Citizen Kane” Happened 25 Years Ago.

September 21, 2010

Come for the ridiculous proclamations, stay for the awful Photoshops.

This is an inherently ridiculous debate. Yet, it’s a theme that crops up again and again, usually in connection with the almost-as-ridiculous debate over whether video games can be considered art. When will gaming finally produce its Citizen Kane? When will we finally have a game that we can point to as irrefutable proof that video games can, in fact, be art? It wasn’t Bioshock, it wasn’t Passage, it wasn’t World of Goo, and it definitely wasn’t Heavy Rain. When will it arrive? Will there be neon signs that say “CITIZEN KANE-ESQUE!” when it does?

The assumption here — one tied to the idea that a game must have an “art-worthy” plot — is that it hasn’t happened yet. Gaming hasn’t yet developed the facilities to tell a story as profound, tightly packed, and monumentally meaty as that of Citizen Kane yet, and thus, we are still waiting.

But what if it’s already happened? What if gaming’s Citizen Kane arrived, say, 25 years ago, and we’ve just been too busy waiting for it to notice?

In the ’80s, game studies weren’t typically the stuff of scholars. Games were kid stuff, mostly, and breaking the experience of a game down into categories like “graphics”, “sound”, “control”, and some nebulous sort of “fun factor” seemed like the best way to approach it (not far from what Nintendo Power did for pretty much the entire time that I had a subscription). There wasn’t much of a problem with this approach, because it covered most of the talking points. The medium was still new to draw connections between the categories — for example, the way that “control” can have an affect on the “challenge” of a game — so we didn’t really bother.

Looking at games in this way reduces them to something more algorithmic. Looking at the different aspects of a game without context is sort of analogous to doing a code review on a piece of software; the person doing the judging is looking at it like a series of algorithms rather than one whole piece. The question of whether we were looking at art was moot; we were looking at games and that’s all that mattered.

Now that some time has passed, however, we can look at those old games with a more unified view. As Michael Abbott explains in his article on what makes Super Mario Bros. special, the control of that game is tied to its challenge. Mario’s (at the time) unique jumping physics made him both more versatile than platform stars who came before (see: the feeling of inevitability that accompanies hurtling toward an open crocodile mouth in Pitfall) and a more challenging agent to be controlled. Being able to “float”, as Abbott terms it, allows mario to jump onto platforms directly above him, to weave in and out of oncoming obstacles, and even to change his mind at a crucial moment. By bestowing an utterly unrealistic ability on an obstensibly “realistic” (the humanoid everyman) character, for the sake of putting more control in the hands of the player, Nintendo successfully navigated the tenuous relationship between reality and game-reality. We can identify with Mario as our avatar, even as his abilities don’t even resemble realism.

Super Mario Bros. has since been outdone in almost every way by its many sequels, but every single one of those sequels owes most of its success to Mario‘s “float”. Other platformers have tried to tweak the formula with weapons, speed, and even new jumping mechanics, but no platformer has been able to outdo Mario as king of the platformers. In fact, no game has since offered the sort of universal appeal that Super Mario Bros. managed to when it was a pack-in with the NES.

The team behind Super Mario Bros. was made up of seven people. These are artists of the highest order, and should be celebrated as such. Super Mario Bros. is the Citizen Kane of video games.

And with that, I’m never bringing up that movie on this blog ever again.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: