In the aftermath of the Mass Effect 3 backlash, there were a number of little independent websites that popped up hoping to address the seeming (total!) lack of integrity on the part of The Big Players. One of the places that I fell in love with was a little site called “Gather Your Party“. I like them. They have heart. (That’s my recommendation for you video game fans out there, this week.)

They recently published a nice piece by Aleksander Adamkiewicz called “The Search for the ‘Citizen Kane’ of Video Games” and that post got me thinkin’.

I’ll give his opening and run from there:

Citizen Kane is often perceived as one of the landmark achievements of cinema, pioneering cinematographic styles and applying visual storytelling techniques as a form of narrative.

So the question comes: what would video games need to do in order to have their own Citizen Kane?

Aleksander talks about Half-Life and Metal Gear Solid 2 and, sure, these are games that are excellent examples of providing cinematics via cut scenes and in-game dialog as well as deeply immersive visual storytelling techniques. Absolutely.

There is, however, something that video games can provide that, it seems to me, Half-Life and MGS2 failed to deliver: the ability to make meaningful choices.

That’s the number one thing that video games can offer that 99.44% of movies (or books, for that matter) cannot is the ability for you, the player, to make your character do something. Aleksander talks about interactivity. Something that can be as silly as go up or down in Pong or deciding whether to go down the pipe in World 1-1… but there are video games out there that allow you to make choices. Telltale Games came out with The Walking Dead which gave players the illusion of making meaningful choices (a second playthrough reveals exactly how little the choices you make have on what happens but, my goodness, how much difference they have on how you *FEEL* about what happens). Bioware did a lot of good stuff (up until Dragon Age 2/Mass Effect 3, anyway) when it came to offering choices to the player as well. I’d say that the best choices were given by Interplay and are now in the hands of the inheritors of their mantle: Bethesda.

So when it comes to what the Citizen Kane of video games would have to do, it’d have to provide cinematics that would not be out of place on a silver screen. It’d have to have a storyline that would make you lean forward during and leave you with enough to chew on after you’re done. On top of that, it’d have to offer you, the player, choices that make you say “I know exactly what my character would do in this situation” (and offer that choice or one very, very close to it) *OR* make you say “I want to do more than one of these and I am torn between the choices on hand” (and, from time to time, and so long as it’s not the last choice given you in the game (LOOKING AT YOU, MASS EFFECT 3!), “I don’t like any of these choices and yet I know I must choose one of them”).

And I go through my databanks and think about the games that have provided a breathtaking visual experience, a storyline good enough to make me try to explain it to someone else (sorry, Maribou), and offering me the kind of choices that made me want to know what might have been otherwise?

I’m thinking Fallout: New Vegas… and struck by how paltry that measures up to the absolutely amazing Citizen Kane. (Don’t get me wrong: New Vegas is an *AMAZING* game… it’s just that video games themselves are still very much in the “for a video game” exception for so many of their traits: it’s a good story, for a video game. It’s got good characters, for a video game. And so on.) With that said, I think that we’re finally getting the hang of this sort of thing.

We’ll have a gesamtkunstwerk soon.


Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to


  1. The Baldur’s Gate series. In terms of meaningful choice in games, that game is one of the best I’ve ever played.

    • I went back to replay it and I just find myself dying in the same place, over and over again. It’s when you first get to the new town and the assassin is there waiting for you. He casts fear, which usually makes me run away, and then he casts magic missile, which kills me.

      Every time.

      After the 20th time I died, I realized that I didn’t really want to play anymore.

        • Baldur’s Gate has been one of the few games that I’ve thought were fairly brutal throughout if one did not think about skill and attribute allocation.

          • Which is why it was so fun. I’m really tempted to download the enhanced edition.

          • Well, maybe it’s because I’m playing as a Monk. When I played NWN, it was possible to play as a Monk and *NOT* die three minutes into the game. I should probably be a… oh… fighter.

          • Are Xar and Monteron in your party? Let Monty take the lead. You can do that by shifting his character portrait to the top.

