There have been many posts written by people searching for the “Citizen Kane” of video games, some masterpiece that will bring artistic acceptance* to the entire medium. There have been many responses, from the knee-jerk to the articulate, but Sean Sands has finally written a response that I can agree with. In So Long Orson Wells, Sands says, “I didn’t really want to play the Mona Lisa anyway. I have a better question – Where is video gaming’s Chess?” (emphasis added)
However engaging a movie or a painting can be, it doesn’t depend on interaction. Though Sands defends himself from accusations of Chess snobbery, it is reasonably accepted that Chess is one of the most perfect games ever invented. A child can learn it, but a lifetime can be spent in search of mastery—no video game is so finely balanced. Chess is the standard to which games should be held, not a narrative, cinematic experience like “Citizen Kane.” I don’t mean to fall into the Narratology vs Ludology war, I just believe we should celebrate games for those elements that make them unique—and which make them last. Smith points out that cinematic experiences are technology-dependent:
Cinematic experiences in games last only as long as the makeup and technology hold. I may love Wing Commander IV for what it accomplished at the time, but do I really want to go back and play it still? Does the game itself actually hold up?
I began writing a post to this effect recently after I revisited some of my favorite games of the mid ’90s. I still enjoyed them, but the low-res textures and blocky models stand out more in comparison to modern titles. Some graphics hold up better than others (the Myst series comes to mind), but with my eyes jaded by current-gen titles it was much easier to see which games truly shined as games, with interesting mechanics and complex dynamics outlasting stunning cut-scenes. Thank you to Mr. Sands for deftly articulating what I was thinking when I returned to games like Jedi Knight or Half-Life:
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a broad spectrum of games that approach the medium from countless angles. That’s part of the flexibility of the platform, and a concept I champion, but I also think we lose too much time trying to be something [cinematic masterpieces] we are not….
In the long run, it has always been the games that unapologetically embraced the idea of truly being a game that seemed to last. Maybe that tells us something.
*“Artistic Acceptance” here seems to be defined as “A pat on the back from Roger Ebert,” which is a whole different can of worms.