It has come to my attention that when I put up these forwarded posts, people come look at them! So here’s another one.

Citizen Kane - Opera House

I’ve a compilation of opinions this time. A dominoed trail of disagreement leading through the mouths of Roger Ebert, Jim Preston and E. Daniel Arey. Each of course followed by my charming additions <3. And finally, I end our tour d’text with a look at Arey’s comparison between Ico and Citizen Kane.


Critiquing the film adaptation of the popular video game Hitman, Ebert states:

. . . video games will never become an art form — never, at least, until they morph into something else or more.

Like what, I wonder. Maybe until they morph into movies or become something like a swiss army knife. Nothing smears your misteps like a good old contradiction, friend: never and until being the operative words. In a stroke of literary genius, Ebert contrasts the wanting state of games against his own mastery of propaganda; the delicate power to write a word while only conveying the vaguest semblance of an idea (and without a shred of evidence!).

Needless to say, the review caught some attention among the gamed (gām·ĭd) and it was time for Jim Preston to say his piece.


Gamasutra published Jim Preston‘s article in February, on games and The Arty Party, in which he expressed his belief that the art world was so disunited that game developers should not concern themselves with game-art haters the likes of Ebert:

Most gamers think of their plight this way: there’s this really great club downtown called the Arty Party and all the cool people are in it. George Clooney is getting drunk with Oscar Wilde; Chopin is playing foosball with Allen Ginsberg; and Picasso is hitting on Emily Dickinson — it’s the best.

Meanwhile, we gamers are out here on the sidewalk in the rain with the comic book guys and the graffiti sprayers and we can’t get in because that cranky bastard Ebert won’t let us through the door. Ebert, and others like him, man the door and glower at us, not letting us in to this one big party.

The problem with this picture is that it isn’t even remotely close to reflecting the state of art in 21st century America.

Preston inspired a barrage of responses; among them, my own:

Regardless of whether or not you believe games are art, there is a pragmatic reason to label them so.

The popular view is that games are “for fun” and therefore they somehow “don’t count.” It doesn’t matter what game is, they’re played to kill time and be forgotten and created for nothing but a profit.

Art on the other hand is a serious matter and in that respect intimidating. It must be studied; it is a discipline. It requires philosophy and education.

I don’t care whether someone agrees that games are art, but I do care if they limit games to “fun” (a meaningless term as it is). By saying games are not art, you discourage their study and limit their progress.

There’s nothing to be lost by admitting games as an artistic medium. Not for “artists” and not for game developers. Can we stop being such scaredy cats about it?

To this Jim Preston replied, making an excellent point:

Agreed. There’s another pragmatic reason to label them so: the political benefits that come with such legitimacy. You don’t see politicians trying to pass obesity taxes on films, or trying to enable stronger labeling laws on books, and that is because both of those mediums are fully accepted as art forms even if the vast majority of actual films and books fall far short of that ideal.

And these legalities are of particular importance to a medium as business driven as games tend to be.


Of recent note is the opinion of E. Danial Arey, also published on Gamasutra, The Art of Games. Arey disputes Preston:

I took strong issue with Mr. Preston’s analogy that we are on the outside looking in (along with comic books) to a so-called “Arty Party.”

. . .

Games, and art, and the market success we all seek do not have to be mutually exclusive. Can anyone argue that the rock band U2 isn’t an amalgam of bold artistic expression and mass market success? U2 has always pushed the limits of their messages in music, reinventing themselves, redefining their sound and relevance.

. . .

I am here to say that we just might have hit at least a small part of that higher watermark. The game Ico is a work of art and still proudly placed on many top game lists as one of the best and emotionally vibrant games to be released in the last decade. (In fact, it just won out as Gamasutra’s best love story in games.)

This is a particularly good article and I suggest you read it in full. Then read my comment:

Many of these discussions of games as art, whether for or against, try to differentiate between the “art” of other mediums and the “everything else.”

By calling some “art” and others “other,” we’re falling into the same pattern of pretentious and arbitrary judgment as the snobs such as Ebert, who attempt, in their ignorance, to muddy the role of games in the world of communicative expression.

No one ever said art was good, let’s get that out in the open. There is art. Some of it you like, some of it you dislike, most of it you have mixed feelings about. Donatello, Kinkade, Orson Welles, John Waters, Ansel Adams, Hugh Hefner; all of it is art, accept that, then judge it as you may.

