James Wallis levels with you

Cahiers du Cutscene?

Wired has suddenly got a bee under its bonnet about the idea that video games need a critical vocabulary before they can begin to be any good, or at least taken seriously. Annalee Newitz argues that film didn’t flower till the 1940s and it was the publication of French film-crit magazine Cahiers du Cinema in 1951 that allowed audiences to truly understand and discuss how films work.

She’s wrong, for three reasons. First of all an artform that had produced Greed, M, Sunrise, Gone with the Wind, The 39 Steps, Duck Soup, The Wizard of Oz and Snow White is an artform that had clearly already flowered, and certainly didn’t need another ten years and a bunch of French critics to tell it how to do things right. Secondly Cahiers du Cinema has never had any real influence on mainstream American cinema because mainstream American directors have never paid it any attention—not because it’s French but because it’s in French, something that most American film directors believe is a type of mustard or a way of kissing.

And thirdly, narrative games already have a perfectly serviceable critical vocabulary, if they choose to use it. It’s been developed over the last fifteen years or so and is used to describe and discuss those other narrative games, the tabletop roleplay types, notably at places like The Forge. It evolved naturally, is quite developed and I rather like it.

You want Cahiers du Cutscene, go ahead, publish it. Don’t expect to make any money, don’t expect anyone to be grateful, and don’t be surprised when people tell you half the work’s been done before.

Categorised as: game design | narrative


  1. John H says:

    I think the core of what’s wrong with this is the assumption that games are (or should be) about telling stories.

    “videogames still can’t beat old-fashioned novels when it comes to compelling stories”, he says. This is like saying “novels still can’t beat musical performances for conveying melodies”.

    A game is not a novel. The more it tries to be, the worse it’ll be.

    Where there is a story, it must stay out of the way of the fun. I bet Ron Gilbert has a broad vocabulary about ways to do this.

  2. Mike Mearls says:

    I think the problem is much deeper than a need for a critical vocabulary. I think the bigger problem is that we’re in a situation where most people over 40, and non-gamers below that mark, simply can’t take videogames seriously. We’re dealing with a massive generation gap between people who grew up playing games and people who got old buying them for their kids. The later simply can’t take games seriously. Comics faced a similar hurdle. It took time for the generation that could take them seriously to move up the cultural ranks.

    I think that’s why we’re so quick to tie games back into novels and other media. We want to piggyback on the acceptance they’ve already earned.

  3. joe m says:

    Although it’s true that masterpieces of film had been made before Cahiers du Cinema, I think your dismissal of Cahiers du Cinema’s importance is a bit brash. France was, especially in film’s first few decades, an incredibly important cultural center. If you go into any decent video store, you’ll typically see that the second largest country represented, besides the US, is France. When Hollywood began cranking films out, many considered the truly artistic films to come from French directors, or by people influenced by French directors. Hollywood was, just as it is now, mainly producing products instead of art.

    Your lack of respect for France’s influence on film aside, I do agree with you that there is already a perfectly good vocabulary to be used: the vocabulary of games. Several books (such as Rules Of Play) have been written intending to tie together games of all types, including videogames, and discuss them with a common vocabulary. But what I think the Wired author was getting at is that there is no ongoing, intelligent, critical, well-respected and popular discussion/analysis going on. The “Cahiers du Cutscene” would be a unifying forum for those who desire to investigate and study the art of the videogame, and would influence the game designers themselves.

    I believe it would be nice if such a thing existed, however C.d.C. was not just a periodical, but a cultural phenomenon of sorts. And cultural phenomena are quite hard to purposefully create, it seems.

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