July 4, 2013

Raising Kane

You might not have thought so, but "the Citizen Kane of video games" is something that you throw around lightly.

In video game criticism, Citizen Kane is a favourite topic. Game critics seem to harbour a collective obsession with identifying the one video game that can truly be called the Citizen Kane of video games: meaning, a video game as significant to its medium as Orson Welles' 1941 classic was to cinema. It's implied that the Citizen Kane of video games, when it arrives, will mark the moment that video games shift gears from flashy entertainment up to legitimate, capital-A Art.

Metroid Prime, Grand Theft Auto, Metal Gear Solid, Bioshock and The Last of Us, to name a few, have all been nominated as the Citizen Kane of video games; though the fact that the comparison is still being made would suggest that it's none of those. This mocking Tumblr offers many more examples.

It's fair to say that through overuse, "Citizen Kane of video games" has become a rhetorical cliché, perpetuated by writers and reviewers as an illusive and ultimately meaningless milestone for the video game industry. So long as there's no way to conclusively settle the question, the guessing will probably continue.

Who could say for sure, though? Who could put this issue to bed once and for all? It'd have to be someone whose word everyone could accept as definitive on the subject of Citizen Kane. That's not me; I admit that. Nor is it any critic or writer I can think of. If only we could ask Orson Welles himself! But Welles, who passed away in 1985, unfortunately cannot be contacted.

Or can he?

The Ouija board, or "talking board", is a common tool for communing with the spirit world. Séance participants place their fingers upon the planchette - a wooden pointer - and a spirit, once summoned, subtly guides the fingertips, moving the planchette over the board to spell out messages. The spirit may wish to tell you who it was and how it died, or what the Citizen Kane of video games is.

Interestingly, the Ouija board was manufactured for the mass market by Parker Brothers, publishers of the classic board games Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Risk. Who knows which of the Parker Brothers was the weirdo into stuff like this. Perhaps an off-kilter Parker "cousin", who came back from college with long hair and a denim jacket, and tried to get the Parker Brothers to hotbox in his Camaro.

In the United States, the Ouija board is available at major toy and department stores. Not so in my United Kingdom, where I had to buy a board on eBay. eBay, it turns out, hosts a thriving cottage industry of homemade Ouija boards. A popular model is a large, circular board with its letters shunted to the edge to accommodate a portrait of a majestic wolf. I opted for the board you see in the photo above: tasteful, decorated in black and gold and festooned with the signs of the Zodiac. I admit to being skeptical about whether a homemade Ouija board would possess the same spiritual energy guaranteed by the Parker Brothers' corporate logo, but the homemade one was cheaper.

I don't know if you've ever asked somebody if you can come to their house to summon the spirit of Orson Welles via Ouija board. My friend Alex, would you believe, did not jump at the chance when I offered it to him. He relented, though, and one Wednesday night we found ourselves around his living room table constructing a candle-lit, paranormal shrine to Orson Welles, Citizen Kane himself.

In the photo above, you'll notice DVDs of Touch of Evil and, underneath, The Third Man, which I placed there as totems to attract Welles' roving ghost. It's also customary to offer the spirit some physical sustenance. Given the video game-focused nature of my inquiry, I chose to offer Welles Mountain Dew and Doritos because of their unprecedented brand synergy with Microsoft's Xbox and by extension, video games as an industry. I wrote "For Orson" on the bottle of Dew so that there could be no confusion.

Proper Ouija procedure is important. For example, you mustn't drink alcohol, as this increases the chances of accidentally summoning an "evil" spirit, like maybe a Leni Riefenstahl. You also shouldn't insult the spirit, so I instructed Alex not to call Orson Welles a fatty or joke about the outtakes from his frozen pea commercials. Welles, for all his talent, doesn't seem like the kind of guy to laugh at himself.

With all other preparations undertaken, Alex and I set our fingers on the planchette and touched knees under the table to increase "energy flow". I began my invocation.


"I would like to speak to George Orson Welles, commonly known as Orson Welles, who was born on May 6, 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and who died on October 10, 1985 in Los Angeles. I would like to speak to the Orson Welles who was an influential figure in cinema, theatre and radio, responsible for the esteemed films Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons and F for Fake, among a host of others.

"I have here copies of Orson's movies Touch of Evil and The Third Man. They are on DVD, which is a new technology. The picture and sound quality are very good. I also offer Orson's spirit a gift of Mountain Dew and Chilli Heatwave Doritos. I have opened the Doritos packet for him a little bit.

"Please only communicate using the board. Otherwise I will have to ask Orson Welles to leave.

"Am I speaking to Orson Welles?"

Nothing happened.

I wasn't sure what could be the problem. Alex pointed out that I hadn't opened the bottle of Mountain Dew as I had the packet of Doritos. Not wanting to take my hand off the planchette, I wrenched the bottle open with my teeth, and put it back on the table so its smell might better entice Orson.

