“Where is gaming’s Citizen Kane?” is a stupid question.
To me it is a question that reflects the endless insecurities that seem to plague our young media enterprise as we search for a sense of belonging among an old guard that considers us with jealous eyes and yellow teeth. As the burgeoning games industry clamors for a seat at the dusty table where the dying media empires scheme and connive, I suspect that we ought to be grateful for every second we are not counted on their ledgers.
With the toothless, worn out whore – the games as art debate – dragged again into the town square to be publicly flogged, I find myself driven to reject any response at all. To answer the question is to miss the point entirely, because any answer validates what I think is a fundamentally flawed concept, as though art were some quantifiable, describable thing. You might as well ask if games are love.
I say, in my most haughty voice possible, let high minded fools pass down their judgments on what is or is not allowed to be art. I didn’t really want to play the Mona Lisa anyway. I have a better question – Where is video gaming’s Chess?
I am not some kind of Chess snob. I enjoy the challenge of playing people who think about the game more as a passing fancy rather than as a life choice or a religion. I have no archaic knowledge of openings. I have never studied at length a king and pawn endgame. I can name at least 10 times more professional golfers than I could Chess Grandmasters.
And yet, I respect Chess in a way that I do no other game. I have no trouble recognizing the monumental genius of its construction, the staggering elegance of its craft. When I think about this game in the terms that I usually reserve for video games, I keep looking for the subtle flaw in its design that can ultimately be exploited and destroy the underlying fabric of its tenuous structure, and yet I realize that millions of man hours have been exhausted doing exactly the same with fruitless results.
That this game can be so simple — my six year old understands the rules without any difficulty — and yet so staggeringly complex at once is amazing to me. Certainly we have video games that amateurishly mimic this kind of “easy to play, impossible to master” mentality, but ultimately they require house rules, patches for refinement or the understanding that somehow one structure, one plan is slightly superior to all others if played correctly.
Chess does not appear to have any such flaw.
This isn’t an article about how awesome Chess is though. It’s more about how we perceive ourselves as gamers, and how we think about what our ideals are. I freely admit that I am at times absorbed into the siren’s song of cuddling with cinema, and when Uncharted 2 licks my eyeballs I am as seduced as the next gamer. No question there is a place for great visual storytelling in games, but when I think about the games that will last, that will be our grand paragons placed high on a gilded pedestal I find my love for games like Uncharted 2 may be much more superficial than I first suspect.
It is a date with a super model, a test drive in a Ferrari, an improptu hook-up with a visiting foreigner. It is a nice memory that is best not looked at too closely. What it is not is the game you will settle down with for years to come. And, hey I'm not denigrating the value of a flashy, if transitory, experience. If we're looking at games that way, who wants to sleep with a grumpy old man like Citizen Kane anyway? If we're going to make that the gold standard then the better question is "Where is our Avatar?"
But, when I think of the kinds of games that orbit in the distant penumbra of mastery demonstrated by Chess, that begin to approach this new vision for a perfect quality, I think games like Civilization 4, Rise of Nations, Team Fortress 2. These are games that continue to stand not only as great games for their times, but games that hold up years or potentially decades later. 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 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 we are not. The further I get from Heavy Rain, for example, the more I realize that much of what ultimately holds it back from being a good game are exactly the things for which it was so heavily lauded.
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.