          • Get those guys on your party. Let them take the brunt of the attack from the assasin. When they die, don’t resurrect them. Just eject them from your party. There is a button that does this without having to set up a conversation. Its especially useful in getting rid of dead people you don’t like.

          • They are dying to keep you alive. It is a final moment of redemption for their evil acts in the past.

          • Fine, you can resurrect them afterwards and then get rid of them if your conscience bothers you so much. They will turn on you once your reputation gets too high anyway.

        • Early Rolemaster is worse. Not the least of which is because you’re a teenager… getting in a barfight with a normalish 40 year old guy is likely to get you pasted.

          • Minor Nasal repair is a spell in Rolemaster.

            Which tells you everything you need to know about Rolemaster.

            (Still fun though!).

          • … which spell list is that?
            I’m getting (without getting out the books) that Nasal Repair is in Organ Law (which is “healing for dummies” — aka finding a channeler who doesn’t have any class-based healing spells — @ Level 3, or a Healer class spell (yes, you can learn those spells if you aren’t a Healer, you just need the book. hahaha) @ Level 1)

            What did you expect for a level one spell, anyway?

          • That’s the point. 🙂 There’s a spell not for healing “generic damage” but for “minor damage to the noise”.

            Which implies the system will occasionally cause your character nose-specific damage.

            I always loved the crit and failure tables. 🙂 One reason I love playing Wildmage was cobbling together Wildsurge tables off of those things.

      • You have to play around with the AI of your party and exploit the turn based system. Make the guy waste his spell on one of your party members. Then kick the mage’s ass. After that just hit and run.

  2. I think that having silver-screen quality cinematics and numerous meaningful choices with actual consequences is very unlikely due to budget reasons. Cinematics are expensive. More choices mean more cinematics. Also, their is a reluctance to produces expensive content like cinematics that will not be seen by everyone. The end result is that the games tend to funnel the player to the same places so they will see the same content. This makes it difficult to have choices that actually matter.

    On top of that, many players are completionists who hate having content they cannot access due to exclusive choices. Big budget games, which are the ones that can afford expensive cinematics, have to appeal to as many people as possible, which includes the completionists.

    • Cinematics are expensive

      This is becoming (rapidly) a diminishing problem, though. Right now, you can rent compute power that enables you to reproduce the compute power that Pixar had when they rendered Cars for not a hell of a lot.

      The two limiters for cinematics are the availability of the physics engine and compute power to do the rendering. I’m thinking #1 is going to be a problem longer than #2.

      On top of that, many players are completionists who hate having content they cannot access due to exclusive choices.

      This is a valid point, to a degree, but there’s a population selection issue there. Completionists have arisen as a gamer cadre because there *are* a finite number of choices you can make in most games, and the vast majority of games allow non-exclusive choice trees. Gamers are OCD, they tend to fill completion spaces that are available.

      If your game really doesn’t have decision trees, but it has decision maps instead, I think you’ll see the same population of gamers who are completionists become… something else.

      • … Decision Maps? I’m not understanding this concept. please enlighten.

        • You write a decision tree like the main quest in Morrowind (and probably the other Bethesda games that I haven’t had time to play). To do this, you must first do that, or this, or that other. If you choose that, you then do that plus, if you choose this, you then need to do this plus, etc… but eventually you get to a summary node and then you go back to branching again.

          The way the houses interact in Morrowind is what RR is talking about with completionists: if you choose to be a member of the fighters’ guild, and the thieves’ guild, and the mages’ guild, you have to do things in a very particular order to be able to advance or you lock out the other guilds (usually by killing somebody off at the request of someone in one guild that you need to interact with in order to progress in some other guild).

          Decision maps aren’t about nodes, like that. You have a goal, but it’s not tied to interacting with something that can be eliminated from the game (well, unless you go psycho and just depopulate the planet). The quests are designed to make it difficult to interact with multiple guilds, because the multiple guilds have conflicting interests, but the goal to progress in one guild is dependent upon more general conditions.

