IGN.com never provided worthwhile original content, but the site’s visitors never really demanded it. Or at least I don’t think they did, because they have a huge number of visitors and staff for each console, yet so little that’s actually worth reading.

So I knew that Michael Thomsen’s “Citizen Prime: Is Metroid Prime Our Citizen Kane?” would probably leave me in a fit of giggles and self-loathing snobbery. Upon finishing it, the latter was unexpectedly the dominant emotion. I don’t like looking down on people for what they enjoy, or their reasons for enjoying it. What Thomsen writes, however, is so lacking in self-awareness and humility, yet so discordantly earnest, that I want to pretend that he didn’t really annoy me as much as he did. But the more I think about it, the more it irritates me.

If I understand correctly, his argument is that Metroid Prime holds a position in the canon of video games similar to that of Citizen Kane in canon of film, because Metroid Prime utilizes the elements of gameplay to create narrative and thematic cohesion. I’ll let Mr. Thomsen speak for himself:

"In the same way that Citizen Kane harnessed every technical component in film to express its post-mortem reassembly of an irrepressible and heartbroken man, Metroid Prime uses all of its technology to recreate the experience of a woman abandoned on an alien world inhabited by the ghosts of its prelapsarian inhabitants."

Destructoid.com already declared this “one of the single silliest statements you’ll ever read.” (Questionable grammar, but understandable sentiment) I don’t know that it’s in any way arguable that Metroid Prime doesn’t utilize all available methods to immerse its players. But that isn’t really the issue. The real issue is whether or not the mastery of cinematic technique is really the reason why Citizen Kane is Citizen Kane. Apparently realizing this, Thomsen is quick to add:

“The great achievements in any creative medium have always been rooted in empathy, often where it's least expected (e.g. King Lear, Beethoven's 9th Symphony, Lolita, The Godfather).”

But Citizen Kane isn’t great because the viewer might feel empathy for Charles Foster Kane. Neither does empathy define the greatness of “King Lear,” and certainly not Lolita (at least, not Nabokov’s Lolita). The directorial and cinematographic methods of Citizen Kane develop the narrative's themes; they weren't designed solely to evoke empathy. And any empathy for Humbert Humbert is of the reader’s own creation; I remain fairly certain that Nabokov, by the end of his novel, did not want for his readers to feel sorry for, much less like a man who sexually preyed upon a twelve-year-old girl. (I fear to read what Thomsen might have interpreted Lolita to be, if his ludicrous conflation of Nabokov’s fiction with the rape-simulator RapeLay is anything to go by.) Martin Amis described Lolita as a novel about tyranny, from the tyrant’s perspective. He’s right: Lolita is not a romance classic, and wasn’t intended as such.

So what is it about Citizen Kane and Lolita and “King Lear” that makes them so important? What doesn’t? Each engages not just hearts and minds, but the soul. Each possesses that ineffable quality that makes us aware that such qualities exist in us. Such works that exist in the canon of worthy human endeavors not only remind us of the mysteries of what it is to exist, but hopefully, cause us to ponder them. They are technically proficient, as any logical critic can see. But other films are technically proficient, as are other novels and plays. Knowing when something is truly great is not a matter of logic, but intuition.

A few decades of hindsight helps too.

Does Metroid Prime really do for the soul what Citizen Kane does? Not for me. The few things that Thomsen claims about the game’s intrinsic worth as a work of art are that it evokes empathy through masterful command of the medium’s formal elements; that the story is told through various visual touches (which aren’t a unique formal element of video games); that the game constantly reminds the player of the role he or she is playing. These, along with some similarities between their respective production processes, are what make Metroid Prime the gamer’s Citizen Kane, according to Thomsen. A generous person could describe such a connection as tenuous, but a person who takes money for his thoughts ought to know better than to so forthrightly state something tenuous not only on a game website, but to ABC News.

Thomsen is serious, though. He takes pains to defend himself from his critics. He’s written follow-up posts on his blog. The reactions from the online peanut-gallery range derisive ad-hominem and incredulous, occasionally profane rebuttals. The consensus is that Mr. Thomsen is either a faux-intellectual or a hipster-douche.

He is one, but not the other. To be a hipster, Thomsen would have to be part of an in-crowd, and he is not. He desperately wishes he were which is why he is trying so hard to defend his segment/editorial. In fact, the question, “what is the Citizen Kane of video games?” is founded in this insecurity of so many video game journalists and fans. Not content to enjoy games for what they are, these people wish for others to acknowledge games as a legitimate form of entertainment, as if that would somehow make it so. Thomsen and his ilk don’t seem to realize that such comparisons only work by minimizing the accomplishments of auteurs like Orson Welles (in this case, by saying that it’s greatness lies in editing and cinematography that create empathy for its central character). In actuality, it only makes video games appear worse for comparison.

