The Witcher 3 has taken the title of most critically applauded videogame, exceeding the accolades awarded to The Last Of Us. With such successes, I wondered whether the third installment of CDProjektRed’s tent pole franchise is the Citizen Kane of the gaming?
Citizen Kane has been regards by many critics, film makers and cinephiles as the greatest movie ever made. Directed by the 20th Century polymath Orson Welles, it has a gripping polemic story of a Hearst-like newspaper magnate who dictates US politics. Its tale was so salacious and so close to the bone, the films release was hampered by its muse. Welles also took the cinematography and redefined what was possible with the artistic method and delivered a film whose impact cam still be seen today.
To compare any video game to Orson’s magnum opus is problematic. By this, I would never mean that the gaming medium cannot merit artistic credit. Instead what is curious about Citizen Kane is that its achievements were only celebrated and recognised many years after its release. One could perhaps draw parallels with early days of The Witcher series, but by its third installment no matter how worthy, it is not a forgotten classic, rediscovered.
Before its time
Perhaps today, regardless of the medium, an institution like Citizen Kane and its rise to veneration, is impossible. The concept of being a ‘cult classic’ is largely meaningless compared to Welles’ day. As per Funhaus’ always fantastic podcast, nerd culture; often the purview of the ‘cult classic’ is mitigated by its very ubiquity. Instead, it is perhaps better to focus on what video games have achieved the critical acclaim and celebrated innovation akin to Citizen Kane.
Whilst by no means the only source of innovation in the video game industry, when looking for game changers; Gabe Newell’s Valve is front and centre of redefining the medium, and in fact media. The company’s ability to create a game changing platform is another discussion, but when looking for a Citizen Kane-like Half Life would come pretty close. Its abandonment of cut scenes, in favour of in-game story telling was revolutionary, and continues to be aped, no matter how much I’d stress that audio logs are not the same thing! Despite the now tedious application of physics based puzzles across gaming, it also delivers innovation with game-play mechanics, akin to the cinematography of Citizen Kane. What Half Life and many of Valve titles lack is the type of cutting social commentary which raises any art to paradigm shifting levels.
For cultural criticism, twinned with narrative innovation and social commentary; cyberpunk titles are standouts. The atrophication of humanity under a technologically rich, virtual reality future is not a new concept; with in its own way roots back to 3BC. Countless standout titles including Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream show a future which, to me, is far more fearful than 1984.
These concepts clearly have their impacts on the zeitgeist. Whilst the negative impacts of the cyber-intensive future are perhaps my own neurosis, it a concern which video games are most apt at exploring. Deus Ex looks at the growing, yet one sided co-dependence between Information Technology firms and government, it did innovate but perhaps merely echoed the continuing public worries are this symbiosis. But whilst it is a stand out title, its is not auteur nor original.
To identify the Citizen Kane of video games we have to go back to 1994. To a game which in its own way created Deus Ex and Bioshock. Like Welles’ Citizen Kane; System Shock wasn’t a box office smash. But is was hailed as a major breakthrough for the industry. It’s legacy is that it defined the gameplay of all shooters that follows. It pushes the player through a terrifying world through immersion, not a camera and was one of the first to merge the shooter and RPG genres. To quote Ubisoft’s Patrick Redding: “It wasn’t until the genre was ‘post-Shock’ that richer titles – in terms of game mechanics, story design and emergent gameplay – started to appear”. The title and its sequel couldn’t save its revolutionary studio. But, gamers will soon get to rediscover this lost classic with its upcoming re-release along with its lost code.
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