August 13, 1962: Alfred’s sixty-third birthday.
Mr. Hitchcock welcomed a guest to Hollywood that Monday; French filmmaker and critic Francois Truffaut. Truffaut had prepared around five hundred questions for the prolific director, and every morning, Hitchcock would pick him up at the Beverly Hills Hotel, drive him to his office at Universal Studios, don a microphone and, from nine to six, answer the critic’s questions.
“In games, nuance and character development simply do not exist.”
On its face, it was a practical interview: Truffaut, a director himself, wanted to know how much time Psycho‘s infamous shower scene had taken to film, how Hitchcock’s collaboration with Salvador Dali had helped or harmed the dream sequences of Spellbound; he asked about the benefits of black-and-white over color film, about the difficulties in adapting a play to the silver screen.
What Truffaut published of the interview in 1967 was a revealing, exhaustive and (perhaps most importantly) functional chronicle of an extraordinary body of work. But from a wealth of technical anecdote emerged a complex personal philosophy and an obvious mastery of the medium. In demonstrating his practical prowess, Hitchcock also proved his potency as an artist, a creative heavy-hitter capable of clearly expressing abstract ideas in a way that only film could.
Fast forward to 2012: The Atlantic publishes Taylor Clark’s now-infamous profile of Jonathan Blow, “The Most Dangerous Gamer.” The piece raised more than a few hackles with its dismissal of games as a “juvenile hegemony” dominated by “cartoonish murderfests and endless revenue-friendly sequels.”
“In games,” Clark writes, “nuance and character development simply do not exist.”
Even more offensive was the article’s portrait of Blow as “the only one” concerned with the health of his medium, the lone enlightened soul in a rollicking sea of violent, sex-crazed simpletons.
For all its sweeping language and professed adoration, the article couldn’t less resemble Truffaut’s affectionate, directed sit-down with Hitchcock, because it spends next to no time exploring just what it is that Blow is actually doing. Clark praises Blow’s refusal to put into words what mechanics can say for him, but given an unprecedented sneak preview of The Witness, he wastes his words on story speculation.
“It’s difficult to say exactly what the game is about,” Clark writes. Unlike the man he deifies, he seems to see gameplay as a means to an end-namely, the narrative denouement.
In this scathing condemnation Clark sure sounds a hell of a lot like the critics of mid-20th century film who dismissed the work coming out of Hollywood- Hitchcock’s included- as overblown, over-sensational twaddle. In fact, it was exactly that sort of short-sightedness that drove Francois Truffaut and Co. (Andre Bazin, Joseph-Marie Lo Duca, Jean-Luc Godard, and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) to found a new school of thought that recognized and rewarded cinematic genius: the politique des auteurs, or “auteur theory,” of the Cahier du Cinéma.
Published for the first time in April 1951, the journal Cahiers du Cinéma took as its subject-stop me when this sounds familiar-a mainstream, for-profit entertainment that had as yet failed to ascend to the higher realms of artistic esteem. The Cahier crowd elevated film in the minds of the public by submitting the idea of a deliberate “auteur,” a capable authority with a message unique to his medium. Or, if “message” is too heavy-handed, let’s say that “auteurs” were the directors who possessed a unique aesthetic philosophy, a set of artistic standards visible throughout their catalog.
Now, you might have heard the word “auteur” bounced around gaming forums before. When gamers bring up auteur theory, we generally just want to talk about those men and women in possession of that rare quality mentioned above-an overarching style.
As Ian Bogost pointed out in his fantastic profile of Thatgamecompany, “game makers tend to have less longevity than other sorts of artists,” so it’s pretty exciting when a developer (like Jenova Chen) sticks around long enough to calcify their personal philosophy into solid (and successful) experiences. We ask who gaming’s auteurs are because they’re hard to find, but also because it’s natural to channel our affection for a work towards a remarkable individual-the mystique of Hitchcock, his deadpan drawl and unmistakable silhouette, had almost as much to do with the success of his brand as his singular knack for suspense.
But this line of thinking quickly curves towards disaster. Leigh Alexander asks the question begged by this perspective: “Does honoring game developers as creative personalities confer some legitimacy upon them that didn’t exist before?”
“Some games,” she writes, “are objectively meaningful to many in spite of being ‘stupid.'”
Over time, an application of technique will form a sort of trademark style, but that’s just a side effect.
So why does auteur theory matter at all? The Cahier critics shifted the popular conception of cinema from that of a soulless, self-serving media machine to a nuanced, progressive form of expression, but was it merely by throwing a few big names on a pedestal (as Clark did) and praising them at the expense of the medium at large?
The short answer is, of course not. Thankfully, auteur theory has much more to offer.
Advocates of auteur theory did not just pick favorites, they rewrote the book on film criticism from a practical perspective-the filmmaker’s perspective-and saved their praise for film-specific visual eloquence. These critics, like those of us who have grown up with games, understood exactly what made their favorite medium great, precisely what it was capable of that older media were not.
For that reason they elevated films not for their traditional appeal- a well-written script, for example- but for inventive visual themes, precise editing, unconventional camera angles, what have you. In the end it was the establishment of a new metric of quality that defined auteur theory and dictated its influence, not the hero-worship and brand-pushing.
To summarize, here’s British writer, professor and film producer Colin MacCabe’s “Revenge of the Author”:
They [Cahier du Cinéma] saw the weakness of French cinema in terms of its over-valuation of the written element in film. And this over-valuation failed to take into account the mise-en-scène, the whole composition of the film, in which design, lighting, shot sequences, acting, were articulated together to provide the very specific reality and pleasure of the cinema. [emphasis mine]
From the auteur theory perceptive, the most prized talent was that of gathering and combing disparate creative elements, ultimately capturing the medium’s “very specific reality and pleasure.” Leigh Alexander touches on this later in her article, saying a game worth playing is an “unflinchingly honest interaction in the way that only games can offer.”
Over time, an application of technique will form a sort of trademark style, but that’s just a side effect. More vital is that the auteur commands his chosen medium with an authority that can, against all odds, wrangle the colossal beast of industry into the service of his imagination.
And we don’t even need to go that far. You might not think a game could ever be the product of just one mind. That’s totally fair. More important to a hypothetical “gaming auteur theory” is the recognition of studios and developers- or even just individual games- that are willing and able to engage with the medium on its own terms.
Hitchcock embodied that idea: He rejected the cinema’s “over-valuation of the written element,” embracing instead film’s unique methods of visual mediation.
“Dialogue,” he told Truffaut, “should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.”
By the same token, a gaming auteur theory would prize the titles that express themselves, first and foremost, in gaming-specific terms: choice, cooperation, competition, challenge, reward, repetition, modification. Within this ideological framework, one could even argue that narrative in games should “simply be a sound among other sounds,” a side dish to the real meat of the interactive elements and gaming’s answer to the mise-en-scène. It goes without saying that story-less romps like Rayman Origins, not to mention Tetris and every other abstract puzzle game, prove the appeal of the narrative-free experience.
Crucially, happily, the games-as-art “question” is irrelevant to auteur theory- whatever “art,” like, even means, man- because at its heart, auteur theory is about technique, and that’s something that can be talked about with something resembling objectivity.
In 1983, three years after Hitchcock’s death, Truffaut re-released the seminal interview with a new conclusion.
“When cinema was invented,” he wrote, “it was initially used to record life, like an extension of photography. It became an art when it moved away from the documentary.”
“Hitchock … did not merely practice an art, but undertook to delve into its potential, and to work out its rules.”