Thomsen states the following at the start of his essay:
“Writing about videogames is a strange vocation and not one I had imagined for myself five years ago. There's a well-established tradition of writing for game fans, but I always struggle to justify why everyone else should care. Why does my friend the high school teacher need to worry about Space Pirates? Does my mother, a retired oncology nurse, really need to know the differences between an Ice Beam and a Plasma Beam?”

Basically, Michael Thomsen is insecure; his entire article testifies to this. The florid prose -- “eerie parallels” and “vibrant arrays” abound, and he ascribes Metroid Prime the title of “Odyssey of traversal” which is just redundantly repetitious -- and the vehemently (sophomoric) academic tone of his essay not only remind his readers of his insecurities, they make him look pompous (hence the hipster accusation). That approach won’t make anybody care about video games. In fact, it seems that competitive multiplayer is what attracts people to games, or intuitive, fun control schemes, if the success of the Xbox 360 and Wii are anything to go by.

If it could actually do any good, I’d tell him that his mother doesn’t need to know that the Ice Beam freezes enemies, but the Plasma Beam does more damage. So he shouldn’t worry about it. Chances are, his mom doesn’t need to know about forced perspective, deep focus, or the influence of German Expressionism in Citizen Kane either. But deeply rooted fears over the legitimacy of one’s favored past time are not easily abated.

Games are just games. Acceptance. Let it set ye free.

And don’t forget: you can’t spell ignorance without IGN.


  1. To be honest, I don't think games have quite reached the Citizen Kane point for comparison (and I certainly wouldn't place Metroid Prime as any sort of paradigm-shift point in gaming evolution in the first place), but I don't think it's fair to write them off as "just games" full stop.

    Games are (or rather, have the potential to be) an entirely new way of imparting artistic expression that is only beginning to be explored. I think there's every possibility of them to be used by a canny creator to express themselves in ways that are completely different from books, films, music and the visual arts.

    If anything, I'd say games are at the Lumiere Brothers stage: the techniques of what we can do are being explored. Some say we're at the "Birth of a Nation" level, but I think that's a bit ahead.

    But yeah, comparing Metroid Prime to Citizen Kane is really freakin' daft.

  2. I'm not trying to say that games and game developers cannot even aspire to artistry, I'm merely pointing out that most games do not and need not.

    Also, using film as a measuring stick of where "games as art" has progressed is a huge problem. It encourages developers to merely imitate films (Modern Warfare 2's single player campaign and most of the recent Final Fantasy games attest to this) which doesn't really do much to advance games as a medium.

    Film didn't evolve on the same time-table as theater or poetry. Why would games mature in the same way as films?

  3. right, a few thoughts. I remember this article and not thinking much of it, because it lacked validity in my mind and was to long to bother reading about.
    heres my perspective on video games and art and movies and what not. this is a rant with no coherent point, just a bunch of random ideas im going to puke.
    and im not insecure about my beliefs in video games because i am a hardcore pro wrestling fan, which is basically the ass of the entertainment world.
    video games are art, and game makers are artists, of that i have no doubt in my mind. when you create something its art. no doubt.
    first let me talk about storytelling which is basically what this is all about.
    the fact that video games are telling stories at the level and depth and complexity that some games do, MIGHT be an advancement in game making that video games werent ready for. before video games were about retriving, escaping, or completing some task. which as you point out is all video games need to be sometimes. but the storytelling aspect was kind of thrown in there by an external source. As it would turn out, D&D players, like me, are also commonly computer geeks, and they wanted to make a computerized version of there campaigns. basically thats what akalabeth was. and thats what caused ultima. and thats what caused dragon warrior and final fantasy and on and on. basically that lit a fire under the video game industrys ass. basically there were two types of games. task oriented with minimal plot. and quest oriented with a heavier plot which almost always utilized stat based action, because it was all relying on D&D at its roots. this plot stuff eventually trickeled out into the task oriented games and eventually made everything quest oriented no matter how simple. a stupid yellow circle couldnt eat dots unless there was a purpose. so the progression of video games did not start as a natural progression but a random tumor.
    video games and movies have been and always will be deeply connected for one reason. they both are a series of moving pictures. to be simplistic a video game is an interactive movie. thats whay so much of video games is an adaptation of movies. i.e zombies. and telling a story does serve a purpose in video games. the task ends up meaning something to the player. its not about destroying all objects on screen, but preventing the next generation of nuclear weapons from destroying the world. in short Solid Snake means more to me then the four lines that represent you in Asteroids.
    the main thing i think that guy who wrote the article on ign was insecure about is the fact that the art community snubs video games wholly. and its offensive when people take a shit on the thing you love. (back to me being a wrestling fan)
    and the thing is the high art community sometimes needs to get a clue. Back in the day real artists were sculpturs not painters, real artists were poets not play wrigts... etc. so i can see why some people get so pissed off about it.
    in the end video games have grown so much in thirty years. i believe that this growth is slowing a lot, probably because of video game obsession with movies. but its art, its growing, and most importantly video games are derived by humans need to create. so thats pretty cool. but the ign article was a bit much. however in terms of how entertaining citizen kane was in movies, i'd say metroit prime ranks up there in video games... it was bad ass.