          So you might have to eliminate somebody in the mages’ guild in order to prove your worth to a corrupt person in the fighters’ guild, but you can also work around that by framing the corrupt person, or getting them to attack you so that *they* get ejected from the fighters’ guild and you can advance to your next mentor without cutting off the branch from the tree, that sort of thing.

          I’m not explaining it very well (I should be asleep already)

          • Oh, okay. “Multiple paths to the answer” is always a good strategy.

  3. This is totally unrelated, but I think this post title may be only the second time I have ever seen that word used:

    (It’s Detroit techno/electro, as a warning to those who feel Monday AM is not the best timeframe to experience such a thing).

    (Or maybe they feel there is never a best time to experience such a thing).

    (But they would be wrong, robots need love too.)

  4. What would video games need to do in order to have their own Citizen Kane?

    Pretty simple, really. Orson Welles. The video game industry looks more like the music business than the film business. Until some genius director appears, to do for games what Orson Welles did for film, y’all are stuck.

    • Meh. We’ve had geniuses.
      Tom Hall, for one.
      Karmack does good work, and don’t you say otherwise (his games suck, however, he lacks a good understanding of what’s truly scary).
      Thief/System Shock had fantastic design (says something when 10 years later, you can “unlock” enough to let it run free on modern hardware).
      Brian Reynolds deserves a mention too (and he’s such a good guy, Jay won’t even know what game I’m talking about!)

    • I am not really concerned with video games ever having a Citizen Kane. They are not movies. Unlike movies, they are interactive. Movies rely on a narrative created by the writer. Games rely on the input of the person playing the game. Some games do have a fixed narrative, where the player moves from Point A to B to C, without much control over how they get there.
      Other games offer freedom, and the narrative is created solely by the players actions, against whatever framework of rules is provided. These are games like Dwarf Fortress, Crusader Kings, Minecraft, etc. There are other games with different levels of freedom in between, including games that give only an illusion of choice, presenting options where the outcome is the same regardless (Bioware games are often guilty of this).
      Games with full freedom do not lend themselves to being Citizen Kane, but they more fully explore what makes video games unique. I would prefer video games that try to be great video games over those that try to be great movies. This does not mean a game that is on-rails cannot be a great game, for genres like platformers, it works well. Psychonauts is a great example of that. This game lacks even the illusion of choice, but it is still more game than movie.

      • I’m not implying the Breakthrough Video Game will be a film. But that BVG won’t be a “game”, either, any more than Citizen Kane was akin to anything which came before it. Look at us, still using the word “film” and “movie”, words out of a bygone age — and so is most of the thinking which guides that benighted industry.

        Here’s the point I’m making: clearly the video “game” industry is getting locked into its own successful models. It’s an enormous market but it’s not as diverse as the possibilities. I do AI for a living: the best (or at least best-paid) AI designers are working in the video game industry.

        Even in the “real” world, choice is an illusion. Free will is an interesting conceit but it’s guided by other factors. Turns out we’ve made our decisions at least several seconds before we perceive our decision-making process to have terminated. Most of that lag is delaying the decision to act on that choice, the forebrain weighing potential outcomes, the noise of the brain’s equivalent of the RETE Algorithm settling down.

        Now I’m not saying the brain runs on RETE-fied strategies. I seldom use a full RETE. I want to control evaluation order. If there’s to be a Big Breakthrough, it will be when video game AI gets outside of the characters and into the landscape.

        The Big Breakthrough won’t look any more like a video game you’ve ever played, any more than Citizen Kane looked like Birth of a Nation.

        • *eyebrow*
          clearly the video “game” industry is getting locked into its own successful models.
          … with casual games being the biggest growth portion of the industry?

          • According to the Xbox One, the future of video games is Call of Duty: Creepier Graphics edition and Interactive TV.

          • Voice-Activated Angry Birds while you’re watching Netflix in the screen within a screen in the upper right, with instagram in the screen within a screen in the lower right.

          • Your recursion upon the word “game” exposes the heart of the problem. The BVG is not going to be a game in the standard sense any more than CK was a standard film.

