The Silent Art Form (Work in Progress)

June 14, 2009 § Leave a comment

As someone who is primarily interested in films, video games and television dramas, it should come as no surprise that I have a great fascination with the art of storytelling. Roger Ebert may have said that video games are not art; maybe he was right, but many video games do have a narrative structure and, ironically, there are some video games out there that are actually purer examples of storytelling than most movies today. And I’m not sure even he could disagree with this.

Mark Kermode, an eminent film critic from the UK, recounts a conversation he had with Mike Figgis:

I’d been saying how terrific it was, the introduction of sound had radically transformed cinema and he said, ‘well, it’s not necessarily a good thing’, because, as far as he was concerned, before the talkies began film was universal… as soon as you introduce dialogue into a film it becomes completely language specific; the most universal type of filmmaking is simply images and music, and the more I think about it, the more I think he’s absolutely right.

He is, of course, right. Some of the most powerful scenes in modern cinema today are the ones which have exactly zero dialogue. One particular scene that comes to mind is from Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More, in which Col. Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) comes face-to-face with his sister’s murderer, El Indio (Gian Maria Volontè). I could do a whole article on this one scene, but, suffice to say, it is an extraordinarily beautiful, emotive bit of filmmaking. There are also many other films which either contain minimal dialogue or none at all, and these are hailed (rightly) as brilliant – examples might include Blade RunnerWall-E, The Snowman and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Mark Kermode describes “a film being projected with live orchestral accompaniment” as having a greater “purity” than the talkies. Obviously, I don’t go into my living room to see a full-piece orchestra in the front and big-screen projector hung-up on the back wall. But, what I believe Mr Kermode is saying is that it is the combination of music and imagery which makes the experience purer. (I capitulate that a live experience has a more corporeal quality about it, but I don’t think this was his main point.)

Now, let me throw a few more titles at you: Rez, Shadow of the Colossus, Half-Life, some of the Metroid series, Defcon and Portal (and I’m sure there’s more, so please forgive me). What do all these games have in common? You’ve probably already guessed it: they all feature a silent protagonist and, for the most part, contain very little or no dialogue. Most of the storytelling in these games is either done visually, through sound and, sometimes, through on-screen text. Consider this: the games most often equated as being artful are, in general, dialogue and story-lite, very similar to the silent movies Mr Kermode would regard as purer.

It’s interesting that the games industry is often referred to as being in its infancy, because this would land us in the very same period of time as the silent-era of filmmaking. While movies have moved on from images and sound to being more dialogue based and CGI ridden, video game producers are finding new, original and exciting ways to tell a story through the player’s interactions and through other aspects of the game itself.

My point is this: with some saying that silent film represents the purest form of cinema – and, by extension, storytelling – can certain video games, at present, be regarded as having a quality of narrative equalling, or even bettering, films?

No, I don’t think so – not yet, anyway. But I saw The Last Guardian trailer from E3 a few days back, and I’m now wondering: maybe we’ll be getting there soon. Again, this is from Mr Kermode:

… we really have lost something. We’ve lost the ability to tell stories through facial gestures, to tell stories through static camera shots that allow actors to emote in a way that simply is visual rather than verbal. As cinema has got louder and louder and louder we have, ironically, lost the melody of melodrama; we’ve lost the tunes that used to make cinema work. Silent cinema was never silent; silent cinema was always musical.

Following what Mr Kermode is saying, as cinema releases are frequently becoming “louder” and bigger than ever before, wouldn’t it be interesting if this idea of telling story purely through visuals and music was again rediscovered in a format previously discounted by film critics?  Wouldn’t it be funny if video games became the new home for silent cinema?

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