  4. The fuck? You're reading my blog?

    You make some cogent points. I never meant to state that games cannot or will never be art. That's not what I mean at all. Art denotes a certain sense of personal expression that games generally lack. What sort of unique insight or view of the world does one find in something like Gauntlet? Halo? New Super Mario Bros. Wii?

    Also, a few factual corrections:
    Storytelling in games could be most easily traced to text adventures that were being written even before Akalabeth (Adventure by Will Crowther was written in 1975). And while Ultima is definitely the source from which most Western developed RPGs take their cues, it is Wizardry that informs the Japanese RPGs you mentioned. Dragon Warrior wasn't just a response to Wizardry (Ultima hardly blipped on the Japanese cultural radar) but to games like Dragon Slayer and Tower of Druaga, themselves inspired by RPG concepts like item management and character/stat building, but quite far from what most people would think of as an RPG. In terms of interface, it really seems like Ultima would be more influential on JRPGs and Wizardry on the West, but in terms of design, it's just the opposite.

    Text adventures are a tricky subject that I'd rather not get into, since I have very little experience with them outside of a few MUDs that I used to play around with when I was younger. What that really means when it comes to what we're referring to -- I don't know. Ever play Astyanax for the NES? Loads of story in that game. Cutscenes in between every level. What do you even do with that?

    I also disagree that games have come especially far in thirty years. But that's whole other argument.

    Also, whether games are art or not, the point I was trying to get across in my response to Thomsen was that both the question "What is the Citizen Kane of Video Games" and the debate over their legitimacy is fruitless. You shouldn't try to compare something like Metroid Prime to Citizen Kane, just like I would never compare, say, the local pro-wrestling promotion to the local theater. I like pro-wrestling too (it's way more fun to watch live) but it isn't able to do in its very select, specialized atmosphere what can be done with a theater. And even though the theater shares some formal elements with pro-wrestling, theater will never be able to provide the sort of spectacle that pro-wrestling achieves.

    Liking one should not destroy your enjoyment of the other. But neither should you equate them.

  5. Can you compare Mass Effect to Star Wars. Can I say Mass Effect is the Star Wars of video games?

    text based adventures are really hard because techinically there lack of a legitiment video output makes it weird to call them a video game. They were mostly stritcly a PC/MAC thing and they always were a colt thing. I have played through Zork and am one of the only human beings aware of the games existance. But adventure still was that Tolkieny D&Dey high fantasy which still makes me believe that D&D was what caused the jumpstart.

    Insight on the world:
    Mario: Its fun to be a kid
    Halo: Halo=300 men like big men with big weapons... also considering halo's status as an xbox launch title is why i think that it was so popular because it is one of my least favorite shooters.

    And I may have used the games that were not techinically the first. Wizadry was still a D&D incarnation which was my real point. OF course Ultima wasn't the first it was just the coolest.

  6. You can say that Mass Effect is the Star Wars of video games, but what's the point? Are they even that similar aside from the space opera setting?

    I don't know that any Mario games really provide insight on anything. I think "It's fun to be a kid" is a meaning that people who enjoyed Mario games as children project onto the Mario series as a whole. And man, you make Halo sound extraordinarily gay :P

    Also, keep in mind that before they were called "video games" the generally accepted term was "computer games." Even discounting text adventures, there's visual adventures like Myst, Monkey Island, King's Quest, etc.

    But all this is just quibbleing. The point isn't really about storytelling, but about how fans of video games approach questions of taste and artistic legitimacy.

    I don't know if you've seen it, but let me ask you anyways: can the current format of WWE or TNA or NJPW or whatever Pro-Wrestling promotion you like ever hope to achieve the same level of artistry found in something like Citizen Kane? Does it actually matter to your appreciation and enjoyment of Pro Wrestling?