What do Portal 2, Watchmen and Citizen Kane Have In Common?

By Gus Mastrapa in Pretension +1
Friday, April 22, 2011 at 9:00 am
​Last weekend I experienced a geek overdose. I powered through Portal 2 for my A.V. Club Review, watched the pilot episode of the new HBO series Game of Thrones and re-read a good part of novel the series was based on. I've been meaning to talk about George R.R. Martin's books in the context of games for a while now. Not because there's a video game set in Westeros coming out, but because I don't think video games are the best medium for telling the kind of story that the book does. 

It took playing Portal 2 to focus my thoughts on the matter. And a rant by Jim Sterling to give me something to argue about. In his latest Jimquisition video Sterling said "Videogames Are Not Movies, Get Over It."  I'm with him on his basic premise, but when he starts to further develop his beef he gets lost, harping on which medium is better. But that's beside the point. What matters is which medium is best for the story you're trying to tell.
In his video Sterling gripes about the notion of finding the Citizen Kane of video games. He thinks that this search belittles or demeans games, but I think this search isn't about finding something as good as Citizen Kane. It's about finding a work of art that leverages its medium as perfectly as Citizen Kane -- an expression so dependent on the medium that it would only be diminished in any other format.


By that argument A Game of Thrones isn't the Citizen Kane of fantasy novels. Sure, the TV show that just aired is leaving out a lot of the details of the books. But the show works as a multi-character drama, rife with the intrigue and politics of the violent world that George R.R. Martin created. At ten hours they're going to be able to cram all the important plot points into the series. That said I think it would be difficult to make the the same story work in a game. There are just too many characters -- to many threads to follow. Cyanide have the right idea. They're attacking A Game of Thrones as a strategy game -- letting players focus on the historic battles of Westeros and leave the personal stories to mediums that do it better.

Alan Moore's Watchmen proved harder to adapt. For decades pundits considered the graphic novel un-filmable. Zack Snyder took an admirable stab at bringing the story to the screen. He stretched his movie as long as the studio would allow. But no amount of time would make Watchmen work on screen. Watchmen is a classic because of the way Moore and Gibbons leverage the comic book page to tell this particular story -- on any given page you may find a song quote accompanying panels, or a comic book within the comic book telling a parallel tale. Snyder wisely opens his Watchmen with a montage -- a technique unique to film -- but the rest of his movie is a rote retelling of Watchmen's plot. Separated from the form of the comic book Watchmen is just another goofy super hero story. 

I can only imagine Portal 2 as a video game. A movie wouldn't deliver any of the agency that you get in the video game. A book would be an interesting exercise in exploring the universe that Aperture Science exists in, but it too would lose something. What happens in Portal 2 -- your antagonistic relationship with GLaDOS and the mental and physical gymnastics you undertake while solving her puzzles -- is best expressed in an immersive, first-person video game. 

I'm not going to stick my neck out so far to say that Portal 2 is the Citizen Kane of video games, but its a sign that we're getting really close. Part of what makes Citizen Kane such a revered film is the way that Orson Welles reached into his filmmaker's bag of tricks and used nearly every tool at his disposal to tell his story. Flashbacks, soundtrack, changing narrators and a wide array of camera tricks all serve the plot in a way that can only happen in film.


I don't think Portal 2 quite leverages each and every tool that games have to offer. Maybe games have too many tricks. Would Portal 2 be improved by absorbing traits of the role-playing game? Probably not. Much of the brilliance of Portal 2 is that it only uses the tricks it needs. And it does this so tastefully, so expertly that you can't help but marvel at the expertise and restraint on display.

The biggest challenge for game makers going forward will be to learn the restraint and good taste that Valve has practiced with Portal. And here's where I agree most with Jim Sterling -- who took offence at Heavy Rain for trying to be so much like a movie. It's one thing to try to learn from other mediums. Games really could stand to get their writing and acting up to par. But games are still games. And there are some things that games do that movies can never do. Those things ought to be in every game maker's bag of tricks. And they ought to be used to their fullest. 

Pretension +1 is a weekly column by Gus Mastrapa attempts to look at video games as a part of pop culture as a whole, rather than an island unto themselves.
Email Print

Join The Joystick Division!

Become part of the Joystick Division community by following us on Twitter and Liking us on Facebook.

More links from around the web!