Apparently, some time ago, Michael Thomsen told ABC News and those Americans who were watching that the videogame medium’s Citizen Kane was the Metroid Prime trilogy. The rest of the game playing world sucked a sharp breath through their teeth and hissed out a turgid, “Huh?” A few articles have been written about how and why that’s an entirely ridiculous statement, which I’m not really going to go into. Those that’ve played the Prime trilogy, which is a great goddamn trilogy, already understand why calling those games “Citizen Kane” is, well, stupid. For that matter, any claim to a “Citizen Game,” is pointless, but if this is the terminology the land what birthed American Idol and The Kardashians is going to use, then I’ll stuff my gob full of chaw and play along, y’all.
I read the Destructoid article by Anthony Burch, who rips apart Thomsen’s claim bit by bit, while furious anger drips from bared fangs. He asks the question, “Why not talk about the mechanical metaphors at work in Braid, or the murder mechanics of Shadow of the Colossus, or a thousand other games that actually attempt to explore the aesthetic power of interactivity?”
I believe that while Braid and Shadow of the Colossus are both incredibly powerful works that drew out my raw emotions, they’re still cribbing from other fields. I think Braid, in no way, shape, or form, pushes forward storytelling through interactivity. The end sequence is incredible, and deftly uses the rewind mechanic (yet again!) to make you play a game differently, but the story and themes of Braid read out like a novel. Literally. You spend a good portion of that game reading text, and deciphering greater meanings through them. The game may be about the Atomic Bomb, but I wouldn’t have figured that out without immediately looking it up on GameFAQs after I beat the game. Braid pushes interactivity forward as far as gameplay goes, and it’s certainly beautiful to look at, but it does almost nothing for storytelling through interactivity. The ending of Braid may have haunted me for a good couple days, but I’m a videogame enthusiast who shed a tear at the ending of Mario 64, for crying out loud. I’m looking for legitimacy. Those that look for the leap forward find it, but when my roommate finished Braid, he went, “how ’bout that,” put down the remote, and turned on Scrubs. It did nothing for him.
Shadow of the Colossus takes many of its cues from movies. Sure, you and Agro get to joyride through the wasteland and it’s you in control as you climb hand over hand to reach the weak points of the Colossi, but as soon as the killing blow lands, a cut scene takes over while the sad music plays. The much vaunted-about sadness of killing the Colossi, and this is in no way taking away from a game which I love so completely, is spoon fed to you by the cut scenes. I think Shadow has one of the more emotionally powerful endings in a game, but again, it’s almost entirely a cut scene. Yes, you do get to experience what it’s like to be Dormin, essentially realize how helpless those Colossi were all along, and it’s incredibly heartbreaking when Wander is pulled into the vortex while you’re in control. I held on to the rim of that pool for a long, long time, while waves of sadness and pity washed over me. But I’d argue that the context of those brief interactive moments are all set up by non-interactive cut scenes, which is not unique to games. It’s like if you watched Goodfellas, and suddenly get to direct Joe Pesci right before he gets whacked in the house. Spoiler alert. The moments before and after, you’re a passive watcher. I feel that brief snippets of interactivity, while unique to videogames, are not enough.
To pick on Anthony Burch’s article one last time (sorry!), I can’t for the life of me think of the thousand of other games that attempt to explore the aesthetic power of interactivity. I’m a life-long gamer, and I’m even attempting to make my own games now, but I have to admit…games are by and large the exact same things, time and time again. Especially now, when what feels like the most control we have is when you choose the camera angle in a cut scene, a’la Snake Eater. Games are increasingly in love with their stories, but they can’t seem to figure out how to present them in a way that’s unique to the medium. Perhaps, lately, the biggest step forward was Bioshock, with the in-game sequences and positively dripping-with-malice atmosphere, but the Little Sisters and the non-interactive ending take you out of the moment and pretty much work against the larger theme of the game.
