The Kane Obsession

Nowadays, I travel twenty minutes per train to get to Vlambeers office in Utrecht from the city I live in, Hilversum. Hilversum is by all means an uneventful city – or so it likes to think with its high frequency of small crime, robberies, assaults and violence in general – but either way, it’s also the home of the interaction faculty of one of the largest Dutch art colleges. More often than not, I find myself sitting alongside a few fellow creatives, whether they’re into music, movie, animation, interaction or games.

Last week I found myself sitting across a movie student in his late twenties. We started talking about what we did, how he was doing a master thesis in some movie-related class and how we started Vlambeer two and a half years ago. As soon as I mentioned games the conversation drifted towards his love of videogames in general, his disappointment with the state of the medium and then the big question.

‘Do games have a Citizen Kane of their own yet?’

It’s a question that is often posed in several ways, whether it’s ‘have games found artistic merit yet’ or ‘have games had a seminal, defining piece yet that validates its creative worth’ – either way, it’s a question I’m starting to grow tired of.

‘Do movies have a Tetris of their own yet?’ I replied.

He grinned and there was a short silence as he regained composure – it had been a somewhat unexpected rebuke. ‘But is there a Citizen Kane of games?’ he repeated. ‘Is there a Tetris of movies?’ I insisted. He shook his head in dramatic fashion, obviously slightly annoyed by my non-answer. We chatted for a few more minutes about games we loved before we reached the station where he needed to hop out of the train.

When I reached my computer, I was somewhat hesitant to tweet about that part of the conversation. I pondered for a moment why I was so hesitant and realized that I expected to get a few heavily negative replies about how I misconstrued the question, whether I was serious that ‘games could be art’ or whether I wanted to seriously compare Citizen Kane to Tetris. More importantly, I realized that people would try to seriously answer his question or discuss whether Tetris is indeed the Citizen Kane of videogames.

That this movie student asked the Kane question isn’t a problem. Actually, it is to be expected: he is, after all, a movie student. Making a comparison between something known and familiar and something unknown and distant is a valid way to get a feeling for things. My problem is that we ourselves seems so insistent on answering the question.

There are more great games with more expressive power than ever before. Games are made for more reasons than we’ve ever seen, by more cultures, genders and races and by people with more varying artistic backgrounds than ever before. Johann Sebastian Joust allowed us to see the potential of alternative input, Portal changed the way we looked at narrative, Journey redefined the way we look at power of social interaction in games and the Oculus Rift promises to change everything we know about games. The past years have seen an amazing amount of amazing games and we are constantly finding new boundaries for the medium through works like Dys4ia, Proteus or Dear Esther.

Yet many people in our medium tend to have the feeling that we’re slowly evolving towards some measurable milestone, something that will propel our medium to the artistic levels that other mediums are at. Maybe they crave the artistic validation that those other mediums enjoy. Maybe they feel games aren’t quite what they could be.

To be completely honest, it confuses me. Mediums simply don’t evolve past similar paths, even though they might go through similar stages. Why would one assume there is, has been or will be a Citizen Kane of games?

Anyone would be hard pressed to singularly identify a book, or a composer, or a musician, or a comic book writer – or any piece that did to its medium what Citizen Kane did to movies. We don’t measure those media by milestones from other mediums, but by milestones of their own. For books or theatre people might refer to a Shakespearean work as a milestone. For music, The Beatles or a wealth of classical composers might be considered milestones. But would one ask movies for their Hamlet, music for their Shakespeare, theatre for its Tetris or games for their Beatles?

I’m not arguing to stop asking the question. I’m arguing to stop trying to answer it. We make games and there is no set path for our medium. Comparison with other medium will just change what we -and the world- perceive as progress: while we should measure our progress against our own, we measure it against a medium incomparable to ours.

What will move games forward again, when it will do that and in what ways is unknowable until it has happened. Maybe it’s a change of perspective on narrative techniques. Maybe it’s a hardware innovation, like mobile gaming or the Oculus Rift. Maybe it’s a gameplay innovation. Most likely, it’s none of these. But whatever it is, it is not a Citizen Kane of games. It will not be analogous to a seminal work from any medium. It will be something that is absolutely unique to the needs of games.

We need to make sure that we don’t aspire to create towards a Citizen Kane of games. It might be better to aspire to create away from it. We’ll see where we end up when we end up there.