0. Bending the Knee to the Silver Screen
There is something incredibly endearing about video gaming’s continued inferiority complex with regards to film. Indeed, despite some experts asserting that the gaming industry is now larger than the film industry and blockbusters such as Inception, Avatar and Sucker Punch lining up to replicate the ‘gaming experience’ on the big screen, video game designers repeatedly bend the knee to films whenever they want to be taken seriously. You can see it in their tendency to ‘borrow’ characters from films and you can see it in the way that their cut scenes desperately try to capture that ‘cinematic’ look and feel. This inferiority complex also filters through into how the video games industry sees itself.
Cast your eye over video game magazines and websites and you will find a startling similarity to magazines and websites devoted to film. Indeed, both forms of reporting share an obsession with early footage and financial forecasts, and both contain reviews rendered morally questionable by the importance of industry access and advertising to the commercial viability of the form. But beyond that, video gaming even talks about itself in the same way as film talks about itself. For example, it is not uncommon for commentators to compare big gaming franchises such as Medal of Honour and God of War to such cinematic behemoths as Transformers and Harry Potter. Beyond that there are also cult successes and critical darlings such as Red Faction: Guerrilla and Far Cry 2; games that never quite managed to connect with a mainstream audience but still managed to remain lodged in the hearts and minds of a small but devoted audience. We even have an ever-expanding and under-recognised indie gaming scene that, much like its cinematic counterpart, seldom produces commercial successes but serves as a sort of creative hothouse for tomorrow’s visionaries.
Unfortunately, because video gaming has adopted so many of film’s metanarratives and critical riffs, it has also imported certain expectations based upon the shape of the cinematic landscape. One such expectation is the belief that, because video gaming has Transformers analogues, it should also have Tree of Life analogues. So I ask you:
Where are the art house video games?
Normally, when commentators ask these sorts of questions either they are writing either out of ignorance of the real commercial and cultural differences between the film and game industries, or they are writing out of ignorance of the stream of innovative titles produced by the indie gaming scene. It is not my intention to fall into either of these traps. Instead, I propose to tackle the question by outlining what gives a film an ‘art house’ rather than a ‘mainstream’ aesthetic and then consider how these aesthetics might present themselves in the context of a video game.
1. Making it Arty
The main problem with defining a term such as ‘art house’ is that words tend to acquire their meanings through use. We all know what the word ‘dolphin’ means because we all point to the same thing when someone says the word ‘dolphin’. Unfortunately, once you move from the concrete reality of things and into the abstract reality of artistic categorisation, you lose the ability to point your finger at things, meaning that different people tend to use terms in radically different ways.
Add to this the fact that some people will be quite politically active in seeking to force a particular vision onto a shared piece of language and you have the semantic equivalent of a Mongolian clusterfuck: Everybody argues about what a word means but because everyone has a different definition in mind, the word never acquires the sort of fixed usage that allows it to gain a clear and unambiguous meaning. However, despite there never having been a cut and dry definition of what constitutes an art house film, the term does lend itself more easily to some films than to others. Indeed, while you might debate the question as to whether Alfred Hitchcock made art house films, you would no more question the fact that Last Year at Marienbad is an art house film than you would the fact that Bridesmaids is not. We might not know what ‘art house’ really means, but we have a few ideas.
Based upon this nebulous sense that art house films do things in a manner that is both coherent and significantly different to most mainstream films, the film theorist, critic and author David Bordwell attempted to describe the art house approach to narrative. In Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), Bordwell proposes that art house films share three key attitudes to narrative:
1.1. New Realism
Classical mainstream film represents the world as a coherent entity that persists through time and follows certain physical rules. Events and characters exist in this world but their relations to each other are very much those of our world. For example, there is never any question that Britain ceases to exist when James Bond goes off on a mission or that the protagonist’s capacity to deliver a speech without stuttering in The King’s Speech might have had nothing to do with his receiving lessons from the speech therapist. The world of classical cinema works on the basis of certain clear and shared assumptions about the world – and even when these worlds do not obey the rules of our world, they do so for a comprehensible reason such as the fact that there are super heroes, giant robots or boy wizards.
