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.