If anything, this year’s Academy Awards illustrated that Hollywood still likes telling stories about itself.
The biggest winners this year, as Crikey’s Luke Buckmaster has noted in a more detailed report, were Hugo and The Artist. Both films deliberately tell stories about the history of cinema and try and evoke an affection for pre-sound film, long-faded in the minds of Hollywood’s general audience.
That they are popular for doing so is no coincidence – there is a long history of films about films, including the perennially popular Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard. What is most interesting about Hugo and The Artist, however, is their differing approaches to celebrating early cinema, and how we might see traces of these approaches within the field of videogames, too.
The Artist works within the confines of silent Hollywood cinema in order to talk about a media form in transition, and it does this well on a technical and emotional level. By the same token, The Artist seems to reinforce the silent film’s status as an outdated mode of creation, as something that was rightfully overtaken by the forces of history. As David Denby in The New Yorker noted (perhaps a touch harshly), The Artist “pats silent film on the head and then escorts it back into the archive.”
On the other hand, Hugo works within a very modern genre – the digital 3D film – to point to the creative power of silent cinema, and to the director/stage magician Georges Méliès in particular. Hugo does not seek to return silent cinema to the vault, but instead makes an argument for its ongoing relevance and power, and for the need for preservation.
In videogames, we have many examples of the approach of The Artist. ‘Retro’ is an aesthetic and gameplay attribute common to a huge variety of videogames, be it reworked into something modern, as in Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery or Ziggurat, or in a work that plays with the limits of an older genre, like GunGodz. Frequently, an intentionally older aesthetic is a way of reinforcing the style of the medium and a given videogame’s place within it.
However, there are seemingly few videogames that directly engage with videogame history in the same way that a film like Hugo does with cinema. Though the preservation and archiving of videogames is an enormous issue, contemporary videogames make scant note of this. Preservation of videogames is an ongoing task in need of attention (see, for example, the important Australasian Heritage Software Database, a project I hope to write more on at a later point).
Yet as far as I can tell, we’re still waiting for a videogame that makes the argument for the ongoing significance of early videogames, for their inherent vitality and for the need for the archival vault to not become a prison.