Art house film makes a habit of calling into question the ‘realism’ of mainstream cinema. They do this by adopting different approaches both to what they show and how they show it. For example, art house films generally do not follow traditional genre plot lines and either refuse to explain why certain things take place or simply gloss over the exposition in order to open up gaps in our understanding of the world. For example, in Luis Bunuel’s film The Exterminating Angel, a group of well-to-do Mexican people attend a dinner and then refuse to leave. Day after day, the diners degrade themselves by defecating in pots and killing animals with their bare hands but it is never once explained why it is that nobody just goes home. Similarly, art house films will frequently use non-professional actors, location shooting, non-traditional lighting, longer takes and conversations full of awkward pauses and stilted dialogue as a means of showing us a different reality to the one we are used to seeing onscreen. An excellent example of these sorts of art house sensibilities in action is Larry David’s sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm, whose improvised dialogue and lengthy pauses create an altogether different effect than that achieved by more traditional situation comedies that rely upon sharply-written scripts produced by teams of highly-skilled writers.
While frequently justified in terms of ‘showing us the world as it really is’, these techniques generally serve to create a sense of ambiguity about the world, its characters and the events that take place within it. As Bordwell puts it:
The classical film focuses the spectator’s expectations upon the on-going causal chain by shaping [the story] around explicit deadlines. But the art film typically lacks such devices. […] By removing or minimizing deadlines, not only does the art film create unfocused gaps and less stringent hypotheses about upcoming actions; it also facilitates an open-ended approach to causality in general. –Pp. 206
This desire to open up ‘gaps’ in an audience’s understanding is perhaps the defining characteristic of art house cinema, and nowhere is this approach more evident than in art house film’s attitude to character.
1.2. Subjective Expressionism
The art film relies upon psychological causation no less than does the classical narrative. But the prototypical characters of the art cinema tend to lack clear-cut traits, motives and goals. Protagonists may act inconsistently or they may question themselves about their purposes. This is evidently an effect of the narration, which can play down characters’ causal projects, keep silent about their motives, emphasize ‘insignificant’ actions and intervals, and never reveal effects of actions. – Pp. 207
Traditionally, we learn about characters from what they do and what they say. However, while art house films also present us with characters that speak and act, the films’ ambiguous attitudes towards motive and causation mean that it is seldom possible to get a firm grasp on a character’s true nature. Indeed, art house characters habitually come across as conflicted, hypocritical and irrational or, in other words, complex. Consider, for example, Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Was he really an innocent war hero who was forced to become a criminal? Or was he a terrifyingly detached and ruthless schemer all along?
In addition to this somewhat peculiar approach to base-line characterisation, art house films further distinguish themselves by prioritising the exploration of character.
Mainstream films tend to follow a narrative template laid down in the short fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. Focused primarily upon events, these short stories care about character only in so far as character motives are necessary for fuelling a particular chain of events. Conversely, art house film tends to adhere much more closely to principles laid down by such 19th Century novelists as Anton Chekhov and Gustave Flaubert, in so far as their primary concern is not with events but with what literary critics refer to as Boundary Situations.
Boundary situations are moments when a character is forced to contemplate their position in the world and the values that they have adopted in order to maintain and/or justify that position. For example, consider the end of The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford when Ford’s decision to kill James brings not only the celebrity that Ford desired but also a similar paranoia and depression to those that affected James.
The boundary situation provides a formal center within which conventions of psychological realism can take over. Focus on a situation’s existential import motivates characters’ expressing and explaining their mental states. Concerned less with action than reaction, the art cinema presents psychological effects in search of their causes. – Pp. 208
As the art film devotes more and more of its energies to the character’s personal crisis, the crisis will frequently filter out not only in the form of words and actions, but also as a warping of the world whereby the world itself starts to become representative of the character’s mental state. One brilliant example of this is Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, which tells the story of a young woman’s journey from disaffected isolation to outright psychosis ending with the walls of her flat reaching out and grabbing at her.
