Metal Gear Solid 4 is not the Citizen Kane of video games. For understandable reasons, lots of people have theorized which game, if any, will finally achieve the artistic stature of Orson Welles' cinematic masterpiece. Presumably, such a game would finally sway the cultural critics who see video games as mindless diversions and lay to rest the “games as art” debate once and for all.
MGS4 is a terrific game, perhaps even an important one. GTA4 is a great game too. So are Bioshock, Shadow of the Colossus, and Super Mario 64, all of which have received the Kane-comparison treatment. Whatever claims might be made about the greatness of these games, none of them approach the achievement or influence of Citizen Kane. Not even close.
Considered contextually, the comparisons just don't work. Put another way, our precious video game child may be tall for his age, but he's still growing up. Video games need more time to mature before I'll feel comfortable making the same kind of cross-media comparisons one might make between Melville's Moby Dick and Ford's The Searchers. There is no video game analog to Citizen Kane. Yet.
Citizen Kane was the artistic culmination of 60 years of motion pictures. Welles and his team of collaborators - including, most notably, cinematographer Gregg Toland - extended, revised, and refined the already well-evolved language of the cinema in ways no one had done before. Not everything they did was new, but their unconventional approach to camera movement, shot angles, editing, deep-focus photography and many other innovations elevated a medium that had already reached high levels of achievement and aesthetic sophistication in the previous decade. In fact, many critics still see the 1930s as a Golden Age of movies, unsurpassed even today.
Still, if MGS4 is an important game in the history of the medium, as I belive it may be (I need more time with the game and more time to think about it), comparing its impact to an analogous movie can be a useful way to frame the analysis. Not a perfect way, of course, but still worth doing, I think.
But as I've noted, Citizen Kane is the wrong film. A far better and more accurate comparison can be made between Kojima's Metal Gear Solid 4 and D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation. Notwithstanding its overt racist ideology (for which I find *no* parallels in MGS4), Griffith's film was a deeply personal magnum opus years in the making. Full of technical and narrative innovations, it was the most ambitious project Griffith ever attempted, and it built on the newly-laid foundation of a medium still emerging from its infancy.
Movies aren't video games. I get that. It's 2008, not 1915, and I get that too. Is Kojima the D.W. Griffith of video games? Probably not. I don't know. Maybe. I'll return tomorrow with a more thorough comparison of the two and a closer look at some interesting parallels in their work.