Citizen Prime: Why Ask the Question?

Earlier this week the ABC World News Posted a segment I recorded with them in which I described Metroid Prime’s achievements in game design as a breakthrough, equivalent in importance to Citizen Kane’s coalescence of cinematic techniques. While the piece is predictably terse and mostly confined to broad assertion, I think it presents my case pretty well. If you’re interested I’ve published a longer, more detailed version of those arguments in an editorial for IGN.

It’s been interesting to follow the reaction to this piece, which has broken down along the familiar lines of sarcasm, big media cynicism, disagreement, and personal derision. Another response has been to reject the very idea of cross-media comparison. I wanted to address this particular reaction a little more openly since I think the application of that criticism is misguided and a bit dishonest.

Prime1

There is an undeniable relationship between narrative video games and film. To refute this is to ignore a huge chunk of the medium’s development over the last twenty years. Final Fantasy VII contains hours of pure non-interactive cinema, as does Grand Theft Auto, Metal Gear Solid, Uncharted, Ocarina of Time, Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Halo, and almost any other major “core” game you could cite. There’s gameplay, then there’s the cutscene, which is cinema. There is no equivocating on this point, cutscenes are movies. Full stop.

It follows that we use cinematic references all the time when we talk about games. Have you read a review of Uncharted 2 that doesn’t reference Indiana Jones (itself a riff on a genre borrowed from another medium)? Have you read anyone who cited Black Hawk Down or Saving Private Ryan in reference to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare? How long does it take for someone to bring out Kelly’s Heroes when describing Battlefield: Bad Company? Grindhouse and House of the Dead: Overkill? Goichi Suda is happy to talk about how No More Heroes is a direct riff on El Topo. Shawn Elliott began his review of Half-Life 2 Episode 2 with a description of cinematic gameplay, ”videogames learn lots from other media, and by imitating the everyday function of film techniques instead of their exact form, Half-Life 2: Episode 2 becomes movielike, but isn’t a game that wants to be what it’s not.”

And this is to say nothing of the throngs of games literally derived from movies, everything from Fern Gully to Reservoir Dogs. Neither medium requires the other for validation, but they have a great deal in common, and we are generally quite comfortable dealing in these areas of creative cross-over. Shakespeare uses Holisnhed’s histories as the springboard for many of his tragedies, the influence of painting on cinematography is obvious, the connection between theater and film, novel and film, novel to game—there has not yet been a medium of creative expression that hasn’t borrowed significantly from somewhere else. This has been, and should be, reason enough for comparison. Harvard expects its students to do comparative analysis as part of normal undergraduate curriculum. Note their first quoted example, contrasting the assertions of Camus, a novelist and philosopher, against that of Fallon, a psychiatrist and attempted revolutionary. I don’t think many people were scandalized by Hitchock’s assertion, in his collected conversations with Truffaut, “you have to design your film just as Shakespeare did his plays–for an audience.”

kanesillhouette

Games do not require comparison to anything else to legitimize them, and I don’t think there’s a case to be made that I say anything of the sort. But I am arguing that games exist on a continuum of creative human expression.

Metroid Prime is not great because of Citizen Kane, it’s great alongside it. I think the parallels between the two are strong. There are huge differences. You don’t earn your spurs in pointing them out, and I don’t suggest they share similar aesthetics, characterizations, or plots. But I do suggest that they both sit at a similar point in the growth curve of their respective forms. Neither deserves to be treated as a sacred cow (I prefer Marcel Carne, Lang, Kurosawa, and Bergman to anything Orson Welles accomplished), but both are historical works, and boilerplates for the most powerful uses of film and games, respectively.

And this is a point worth emphasizing, because in the years since Prime came out, games have largely ignored its boilerplate. Kojima still can’t tell ween himself from cinema. Uncharted 2 is filled with hours of movie-watching in between its clumsy interactive sequences. So too Batman Arkham Asylum, Mass Effect, and Grand Theft Auto IV. BioShock skipped film entirely and went all the way back to the antique traditions of radio play to convey its narrative, while its gameplay mechanics weren’t conceptually more refined than that of Contra. Even Half-Life 2 is filled with cinema, though it allows the interactive relief of bunny hopping in a corner if you’d rather not listen to an NPC monologue.

When we praise all of these games, how much time is spent praising their cinematic (or non-game) qualities? How much ink was spilled on objectivism in BioShock, a game that contained no such references in its actual gameplay? How many game writers praised Metal Gear Solid games for their characterizations and sense of spectacle, which only have a tangential impact on the games’ rule sets?

