The idea that video games need a Citizen Kane has been floating around for a while now. For the uninitiated, Citizen Kane was a defining film in cinema that pioneered a wide range of new filming techniques and combed them with an adult, symbolically, and thematically rich story. Years later it is regarded as the point at which culture began to see movies as an art and not just entertainment. For this it considered by many to be the greatest film of all time.
Following this example, a Citizen Kane of video games would be a game that could be universally, if not immediately, recognized by cultural movers and shakers as being significantly important to our culture. Who are these movers and shakers? Well that's a bit harder to personify. The best example I think to use is that when the Library of Congress feels a piece of media is important enough culturally they archive it for posterity.
I believe however, that to get to this point we need to come to terms with some of the things gamers take for granted whenever we think about whatever the best games of all time are.
Forgetting Metacritic for a while, the two games that routinely rise to the top of any best game of all time list are Super Mario Bros. for the NES and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the N64. In their day, both of these titles were revolutionary and absolutely unparalleled. No one will dispute that. However, to assert these two titles as the pinnacle of gaming excellence is selling the video game industry extremely short.
Unlike Citizen Kane neither Mario nor Zelda have anything resembling a sophisticated story and nothing that takes place in either game has any symbolic or thematic relevance in the real world. They're fun games yes and that's important to a good game, but both can be boiled down to simple and cliched "save the princess" stories.
Nostalgia is the reason these two games top best game ever lists time after time. Nostalgia and the video game industry's habit of linking transformative titles with software and hardware sales, as well as with the rise and fall of particular consoles.
Given that it seems rather farsighted to continue to heap praise upon these old games when more recent titles have accomplished so much more. Metal Gear Solid 4, BioShock, the Half-Life games, and promising up and comers like Heavy Rain and Alan Wake all show a level of intelligence, ingenuity, and artistry that surpass the relatively simple pleasures to be gleaned from replaying Mario again on it's umpteenth port.
If the video games industry wants to be taken seriously in between Halo and Call of Duty launches then game critics need to rethink the order and standards for their best games of all time lists. If they don't, well, let's just say it'll be difficult for non-gamers to take gaming seriously when our print and online journalists proclaim that a game about a young boy in a green hat shouting ya! and saving a princess is better than the story of a man known only as Jack who uncovers an objectivist utopia and rediscovers his own identity in the process of trying to escape a crumbling society on the brink of anarchy.