On Old Hats and Orson Welles

You know what was a legitimately amazing game? The Last Of Us. Yes, I’m still on about this. I’m probably going to be on about it for a while. It is one of the best games I’ve ever played, hands-down, and this is as close to gaming’s “Citizen Kane moment” as many people are ever going to agree upon. I’ve heard the argument that this isn’t possible because of the way that we relate to adapting video game technology, and that older games are too frustrating, clunky, and obsolete for generations of newer gamers to play. I don’t buy it.

orsonwellesLet me explain, briefly, what is meant by “Citizen Kane moment.” It’s not a perfect metaphor. The film‘s 1941 release was not met with the great fanfare that our cultural nostalgia would indicate. The film fared poorly at the box office, and won a single Oscar for Best Screenplay. It wasn’t until film theorists and film history buffs looked back on the film in the late fifties and sixties that we decided that the film was a masterwork. Keep in mind that when Kane was released, Welles was a first time film director, a 25 year old theatre director a few years off the shutdown of the Federal Theatre Project. It may have been overtaken by Vertigo, but the idea is that looking backwards we see something truly great and groundbreaking. The metaphor is imperfect because The Last of Us is great right now.

That’s beside the point, though. I don’t want to pick a fight, but I’ve recently read a piece by Chad Sapieha over at the Financial Post, and it’s just wrong. There’re a couple of gestures at an argument throughout the piece. I’d like to start with this:

Technological innovation – the very thing that enthralls so many gamers and drives the industry from one generation to the next – is the greatest obstacle to specific video games achieving any sort of long-term historical significance.

Here, have a hundred reasons why that’s not true.

513416526_super_smash_bros_melee_characters_xlargeNow, it’s certainly true that many gamers don’t want to return to earlier iterations of games for exactly the reason named above. The same could be said for why certain casual film watchers don’t watch classic films, or those in black and white. The sort of person to whom that argument refers probably wouldn’t watch Citizen Kane anyway. The fact is, though, that gamers do have a collective cultural memory, like the fans of any other art form. Super Mario Bros. will always be a classic. FFVII will always be a classic. The same could be said for multiple Legend of Zelda titles, and how many people do you know that unequivocally prefer Super Smash Bros. Melee to Brawl, a game that is objectively smoother with numerically superior graphics? Furthermore, the author goes on to describe exactly the various ways (title porting, emulation) in which games are preserved amidst changing technologies, even if players aren’t (and many are) holding on to older gaming systems

The argument that gaming technology moves too fast for gamers to care about their history qua gamers gives us short shrift, and I refuse to subscribe to it. I’d be much more willing to hear that there will be no Citizen Kane moment because gaming is too diverse and too decentralized a community for such a concept to be unilaterally declared and then recognized.

zelda_nietzsche_philosophyKane does have a level of depth and incisiveness that is largely agreed upon in the film community. Many classic games lack that depth. Sapieha goes on to describe games like Super Mario Bros, and PacMan as “archetypal works, to be sure, but not exactly Citizen Kane-like in their artistry or profundity.” Now, it’s possible that I’m reading too far into an off the cuff remark in the middle of an article, but this blithe dismissal of the classic cultural value of certain games because they lack the “profundity” of the great classic films is a non-starter. Games are not just valuable for the impressive messages that they may or may not deliver in the process of gaming. The interactive experience, the same technological development that Sapieha earlier decries, innovations in user-interface and online community, all of these things contribute to the quality and longevity of a game’s value.

Melee didn’t teach me a goddamn thing about the corruption inherent in American political life, about disillusionment and disappointment, or existentialism and the bitter loneliness which we all face. It didn’t teach me to believe in myself, distrust the American dream, or recognize my individual value as a woman in a society that revolves around manners, wealth, and male power. It is none of the great novels. But it is and remains a classic because it’s just so much fun and it was innovative for its time. People loved, and still love that game. It can, sometimes, be that simple.

The article closes with an appeal:

Video game “classics” should be viewed as a breed apart from those of other entertainment mediums. Any attempts at comparison are fundamentally flawed thanks to unavoidable expiration dates imposed by the unstoppable evolution of hardware and advancements in game design.

I don’t believe that grounds were established to support the premise that games that are viewed as truly great have “unavoidable expiration dates,” so that statement is at best vacuously true.

Perhaps video games are “a breed apart.” They are fundamentally different from other entertainment mediums which are less interactive and function less in the realm of instant feedback. That’s true, but in no way does it diminish the value of video game classics. Classics. No quotation marks.