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:
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
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
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.
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.
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.