However, though much of art house cinema’s charm and intellectual energy flows from its ceaseless innovation in portraying characters’ mental states through means more elegant and indirect than dialogue, no art house film ever commits itself to perfect communication. There is always room for ambiguity and there is always room for the creation of gaps in our understanding of both events and character. It is in these gaps that we see the role of the director as ‘auteur’.
1.3. Strategies of Interpretation
Because art house films are concerned largely with the creation of gaps in our understanding of what we are seeing onscreen, the nature and position of these gaps are as much a part of what the film is about as the things that are allowed the see. The fact that art house narratives lie as much in breach as in the observance lends art house narratives an element of self-awareness that we come to see as being part of the director’s style. As Bordwell puts it, we can distinguish filmmakers by their recurring motifs, their signature camera techniques and their narrational qualities. However, while there is necessarily an element of ‘trainspotting’ to such a taxonomic form of engagement with film, the isolation of a director’s individual style actually helps us to make sense of what it is that we are seeing on screen by allowing us to develop what I like to think of as interpretative strategies.
When Cannes film festival audiences were first shown shown Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, they reacted by booing it. To this day, L’Avventura remains a canonical work of art house cinema because its deviations from traditional cinematic storytelling are not only highly effective but also utterly blatant. L’Avventura tells the story of a group of young upper class Italians who go on a boat trip to visit a load of isolated islands. Having visited the first island, the group soon realises that one of their number has disappeared. Horrified that this could happen, a couple set about trying to solve the mystery of what happened to their friend but, as they return home and real life reasserts itself, the mystery slowly gives way to real life and the film shifts its focus to the dynamics of their relationship.
That first Cannes audience howled in anger because L’Avventura seemed to be a shit thriller. It is as though, instead of having Hercules Poirot solve the murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie had the murder take place and then described Poirot having dinner and chatting to people until the book eventually stopped. If you come to L’Avventura knowing nothing about the filmmaker or film in general then it makes no sense. However, if you know that Antonioni’s early career was marked by a bitter resentment of the Italian film industry, and if you know about the existentialist literary tradition and about the nature of the mystery genre and why you expect the disappearance to be solved then the film suddenly snaps into focus.
Watching art house film is more intellectually involved than watching a mainstream film, as its systematic deviations from what we consider ‘normal’ cinematic storytelling mean that in order to make sense of an art house film one is forced to continually test out a series of possible interpretations. These interpretations can, as Bordwell suggests, be taken from a wider knowledge of the director’s style and concerns, but they can also come from a familiarity with cultural context and traditional genre tropes.
For example, when people watched the pilot for the TV show Lost, their speculations as to what was going on was informed by a knowledge of other genre works. Were the passengers dead? Were they mad? Did magic ‘work’ on the island? These interpretative strategies are acquired by watching films and TV series where events are explained either through the death or madness of the protagonist or through deviations from physical law such as those in works from the fantasy, horror or science fiction genres. Similarly, knowing that a particular director has, in the past, a) made films about a particular political issue and b) produced films that can be taken as allegories, allows audiences to ‘try out’ the idea that that director’s latest film may be a political allegory.
