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