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The Citizen Kanes of videogames

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When talking about the idea of videogames as art, it’s become increasingly popular to lament that the medium doesn’t yet have its “Citizen Kane.” Seemingly everyone, from industry luminary Ian Bogost to film director Guillermo del Toro, has sounded off about how games either need, don’t need, or will soon receive the masterpiece that will force the medium to “grow up” and be accepted as an art form by the mainstream. But while these deep thinkers pontificate on the need for a medium-defining masterpiece, we’d argue that the game industry has already produced one. In fact, it’s produced a whole bunch.


Above: Plenty of games have already had as much impact on their medium as this had on film

To be sure, Citizen Kane is a hugely important film, but not because it brought out a particular emotional reaction from its audience, or because it’s necessarily the “best.” For starters, it pioneered certain camera techniques – like low-angle shots, which made its characters appear looming and huge, and “deep focus,” which made every object in every shot look equally clear – while expertly combining nearly every available trick and angle used in genres ranging from Westerns to German Expressionism. It was also one of the first films to break up its chronology, telling its story mostly through flashbacks and turning its apparent “hero” – a reporter trying to learn the meaning of publishing magnate Charles Foster Kane’s last words – into a background character and audience surrogate. It didn’t so much break new ground as it broke down barriers, showing the public that film was an art form without limits or restraints, and that it could be used to tell stories in ways that would be impossible in any other medium.


Above: Notice how the people in the foreground are just as clear as the people and objects in the background? That's Citizen Kane's deep focus at work

At that, Citizen Kane wasn’t even all that widely appreciated when it was released, becoming a middling financial and critical success at best. It certainly didn’t “legitimize” movies as an art form, which is what the “we need a Citizen Kane” crowd seems to expect a monolithic masterpiece to do for games.

However, Citizen Kane did push its medium forward, and it was a watershed masterpiece that was hugely innovative from a technical standpoint, hugely influential in film circles and – for those who appreciated it – forever altered perceptions of what movies could be. And if those are the criteria for a medium’s “Citizen Kane,” then what follows are 25 games that have already filled those particular shoes:

Donkey Kong

Released 1981

Pioneered: Jumping, damsels in distress, telling a complete story with a beginning, middle and end.

Influenced: Every game to ever feature a stubby-looking mascot, a “jump” button or a strong story.

Why it qualifies: If you don’t equate Donkey Kong with revolutionary gameplay, it’s only because the ideas it introduced were so outrageously important, and became so popular, that they seem basic and commonplace today. In truth, just about every modern game owes a deep debt to Donkey Kong, which pioneered concepts like jumping between platforms, grabbing weapons to use against enemies and, most importantly, using games as a medium to tell stories.

Other games had tried tacking on simple narratives, like the brief, goofy cutscenes wedged in between certain levels of Pac-Man, but Donkey Kong was the first to tell a complete story, which began with Pauline’s kidnapping at the hands of an ape, continued with Mario giving chase and ended with Pauline’s eventual rescue. It was a paper-thin melodrama, sure, but it bulldozed the medium forward like few other games. If you want a clear watershed – one by which you can easily identify which games came before and which came after – Donkey Kong might as well be labeled Year Zero for modern gaming.


King’s Quest: Quest for the Crown

Released 1984

Pioneered: The idea of a “graphical adventure” with an onscreen character who moves through, and interacts with, a mostly open world.

Influenced: Space Quest, Police Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, Maniac Mansion, Monkey Island, Resident Evil and every other exploration-and-puzzle-centric adventure game.

Why it qualifies: Released just three years after Donkey Kong, King’s Quest represented another quantum leap for games as a storytelling medium. By 1983, adventure games were hardly new, but they were either made up entirely of text descriptions – like the Zork series – or of static images that represented the rooms and objects you were looking at. King’s Quest shook up the genre by introducing an animated onscreen character – Sir Graham – whose movements through the relatively seamless, fully animated, multi-screen world affected what he could interact with, and how he could interact with it.

True, his actions were still limited to typed commands – “get (object),” “look (monster),” etc. – but King’s Quest’s dynamic backgrounds and hero brought players closer to the action and puzzles than any series of static images ever could. If you want to draw a movie analogy, this was where the adventure genre jumped from slide shows to actual film, setting the stage for one of the most story-intensive PC genres to become one of the prettiest. It also set a clear template that was followed by just about every subsequent adventure game, from Maniac Mansion to Monkey Island to Gabriel Knight to Sam & Max.