Many of the earliest writings on film are psychological in nature because filmmakers were desperate to understand how it was that the human brain took a series of stills photographs and constructed it into not just a moving image but also an entire narrative. Indeed, it is said that when the Lumiere brothers first showed moving images of an approaching train to Parisian audiences, members of the audience fled in panic because they had not yet learned to distinguish between a large moving image of an oncoming train and an actual oncoming train. In order to ‘make sense’ of what it was they were seeing, audiences had to acquire the correct interpretative strategy. A hundred years later and art house audiences are expected to be able to draw not only on the skills required to make sense of moving images but also upon a veritable arsenal of interpretative techniques used to shed light on narratives filled with the sorts of intentional ambiguities, inconsistencies and plot holes that would be decried as incompetence were it not for the fact that they were evidence of genius:
The art film is nonclassical in that it creates permanent narrational gaps and calls attention to processes of [narrative] construction. But these very deviations are placed within new extrinsic norms, resituated as realism or authorial commentary. Eventually, the art-film narration solicits not only denotative comprehension but connotative reading, a higher-level interpretation. Whenever confronted with a problem in causality, time, or space, we tend to seek realistic motivation. Is a character’s mental state creating the difficulty? Is ‘life’ just leaving loose ends? If we are thwarted, we appeal to the narration, and perhaps also to the author. Is the narrator violating the norm to achieve a specific effect? In particular, what thematic significance justifies the deviation? What range of judgmental connotations or symbolic meanings can be produced from this point or pattern? Ideally, the film hesitates, hovering between realistic and authorial rationales. Uncertainties persist but are understood as such, as obvious uncertainties. Put crudely, the procedural slogan of art-house narration might be: “Interpret this film, and interpret it so as to maximize ambiguity”. – Pp. 212
Of course, this characterisation of art house film is destabilised by the fact that more and more mainstream film and television projects are starting to feature art house techniques. Indeed, what is the ending of The Sopranos if not the creation of a narrative gap where there should be denouement? Similarly, Mad Men has received an ocean of critical praise by refusing to stitch the lives of its characters into coherent pictures and by having all of its plotlines resolve off-screen in between seasons. Because the history of art film is the history of developing new cinematic techniques to baffle and challenge an evermore sophisticated and skilled cinematic audience, there can never be a definitive statement of the art house aesthetic, but at least we have some place to start.
Rather than merely speculate as to what a true art house game might look like, I propose an examination of a game that uses all of the above techniques and aesthetic choices to produce an effect as powerful and destabilising as it is true to the art house vision. That game is Jake Elliott’s Last Tuesday.
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3. Last Tuesday’s Case Study
Written in a single weekend, Last Tuesday is a deceptively simple visual novel set after what appears to be the end of the world.
The game begins with its namely protagonist waking from a deep sleep and heading out the door to work. However, as he stands waiting at the bus stop, our hero is suddenly struck by an absolute and uncharacteristic silence draped over his normally bustling suburb. After standing around for half an hour, the protagonist decides to walk into the nearby city, which turns out to be completely devoid of human life.
At this point, the game asks us to decide how it is that we will fill our days. Every day, we are presented with the same choice between exploration, housework and dwelling on the past. As we return to this menu and select the same options, we are shown the slow decay of the world we know as food rots in grocery stores and infrastructure begins to fail returning parkland to swamp and car radios to useless lumps of plastic and metal. In between these repetitive tasks, our protagonist experiences vivid dreams that hint at some wider solution while also blurring the lines between that which is real, that which is remembered, and that which is dreamt.
By leaving a huge gap in our knowledge about what has happened to the world, Elliott is inviting us to try on as many interpretative strategies as we can. As the game’s narrative progresses, events take place that seem to hint at particular solutions but without any of these solutions ever completely fitting the picture. For example, when a voice in the protagonist’s dream tells us that we are trapped in the city, the voice could just as easily be talking about a dream reality as it could the reality of the game. Similarly, when the game reaches one of its three possible endings, the suggestion is made that the entire reality of the game was a dream and, because the main alternative to this possibility is that the game takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting, the dream hypothesis seems as valid as any. Another interesting technique operates at the level of characterisation.
Like many interactive novels, Last Tuesday is written as a second-person narrative, thereby blurring the lines not only between the player and the game’s protagonist but also between the reality of the game and the reality of the player. Indeed, it is never completely clear whether we are supposed to read the game as being akin to a traditional video game complete with self-contained protagonist and internally consistent world or whether the game is best taken as an allegory for real life.
