Citizen Kanes of Gaming. Multitudes of Kanes.

One begins to wonder whether the people who write these articles have even seen the film. Or have at least considered its implications beyond “Great movie I saw in 11th grade English Lit class with a famous twist.” Under a contemporary lens, Kane loses the luster this year’s GOTY reviews shine upon it and becomes more a display of a willingness to shatter accepted boundaries of the media in which it was created.

Video games and film belong to different modes of expression that share basic storytelling and composition tools, each with their own modes of conveying emotions and cultural values through audience observation of player expression through the medium of a virtual avatar. “Citizen Kane of Gaming” need not be applied to any game in particular, but System Shock 2 provides a strong case for possessing such a title, except that it’s still enjoyable to play. Tropes that mark both of the genre that SS2 helped propel (FPSes and FPS/RPG Hybrids) mar SS2 in magnified form. Expansive, yet unrefined skill “trees” pigeonhole specific builds set at the beginning of the game, a spell system that varies dramatically in usefulness (some psionics are fantastic while others are rendered completely useless compared to just carefully shooting/whacking targets with melee hit detection that doesn’t match up with where you aimed, not to mention that the interface used for switching between psionics reeks of the mold of a bygone era; see here: further reduces player choice outside the realm of challenge runs, lots and lots and lots of running back and forth diffuse the tension precipitated by a malevolent artificial intelligence and replace it with an atmosphere of tedium. Beneath those fertile and unformed subsystems, SS2 offers a fractured, steel-and-flesh environment that suggests an inevitable convergence of the constructed and the organic, and a subsequent loss of individuality that drives most of the game’s horror. The Von Braun’s flickering corridors and their interconnectivity within a grotesque yet sacred sanctum of creation, along with a pulsing mid-90s neo noir techno soundtrack, allow SS2 to instill a malaise of dread that retains its power today and can unhinge even the most well-guarded minds with successive playthroughs to this day. But System Shock 2 is not remembered for executing its gameplay dynamics so much as it is remembered for experimenting with them.

The same could be said for The Legend of Zelda. Or Metroid. Or Wolf3D. Or Half-Life. Or any number of countless other respected progenitors and innovators in their respective game genre. Here is where terms like “Citizen Kane of Gaming” are exposed as vapid echoes reverberated throughout the fledgling gaming journalism industry in the name of cheap and easy critique. In turn, ignorance on the part of most mainstream reviewers becomes painfully apparent when they don’t realize that a movie or other work of art has dimensions, rather than one defining meta-dimension that is a neat package of attributes to be flung at anything you believe deserves praise. Perhaps the phrase is just another growing pain of an adolescent field of criticism, an elementary grasp at proving video games as an artform worth the notice of upturned-nosed old critics? If every video game must parallel a film, then Trio the Punch is the Birdemic of video games. Or Earthworm Jim 2, if only for the fact that it’s intended to break your mind. Or PuLiRuLa. Or Cho Aniki. Or-

Forget it. Sometimes, you just can’t win.


With exceptions, of course.


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