Monday, February 16, 2009

Gaming's Citizen Kane

Let me begin this post by promising you, my readers (all three of you) that I'm going to begin posting at least three times a week, once each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I've decided that if I ever want more than three readers, I need to post consistently.

Ok, now that that's out of the way, onto today's post.

There seems to be a question that comes up every so often amongst people in gaming culture. "When are we going to see gaming's Citizen Kane?" is how it seems to be phrased most of the time, but the title of the film varies.

The question implies that games haven't matured. They haven't fulfilled their potential. They haven't matured as a medium.

The question is stupid.

Really, the question seems to be guided at the quality of writing in games. Why aren't the stories better? Why isn't the dialogue more realistic? The answer to these questions, and all the Citizen Kane question implies, is simply because videogames, ultimately, are not a story driven medium. Videogame stories, even the "robust" ones in RPGs, are window dressing. The only possible exception to this rule is adventure games, and those are the ones that are always held up as just that when it comes to the quality of writing.

Games are interactive, and the thing that drives them is their playability. People enjoy games that are fun to play, case closed (yes, there is always the "kusoge" phenomenon, but that's another article altogether). The story, ultimately, doesn't matter. I don't care why my spaceship/space marine/plumber has to shoot/chainsaw/stomp the whatever it is that has threatened the galaxy/tried to exterminate humanity/kidnapped the princess. I just care that it's fun to save the galaxy/humanity/princess.

Take Street Fighter for example. Street Fighter IV ships to retail tomorrow here in the US. No one cares about the stories told in that game. All people care about is throwing fireballs at their friends. Street Fighter II defined the arcade experience in the '90s, and gave what was, at the time, a flagging arcade industry new life. And no one cared about the story. The fourth entry in the series (by which I mean the sixteenth entry in the series, but who's counting?) probably will not accomplish anything on that level, but it will sell truckloads of copies. And no one will care about the story.

Now, if, on the other hand, one was to argue that the Citizen Kane question is meant to address the singular work that comes along and changes the entire paradigm upon which people create new pieces of media, well... we already have that. It came out almost a quarter century ago, and it was called Super Mario Bros. Super Mario Bros. did for videogames exactly what Citizen Kane did for film. It changed the rules. It required those who created the media to do more than was previously expected. It represented a gigantic leap forward in technique.

Super Mario Bros. was not the first platformer. Citizen Kane was not the first film to not be lit like a stage play. What both have in common is that they did what they did to such a degree that there was no turning back. With the way Mario jumped and camera angles in Citizen Kane, they raised the bar for their respective medium. The sharpness of Mario's controls and the use of lighting in Citizen Kane both showed audiences something they'd never been privy to before. They both accomplished the same thing for what they were.

And, really, that's the bottom line here. Games aren't movies, so just like during the silent film era, nobody was wont to ponder "When will film get its Odyssey?" no one in this era should be pondering "When will gaming get its Citizen Kane?"

Wednesday: Jumping on the bandwagon with Street Fighter nostalgia!

No comments:

Post a Comment