Films Are Interactive, Too: Spectator Empowerment in Filmic Media Should Inform Game Criticism

on Tuesday, September 11, 2012
A recent paper by film critic Thomas Elsaesser (Elsaesser, T. 2011, New Review of Film and Television Studies 9, 247) offers an interesting take on how certain Hollywood  movies invoke interpretation in the spectators. (You may want to at least skim it before reading this post.) He posits that a new sort of auteurism ("post-auteur") has arisen, and he discusses it by analyzing the work of James Cameron, especially his Avatar. In short:
This (for lack of a better word) post-auteur authorship can usefully be discussed in the case of Cameron under several headings: auto-representation and personalized narrative, affective engagement with diverse publics, ambition to effect through technology a change of paradigm. The first I shall discuss as 'control through access for all', the second as 'control through switches of premise and double binds', and the third as 'control through performed self-contradiction'.
The control that is essential for any auteur theory is thus manifesting itself in a new way. Without reiterating the whole analysis, Elsaesser argues that Cameron carefully systematizes control of the audience's reactions by presenting mixed signals that induce cognitive dissonances. These dissonances "provoke the spectator into actively producing his or her own reading, in order to disambiguate the 'mixed messages' or to untie the knot of the double bind." Each spectator, then, arrives at a reading of the text that is at once at odds with the film and other readings but which results in a stronger "'ontological commitment' on the part of the viewer to his or her particular interpretation – a commitment that works in favour of the affective bond formed with a given film."

But what does this have to do with video games? It strikes me that this is essentially a description of how interactive media functions with its audience. The narrative contradictions that create this effect – dubbed "cognitive switches" by Elsaesser – manifest themselves in games as player choice. The dissonance that a filmic auteur like Cameron can choose to create in his audience is inherent to all interactive media by virtue of the changing experience from play-through to play-through. While Avatar induces different experiences in the spectators' minds, interactive media makes these differences literal in the text. While an author of interactive media may be able to achieve a level of control that fixes the number available readings, the default mode of creating meaning is one of these cognitive switches because the player is forced to make ontological commitments toward a particular reading with every interactive choice.

Game critics often compare interactive media to filmic media, and we often interpret games using cinematic modes of thinking. Game developers, too, clearly follow many cinematic conventions in structuring their games. Most commonly, this approach manifests itself as a straightforward discussion of narrative structure and visual presentation. These modes of interpretation lie squarely within the bounds of classical narratological arugments and types of spectatorship such as the voyeurism of feminist film theory. But these methods are clearly inadequate for games, which require ludic approaches as well. In games, the spectator is empowered, so we cannot, either in design or interpretation, use only passive approaches in our thinking. We cannot apply passive film theories to active games.

What film critics like Elsaesser make clear, however, is that filmic media, especially within certain recent trends, also create meaning within an active context analogous to that of games. We see this spectator empowerment emerging prominently with the rise in popularity of "puzzle films" or "mindgame films" (see, for example, Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema, 2009, ed. W. Buckland, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell for an extensive treatment or the extensive bibliography over at Film Studies for Free). Auteurs such as Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Charlie Kaufman, M. Night Shyamalan, and others are disorienting spectators in ways that reward detailed pattern recognition, and they are crafting films with viewing experiences that are substantially different on subsequent viewings. To extensively quote Elsaesser from his chapter in the aforementioned Puzzle Film edition,
[T]he main effect of the mind-game film is to disorient the audience, and put up for discussion the spectator–screen relationship. The notable emergence (some would argue: reemergence) of mind-game films since the mid-1990s would be one sign of this "crisis," to which they are the solution at a meta-level.... [T]he mind-game films set out to aggravate the crisis, in that the switches between epistemological assumptions, narrational habits, and ontological premises draw attention to themselves, or rather, to the "rules of the game." These rules, in addition to what has already been said about them, favor pattern recognition (over identification of individual incidents), and require cinematic images to be read as picture puzzles, data-archives, or "rebus-pictures" (rather than as indexical, realistic representations).

Thus, what appears as ambiguity or "Gestalt-switch" at the level of perception, reception,and interpretation is merely confirmation of strategy at the level of production and marketing: with the mind-game film, the "institution cinema" is working on "access for all," and in particular, on crafting a multi-platform, adaptable cinema film, capable of combining the advantages of the "book" with the usefulness of the "video-game:" what I have called the DVD-enabled movie, whose theatrical release or presence on the international film festival circuit prepares for its culturally more durable and economically more profitable afterlife in another aggregate form. Which would lead one to conclude that the mind-game films make "mind-games" out of the very condition of their own (im)possibility: they teach their audiences the new rules of the game, at the same time as they are yet learning them themselves.
We thus see that recent films have activated the spectator by changing their artistic mode, and that this style is partially driven by the multi-platform, database-like way that we now consume media. Just as cinema has so informed how we structure games, there is little doubt that games have changed how we consume cinema.

What I hope to accomplish with this post is to demonstrate that filmic media, especially in the last few decades, activates its audiences in ways apart from narrative and cinematic images, which are the typical, but insufficient, points of comparison to games. These films empower the spectator to discover their rule-sets and make ontological choices, not unlike players do in games. The grammar of film studies is well-developed, but critics are just beginning to grapple with these new types of active interpretation and consumption. As game critics grappling with the same difficulties, we would do well to understand how an active audience informs our understanding of film, because that will certainly inform our understanding of interactive media as well.

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