It’s the universal short hand for artistic acceptance. It’s the sought after pinnacle of universal appreciation and technical ability. To be the Citizen Kane of something is to be the linchpin for your medium’s mainstream acceptance, and it is also a rubric on which all future purportedly artistic games will be graded on. But it’s also an outdated metaphor just as much as it is a tangible goal and prospect. To hear someone describe achieving it, one would assume a random video game will just spontaneously be declared “Our Citizen Kane” out of the blue; forever changing gamer culture for the better and more mature, without any input from consumers.
Once Game X has grabbed the Sword of Artistic Credibility from Welles’ cold dead corpse, then and only then, the free market will start working like the Libertarian’s always dreamed it would. We’d have a Criterion Collection in a month, the Game Developer’s Choice Awards will start being broadcast on ABC, and cable news pundits will find a new source of sensationalist blame-bait. We cannot move on as a medium of artistic expression until a Kane has been put on the thrown, for only it can herald our advance into getting film buffs and music agencies to like us. But despite this moniker supposedly holding such industry-wide potential, we’ve been reticent to nominate a video game for the honor. Oh sure, arguments have been made for this title or that, but nothing has been truly submitted to the gaming populace as a definitive thesis.
Dissertations can be submitted for the emotional effectiveness of Mass Effect 2, the simple tonal brilliance of Metroid Prime, the sheer pop cultural significance and historical context to Grand Theft Auto 3, etc. etc. to infinity. But all this comes from a confused desire to not only crown a Kane, but a Best Game Ever. We have spent so long envisioning Citizen Kane as this ethereal gift from the 35mm Gods, beloved by AFI and your Intro to Media Studies professor alike, that we barely register it as an actual piece of consumable media. So the conversation has been polluted practically since the beginning, with the quest for a Museum-worthy testament to interactivity often devolving into personal preferences, the same Top Ten videos spinning a Youtube Uroboros.
In reality, if we take a look at the most revolutionary features and perfect timing of Citizen Kane’s release, we’ve had the gaming equivalent for around six years now. We just haven’t noticed because we’ve spent so much energy putting any Game of The Year candidate up against this idyllic fantasy of the Film Industry’s Favorite Son that we’ve failed to connect enough of the technical dots to finally put the matter to bed. In the interest of actually getting to the glut of artistic achievement that we will apparently only have post-Kane, let’s decide the matter here.
Citizen Kane’s place as a testament to the power of films and filmmaking was rarely in doubt, even during its initial RKO Pictures release. In the little over seventy years since its first theatrical run, it has come to symbolize the potential for filmic acumen to have an important and tangible effect on a movie’s power to deliver a strong and relatable story. Particularly with its use of deep focus; meaning consistently strong camera focus across the middle, back and foreground of a scene; Kane is often seen as a harbinger of greater filmic understanding. Camera and editing techniques were beginning to reveal themselves as syntax for film sequences, punctuations and emphases made to supplement narrative points with a subtle visual language. A common example is cinematographer Gregg Toland’s use of low angles to emphasize the power of the character on screen. If the camera’s point of view is meant to emulate the audience’s, then having the camera at a low point – mimicking the perspective of someone looking upward – recreated the feeling of spatial dominance by the character in focus. Kane the character loomed over the screen as he argued over journalistic ideals, given a sense of control by having the audience literally looking up to him.
It wasn’t until 2007 rolled around that we got us the closest thing to Citizen Kane that we need to move ourselves forward. Like Kane, gaming’s closest achievement to it brings the audience into the shattered psyche of a defeated megalomaniac in his last few days alive. The exploration of the world on which this man had attempted to craft a utopia revealed a flawed worldview expressed through the best means the medium had at the time to craft an engaging story. Instead of a direct film à clef about newspaper magnates, gamers chose – with their wallets and years of subsequent debate over its intricacies – a thinly veiled allegory of Objectivist extremism. They chose a tale told through environmental narrative and audio diaries.
Yes, it’s one of the more clichéd examples to bring up in such a discussion. But a mainstream game release has yet to draw a closer parallel to Welles’ cautionary tale, nor do they need to. Both Warner Brother’s Citizen Kane and Irrational Games’ Bioshock were and are standing testaments to the evolution of their mediums through their respective uses – and advances – of existing design techniques. While direct comparisons to Kane’s revolutionary use of camera can’t be made when a player has full control over it at any time, Bioshock nevertheless makes a strong case for itself by how the environment works with the camera.
Generations before the 2007 release of Bioshock, designers and programmers figured out that the best way to direct players towards their next objective was to subtlety inform the desired direction within the game environment. Positioning the next available cave to explore on a point of color contrast in the overworld map of a Final Fantasy or Zelda helped guide the player’s eye to the collection of brown pixels amongst a mass of green, just as much as having the screen pan left for those extra two seconds at the beginning of a level let Mario know he needs to start jumping or he’ll die by falling of the screen.
As video games began to move away from expressing their narrative components entirely in separate cutscenes, titles like Half Life started showcasing the potential for entirely in-world narrative engagement in ways technology had not previously allowed for. Be they an on-rails introduction to Black Mesa research facilities or NPC conversations players could just walk away from, advancements in rendering 3D spaces allowed for much more nuanced placements of narrative devices, and it is here that Bioshock makes its strongest claim to Kane fame.
