will get an event like this. Ironically, one of the most recent quotes on that tumblr — a list from GamesRadar, takes a position that I agree with. There probably won’t be a single “Kane” of games that pioneers all the storytelling and gameplay techniques at once. There will likely be several, if not dozens. Some of them probably already exist.

Technically, games have been borrowing and building off of each other’s tools for decades. A handful of games already stand out for contributing more than most others.

The most popular game I see often thrown into this debate is Ocarina of Time for all of the user interface mechanics it popularized. Every modern action adventure game that uses a context-sensitive button, a lock-on combat feature, or buttons assignable to items probably owes part of its existence to Ocarina. That game simultaneously introduced so many game-changing features that playing it felt like a quantum leap in 1998.

Really though, you could count any game that’s considered immensely influential in how video games are made. Valve’s Gabe Newell has said that Super Mario 64, which everyone agrees was a major leap forward, is the game that convinced him games could be art. People could say things like this for many of the landmark games of the 8-bit era for instance.

I would however like to bring attention to one game that I think had a huge amount of influence on what we’re playing today despite how utterly unknown it is to most of today’s gamers: the 1992 PC RPG Ultima Underworld. It was essentially the first 3D first person RPG, and is considered the direct ancestor to a lot of successful games like The Elder Scrolls, Wolfenstein 3-D, BioShock, and Deus Ex. I don’t think we’d recognize gaming today without Underworld’s influence.

Back to Last of Us, I guess it remains to be seen if that game will actually be influential at all. It’d be nice if more games in the future developed their combat beyond just popping in and out of cover, and actually tried to strike a good balance between their gameplay and any sense of narrative dissonance. For now Last of Us is just a really good game though.

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One thought on “This Whole “Citizen Kane of Games” Debate

  1. volvocrusher says:

    Huh, never thought of the “Citizen Kane of gaming” thing like that, thought it was just to try and put games on par with movies. I agree on The Last of Us though, it’s one of my all time favorite games and GOTY pick without a doubt, but its story could have worked as a movie, comic, TV show, or book just fine.
    I think we’ve already proved that games can tell stories in ways any other medium can’t. Bioshock’s “Would you kindly?” twist wouldn’t have worked elsewhere while the Mass Effect trilogy is based on making tough choices that you’ll see the effects of later on. I know not everyone thinks they did an amazing job even though I’m not one of them, but that they even exist shows the amount of potential for games to really be the medium to make people reflect on tough choices better than other mediums if the potential is used to its fullest effect.
    Wouldn’t consider either of these a Citizen Kane though. I mean, I love Mass Effect, but it’s more like the Star Wars of games in my mind.

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