Art films and Videogames

A screenshot from the videogame 'Her Story'.

A screenshot from the videogame ‘Her Story’.

Art films, or more precisely foreign language art films, are struggling to find an audience in the UK. (Sight & Sound, February 2016 has an editorial bemoaning this situation and it was discussed in Keith’s post.) At the same time, the value of the videogames market keeps on increasing. It seems at least possible that some of those audiences who have stopped watching art films are now playing certain kinds of videogames. I hadn’t thought too much about making this connection until one of the guest critics on Radio 4’s Saturday Review (download here) remarked that certain kinds of videogames were for people who liked to work hard at ‘reading’ a story. It was probably Naomi Alderman (the novelist who writes about gaming for the Guardian), but all four reviewers of two videogames that have been successful in 2015 said that the experience was more like ‘work’ in that they had to take notes in attempting to construct a narrative. They compared playing videogames with both films and television – suggesting that TV, by comparison, was so ‘easy’ that if it were invented now there would be outrage about how it was rotting the brains of its audiences.

So, is this a useful observation? We need to be careful because there are so many variables in play here. First, it isn’t the so-called ‘specialised’ cinemas that are losing audiences. What they are doing is increasingly moving towards showing Hollywood blockbusters and Anglophone ‘quality films’. Audiences have stopped watching foreign language art films partly because they are difficult to find in cinemas. But they haven’t turned away from subtitles. On Sunday night Channel 4 started broadcasting a German language drama and has announced free streaming of several more series via its ‘Walter Presents’ offer (which looks very exciting). BBC4’s Danish/Swedish subtitled serial Broen ⎮⎮ Bron, which finished over Christmas, attracted on average 1.4 million UK viewers. The biggest audience for a foreign language film in UK cinemas in 2015 was not much more than 100,000 viewers.

We are constantly told that the videogames industry is bigger now than the film industry in value terms – and probably in terms of the number of players. Such comparisons are difficult to make. Games often cost much more to buy/rent than films (but probably provide better value in terms of hours of engagement). Videogaming also covers a wide range of different kinds of interactive experiences. I’m not able to compare them, but I suspect a game played on a phone while sitting on a train is a different proposition than the two games discussed on Saturday Review. One of these, Fallout, is a big budget blockbuster and the other, Her Story, is an ‘indie’ game. The reviewers found that both required ‘work’ to construct a narrative, but Her Story sounds nearest to the experience of art film, even though its potential narrative is closest to crime fiction, i.e. a supposedly ‘generic’ rather than ‘literary’ narrative.

I did once play computer games, back in the early 1990s. I eventually concluded that a) I wasn’t very good at it – I lacked certain skills and that b) I could also become addicted to certain kinds of relatively simple games. So I stopped. I realise that videogames are now much more sophisticated but I’m not really attracted – though I have read several compelling arguments about how they have helped advance ideas about narrative. The crucial question is not about the small group of dedicated cinephiles but about younger audiences who might enjoy videogames, subtitled TV dramas and foreign language art cinema. How should cinemas attract them back? How should we educate distributors and exhibitors so that they consider this audience and cater for it? Anyone got ideas?

Here’s the trailer for Her Story:


  1. keith1942

    Interesting discussion; but I am sceptical that ‘working hard’ at a film is really what art cinema is about. I have certainly been impressed with films which i did not ‘work out’ first viewing, one reason why I went back. The most memorable example would be Antonio das Mortes.
    The comments about sub-titles on television channels and those about tendencies among exhibitors seem to me at least as pertinent.
    However, making the point to exhibitors can be hard. I have emailed Picturehouse enquiry several times: then I discover that they forward them to the local venue, even though the programming is done centrally. One point is that in Britain people seem loathed to complain or suggest: there was a letter in S&S from a visiting Dane who was shocked at what he thought was a poor selection of films in London. And London is a rich selection compared with many of the regions.


  2. keith1942

    It occurs to me that a better example of my point would be The Assassin which i saw at the Leeds Film Festival. The first time I only managed to follow the basics of the plot. I saw it again and that time I think I mastered all the intricacies. I got some satisfaction from that. But my main pleasure was the same as the first viewing, the excellence of the technical work in every department, so that the film looked and sounded superb. And whilst the plot was tricky, the settings and characters were fascinating.
    I talked after the second screening with a friend who followed the plot at his first viewing: and his pleasure was not just working it out.


    • Roy Stafford

      I haven’t suggested that “working hard at a film” is the only, or indeed the most important, criterion for defining an art film. But it is one of the assumptions that are often made that mainstream films are ‘easier’ to read and that audiences might be put off art films that are more ‘difficult’. My observation concerned attitudes towards videogames and how they too might be being classified by some players as ‘more difficult’ or ‘requiring more work’. I’m simply asking whether making this connection between foreign language art films and the more complex games (i.e. in terms of narratology) is useful in thinking about how to attract younger audiences to art films.


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