What “the Citizen Kane of Video Games” Really Means

N’Gai, Seth, and Stephen,

I’ve been asked some direct questions that demand answers. First up, from Stephen: Is BioShock better than Tetris?

I have two answers: Yes, and “does not compute.” Let’s take the second answer first.

Jesper Juul, in his book Half-Real, makes a useful distinction between two genres of games, “emergence” games and “progression” games. Emergence games, in Juul’s taxonomy, are those that humans have been playing from the beginning of time: Go, Monopoly, and yes, video games like Tetris. They are simple rulesets from which play emerges. (Hence the name.)

Progression games, on the other hand, combine elements of emergence games with narrative, however primitive. They are the truly new medium that video games present to us. Some day we’ll probably have a better word for them than “video games.” We may drop “game” from them altogether, once the medium grows up and throws off its backward-looking shackles. “Movies” were once called “photoplays,” remember, and early filmgoers had no way to understand film without comparing it to theater. (More on this later.)

Whether you like Juul’s names for these categories or not (I certainly find them wanting), I agree that he has identified two genres that aren’t comparable in very many useful ways. Tetris is a video game, sure, but it’s a lot more like pinball, or solitaire, or even Risk—all analog games that can be video games, too—than it is similar to a progression game like BioShock (or Super Mario Bros., for that matter).

Here’s another way to think about it. The editors of the New York Times Book Review didn’t sit around this year and bandy about whether, say, Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise is better than Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, even though both are books, just like both BioShock and Tetris (and Desktop Tower Defense) are games. Instead, they put them on separate “best of” lists, one for the genre of fiction and one for the genre of nonfiction.

So let it be with BioShock and Desktop Tower Defense. They can both be Game of the Year. At least until we come up with words for video-game genres that are the equivalent, in other media, of words like “novel” or “documentary” or “epic poem.” (As you wrote Stephen, “Video games are not a genre; they’re a medium.” Exactly my point!)

But to answer the BioShock vs. Tetris question forthrightly: If you’re asking me in a sort of barstool-like debate whether BioShock is better than Tetris—which is like asking me whether “Ozymandias” is better than The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—I think the answer is, Yes, BioShock is better than Tetris.

N’Gai asks the harder question: Why did I think BioShock was better than Portal, a game I earlier described as nearly perfect? There are lots of reasons to love Portal, too, after all. It’s short, and I wholeheartedly support the creation of more short “progression” games, and fewer self-indulgent 40-hour slogs that don’t ever improve upon the initial few hours of play. It’s funny, too, certainly the funniest game I’ve encountered, an uproarious black comedy. I laughed out loud repeatedly, and the moment I saw the graffito scrawled on a wall reading, “The cake is a lie …,” just might be the most memorable single instant of any game I played in 2007. Portal has, I think, the best script of any game I’ve ever played. (I realize I’m becoming the Peter Travers of this exchange, with all these superlatives—but I really feel this way.)

But I guess, in the end, like Seth, I wanted to reward BioShock’s ambition—even in its imperfect but still impressive execution—over Portal’s elegance. Maybe I’m exhibiting the same bias that leads the Academy to hesitate to award comedies the best picture Oscar. Or maybe I just felt that Portal—at least before its hilarious song during the credits—didn’t make me think about it very much while I wasn’t playing it, at least not as much as BioShock did. But I’m splitting hairs here. If you think Portal is the finest game of the year, I have no quarrel with you.

Yet Portal is Blow-approved, while BioShock isn’t, you protest. OK, fine. As much as I admired his talk, I don’t think Jonathan Blow is always right. For example, I think that Blow and others are wrong to suggest that Portal’s themes somehow emerge through its gameplay. Don’t get me wrong—the mechanics of the game are terrific, and the puzzles are excellently designed—but the fun of making portals and of solving the game’s puzzles is quite distinct from the fun of exploring the corridors of Aperture Laboratories, pondering the nature of Portal’s enigmatic female protagonist, and puzzling over the mysteries of GLaDOS, the computer that is pretty much HAL 9000 after sex reassignment surgery. Both the gameplay and the story are part of the game’s appeal, but neither one follows from the other.

And yes, that’s true of BioShock, too, as Clint Hocking points out in the Click Nothing critique I linked to in my first entry. All that means is that neither Portal nor BioShock is the medium’s Citizen Kane. Again, so be it. But with Portal and with BioShock, my faith that game designers will one day produce works of high art—and by high art, I mean works of art that rest comfortably in the canon of Western civilization—has been restored. (My faith was tested in 2006.)

Oops, I brought it up again: Citizen Kane. N’Gai, I think you misunderstand what this new cliché, the Ahab-like quest for the “Citizen Kane of video games” means. What it means is that, at the moment and for the worse, video games remain a backward-looking medium. They imitated novels for a while, with text adventures like Zork, and now they imitate movies (much of the time, at least.)

This is not something particular to video games—as Marshall McLuhan wrote, all new media are backward-looking. (I think bringing up McLuhan and Kane in a discussion of video games may be the game-critic equivalent of “crossing the streams” in Ghostbusters, so my apologies if the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man starts marauding through the streets of New York shortly after Slatepublishes this.)

Film imitated theater (hence the word “photoplay”). Television imitated radio, which had imitated vaudeville. Poetry imitated song. Only when each of these media emerged as the dominant medium of its respective era, with a confident work of art that did not mimic the conventions of old media but instead used the new medium in unique ways (in a dare I say it, Citizen Kane moment) did the other media begin, instead, to mimic it.

I don’t know how the elements of this new medium of video games will come together when we reach this moment. I don’t know if simulation and gameplay, as N’Gai suggests, will always rule, or if story and character will eventually be given their day. I do know that I agreed with N’Gai before I played BioShock, but now I’m far less certain. That’s why I thought it was 2007’s best game.

I have more to say, including some thoughts on Stephen’s celebration of the Wii’s lo-fi delights and a McLuhanesque moment of my own to reveal before this dialogue (quadralogue?) is over, but I’ve gone on long enough for now. Let me leave you with this:

Seth described BioShock and Mass Effect as “major steps forward” for video games. I think he’s right. But I also think the description, along with the relentless focus on innovation among both game designers and game critics, is an indication of dissatisfaction with the present state of the medium, an implicit declaration that video games really haven’t grown up yet. And we’re clamoring for them to reach old age with us.

Am I wrong?