When we think about games in this way, we subconsciously apologize for them, as developers, writers, and fans. If you spend millions of dollars on lavish cutscenes in your game, you implicitly support the notion that games need cinema to be legitimatized, they cannot do it through gameplay alone.

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I jumped on the chance to compare Metroid Prime to Kane, and stand by the validity of the comparison, because it is one of the most consistently game-like narrative works I’ve ever played. It doesn’t need cutscenes, all it needs is its art, animations, control scheme, and level design. You get story snippets in computer panels as a supplement, but they’re not essential to the gameplay itself. I compare how Metroid Prime speaks through its gameplay, to what Welles did with Kane, filling camera lens, lighting, and editing with something that couldn’t have been said in any other medium.

There are other games that you could argue for in this comparison (Portal immediately springs to mind), but the existence of alternates strengthens the case for a comparison in the first place. Film, prose, poetry, theater, and music have all given us great works that speak directly to something ineffable and universal in human experience. So do games. They can be placed in that canon, that evolution of people trying to describe something overwhelming in a new and abstract language. I think it’s a great privilege to be part of that growth, and I think this conversation is the beginning of a step forward, out of the swamp of fun, awesome, badassedness that we’ve been wallowing in while everyone else was getting on with their lives.

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8 thoughts on “Citizen Prime: Why Ask the Question?

  1. Mike, I just wanted to thank you for writing such an engaging exploration of videogames as an integral part of modern culture.

    I first saw your appearance on ABC referred to on Kotaku. Upon seeing Metroid Prime and Citizen Kane in the same sentence my heart fluttered with excitement and my mind was overrun with possibilities. Your summation more than fulfilled my expectations, however I knew there had to be more to your brief sound bites. Luckily I found your article on IGN and later this blog post.

    I have to admit, I am jealous. Your reverence for games is so clearly expressed in your lucid assessments of gaming culture. I strive daily for similar insight and skill with the written word.

    My motive here is to simply extend to you a kind word. I read through many of the comments on your IGN editorial and their less than civil content ignited an empathetic spark within me.

    Your’s is a voice that game journalism desperately needs. I sincerely hope you will continue to improve the medium for years to come.

    You will serve as further inspiration for me as I strive to achieve my life-long dream of becoming a game journalist.

    Thanks again for your editorial. This piece may one day prove to be a crucial juncture in the evolution of videogame journalism.

  2. I, once again, must agree with most everything you’ve said here.

    I say”most” everything because Bioshock’s gameplay does indeed have much to do with Objectivism. What could be more Objectivist than the pursuit of your own well-being regardless of the cost to others? The idea of personal progression and accomplishment is writ large in most any game. Furthermore, the idea that a completely free-market society would take advantage of a civil war by providing ammo vending machines everywhere makes a lot of sense to me.

    Of course, as I mentioned in another comment on another post in your blog, I believe I have a somewhat more accepting and wide-ranging pallet than most people. Perhaps I read too much into some things. Ah well.

  3. Edward:”regardless of the cost to others” that sentiment is a fundamental misrepresentation of objectivism. It’s a symptom of sociopathy. Rand wasn’t arguing the self should be exerted at the expense of other people (which is the gameplay loop in BioShock) she was arguing that the self should be the first and most important consideration. As evolution shows us, there is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that using individual talents and skills to benefit a group are often the most enriching behavior for the individual.

    This distinction is absolutely crucial to Rand’s theory of objectivism, and Levine himself has said the game wasn’t intended to be about objectivism, but about what happens when an insane mind becomes obsessed with a single concept (objectivisim has 4 central tenets, not simply 1, it should be noted). So if anything its about totalitarianism or fascism, which is no great achievement to have criticized (and totalitarianism cannot ever be said to have a free market, least of all an economy that exists in a bunch of glass bubbles in the middle of the ocean– quite literally a confined market, no?). Yet most game writers were only too eager to talk about Rand and objectivism by instinct, as a legitimizer of a game that was mostly just a horror show meant to tickle our most squeamish areas…

    Anyway, thanks for the comment!

    • lol. 🙂

      You’re hardly the first to disagree with me on this if youtube comments are anything to go by.

      Steppingaway from the game for a moment…
      My main issue with Objectivism (and don’t get me wrong, I feel that there is a lot of merit to Rand’s stuff) is that it is as black and white as any religion, and just as prone to have it’s followers believing in ideals that have no exceptions.

      For instance, a common belief held by Objectivist proponents is that an indivdual’s selfish motivations are never harmful to others, and if they are harmful, then they really weren’t being selfish, they were being altruistic. They run through circular logic, often enough.

