Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The auteur theory of games

I've been having an interesting discussion with Michael Abbott in the comments to this post. The question: Can inspiration survive the collaborative process intact? Or does the team-based approach to design necessarily dilute a singular creative vision?

At first blush, my feeling is that the list of video game "auteurs" is pretty small. I could name you Shigeru Miyamoto, whose games tend to emphasize the allure of new worlds hidden just out of sight; Hideo Kojima, who delights in breaking through the fourth wall to draw explicit parallels between his fictional stories and the real world; and now Suda 51, whose embrace of game symbols and history is almost post-modern.

Generally, when I play a game, I don't get that feeling that I've tapped into the psyche of some cracked genius. Many good -- even great -- games still feel more like a machine that's been precisely engineered, rather than a sloppy work of genius. Along those lines, I was struck by a comment Gus Mastrapa made on a post Chris Dahlen wrote about Burnout Paradise:
I’ve always taken issue with the Burnout series’ reticence to commit to a style, position or even attitude. The worlds are always kinda bland, generic even. The radio hosts are usually suicide inducing. The crashes and racing are awesome, but the setting is so non-committal that it irks me for some reason. Who gets the opportunity to make a world and fashions something so utterly devoid of character?

I read that and thought immediately of No More Heroes. By any measure, Burnout is the more polished and "professional" of the two games. Its open world is seamless. It is a technological marvel, and at its best it provides a gut-level thrill that I'm not sure is matched elsewhere. But the game lacks any kind of a voice or point of view. Paradise City doesn't possess an ounce of the character that Santa Destroy has. Whatever attitude Burnout Paradise contains comes from a place that rings false, especially as expressed through the riffage of DJ Atomica. My instinct is to attribute that difference to the lack of Suda 51-like personality at Criterion Games.

Of course, that conclusion could just be ignorance on my part, simply because Criterion doesn't have a celebrity figurehead. It may be presumptuous to think that Suda 51 is the only one who had any input on No More Heroes. And, as I think about it, I could name you dozens of designers with distinctive styles. Peter Molyneux. Sid Meier. Tetsuya Miziguchi. I might be saying there aren't many game auteurs only because I haven't thought about it long enough.

On the flipside, you have development houses that continue to produce singular work. Abbott compares the game industry as we know it today to the studio system of Hollywood's early days:'s very easy to discern an Atlus game, a Sega game, a Capcom game, and a Grasshopper game. They each have very distinctive features and stylistic signatures. Yes, they can't necessarily be traced to a specific designer, but I think their distinctiveness is no less pronounced...

MGM films looked very different from Warner Bros. films, which looked very different from Paramount or RKO... the collaborative, factory-like system of filmmaking in the 30s managed to generate such singular, artistically distinctive films.

The parallels are easy to draw. One place you see this in action is in the sharing of tech across development houses owned by the same publisher. Naughty Dog and Insomniac seemed to lend each other a hand between the Jak and Daxter and Ratchet and Clank games, for example. And once one EA game implements a new feature, it tends to propagate pretty rapidly throughout the company (such as how every EA Sports game started to implement the right analog stick in the same model year).

And certainly there are teams with unmistakable styles. Games by Team ICO, say, are as unique as anything in the industry. but Fumito Ueda doesn't tend to enjoy the rarefied status of other rockstar designers. Yet Wikipedia credits his work on ICO as "Director/Lead Designer/Lead Animator/Cover Design/Art Direction." How could he possibly have had more of an impact on that game? It could just be that those of us with no knowledge of what it takes to make a game don't know quite where to give credit, or place blame, especially these days, when it takes a team of dozens to ship a game.

No doubt there are convincing arguments on both sides, and I'm fairly certain that this is the sort of thing that doesn't have a true answer. What do you think? Are great games the product of a determined visionary, or a group of talented people working in perfect harmony?


Tyler said...

Same deal with music. The latest top 40 pop song is generally catchy, technically proficient, etc., but doesn't tend to have a unique sound. Compare to individual artists (or even bands) who do their own songwriting, production, and all those things (Nine Inch Nails comes to mind).

Mitch Krpata said...

Then again, there are those super producers who seem to have a hand in so many of the biggest hits, and who people probably would say have a unique sound, like Timbaland or the Neptunes. I'm not qualified to say, but my impression is that a handful of people are responsible for more of those pop hits than we sometimes realize. What we think of as a generic, adult contemporary sound might actually be the unmistakable stamp of Diane Warren.

Anonymous said...

I guess the best comparison to make is with the indie game scene. Many of the games from that scene are constructed by either an individual or a small and tightly nit bunch of like-minded individuals. When making a game they don't need to satisfy the vast majority of gamers, because their game is typically free to download. As such, a very personal game is made, one that is drenched with the creator’s personality.

Famous examples would include Derek Yu's 'Aquarius', Jonathan Mak's 'Everyday Shooter' and Jonathan Blow's 'Braid'. They are true to the creator’s original vision. They weren't all made entirely by one person (Blow brought in outer help, the awesome David Hellman for one) but any other contributors were proberbly chosen due to the creator’s belief that they hold a similar vision.

Paradise City could have been carved from the inner workings of Alex Ward, but for a AAA racing game it may not have been appropriate. Tim Schafer's interests are found all over his gameography, and although it gives them better reviews, it tends to hinder their overall sales.

So the question is, ‘how does a big-budget game that's aimed at a wide audience include a distinctive and unique personality (or 'soul') yet have its universal appeal still intact?’ Can you think of examples? Are the Houser Brothers our game equivalent of the Coen Brothers - able to make blockbuster material (the GTA franchise) yet keep a clear and niche humor and play-style untamed and prominent throughout?

Well there are my thoughts, and the main points of a blog post I was planning to write...

Mitch Krpata said...

Billy, I think you're right. There actually is a thriving indie game scene, and it's getting a boost on the console front with the distribution platforms of Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network. Most likely, when somebody like Gore Verbinski says there aren't any auteurs out there, it's because he just doesn't know these games exist. They don't get play on the cover of Game Informer, or the featured slot on Gamespot's home page. The established narrative seems to be that all that's out there are these massive, multi-million-dollar bohemoths, and it's going to take an indie breakthrough to puncture that -- something similar to the independent films that started making big bucks around 1990 or so.

And you're right, a lot of the most successful big budget games do seem to have a unique style. I've got some problems with Grand Theft Auto, certainly, but most of the best games last year were pretty unique in their presentation. Look at Portal -- that was made by committee and had a completely independent vibe.

Anonymous said...

There is a thesis on game auteur here: