Garwulf’s Corner #39: Citizen Kane-ing

Originally published February 1, 2017

So, I got sucked into Minecraft.

It started small — my wife decided she wanted to get it, so she bought it. After a bit, I decided I wanted to give it a try, but figured that with my busy schedule, Minecraft would be wasted on me. Instead, imagining that I’d just make a little house, declare “huh, neat,” and then move onto something else, I downloaded Minetest, an open source clone (for lack of a better term), and played around in it.

Minecraft cathedral (built by the author)

(This had happened before — when I had tried out the alpha of Minecraft some years earlier, I had planted some blocks on a beach, noticed that time had flown, shrugged my shoulders, and moved on.)

Four Gothic cathedrals and a Great Library later, I decided it was time to take the plunge into Minecraft proper. Since then, I’ve mined for diamonds, built a fortress in survival mode, visited the nether, and (as I type) I’m in the process of building a cathedral with vaults around 4 meters taller than those of St. Peter’s Basillica.

(This has, albeit, been stalled for some time due to getting sucked into No Man’s Sky.)

And, as strange as this sounds, this brings me to the discussion of the Citizen Kane of video games.

When I launched The Most Important PC Games of All Time series on PCGamesN, the second installment talked about why Doom was the Citizen Kane of video games. Its influence had become so pervasive over just about every aspect of the medium — from how games are made to how they are interacted with to who makes them — that the entire modern games medium is defined by it. Unfortunately, the series didn’t get the numbers needed at the time to publish the other six installments, which identified King’s Quest as a Citizen Kane of computer games in the 1980s (it standardized the revolutionary-at-the-time idea that computer games should have graphics), and concluded with the idea that the video games medium doesn’t so much have a Citizen Kane as it does many “Citizen Kane moments,” each one redefining the medium into its own image and laying the foundations for the next one.

Where this can get complicated is in figuring out how to spot them. When you look at what are likely the previous Citizen Kane moments, some patterns emerge. The title does not tend to be from a AAA game developer, and it can be described as “coming out of nowhere.” It is, however, a commercial success, or at least widely played. It is also not the first game of its kind — instead, it dials in elements that have been attempted before in a manner that becomes definitive.

But the real test is impact, and this is one of the reasons it is so hard to figure out what might be a Citizen Kane moment — it takes years for the title’s influence to spread. Looking back to Doom, it’s doubtful that anybody at the time knew that it would be the game that changed everything. It was just a shareware title, albeit a revolutionary one. But, game developers started to make clones, many of which could be described as “Doom, but with [insert variation here]” — it took years before the first-person shooter was given a name beyond a variation of Doom clone.” Then, after a couple of years, some game developers started to use Doom-style engines to stretch what the first person shooter could do, and you got titles like System Shock and Half-Life. As this happened, shareware developers made the leap to commercial game releases, and mods became more and more pervasive, not just for Doom, but for any title one could imagine — the game developers even started providing map editors, and other development tools, in the games they released.

Minetest cathedral and library (built by the author)

And then, about a decade or so later, if you took a really close look, you might suddenly realize that just about every element of video games now traced back to Doom. The same could be said of King’s Quest, or 1962’s Space War!. It wasn’t so much that one can look at a title when it is first released and say “this is a new Citizen Kane moment!” — instead, it’s a realization that it has happened long after the fact. So long, in fact, that it is difficult to see because it’s hard to remember the medium being any other way.

I think I’m starting to have that realization about Minecraft.

Right on the surface, Minecraft checks a lot of the boxes for a Citizen Kane moment. It was not created by a AAA developer, and indeed came out of nowhere as a passion project from Sweden. It was a tremendous success — in fact, it is one of the most successful games of all time. And, it is not the first game of its kind — all of the elements appeared in earlier games. Crafting was originally part of the MMO genre, the mining aspect appeared as early as Bullfrog’s 1997 title Dungeon Keeper, later appearing far more influentially in Dwarf Fortress, and construction has been part of video games for decades. But Minecraft’s synthesis of them all has been definitive. When games use crafting or mining, more often than not it’s Minecraft they’re channeling.

In fact, having now experienced it first-hand and then taken a look around, the impact of Minecraft has been massive. Much of the current survival game genre, such as Rust or Ark: Survival Evolved, can be described as “Minecraft, but less blocky.” No Man’s Sky, an exploration game that gives you an entire galaxy to explore, can be described as “Minecraft, but less blocky and with spaceships.” Far Cry 4’s crafting system was Minecraft to its core. Even outside of the video game medium, Minecraft is a cultural phenomenon, an experience that the New York Times described as a destination more than a game and a tool for near-unbridled creativity.

Minecraft may very well be this generation’s Citizen Kane of video games. And, just as happened with Doom, it may only be a few more years before we can hardly remember a time when the video game medium wasn’t defined by Minecraft.



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Robert B. Marks

Robert B. Marks is a writer, editor, and researcher. His pop culture work has appeared in places like Comics Games Magazine.