Video Game Canon: Is There Such a Thing?

What video games should be defined as the preeminent titles that you should play to be "well versed"? The discussion starts here.

When you hear the word canon, you probably think about what lore from a particular book, story, movie, or video game actually contributes to the larger narrative. For example, in the Super Mario universe, Mario and Luigi are brothers. They’re not lovers. They’re not father and son. They’re brothers. Although there’s room in the canon to conjecture on some things, like what Luigi does when Mario goes on all his adventures, Mario and Luigi’s familial ties have much less room for interpretation. And this familial tie helps inform our thoughts on the characters. For instance, we know they are brothers so that excludes the possibility that they are lovers. 

But the canon of truth is not the only type of canon. In a literary sense, "canon" is defined as, "a sanctioned or accepted group or body of related works." This is usually used to describe books that define a genre, a time period, an author, etc. If you want to be well-versed in early American literature, for example, then there is a set of books you must read in order to begin to be considered "well-versed." The canon for Shakespeare isn't difficult to imagine.

The canon of “good” is much more than whether or not a title is quality or popular. It encompasses whether or not a video game is crucial to the development or the understanding of a genre, which I’ll explain further in a bit. It includes the game’s impact on video game history and/or development. It considers whether or not a video game is one all gamers should play or is defining the video game medium as a whole.

But, is there such a thing as video game canon? If so, then what games are part of that canon? Does it need to be broken down by its publisher, system, generation, and/or genre? Sure, there are lists like the 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die and the Top 100 SNES Games of All Time. But thinking of great video games and arguing why they are great is only half of the picture. A video game can be excellent, but is that enough to make it canon?

Looking to RPGs for Guidance

I'm pulling out RPGs because, earlier this year, Game Informer released its list of the Top 100 RPGs of All Time. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim took the top spot, to the ire and confusion of many. There's no denying that Skyrim is amazing. But the best of all time? And more importantly, is it video game canon? Is Skyrim representative of RPGs? If you had to introduce someone to 5 or 10 video games so that they understood what the RPG genre is about, then would you include Skyrim on that list?

To answer the last question, probably not. If I had to pick an Elder Scrolls game, then I'd likely choose Morrowind for its wide variety of weapons, armor, and spells to illustrate role-playing in a world teeming with choices.

I would include Chrono Trigger due to the large number of endings, where the player has to play different roles and make different choices to see all of the endings.

The Pokemon series showcases role-playing in a fixed setting very well. You're a Pokemon trainer and you train Pokemon. The player can't deviate from that role, however, the role-playing is in the team you set up versus the character you create or the story you follow.

Early titles like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior (now known as Dragon Quest) helped translate the stat-driven affair that is Dungeons and Dragons into a palatable experience you could boot up on your home console.

And the Mass Effect trilogy, despite its lackluster ending, displays the ability to tell a large story that involves choices while remaining focused on a central narrative.

This is where things get tough. We already have at least 5 games-- assuming you count the Mass Effect trilogy as one game-- and that's while having largely left PC based RPGs untouched (Ever heard of this game called Wow?). Oh, and which Elder Scrolls game do you choose? Which Pokemon? Should we use Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior? And which Final Fantasy, or other RPG, first truly displayed the storytelling potential of the genre? What place do hybrid games, like action and strategy RPGs, have in the canon, or should they have their own canon?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. In fact, we could fill up many forum boards just trying to answer the few above questions. But the good news is that's okay because...

Video Game Canon is Brand New

I think video game canon and all its sub-categories is still very much in its infancy. Not only are video games a young medium compared to books and movies, but video games have also undergone a ton of technological change during its relatively short tenure. The video games of 2017 do not look anything like the video games of 1977, and the consoles and computers they run on certainly don't look the same either. The changes do make creating and settling upon video game canon difficult since there's argument for a Sega Genesis canon or a Gameboy Advance canon.

The definition of video game canon may also change as the technology changes because it gets harder over time to play older games on the original technology. For example, Asteroids came out in 1979 in a giant arcade console. Although you can play Asteroids now through an emulator or through a retro game bundle on Steam, playing the game on a computer is not the same as playing it on the giant arcade machine. Moreover, there are many games that have been lost to time thanks to their original cartridges deteriorating. And while emulators are incredibly helpful for keeping older games available for new generations, they not only fail to capture the original context of the game, but all games have not been emulated.

Video Game Canon Will Constantly Change

Overall, it's not enough for a game to be popular or to be fun and memorable years and years after release. But the other "things" a game would need hasn't really been defined. The titles included in video game canon will be a fascinating discussion in the years to come. As more and more games are developed, more and more games also become a part of history and pop culture. The definition of being "well-versed" in video games will emerge as that history and discussion happen.

Now it's time for you to join the conversation. What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with Skyrim's place in video game RPG canon? What games do you think constitute video game canon as a whole? Let us know in the comments.

Published Nov. 27th 2017

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