March's Topic

Can and do games exhibit authorial intent, as might a book?

Auteur theory, in films at least, suggests that a "creative visionary" can truly lead a team project and have an authorial influence on all, or nearly all, aspects of the project. Some people don't believe that an auteur can truly lead a creative vision across a project, particularly because a modern Hollywood film consists of work contributed by hundreds of people, many of whom never work directly with each other.

I certainly am a believer of a broader view of Auteurism. I certainly think there are Auteur directors that definitely leave an indelible mark of themselves upon the screen. But I also think that the definition of an auteur, of someone with an authorial impact on a film, expands to fill many of the creative roles in a film. At one point I had my film collection broken down by the Directors, Writers, Cinematographers and even Actors that I think bring something more to a film, and can elevate a film to greatness. The idea that these individuals leave indelible marks on a film's DNA, and to me that is a definition for "authorial".

I watch a lot of DVD special features. It's a habit of mine to try to watch most of the non-commentary special features on each DVD of mine. I also realize that it can be something of a rare habit, as not a lot of people care for special features. One thing that I have noticed in my special feature watching is something that should be practically common sense: good auteurs find talented people to work for them. Delving into special features you will find auteurs' love letters to the editors, costume designers, cinematographers, set designers, and what have you that they've spent years building a rapport with. Tarantino's Death Proof is almost entirely an ode to awesome stunt people that still do most of what they do in camera and not in post-production trickery or CG fakery.

I absolutely think that there are important skills there in talented people finding other talented people and then herding those talented cats into amazing circuses of wonder. I think that vision can come through, and is without a doubt "authorial" in nature, that most talented auteurs have certainly deconstructed their own work and reconstructed it several times over the course of the film's creation. I think a central vision, a central understanding of a film, can and does permeate a film from an auteur. There is a qualitative difference between a film that "knows what it wants to be when it grows up" and one that has to find itself on the way. There is a qualitative difference between a film produced by talented people that love what they are doing and who they are working for and with and a film created as industrial product.

One other thing that I noticed was that some of my favorite films were convergences of those I classed auteurs. One quick example is Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which is directed by George Clooney, adapted from the book by Charlie Kaufman, and Sam Rockwell stars. All three men add something to production, and the final product would have been something much lesser without the various visionary capabilities of its auteurs. I absolutely believe that auteur vision can be additive, at least under the right circumstances. Even books can have surprisingly wonderful results when multiple authors collaborate. (One quick example to mind is Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens.) A team project is not necessarily doomed to being an assembly line without a real vision for the product being made.

I include such a long preface to make it perhaps easier to swallow when I declare: the Game Auteur is real and she continues to exist. At least in my reckoning of it. I'll describe what I think an Auteur in gaming is, and then touch upon what I think the future of gaming auteurs is.

A Golden Era of Auteurs

I am one of the very few that talks about upcoming games in the language of auteur theory; my game watching talk is nearly as peppered with designers and production companies as my talk can be when talking about films or television. I can switch gears from talking about the next upcoming Coen Brothers film (A Serious Man) to the next upcoming Tim Schafer game (Brütal Legend) without skipping a beat, and perhaps completely confounding whomever I'm talking to in the process. There are auteurs working in video games today, and you probably just need to hear me ramble on about the many people that I follow to get a sense of that.

A lot of that comes from the fact that I was, perhaps, raised in what might be, under the golden miasma of nostalgia at least, a Golden Era for auteurs in gaming. I, of course, refer to the era when LucasArts and Sierra went head to head building amazing adventure games. It's not easy to speak of either company's most classic adventure games without referring directly to the auteurs that made them what they were. To call them anything but auteurs is insincere or perhaps insulting. The team sizes of the later era of graphic adventure games certainly are perhaps small by today's massive sizes for games developments, but some of them certainly weren't exactly small either. But so many of their visions tied together all the disparate elements that made up the games that they worked on, all the while adding the touches that made the games have a good chunk of their own personalities. I don't know how you could play across a good swath of Sierra's vasty adventure game catalog and not feel like you've gotten to know a little bit about, at the very least, Roberta Williams. [1]

As you can with film auteurs, within the classic LucasArts and Sierra dynasties you could see the ebb and flow of creative talent across the projects; as new auteurs apprenticed with experienced ones [2] and as creative talents would converge on shared project visions, only to diverge again for their next projects.