Ultima III: Exodus

Released 1983

Pioneered: Free-range, turn-based, Dungeons & Dragons-inspired RPGs with multiple onscreen player characters.

Influenced: Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy and nearly every JRPG ever made.

Why it qualifies: The great irony of JRPGs is that – while most western gamers now see them as iconically, inflexibly Japanese – they have their roots in American PC RPGs from the early ‘80s. The ultra-hardcore Wizardry series, for example, was hugely popular in Japan (despite never growing beyond niche status in the US) and was a driving force in the development of the earliest Japanese RPGs. But if you want to see the RPG that really set the template for JRPGs, look no further than Ultima. Specifically Ultima III: Exodus.


Above: Image courtesy of Moby Games

All the classic RPG hallmarks were cemented here: the top-down, semi-open world, parties made up of multiple characters with diverse classes, multiple onscreen player-controlled characters, turn-based battles and a coherent quest to herd players from one town or dungeon to the next. It’s also been cited as a heavy influence on the landmark Dragon Quest series, which in turn makes it a significant influence on nearly every single Japanese RPG ever made and the genesis of console RPGs as we know them.


Super Mario Bros.

Released 1985

Pioneered: Side-scrolling, enemy-stomping, coin-collecting.

Influenced: Mega Man, Contra, Castlevania, Sonic the Hedgehog and roughly 80 percent of the games produced during the 8- and 16-bit eras.

Why it qualifies: Although it’s far from the first side-scrolling action game, Super Mario Bros. is easily the most popular and influential, giving rise not only to cutesy “mascot” games but also to nearly every side-scroller – which is to say, nearly every game – produced in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s also almost single-handedly responsible for the success of the NES and the resurgence of the videogame industry in the mid-‘80s.

Later games in the series have refined, retooled and expanded on its formula, but the first Super Mario still holds up remarkably well, and the simple thrill of smashing blocks, collecting coins and stomping Goombas remains the central draw. It was also a central draw in a lot of the games that took their inspiration from SMB, including the series’ own archnemeses, Alex Kidd and Sonic the Hedgehog. Super Mario Bros. didn’t just change the industry or the games that followed it – it maintained an absolute stranglehold that wasn’t really broken until the advent of 3D some 11 years later.


Tetris

Released 1986

Pioneered: Falling-block puzzles, infinite playability, madness.

Influenced: Columns, Bejeweled, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo and every other puzzle game to feature colorful objects in a confined space.

Why it qualifies: One of the simplest games ever created, Tetris looks like a bleak, dull reflection of the austere Soviet era that birthed it. Play it, however, and you’ll quickly understand how a game about fitting together falling blocks could not only be maddeningly addictive, but rapidly reshape the entire puzzle-game genre in its own image.

If a game features falling and/or colorful objects in a confined space, and your objective is to clear said objects by matching them together, forming lines, dropping bombs or whatever, then it’s really just another in a long line of attempts to recapture Tetris’ original glory. And while it’s impossible to really improve on that level of simplicity, the fact that so many developers are still trying says something profound about Tetris’ monolithic importance, game-changing influence and status as an infuriatingly clever work of genius.

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256 comments

  • LunarMoon - November 6, 2010 4:29 p.m.

    I totally believe that video games are art but some things need to be said: If this is the best that the video game world will ever offer than that’s a really depressing thought. I think that those of us who want an engrossing and emotionally involving plot in our video games should stop patting developers on the back and start demanding it, since if there’s no market demand for a particular product than there’s absolutely no reason for the producer’s to risk their livelihood’s attempting to create the next Brave New World. It would be shame if the video game world began to stagnate and fail to live up to its potential due to the contentment of its patrons. Take comic books for example. Watchmen was produced because Alan Moore was discontent with the potential of the comic medium in comparison to where it was. Why can’t the same happen for video games?
  • Ganonpork - October 9, 2010 9:51 a.m.

    XD no more heroes pioneered awesome
  • Gurkog - October 8, 2010 5:46 a.m.

    I don't have any idea about the originality of Ninja Gaiden for the NES and it probably didn't pioneer anything, but imo no later side scrolling 8-bit game was better...and the cut scenes were HOT for the period. Oh, it was also the first action game I played that had a real feeling of a developing story. It has been 20 years since I played it so my rose-colored glasses might be blinding me to the truth.
  • mrmorozov987 - September 1, 2010 1:06 a.m.

