The Hunt for Charlie Kane

There are few discussions more futile and foolish among video game discourse than the idea of finding the Citizen Kane of gaming. While people have the best of intentions with this argument, it’s based in poor logic, silly standards and a general ignorance of the actual history of Citizen Kane. As a film and digital media student who has seen Citizen Kane a good number of times and has studied Citizen Kane and I can’t help but shake my head every time gamers discuss the search for the Citizen Kane of gaming

The biggest problem is that people believe that they need to find that game which can be touted as an undeniable work of art, something that is almost unanimously held in high regard and show to nongamers as proof of the medium’s maturity. This suggests that people believe that Citizen Kane singlehandedly legitimized the film medium as an art form. It didn’t.

In its day, the film was met with much controversy, both during its production and at The Oscars, where it was booed for all nine of its nominations (and only won the best writing category). Critics praised it, but the actual industry itself opposed it and it wouldn’t be until years later that it would be revisited by critics and held as one of the most influential and greatest films ever made.

Yes, the film played with a lot of techniques which helped move the medium forward, but it’s hardly a film that paved its way into a vast wasteland of subpar and inferior films. There are tons of fantastic, masterful films made before Citizen Kane which proved groundbreaking. F.W. Murnau’s work with The Last Laugh and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans helped develop ideas of camera movement and Sergi Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and D.W. Griffith’s A Birth of a Nation provided a foundation for editing techniques that practically every movie uses today.

Therefore, gamers shouldn’t be looking for that one title to change all titles. The film industry didn’t work that way and neither will video games. There are so many influential games that have helped shaped and hued the video game landscape and many more that will help evolve and refine it. Citizen Kane is not the be-all-end-all film. It’s certainly one of the finest films of its era and helped move the medium forward, but it’s also a product of a good number of other groundbreaking and important films that preceded it.

So what did legitimize films as an art form? In short, it was the development of the Auteur theory during the ‘60s, the outgrowth of French New Wave thinkers that evolved into a theory that helped film become a legitimate part of the academic world. So then, does the video game industry need to find auteurs to become a legitimate art form? Perhaps, but I’ve got my own theory about how the video game can come up with its own unique perspective of authorship.

It’s foolish to simply point to a single piece as somehow legitimizing an entire medium. If gamers and developers want the medium to be taken seriously, it’s going to take more than one title to do that. It’s going to take an entire movement. And, contrary to popular belief, Citizen Kane did not start that movement for film. What will that movement be for games? Which game will spawn it? Is that game already out? I don’t have those answers, but I do know we need to quite searching for that one title and start looking at how the video game industry can mature and grow.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing

  • Well said. There are so many influential games from video gaming’s past that it is impossible to find a “Citizen Kane” amongst them. Old arcade games like Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, Galaga, etc. are every bit as influential as the original Mario games, Zelda, etc. I agree that it is best to just go along with the ride as video games continue to grow.

    I really liked the image you posted as well. Man, I still hav e a soft spot for those early 90’s PC games. Commander Keen, Jazz Jackrabbit, Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, etc. Great times.