            The video game has made enormous strides forward. Plenty of imaginative people have set their minds to the task of building better games. I return to my original point: CK was a triumph because Orson Welles was at the height of his game. Welles involved the right people, people like Mankiewicz at the typewriter and Gregg Toland behind the camera. But mostly, CK’s greatness arose from its originality, greater than the sum of its parts. And all those important parts were human, folks. The BVG will need a director with just such a visionary genius — combined with the freedom to make that game and the requisite talent to give life to that vision.

          • Portal was a pretty awesome game. So was Braid.

            But like any form of art, you can’t compare it to another form easily — or often at all. Movies are not paintings — no matter how excellent the cinematography, they’re not going to be as good as a great painting.

            They’re different things. Photographs are not movies are not paintings are not music.

            Video games have their own, unique, form of art and storytelling. Same as movies are different than literature.

        • The Big Breakthrough won’t look any more like a video game you’ve ever played, any more than Citizen Kane looked like Birth of a Nation.

          This is a big insight. There are places, corners, where you can see the toolkit provided by, say, Birth of a Nation in modern movies… the cabin scene, with the arms reaching in through the cracks, has been used in a half-dozen zombie flicks… but those tricks aren’t used in highbrow movies, though. Just the lowbrow ones.

          • The film industry emerged from stagecraft. The old tricks and techniques of the theatre were translated into the early film industry to good effect and they’ve lost none of their impact over time. They still work, almost too well. Perhaps that’s why, as you say, you don’t see them in the highbrow films.

  5. You’re looking at it backwards; video games won’t ever do what the best films could do, but films may well cease to be anything beyond video games. Probably sometimes around Avengers 12 or the fifth reboot of Spiderman.

    • I disagree with this. I think video games can quite possibly do more than the best film can do.

  6. One thing that film has that video games don’t have is that you can’t enjoy video games collectively. I mean, you can get 200 people together, sit them down, and have them all watch a movie together. Gasp as a group, laugh as a group, get really quiet as a group, applaud as a group. Afterwards, you can go out in groups to Denny’s, order a pot of coffee, then argue for a few hours.

    It is not particularly feasible to do this with video games.

    • says someone who’s never played on a minecraft server.
      … or a Mud, or half a dozen other communal games.

    • Additionally, there’s the “Mom” problem.

      I could sit down with Mom and watch Citizen Kane. I don’t know that Mom could get to level 3 in Portal (to pick a recent awesome game).

      Movies are accessible to an absolutely insane level.

      • Really? Your Mom enjoys ALL movies?

        Mine doesn’t. Neither do I. So why should games be different?

        My mom would hate Archer or the League, but loves Arrested Development. I like all three. She loves Angry Birds and half a dozen other games, but wouldn’t play an FPS. (She does love her some Beatles Rock Band).

        • I’m not talking about enjoyment, necessarily. I’m talking about the ability to appreciate.

          Even if Mom didn’t particularly enjoy mafia movies, it’d be fairly easy to get her to sit through The Godfather because, of course, it’d only require 3 hours of her time. She could gut her way through it and say what she thought about it at the end.

          And it’d be equally possible for her to watch a Romantic Comedy, a Zombie Movie, a Historically Accurate War Movie, or a Summer Superhero Blockbuster.

          • and your mom would play a casual game in the same amount of time. Meh. Am unsurprised.

            Also, your mom would play School Days, and have something to say at the end. Might want to play another path. Might fall asleep in the middle. It’s hard to find a game that continues to play if you aren’t pressing buttons.

          • But, and here’s the point, she couldn’t play Portal. She probably couldn’t play Braid. There are literally millions of games that she couldn’t play.

            When it comes to movies that she couldn’t watch? There are, relatively, far far fewer.

          • If your mom was blind she couldn’t.

            I mean, that’s where this is going. Video games are “inaccessible” to “some demographic”.

            So’s golf, football, and the like. My dad can WATCH football, but not play it. Is football somehow not as much of a sport as golf, which he can both watch and play?

          • Yes, but she’s not. I stand by my statement: Movies are accessible to an absolutely insane level.

          • Jay,
            unless you have subtitles. or a foreign language film.

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