Yesterday I opined that it's unfair to compare Metal Gear Solid 4, or any other game for that matter, to Citizen Kane. I explained why, and you can read all about it here.
I received a fair number of useful comments on my post, some wondering why we should bother at all with such comparisons. That's a fair question, so before I leap into another cross-media chasm, I thought I'd take a shot at answering it.
I'm not keen on the idea of searching for video games' Citizen Kane moment. Games don't need a single universally-acclaimed title to legitimize the medium, and the more we continue to measure ourselves - artistically, economically, and otherwise - against film and the movie industry, the less likely games are to fully realize their singular potential.
I've also written here about my hope that video games develop a language of meaning that exploits the unique interactive properties of the medium. Borrowing from film, literature, and theater can be useful, but as countless other people more articulate than me have pointed out, games must ultimately stand on their own, and they are at their best when they create an experience that cannot be replicated in any other medium.
Having said all this, I'm about to compare an artist from one medium (Hideo Kojima - video games) to an artist from another (D.W. Griffith - film). Why? What is the point of such a comparison when it's so clear that video games are ill-served by our critical tendency to juxtapose them with movies?
As a scholar-artist (I do hate that term, but I'm stuck with it) I believe studying and comparing the work of other artists is an inherently worthwhile thing to do. Media, time period, style, cultural differences - none of these ultimately matter. A 21st-century Bolivian painter can learn from an 18th-century European composer. It happens. Likewise, an astute and sensitive scholar can draw useful and illustrative connections between two disparate works of art, enhancing our understanding and appreciation of each.
A scholar might point out, for example, that the Occurians in Final Fantasy XII tend to speak in iambic pentameter. She might also observe that the da-dum, da-dum rhythm of this poetic style is closer than any other to the beating of a human heart. Why do these little scholarly factoids matter? I believe they help us better comprehend the artists' intentions (writing in metered poetry is no accident), and they add a certain richness to our understanding of the game. Without spoiling it, I'll simply note that the Occurians may be aware of the persuasive qualities of iambic pentameter, as was Shakespeare and many of his greatest characters.
I could go on to suggest the Occurian Venat is an obvious Prometheus figure, but I'll stop now. :-)
There is also the matter of process. How artists go about doing what they do - their methods and techniques - are also worthy of careful thought. Studying the ways Harold Pinter, for example, says so much with so few words could be of great interest to a game writer. We needn't fear the British Theater unduly influencing video games in the process. What is Bioshock, after all, if not an amalgam of all sorts of influences - some thematic, others technical. To his credit, Ken Levine has acknowledged these along with his "worthless liberal arts education."
I contend these things are worth doing. Thinking hard about a game or a novel or a play is a good thing. Drawing connections among things we know and care about is a pleasant and intellectually satisfying activity. It is a way of seeing. And sometimes, when an artist sees - really notices something for the first time - that something is very often a realization. An instinctive feeling of connection. Sudden first-hand knowledge of how connected everything in the universe really is. And feeling part of that connection. Being inspired by it. And creating something new. Something that connects.
I've gone on here longer than I intended. Apologies. I'll return tomorrow with an essay on Griffith and Kojima called "The genius blind spot." I promise not to strain. ;-)