"Citizen Game": The Peril And Promise Of Comparing Games To Film - Desert Rat Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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"Citizen Game": The Peril And Promise Of Comparing Games To Film

The year is 1941.

The world of Old Hollywood is fast and dangerous. No one knows that better than Orson Welles, a young writer and radio producer who rocketed to fame on his now infamous 1938 radio broadcast of HG Welles' The War Of The Worlds and is now sitting on the product of an unheard of deal with motion picture production company RKO Studios; two films, complete and total control of story, casting, and budget, and the holy grail for directors, final cut privilege. All of this for a man who has never made a film before in his life.

The fruit of his labor? A film called 'Citizen Kane', a film a clef of the life of (possibly) fictional media magnate Charles Foster Kane, and his rapid rise and fall through influence and power in America. Now, films like this are rare nowadays, but back then these kinds of prestige pictures were the blockbuster cinema of their era. A film like 'Kane' should have been just another prestige film, the kind of thing we call 'Oscar Bait' now.

Of course, we know now, with 72 years of context, that it was anything but just another film. 'Citizen Kane' is hailed as possibly the greatest film of all time, a technological and storytelling marvel that revolutionized the way films were written, shot, edited, scored, acted, and marketed. Orson Welles is now seen as one of the greatest writers, directors, and actors of all time.

But then, in the moment of 1941, this wasn't so. In 1941, the film was wildly talked about, but not for its qualities listed above. It was talked about because it was the most controversial film of the year.

In the 1940s, there was one name in the world of news; William Randolph Hearst. Hearst owned a newspaper conglomerate controlling both coasts of the United States, powerful enough to influence both the beginning of the Spanish-American War and the wild woods of Hollywood. And he, through Welles' 'Kane' co-writer Herman Mankiewicz, had the only copy of the 'Citizen Kane' script outside the production set of the film. And he, to put it lightly, had issues with it; Hearst believed (correctly) that the unflattering, megalomaniacal, self-destructive news magnate Charles Foster Kane was based on him. And he wasn't precisely fond of Welles for his work.

Hearst attempted to blacklist the film, using all of his newspaper might to force RKO to not release the film. He published scandalous, false tales of Hollywood excess on the front page of his papers, throwing lives and careers under the bus in order to stop Welles from raising 'Kane'.  Other production companies offered to burn all prints of the film to protect themselves from Hearst. Welles refused, and released his film to the world, only to be met with a lackluster box-office reception and critical shellacking. All of which is laid, with 72 years of weight, on the memory of William Randolph Hearst. For all of his effort, he only made Kane more powerful, to the point where it overtook him; his own biography written years later with family permission was titled "Citizen Hearst".

Now, with that entire story in mind, answer this; When the chips are down, and a great, masterful game comes along, why do we feel such a need to claim it as 'The Citizen Kane of games'?

It's a trick question. The correct answer is "We shouldn't be."

Why not? Because we shouldn't want our games to be 'Citizen Kane'. To be 'Citizen Kane' is to be a dangerous work of art attacked on all sides for being an unflattering look at a very real person, a work pressured on all sides to be removed from the fabric of time by your contemporaries, to be a work that fails miserably on release and is only discovered for its true glory years and years after the fact.

To want to be 'Citizen Kane' is to want to purposely commit the artistic version of seppuku in the hope of being justified in the afterlife. And the fact that we desperately clamor to hold our best and brightest up to a 72 year old film that, in my humble opinion, hasn't precisely aged well, signifies a dangerous trend with the rise of video games as an art form over the last two console generations; we throw around metaphors and analogies to cinema without truly understanding what those metaphors and analogies are. I myself am guilty of this, and it's my sudden realization of how wrong I was whilst doing a 4 person trade off one-sitting playthrough of Heavy Rain that inspired this post.

And its not just us fans that do it; the terrifying thing is, developers are just as prone to it as well.

Let's wind the clock back five months, to DICE in February. A series of legendary developer personalities give a series of talks at the summit about the future of games as an artistic medium. Some of them were insightful. All of them were interesting. There was one I almost vehemently disagreed with, and that was the one by Quantic Dream's David Cage, ""The Peter Pan Syndrome: The Industry That Refused to Grow Up."