To this day, I still perk up at the mention of quite a few of the creative names from that bygone era. As best I can I follow the news and patronize [3] the many companies where the auteurs fled during the creative diaspora. Examples include Telltale, Double Fine, Hothead, August Moon, and many others.

Although to some extent they have almost been criminally forgotten or ignored by today's game industry. As a fan, I have a hard time understanding why some of the auteurs that I love in gaming have had such hard times funding their own games, having proved themselves in the past. [4] At the very least, I can't believe that Vivendi started not one, but two Leisure Suit Larry games without asking Al Lowe for design input, if not leadership. [5]

With respect to some of the current state of things, the grand mastery of classic LucasArts and Sierra over the creative sphere of game design, certainly seems like a golden era. Those that even acknowledge that era tend to pessimistically wonder if we may ever see anything like that again. I think it was a brilliant period in gaming, but I'm certainly hopeful for more and greater things to come with regards to game companies encouraging creative talent, particularly auteurs, to flourish and grow.

A Hopefully Brighter Future

In fact, I think we are slowly returning to a place where we, as creators and/or players, can recognize the brilliant people among us and around us building great games, and putting a bit of themselves into those games. First of all, there are small companies fighting to do creative things with games, and doing what they can to nurture those creative visionaries that they find.

These companies need to slowly work towards bettering the business practices of the industry. [6] Perhaps more importantly, I think that the gaming audience needs to start growing up and better recognizing the talent before them. Of the audience, I think we are slowly getting to that point. Many have commented that we seem to be near the edge where incremental changes to graphics technology alone will no longer sustain game purchases. I'm hopeful that game audiences will also slowly catch up to some discernment of game mechanics, as well. Asking for more than just the simple pleasure system addictions that are most easily met by match-3 games or other such grinds, and slowly filtering towards entertainment that might exercise other elements of our complex emotional systems. [7]

Of all the companies that might help bring about that future, the surprise "dark horse" may in fact be mega-publisher EA. EA was founded on promoting auteurs in game development, intentionally choosing a name reminiscent of Hollywood studio United Artists. Along the way as games became bigger and more complex, EA certainly lost sight of that. EA got stuck somewhere in the trap of easy, industrialized and commoditized games. It certainly seems that today's EA has slowly come back to grasping that not all games can be commoditized, and that some require creative risk. [8]

I'm not saying that EA is necessarily the gaming world's savior, just yet. But I do think that creative direction in video gaming needs all the allies that it can get and that parts of EA have shown at least a few small sparks towards getting it. What I am saying is that, if in this economy it is EA, who've have been somewhat demonized in recent years for sticking to commodities, that seems to be getting it: there may be hope for the rest of us.

[1]I'm curious how much of what I beleive about Roberta Williams might stand up to actually meeting her.
[2]I certainly am wishing for a clearer apprenticeship path in an era where there clearly are no such giant creative guilds in the current gaming industry.
[3]...and am currently seeking employment from.
[4]Gaming is not a young industry, it's an industry with long term memory loss issues. I find the "poaching" excuse for hiding creative talent in a game company almost laughable. First of all, there are no major poaching examples between LucasArts and Sierra. Beyond that, how can an industry worry about poaching when it can't even shelter its own previous creative visionaries?
[5]Sure, Hollywood produces sequels without much/any input from the originals' creators, but more often than not those are in cases where the creators have moved on to newer, more exciting projects. Also there is usually money that changes hands and creators have more control over ownership (thanks to union regulations, among other things).
[6]I know a lot of people freak out any time the big U-word is mentioned with relation to the games industry. To be honest I don't think the game industry can truly avoid u10n. For the games industry to think that it can handle the complicated sorts of issues that took Hollywood several decades of major labor disputes to handle, seems at best naive. The fact that Hollywood's unions already have tentacles reaching towards the game industry doesn't necessarily help either. I feel that at some point the game industry will have to do something similar to Hollywood u10n on its own terms, or be forced to do it on Hollywood's terms and at Hollywood's mercy. Which possibility sounds worse to you?
[7]Not that match-3 mechanics will ever go out of style, and there will probably always be the masochists that love needless RPG grinds, but at some point the PopCaps of the world hopefully shall run out of cutesy ways to repackage variations of the same match-3 mechanics.
[8]And Activision in its place has decided that it wishes to focus only on year-over-year commodity games, in the process ignoring and ostracizing some of its most creative assets. Then again, it is the company that has not done much with the Infocom assets it has been sitting on, either.