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Alfred Hitchcock Would Make Great Games

Walter Garrett Mitchell | 13 Jul 2012 17:00
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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.

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