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Is Auteurship Possible In Game Development?

by John Mawhorter on 02/22/10 09:15:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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While I think Kotaku's article on auteur theory in games is rather simplistic, it raises a question that comes up again and again in discussions of the role of the game designer. Here are the questions that auteur theory raises for me in relation to games? 

1. Is it possible to be an auteur in the industry?

Not in the same sense as Hollywood, in my opinion. No major video game company is organized with a single designer as god in the same way that the director is god in Hollywood. While certain individuals have lots of influence based on their celebrity (Molyneux, Jaffe, Meier, Wright, Miyamoto, etc.) I would challenge the assertion that they have anything like "final cut" power. While I can't be sure that this doesn't exist, certainly no industry sources I've read have claimed or implied that it happens.

2. Are video games too complex to be conceived of by a single person's vision?

Video games are technically (programming), artistically (visual art), and mechanically (game design) complex which is why traditionally game development is organized around seperation and specialization of these tasks. In my mind it is a challenge to think of one person being able to exert significant creative control over such a complex development process, let alone conceptualize a coherent vision for everything from control schemes to user interface design. On the other hand we have people producing video games entirely by themselves like Cactus, Jason Rohrer, etc. that are obviously products of a coherent, creative vision. But these games are much less complicated production wise. At what point do things get too difficult to manage for a single person? I certainly have not heard stories about Shigeryu Miyamoto chewing out 3D modellers or Will Wright telling his UI designers what to do..

3. How wrong is auteur theory?

As most film theorists would concede, auteur theory is perhaps a useful way of thinking about the artistic aspects of filmmaking, but it isn't completely accurate. We may be able to tell a Howard Hawks film from a Scorsese from a Spielberg, but how much does that reveal about their artistic vision and personality as compared to the prevailing industry standards of the time, their coworkers perspiration and talent, and the scriptwriters creative genius. There is also that point about auteurs bad films being better than those no-name Hollywood bores all around them. Star power is a double-edged sword in that it might allow for genius to bloom, but if it also promotes a sort of celebrity designer culture where certain people are "in" regardless of their talents or the merit of their works. Auteur theory can also be seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If everyone in Hollywood believes in the power of the director, he will in turn have the most artistic influence. Perhaps there is something to be said for giving one person outsized creative control.

4. What would an auteur theory of game development look like?

  The Kotaku article proposes that we look at game development studios as auteurs rather than individual designers, but it doesn't discuss how we tell games are from an auteur studio. In creating auteurs, film theorists seem to be latching on to the certain ineffable something  that is the mark of a personal style or touch. Things like camera movement (Hitchcock's dolly/zoom vertigo effect), storytelling tropes (Hawks' group of men), cuts (Kurosawa's circle wipes), special effects (Michael Bay and explosions), acting style (Werner Herzog and theatricality), and focus(Citizen Kane/Orson Welles use of deep focus) are all defining elements of an auteur's style. If we are to make auteurs of designers or developers, do we focus on mechanics? Can we say that Valve is the master of linear storytelling in first person games? Or that Bioware is a genius for creating RPGs with engaging characters? Or do we discuss physics engines and graphics shaders as well? We must keep in mind that auteur theory developed alongside critical film theory and its developing stylistic vocabulary. But aside from the graphical look of the Source engine, how would I be able to tell that Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead were made by the same group of people? Maybe refining our vocabulary for discussing game design would help, but I can't help but feel that the difference between the game mechanics of the two games brooks no comparison. Even a developer-focused approach seems to have its flaws. I certainly can't conceive of a better case for individual auteurship than Carmack and his influence on graphics development at iD. If we track personnel changes over time it is possible to get an idea of how much influence certain people have. In some cases, like game writing, often only one person has the responsibility. I would say that in many cases it is good to think about both the individual and the team as auteurs. Portal can be examined both in relation to Kim Swift and Valve as a whole, for example. 

In conclusion, I feel that the industry should celebrate its collaborative nature, but also experiment with a true director-style tyranny of creative control as a solution to design-by-commitees faults. Auteurship is difficult to assign to any one discipline of development, but currently discourse is focused on designers. We can see auteurship in the many single-person indie titles being put out with high quality or in a whole development studios years of practice. Just who is an auteur and what makes them one are areas to be contested and, perhaps, expanded. Ultimately it seems as if the myth of the genius artists singular vision is a persistent one, one that will be applied to video games in new and interesting ways.

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