From Critic to Creator

Francois Truffaut filming The 400 Blows in 16mm
Francois Truffaut filming The 400 Blows in 16mm

During 1959 in Paris a group of film critics at the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, who for many years had been arguing for the recognition of film as an artistic medium, began putting their theories into practice. Recent developments in technology had produced handheld cameras on par with those used on studio sets, allowing the ‘Young Turks’ to take to the streets of Paris, shooting highly personal works in small teams, rejecting all of the expensive structures of commercial cinema, which had long been in a state of stagnation.

Just as we now find ourselves in an entrenched battle for the wider cultural recognition of videogames as an artistic medium, it isn’t surprising that some journalists here too have jumped the fence from criticism to practice

Known as the Nouvelle Vague (the new wave) they revolutionised cinema as we know it, inspiring similar movements throughout Europe and the world and laying down the seeds for the American Independent scene of the seventies. Lacking formal training they used their cinephilia and anti establishment fervour to challenge and overturn all the previously held rules of the medium. Their first works were a poignant autobiographical story of childhood by Francois Truffaut called Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows) and a more radical, experimental work by agent provocateur Jean Luc Godard called A Bout de Soufflé (Breathless), which subverted pulp genres to create a potent story of rebellious youth. The flood gates were opened and other directors followed, including a group from rival film journal Positif led by Chris Marker, Agnes Varda and Alain Resnais who formed The Left Bank Group.

Gunpoint's ingenius hacking system. Eat your heart out Watch Dogs
Gunpoint’s ingenius hacking system. Eat your heart out Watch Dogs

Just as we now find ourselves in an entrenched battle for the wider cultural recognition of videogames as an artistic medium, it isn’t surprising that some journalists here too have jumped the fence from criticism to practice. Amongst these the best known is probably Tom Francis, who for years wrote for PC Gamer before creating Gunpoint, which was a significant breakout hit in the rapidly growing indie scene. The most incredible thing here is that Tom pretty much taught himself to create games from scratch, and that’s a significantly bigger hurdle to overcome than learning to operate a movie camera. Gunpoint, a puzzle game involving a hardboiled detective with robotic trousers and some nifty hacking abilities, no doubt felt so fresh because Tom had no habits or expectations formed from working in commercial studios. With no one to answer to he was able to put his ideas directly into action.

Jean-Luc Goddard's debut Breathless was an experimental riff on American film conventions
Jean-Luc Goddard’s debut Breathless was an experimental riff on American film conventions

Just as the French New Wave came about on the back of developments in camera technology, which ushered in an era of creative freedom, so too are indie game developers benefiting from significantly more accessible software, including the Unity Engine which has drastically changed the development landscape and buoyed up the indie scene. It’s now possible to make games using entirely free software and to teach yourself via YouTube tutorials, lowering the barrier to entry considerably. Other developers that have jumped ranks from the world of journalism include Jim Rossignol of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, who recently created Sir You Are Being Hunted, and Greg Kasavin of Super Giant Games, who was once Editor in Chief of GameSpot, to name but a few more.

Perhaps as a result of their fondness for the written word, the New Wave critics-turned-directors developed the auteur theory, which famously dictated that the unique signature of a talented director could be seen in all of his films, just like the writer of a novel. Although it’s sometimes a little harder to identify a comparative figure within a large videogame studio (outside of people like Ken Levine and Hideo Kojima), small studios are often built around one strong personality and one-man-shows like that of Tom Francis also seem to fit this model nicely. The growth of the indie scene has occurred alongside the development of the celebrity designer, and with increasing awareness of how games are made and the people who make them in the public sphere, you can see the idea of the auteur becoming a powerful idea in the videogames industry, just as it did in the film industry.

There are obviously differences between the game and film industries as well as the sixties and the present day, but I like to draw encouragement from the fact that in this instance history seems to be repeating, with the indie scene poised to revolutionise the games industry as much as the French New Wave changed the face of cinema forever.

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