Cage's nine part talk at DICE has one overarching theme: Games, as an industry, need to be more mature. And, to his credit, he makes a few solid points. We should push towards making our game mechanics all tie into the story and thematics, something that games like the Bioshock series have excelled at. He talks about bringing in trained actors, which is something I am totally game for as long as they appear to be open to the new challenges of acting in a video game like Ellen Page appears to be in Cage's own Beyond: Two Souls.

But he steps on a thin line later on in his talk, when talking about a new version of the press; Cage name drops the famous French cinematic magazine "Cahiers du Cinema", claiming that gaming should have its own version of it. But, here's the thing: I don't think David Cage understands what the Cahiers du Cinema actually is and why it is so important.

The Cahiers du Cinema came around at a time in which films were becoming dangerously formulaic, where everyone bent to a certain template of filmmaking; often times, it was compared to an assembly line process, done professionally and without remorse. Great films were made, to be sure, but the greats of the time all had a similar feel; the prestige pictures I talked about in the opening paragraph all ran from cinema's more childish, pulp adventure, avant-garde origins in an effort to become serious and impress the old guard of literary critics who didn't take film seriously; in other words, films of that era acted a great deal like novels. The French filmmakers of the 50s and 60s rebelled against the system and spawned the French New Wave, a movement that re-fired the childish adventures of cinema past, breaking all perceived "laws " of filmmaking, and imbued them with the same thematic importance as the prestige pictures that spawned a small act of rebellion with "Citizen Kane" and Orson Welles and was rejected. Where these thematics were rejected by the establishment as risqué and avant-garde, they were accepted by a new breed of American filmmakers, people we know now as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Stanley Kubrick, and John Carpenter; the Movie Brats.

But, David Cage associates the Cahiers du Cinema with some sort of maturing, a removal from the origins. He talks about censorship of violence and sex as "behaving like stupid teenagers" and says we should get rid of it as a "responsibility to not only our industry, but to our society." And that is where I say a few unholy words under my breath, because its very clear to me that David Cage hasn't the slightest idea what the Cahiers and the French New Wave and the Movie Brats stood for; A gaming Cahiers du Cinema wouldn't damn a game like Lollipop Chainsaw or Mortal Kombat, it would celebrate the pulpiness of those games and elevate them. It would hold up the violence and gaminess of games, their origins, just how unlike cinema they really are, celebrating their unique ability to immerse and dazzle with difficulty and boss battles and platforming and puzzles and explosive gunplay.

The great irony is that gaming's Cahiers du Cinema would probably praise David Cage's games for all the things he fights against.

I enjoyed Heavy Rain. I really did. It's a finely crafted tale of a father's love and drive. But I don't want it to be the future, nor do I want it to be our standard. I think I loved Heavy Rain for all the reasons David Cage would hate me for; I love it for every game like element it has, its old school adventure game vibe used to explore a serious theme with good characters and great pacing and thrilling action and the borderline torture porn levels of  violence and sex it uses to get there, something that I think Cage failed with on his previous project, Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy, and that I worry he'll fail again with Beyond, and I'll wager that fans of Heavy Rain loved it for the same reasons. I don't think David Cage understands why people loved it. I think David Cage has found a map to a gold mine, but he's holding it upside down and running in the wrong direction; he's running away from what made Heavy Rain great, towards the towers of old that are about to crumble instead of building a new tower to stand upon.

David Cage is a prime example of what I perceive to be a pretty major problem with modern game speak; in our mad dash for artistic credibility, all of us, fans, journalists, and developers, are willing to sacrifice what makes this medium so special in order to please the people who will never understand what made it special to us. We are willing to, in order to earn the praise of the old, non-understanding guard of film critics and news commentators, lower ourselves to describing our grand masterpieces, the games that made us gamers, games that rocked us to the core both young and old, games like Super Mario Brothers 3, Bioshock, Ocarina Of Time, The Last Of Us, Earthbound, and Red Dead Redemption, both light hearted and fun and dark and dramatic, to being gaming's "Citizen Kane", when we should never let the debate happen on their ground.

Let's find our own benchmark. Let's build our own new analogies to the great ones of our own medium rather than the greats of another. Let's elevate ourselves and our medium without forgetting what makes games so special. Let's use what makes games special to respectfully rub in cinema's face what films can't do that we can whilst learning from them. Respect your elders, and then surpass them, do the things that they never could. I think that is what Orson Welles would want us to do.

Let's beat "Citizen Kane" at its own game.

 

 

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