1941 film Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles at the age of 26, is widely used as a shorthand benchmark for the video game world’s quest for an indisputable masterpiece. That this film should be a reference point for true meaning and emotional resonance is ironically appropriate for this industry, because Kane is as emotionally stunted as any big budget game. Its opening scenes hinge upon setting up a contrived mystery: one single word, “Rosebud,” will explain the otherwise totally impenetrable character of Charles Foster Kane.
In a series of conversations and flashbacks aimed at finding this magical latchkey, we learn a lot of concrete detail about the life of Kane. We are also directly given Kane’s basic psychology, as his wife simply yells at him his real problem, paraphrased, “you want everyone to love you, but you can’t love anyone back.” So there we go.
Citizen Kane is just the sort of film you would expect a shallow person to put on the pedestal of art. It is completely straightforward; everything that appears to happen does happen. It has nothing non-clichéd to say about the human condition. Every character is wooden, static, overplayed. A credulous viewer mistakes the grandness of its presentation– those long sweeping takes, the marvelous deep focus, the dark and the light perfectly balanced in every shot, those big symphonic crashes– for the grandness of its purpose.
What is its purpose? Film historians like to talk about how Kane was a technical landmark– how it advanced the medium in the way that it synthesized several important techniques that had been pioneered earlier on their own into a coherent whole. To be fair, it does that remarkably well. The film looks terrific.
But all of that new technology is combined in unprecedented harmony to tell us… what? The flashbacks build and build over the course of two hours, culminating to reveal that Charles Foster Kane, the newspaper magnate, the fine art collector, the megalomaniac, the inveterate asshole– he was actually sad this whole time! Isn’t that a shock! His whole life, he was really still that little boy, quivering inside a mask of adulthood and aggression and obscene wealth, a feeble, pathetic soul all along.
That’s the dime-store epiphany awaiting us at the end, the epic conclusion that comes with the giant mustering of the studio orchestra and its maudlin strings, that long lingering shot of the smoke rising into the air.
What a bore.
The problem with today’s big-budget video games is not that they aren’t Citizen Kane– it’s that they are too much like Citizen Kane.