Reinventing the camera

I just read this interview with Guy Maddin and Isabella Rossellini on indieWIRE. Guy Maddin is a director whose movies have been on my Amazon wishlist for a long time – they sound fascinating. And Isabella Rossellini… I’ve always had a major weak spot for her. But that’s not why I’m mentioning this interview here.

Here is an interesting quote from Ms. Rossellini:

One of the things that fascinated me is that cinema still is looked at as a technology. It was presented 100 years ago in magic shows, like a trick, and they’re still waiting for the new technologies. It’s still promoted that way, the new cinemascope or the new special effect or the digital camera. It’s always the new technology and what artists can do with the new technology, and all the technologies impose a certain storytelling that is forgotten as the technologies progressed.

The reason why this is interesting is that a relatively common argument in the interactive entertainment industry is that we are reinventing the camera for every new work we make, and that this is Bad.

Analogies can be great ways to make a point, but they can also be misinterpreted and lead to mental traps. It always feels strange to me to criticise an opinion without having a concrete instance of it. Nevertheless I’m going to launch an attack, Don Quixote-style, on a point of view that nobody may actually have.

One problem with the camera analogy is that it seems to suggest that there is no technological innovation going on in movies. The quote above shows that this is not the case, and has never been the case. Perhaps the pace is slower than in games, but a closer look reveals that technology in cinema is continuously evolving.

Another problem with the camera analogy is that it can lead to the idea that “content” and “technology” are mutually exclusive concepts. The artist does not spend time building a camera from scratch: the artist uses the camera as a tool to make a work of art.

This is a highly misleading idea. The line between content and technology is very vague, both in cinema and in interactive. In cinema, the director of photography is responsible for making highly technical decisions in order to achieve certain effects that support the experience the director is trying to evoke. This can go as far as developing new cameras, as Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Darren Aronofsky’s movies have shown.

In interactive it would be even more foolish to consider content and technology as two separate things. In interactive, technology is content. From scripting to AI to character control, many essential aspects of the player experience are generated in and through code. Interactivity is a function of process, and process implies code – technology. To separate technology from content, the generic engine from the “content” which defines the game, can be useful when thinking about development, but it does not reflect the reality of game development as I know it (and I’ve seen some extreme manifestations of this idea).

If there is something we can learn from the camera in cinema, it’s that it is a form of technology that is well-understood, and, crucially, offers a broad enough range of expression to allow for the creation of many very different works and styles. This is something that we have not yet achieved in interactive. However, I think technology is neither the source of the problem, nor its solution. We’re not limited to a narrow range of subjects and styles because we’re missing some key technology somewhere.

In the context of development, we’re limited because we do not know how to use technology for anything beyond our limits, and we do not have the time or money to learn to go significantly beyond those limits. Even with an eight figure budget and 30 months of development, you likely will not have enough time to explore new ground.

In the context of the industry, we’re limited because nobody wants to remove those limits hard enough, neither people inside the industry, nor our audience. To a significant degree, important creative decisions are based on a more or less accurate idea of what people will or will not buy. This takes the form of a chain of fear. The developer fears the odd idea will be shot down by the manager, the manager fears the idea won’t find a publisher, the publisher fears the distributor won’t want it, the distributor fears the gamers won’t buy it. And gamers don’t know what they want. It’s not good enough if someone in the chain has the right idea: everyone in the chain has to agree. This is a deep problem.

Nevertheless, I remain optimistic. Things are improving, if slowly. The will is there. At some point, it will conquer our fear.

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