    Okay, I retract what I said about the first Modern Warfare. After seeing popular multiplayer games released before it, COD4's multiplayer is actually a big step forward. Sorry for being a complete ass and making a comment about a game I hadn't played at all. The second one is still less good. (?)
  • mrmorozov987 - May 29, 2010 10:21 p.m.

    While I'm glad to see titles like Resident Evil 4 and Grand Theft Auto III here, I'm a little disappointed that Gran Turismo (for introducing realistic car physics and serious car customization, all while remaining accessible to newcomers). isn't on here. Also, Call of Duty 4? It's a great game, but it didn't really pioneer anything. Also, they should update this list to include Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (if you've seen 5 seconds of it, you know why it should be here).
  • SandroTheMaster - September 17, 2009 10:54 p.m.

    I know I'm late to the party but... a lot of these "pioneering" actually started in PC games. The worst case is Grand Theft Auto 3, which is claimed to influence Elder Scrolls 4. Oblivion was mostly influenced by Morrowind (AKA, Elder Scrolls 3)! Actually, it is more or less a Morrowind lite, which was a refinement upon Daggerfall (guess what, Elder Scrolls 2!). And all free-roaming games out there owes everything to Wizardry and Might & Magic, years before any console RPG considered gamers smart enough to handle derailing from the plot.
  • deora2dude - August 2, 2009 11:25 p.m.

    WHERE. IS. PORTAL.
  • deathrebellion - July 30, 2009 10:18 p.m.

    my two most fav games r on dis list ^^ and i seriously don't think that Tomb Raider wuz the cause of DMC , Assassins Creed and Mirrors Edge
  • CrazedPenguin - July 29, 2009 11:35 a.m.

    Great read, I always enjoy your articles :) All this talk of genre changing and defining titles has made me strangely excited for HEavy Rain.
  • MarchIntoTheSea - July 28, 2009 9:16 p.m.

    And what about Ico? Mass Effect should be here too. It did come after kotor but it does the job so much better. And the dialogue is revolutionary while 2 is gonna be better
  • AscendedArsehole - July 28, 2009 2:35 p.m.

    Hey GR, ever heard of Deus Ex? Give it a go, it's a great game with deep level design that I have not seen elsewhere.
  • purple_omlet - July 27, 2009 9:13 a.m.

    wait a minute, i just realized, after a 4 hour okami session, that there is not okami on this list! sure, not many people have played it, but it's a god damn masterpeice! the art style, the ingenious story line, and the controls just show what they Ps2 was made for. and as an eitor for GR, i thought you had an obligation to get the okami name out even more, like a video game pimp...
  • purple_omlet - July 27, 2009 9:04 a.m.

    like the list, but don't care for devil may cry to much, my brother likes it, but by the time i actually got the game i was way to into god of war 2. @ludovix: gran tourismo sucks ass.
  • solsunforge - July 27, 2009 3:33 a.m.

    pardon the interuption but all of you halo fanboys out there who think halo introduced any new concepts to videogames on for fps or storywise should know your 100% incorrect. It was not the first to introduce gernades it wasnt the first to introduce coop for 4 players. Ever heard of unreal tournament? Ever hear of red faction? Well the 2nd red faction introduced 4 player coop. I may even be incorect in that one(as far as consoles). What about goldeneye for the n64. I mean come on halo doesnt even have that great of story. halo 3 is about a whole 5 hours long and is complete trash. Dont get me wrong halo is a fun game and i played it to completion a few times but its not even a top 10 shooter. Even the original gauntlet had coop play so learn something about what you like before you talk or go play some mario party or dynasty warriors and sit down.
  • dweller - July 27, 2009 1:26 a.m.

    I'm glad Planescape: Torment was mentioned on this list. One of my all time fav RPGs ever.
  • Riq12 - July 26, 2009 5:32 p.m.

    What about Quake I ?!?
  • honjuden - July 26, 2009 8:16 a.m.

    Such a large list and no Baldur's Gate to be found. Baldur's Gate did things that were unprecedented for western rpgs.
  • IGiveUFunkButt - July 26, 2009 12:57 a.m.

    Oh, and no Killzone? I kid, I kid!
  • JamesT - July 25, 2009 8:42 p.m.

    Only one of the DMC sequels was "middling". Hell, number 3 was in some ways better than the first.
  • skyguy343 - July 25, 2009 8:34 p.m.

    no Ico or SotC but the ingenuity of this article prevents it from bring a fail. still, moar SotC. way to go mikel

Showing 1-20 of 256 comments

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