While it was far from the first to incorporate diegetic (or in-world) narrative instances, and definitely not the smoothest example that has come since, the dystopian shooter ushered in a new era of mechanically-enhanced moods. A term often used in film critique and never used in games criticism in “mise en scene”. A French term translating to “placing in the scene”, the phrase is commonly attributed to the placement of objects and characters within a camera shot, but can refer to everything from props and costumes to sets and lighting. Rightfully lauded for its “atmospheric” nature at its launch, Bioshock stood out not just on the strength of its grandiose narrative, but the technical nuance used to supplement it.
Like Tolland’s placement of characters across the full depth of field of certain camera shots, Bioshock’s use of interactive elements in a level served not only to address the basic narrative requirements of a scene, but it’s emotional subtext and tonal design as well. Early on in the game, in the entrance to the Kashmir Restaurant of the game’s second chapter, a splicer (the demented, gene-spliced residents of Rapture) is shown in the distance and in shadow, cooing over a baby carriage. Approaching her will lead to an assault, and looking into the baby carriage will yield a revolver and a brief musing on the effect of plasmids (gene manipulation agents injected via needle) on the populace by your radio friend Atlas.
This is one of the stronger examples of a common storytelling technique in Bioshock, something we’ll call the Atlas footnote. A scene will use the environment to set a mood or tension (in this case the good old “calm mother just waiting to go crazy” shtick), and force a player action (killing the splicer) to lead into a radio message from Atlas to help with exposition and world building. This technique is often played purely for tonal nuance once players can access audio diaries from other characters in Rapture, like the discovery of J.S. Steinman’s diatribes about physical perfection placed in the medical pavilion level amongst pictures of his disturbed cosmetic surgeries.
The baby carriage splicer scene is nothing too remarkable on its own when compared to similar reveals in earlier games: like your first encounter with a mannequin creature in Silent Hill 2, after it rises from behind a bust holding the game’s crucial flashlight inventory item. But prior to the seventh console generation and its advancements in game engines (much like the camera advancements during the World War II era), such expressions of scene and tone were difficult to employ without relying on fixed camera angles and other restrictions. Restrictions borrowed wholesale from pre-existing media.
That’s not to say that Bioshock is a completely blank swath of Gary’s Mod, completely yielding to the entirety of a player’s will and capabilities. The shadow of the baby carriage splicer is a matter of multiple layers of forced perspective, whether it’s the curvature of the elevator and hallway framing the enemy AI just out of sight just as the player enters the stage, or the audio of her cooing being mixed loud enough against the score and sound effects to attract the attention of a player who went left when exiting the elevator instead of right.
Nevertheless, nearly all possible assets at the developer’s control; environment walking areas, character models, prop and clothing textures, sound design and lighting; are in use here for a deeper purpose than just exposition or setting up an action set-piece. Finding the baby carriage splicer now, so early in the game, is a tonal introduction to the somewhat tragic nature of your main enemy AI in the game, and the establishment of an off-putting and ever-present feeling of danger. Rapture truly wouldn’t be a reflection of Andrew Ryan’s decrepit psyche unless it is populated by creatures of fancy dress and crumbling sanity.
Bioshock’s use of storytelling mechanics in an environment entirely dictated by player control was neither the first attempt nor the most polished, but it was the most recognized. The Kane name isn’t necessarily one we should give to those first to innovate, but those that make their techniques and evolutionary design popular and palatable. We aren’t looking for Steve Wozniak, we’re looking for Steve Jobs. And 2K’s underwater adventure reached critical and commercial success, while also leading by example, a new wave of narrative experimentation within game technology.
Neither Bioshock nor Citizen Kane is perfect. The former still locks away most of its iconic moments behind walls of (albeit diegetic) glass, and the latter opens with the biggest plot hole yet to be produced in cinema, having the main character speak the word that is the impetus for the entire plot to an empty room. Where the two find unity, at least enough to put a stop to this debate, is that they are the most significant landmarks in their respective media of using the most modern technology of their time to tell their stories on multiple levels.
What is important now is to determine where video games can go from here, and how much it falls to the consumer to support its advancements. The most profitable entertainment launch in history has been in video games for the past half-decade, but we’ve also seen rises in entertainment software that attempt to widen the possibilities of the medium. Most are targets of derision for barely adhering to the tenants of what we currently call “video games”, but in these experimental adventures there is potential to reverse engineer not only what makes a game technically function, but compelling as a means of narrative and non-narrative exploration. If we restrict ourselves to the most stagnant and unyielding definition of what a video game could be, then it will remain as such.
It’s up to the gamer – as an individual, and as a consumer class – to decide just how much we can push games forward, and how fast those changes can occur. We can mindlessly obey those with the largest advertising budgets and remain fixed on brand names and familiar IP, or risk our money on the new and off-putting oddities that could lead to the future. It is a choice, and by choosing to make it now, we could be moving forward without even needing the excuse of a Citizen Kane. But now that we’ve decided, a choice can finally be made.
You know what they say about the man and slave, don’t you?