The only thing silly about discussing whether or not games “count” in the art world is that there is no reason to say they don’t. They ARE art. If Ebert thinks they are bad art, he can say so, but claiming that they are not art only demonstrates his ineptitude. An ineptitude that has tormented the psyches of too many in the game community. A torment that evidences a sad insecurity among us. An insecurity shared by the innovators of all great art forms.

Time will rot Ebert and his words like every other forgotten critic and games will have won their inevitable victory. When Ebert has joined the ranks of the silent film stars and century old politicians and businessmen as an obscure man that once prized a shred of relevance among the American upper-middle class, as a memory for cinema specialists and no one else, games will still be cherished the world over.

The pre-gaming generations know their sun has set and immutable as time itself, the world will soon be ours. Obsolescence is punishing.

Writing this up, I only criticized the delineation between “art stuff” and “non-art stuff,” commonly “art” and “entertainment.” Now, however, I would like to redirect focus to Arey’s mention of Ico in regards to Neil Young‘s question, “Have we in games reached our Citizen Kane moment?”:

Everywhere I go I hear Ico being referenced in game development forums and at conferences in one way or another – for its animation, for its sense of mystery, for its emotional content, and for fostering a deep connection and concern for an inanimate character. And yet despite all this praise, it was a commercial failure.

It reminds me of another business failure in its time…yes, that’s right, Citizen Kane. A movie that, like Ico, failed to hit big at first release, yet also like Ico continued to influence people long after the fact. Both Ico and Kane carried strong and artistic emotional imagery and symbolism.

Both had a narrative mystery that was never fully explained. And both, through artistic framing, shot angle, and set design, used the backgrounds as a character in the story. And in the end, I believe both have and will continue to have a strong influence on their respective mediums to come.

I agree with Arey, but he’s made some dangerous implications. Ico is a wonderful game with much to be appreciated, as is Citizen Kane a film. And while I find it ridiculous to call Citizen Kane art and Ico anything else, I do place them on very different levels of maturity.

Study of films like Citizen Kane is unfortunately lacking in game developers as a whole and I believe their comments on such films tend to be symptomatically insecure, general praises reliant on assumptions of the film’s popular acceptance as “greatly artistic.” Not that we should demand developers go to film school or ignore the opinions of anyone without a Netflix account. Still, it seems worth noting that I have never read a developer’s commentary on a work of art that demonstrated his own personal convictions or dared to extract that fearsome substance, “meaning,” from the ethereal world of art. Far more often are these opinions concerned with a work’s ambiguous power to “move an audience.”

I admit to selecting an advantageous playground; I am a film student (degree holding come May) and Citizen Kane is a film I’ve studied many times over. With a combination of lecture regurgitation and my own ideas here and there, I’m sure I could fake a DVD commentary (at least well enough to fool the general audience). I’m sure Arey would have no trouble doing the same, as an adjunct professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and an experienced member of the entertainment community. I don’t wish to call his artistic judgment into question here, but to refute his implied equivalency between Ico and Citizen Kane.

Citizen Kane - ReportersCitizen Kane - Family Portrait

Ico is not nearly the ripe artistic fruit that is Citizen Kane. I challenge anyone to find a shot in that film without specific design, meaning, importance. The entire film, from head to toe is purposeful, calculated, and simultaneously unyielding in passionate expression. There is not a frame in Citizen Kane that does not demonstrate a mastery of the medium. That is why Citizen Kane is at the top of so many lists. It has nothing to do with its innovations, many as they were, or its ambiguities, debatable as they are. Citizen Kane is great because it is undeniably relevent. Ico on the other hand, for all of its qualities is full of dead time, redundancy, and puzzles meant to temporarily quiz the player, kill some time as games do, instead of communicating anything or participating in themes.

Citizen Kane - Snow Globe

There is much to love in Ico, but it only scratches the surface of game potential. It is a tech demo of the emotional power of our new medium, the equivalent of a hundred tonally charged polygons bouncing around at 60 frames per second. Except it also reminds us that such effect suffers no dependence on computing power. It is inhibited by a much greater challenge; the limitations of our imaginations, our power to lay our minds out for all to play. Its our inhibitions that hold games back from achieving the mysterious universality and indescribable reality that older art forms have already proven.

To inspire that sudden and overwhelming epiphany of bubbling relevance. That is where games as yet have failed.

-Christopher J. Rock

About the author:
Christopher J. Rock (http://)
Film student at California State, Long Beach. I want to make the gaming world a better place.