The allegorical content of Last Tuesday is where its art house credentials come most fully to the fore. The game’s protagonist, we are told, worked as a janitor and so he responds to the isolation by picking an unknown house at random and keeping it clean. This option not only distances the game from traditional post-apocalyptic narratives (there is no ‘battle mutants’ option to choose from), it also lends a decidedly existential edge to proceedings as the protagonist responds to the isolation by killing time with precisely the sort of mundane activities that the game’s unseen apocalypse has rendered pointless. In fact, the game’s entire gameplay revolves around killing time with pointless tasks as none of the various paths trough the game result in the discovery of some hidden truth or object. The allegorical nature of the game is further reinforced by the dream sequence in which we are called upon to identify ourselves as the janitor. The game’s second person narrative rings true: we are all stuck in a meaningless universe, killing time until the game comes to an end.
Another interesting technique that Elliott employs is that of encouraging us to play through the game again and again until we unlock all of the endings. Aside from further highlighting his existentialist commentary on the repetitive and meaningless nature of our everyday existence, this mechanic neatly replicates the fact that the non-linear nature of art house films means that they frequently reward repeated viewing. None of Last Tuesday’s endings is particularly emotionally satisfying or spectacular but when considered alongside the need to replay the game repeatedly in order to achieve them (something made entirely practical by the fact that it only takes a few minutes to play through the game), an obvious interpretation begins to take form.
Last Tuesday is a game about our need to come to terms with the fact that life is meaningless and the universe is incomprehensible. Faced with this realisation, those of us that do not go mad seek to create meanings for ourselves out of the random assortment of events and actions available to us. Some of us will respond to the bleakness of existence by turning our gaze inwards and backwards in an effort to construct a mythical past in which life was better. Some of us will devote ourselves to our friends and families in an effort to block out the darkness with walls of glowing empathy. Some of us will ignore Nietzsche’s advice and gaze into the void, looking further and further into the randomness of being in an effort to discover some hidden pattern and some deeper truth.
One of the real pleasures of art house cinema is the sense that there is an on going arms race between directors and audiences. Directors know full well that they can’t keep using the same set of trick and so they bend over backwards to come up with new ways to confound our expectations. As a film fan, this is incredibly thrilling as each new film is a challenge, a puzzle in need of a solution. Part of what made Last Tuesday so enjoyable for me was the fact that I had no idea that the game possessed three different endings. Indeed, it was only when I replayed the game in order to take screenshots for this article that I realised that each choice of things to do had a number of iterations and that, based upon which ‘plot lines’ one takes to conclusion, one unlocks different endings. Even more thrilling was the fact that, when I glanced at the games code (available online) I discovered that Elliott had associated each of the endings with a different emotion: ‘Empathy’, ‘Curiosity’ and ‘Memory’.
Despite the fact that I have now been writing criticism for a number of years, I have never once encountered a text that rewarded my decision to look at code. This is an interpretative strategy that simply cannot exist in any other medium and it is not really practical (or even possible) in larger, commercially produced games. Looking at raw code is an interpretative strategy that is entirely new to me and Last Tuesday’s capacity for creating such strategies places it well within the art house tradition. This is a game that forces you to come up with new ways of looking at things and, as such, it is a true work of art.
Written in a few days and requiring less than an hour to play through multiple times, Last Tuesday is not the most substantial of video games but it does show quite how effectively art house techniques can be applied to the medium of games. So next time some idiot columnist asks why there are not any art house games, tell them that there are, that they’re free and they’re a damn sight more fun to play than L.A. Noire.
Jonathan McCalmont is a freelance critic living in the UK. His work has appeared in such places as Strange Horizons, The Escapist, Salon Futura, Gestalt Mash, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Vector. He also maintains a blog named Ruthless Culture where he writes about films, literature and the fundamental hostility of the universe.