Time passed. We read the back of the DVD cases for inspiration and meditation on Welles' spirit. We then grew bored and discussed what we thought about season four of Arrested Development.

"If you don't want to eat these Doritos," I warned the board, "I'm just going to throw them out."

After ten minutes of silence, I repeated my question. "Are you there?" And finally, the planchette began to move under our fingers, very slowly, across the rows of symbols.


Two? I didn't know what that meant. "Is this Orson Welles?" I asked.

The planchette moved to the Zodiac symbol for Pisces.

"Are you saying you are a Pisces?"


We paused to look up whether Orson Welles was born either a Pisces or a Cancer. This took a long time, and it turned out that he was neither.

"What are you trying to say?" The planchette set off again.






"Are you illiterate?" I shouted at the board.



I'd had enough. "No more bullshit. Are you Orson Welles?"


"Okay. Mr. Welles," I say slowly, as if speaking to the spirit of a small child. "I have called you here to ask one question." My voice wavered, as I realised I'd been waiting to ask this question for my entire adult life. "As the star... and co-writer... and director... of the seminal 1941 film Citizen Kane, what... in your opinion... is the Citizen Kane... of video games?"

The planchette moved.


R. It starts with an 'R'. The Citizen Kane of video games starts with an 'R'!


RE. "Maybe he's going to say Rebel Assault," I whispered to Alex.


REB. What else could he be spelling? We racked our brains: Reborn? Rebirth? Was Welles ignoring the question and trying to tell us that he wanted to be reborn? That's more than we really wanted to deal with.



My heart raced.



REBLSAT. "He's saying Rebel Assault!" I whispered urgently. "That has to mean Rebel Assault!" But which Rebel Assault? There were two.


Alex and I exchanged looks. "Are you saying Rebel Assault II is the Citizen Kane of video games?" I asked Welles.


"Well... why?"



Gr... graphics? Because of Rebel Assault II's graphics?


Not the graphics then.




GRDSTF? What does that mean? Grad staff? Grand staff? Is he saying that the LucasArts team that developed Rebel Assault II was a grand staff? Or grand stuff? Like he's just affirming that Rebel Assault II was "grand stuff"?

Alex suggested that "grand stuff" was consistent with the kind of thing Welles might have said in his life, being a man from olden days. He's right that it's easy to imagine the Orson Welles pictured below, bearded and orotund, offering a terse "Grand stuff" as a grudging endorsement.

But why Rebel Assault II? The game is remembered, if it's remembered at all, as a rare misfire from LucasArts' golden age. Released in 1995 - the period in which LucasArts was still known for making untouchable adventure games like Monkey Island, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and Full Throttle, and quality Star Wars titles like Dark Forces, X-Wing and TIE Fighter - Rebel Assault II disappointed. It's not even the best of the Rebel Assault games. Alex and I, who each played Rebel Assault II as children, clearly remembered being let down by the game's weird blend of risible full motion video, simplistic arcade shooting and wildly imprecise flying sequences.

In our confusion, I realised I had yet to dismiss Welles' spirit from Alex's living room. "You can leave now, if you're ready," I told him. I'd been warned that once summoned, some spirits don't want to leave, and I was prepared for what to do in case Orson refused to


Just like that, Orson had gone, and the portal was closed.

Why does Orson Welles like Rebel Assault II so much? I confess that his reasoning still eludes me. Perhaps because Rebel Assault II, with all its full motion video is in many ways a movie, and thus something he felt he understood? I don't know. But Orson Welles knows, I suppose, and perhaps that is enough.

Afterwards, once we'd turned the lights back on and I'd cleared away the Ouija materials, Alex found a 40-minute YouTube montage of Rebel Assault II scenes on his iPhone. We watched the video and ate from the packet of Chilli Heatwave Doritos. All in all, it was a pretty enjoyable evening. GRDSTF, some might say.


Tom Forsyth said...

You damn fool - he was trying to spell out Rebelstar 2, which as everybody knows was the genesis of X-Com. Mr. Welles is clearly a gamer of taste and refinement.

Matt McDermott said...

I concur with Tom. Any fool can see Orson Welles is blatantly referring to the superb ZX Spectrum turn-based strategy classic Rebelstar 2.

Matthew Kaplan said...

This post is a masterpiece. It is indeed the Citizen Kane of Citizen Kane of Games articles.

TrespassersW said...

I agree with Matthew Kaplan. A masterpiece of a blog post.

Dualhammers said...

I'm also convinced it could also be Rebelstar II. Welles died shortly after the first Rebelstar was released, during the planning stages for Rebelstar II. Given the timing, and the fact that Welles' last role was as a evil, free-roaming planet--not to far off from a "rebel star"--I think it's logical to assume that his spirit possessed one--or all--of the gamemakers involved with Rebelstar II.