Going back to Thomsen and his statement that Metroid Prime is our Citizen Kane, I say this: he chose the wrong Metroid. Prime puts you in Samus’ shoes, and has one of the few in-game worlds that I felt was truly complete (GTAIV, in my opinion, is the only game that’s come close to presenting such a complete vision for a world since), but water down the visor happens in real life and there’s cut-scene after cut-scene after cut-scene. In short: nothing that a walk in the rain or a movie hasn’t done for us already.
I say, then, let’s look back to Super Metroid, a game where from almost the first moment to the last, you are in complete control of your character. Every second, you are Samus. Super Metroid got many things right, but above all it had atmosphere and tone. You felt like a lone woman on a hostile planet, and eventually you no longer saw Samus for herself- but as yourself. If I recall- aside from the opening story set-up, the bridge between the space station and Zebes, and the mission complete at the end- there are few moments were control is taken from you, and even then you’ve lost control the situation, not of the character. These moments are terrifying.
There’s two moments in the game that have been mentioned so many times before, that I’m sure you know them before you read it. When the Giant Metroid latches on to your body, sucking the life straight out of you, I lost my shit. In pure panic mode, I tried everything I could to get it off of me. I ran back and forth, although slowed down from the weight of the monster, searching for some environmental object that would help, like maybe a burst pipe or exposed electricity. I tried to morph into a ball to bomb it off, a tactic that worked so many times before, but was now worthless. I felt utterly helpless, though I was still in control the entire time. When the Metroid detached itself, I was as confused and relieved as Samus would have been. In that moment, I was Samus.
The other moment, of course, is when Mother Brain pounds you with her laser eye. When you’re hit by it, slammed to the wall, and decimated by its power, you feel like you’ve done something wrong, like somehow you mistimed a jump. But the beam stops and you’re not dead, so the next time it comes, you’ll be ready for it, right? Not quite. Samus falls to her knees, exhausted, while Mother Brain charges up another shot. I don’t think I’ve ever hammered buttons harder in my life. It’s a desperate moment, fueled by panic and a glimmer of hope, because as you pound the buttons faster, Samus almost gets back up. I felt like if I could just do it fast enough, I could survive, but that damn Brain’s charging up too fast, and she’s almost ready, and I’m gonna die, and- the Giant Metroid saves your life. It then powers you back up, hyper-beam in tow, your terror turns to a goddamn great and joyous anger. Again, you know what it’s like to be Samus, strictly because you were never once separated from control.
Everybody, every last person who’s played Super Metroid to completion, remembers damn well what it was like to experience those two moments. Even my roommate, who practically tossed Braid to the side as soon as it was over, grows animated and curses at how much a bitch Mother Brain was. It sticks in the craw, because we were in control for its entirety, and can recall how desperate we felt. How helpless. Super Metroid was a masterstroke of interactivity, an experience that is truly unique only to videogames.
I think our approach to what is the “Citizen Game” is horribly flawed. We try to base it on artistic merits, and feel like aesthetics are what will win the day. Games like Braid, Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, and Okami are the modern oases we go back to time and again; maybe because they can be shown to a regular, non game playing joe, and the graphics will wow them. And while each of those games are fantastic for different reasons, they won’t validate our medium to the masses. No game will, not on looks alone. All the eerie chanting and great graphics won’t change the fact Halo is much, much less than the sum of its parts. We have to look to interactivity, when we were the most into our game and identified with the player-character, when we knew we were not passively experiencing, but playing greatness. That would be our “Citizen Game,” to throw the term back at those who wield it, and I think we’ve already played it.
There’s a reason Super Metroid is almost always number one on the Best of All Time lists.
As an update to this article, which I wrote months ago, I’m glad to see the rest of you, as Slate’s Year End Gaming Club (doot-doo-doo!) indicates, are finally catching on to “interactivity” uber alles.
…I kid. I love you, Leigh!