      They often say that if people just “understood and followed” their morality, then everybody would be fine. I would say, yes, that is probably true, just like it would be if everybody followed any other morality. If a perfect standard is set, and everybody adheres to it, then things will all work out. The thing is, there are people who, by their very natures, will not fit into these morality codes and thus: conflict. Human nature is vastly varied and not nearly as malleable as some would have us believe.

      But that’s Objectivism. When it comes to Bioshock, I suppose I do have to concede that it begins on an assumption. That assumption being that Human nature makes Objectivist Morality impossible. I agree with the assumption, but the videogame doesn’t explain (or show) why this is the case. They jump to the point where it has already failed.

      For Bioshock to do a better (or less flawed) critique of Objectivism it would be best to begin the game before the fall of Rapture and entangle the character in the lives of the idealists who crumbled, and show how that human nature is such that any purely idealistic society, however well structured, will fail.

      And that’s if Bioshock actually focused on Objectivism. You’ve convinced me that Objectivism isn’t the focus, but the backdrop. However, I would have to disagree that the theme or focus is Fascism. I would sugest that the theme of Bioshock is that Human nature breaks all morality codes. Rapture could have just as easily been a city built by fundamentalist Christians, or *gasp* Communists. People fail their ideals.

      Of course, this is very pessimistic of me. So I’m going to leave it at that. Disagreements are natural as breathing, yes?

      Anywho. I look forward to the next videogame you decide to analyze 🙂

  4. First you were saying Metroid Prime was the Citizen Kane of games because they shared superficial plot and tonal points. Now you’re saying Metroid Prime is the Citizen Kane of games because it doesn’t have cutscenes. Neither argument is a good one. Here’s why:

    “Pitfall is the Citizen Kane of games because you play a man searching for something, and also it’s an intensely gameplay-oriented experience without any cutscenes.” Then take out the word Pitfall and replace it with Doom, or Leisure Suit Larry, or Final Fight, or really the majority of games that have ever come out, and you’ll notice the argument is completely unchanged (and still just as false).

    To actually find the Citizen Kane of games (a worthy pursuit), you would have to find a game that (1) was enormously influential (2) is critically revered (3) reveals a mastery of existing technology (4) pioneers never-before-seen technology and (5) warrants decades of analysis. Notice I’m not including items like “tells the story of people not living up to their potential” or “shows someone with a sense of loss.” Those are not what make Citizen Kane what it is.

    Anyway your argument in this particular article relies mostly on inflatery, misdirection, and overstatement, at the end of which Metroid still falls very short of the hyperbolic praise you give it. Even if you use words like Macguffin to do so.

  5. David: Your criterion could equally be applied to a lot of different movies and, by those 4 criteria, Kane is arguably lower on the rung of influence and technical innovation than a lot of others. Reefer Madness, for instance, could be argued for along those lines. It’s not an invalid way of looking at things, it’s just missing what for me is the most crucial point: what did all of that innovation and technical mastery mean. What is the human value of it? I find many strong parallels between the two on that most essential axis. It may not work that way for you, but that does nothing to invalidate my point.

    And Prime covers all of your 4 required criteria for matching Kane (though I suppose you’ll argue the influence, which is the most debatable).

    And to your open points, I was making the argument as holistic as possible. Again, you may disagree about my conclusions, but you’ll find in my article mention and positive comparisons on many categories. The argument wasn’t that it’s “just” gameplay, but the kind of gameplay, what that gameplay expresses. Prime’s gameplay is exploratory, and it’s central mechanics are built on sensual examination and discovery. It’s art style emphasizes those qualities outright in both level design, environmental cues, animations, and all the little personal flourishes. You analogy to Pitfall just doesn’t follow along those lines, at least not in so far as you’ve expressed it.

    Anyway, you’ve left out an important distinction in your conclusion. The argument doesn’t fail because there ultimately is no objective truth about it in the first place. This is an articulation of my experiences. The articulation of my experiences fail to persuade you to change your reaction to the game. But that points towards some subjective experience on your side which remains unarticulated. Consensus is not truth, after all, nor disagreement. And I made it pretty plain, from the opening paragraph to the last, that I was speaking about my personal views based on my personal experiences. That’s not hyperbole, that’s the truest expression of what I think. It wouldn’t only be hyperbolic if I didn’t actually believe the comparison is valid. But I wouldn’t have gone to all this trouble if I didn’t. It’s true for me. My friend, I promise you, that is not a Macguffin.

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