Monday, February 22, 2010

Games As Art: The Auteur Theory and Video Games

The auteur theory, briefly, is an idea from film criticism which states that a director brings an identifiably unique quality to each of their films. Despite cinema's nature as a collaborative medium, the auteur theory posits that there is an indelible quality that the director brings to their output as the 'core' creator. For example, Steven Spielberg makes movies in a way that is identifiably distinct from the way that, say, James Cameron makes movies. It's a complex theory, and worth reading up on, but that's the basic gist of it.

The question is: is this theory of authorship applicable to video games?

Brian Ashcraft's article on Kotaku, "The Search for Video Game Auteurs," explores this concept, and makes some interesting observations. The names of successful developers often signify a consistent and identifiable style or level of quality. Hideo Kojima, Shigeru Miyamoto, David Jaffe, Ken Levine. All are individual developers whose games have engendered consisten respect from the gaming community. On the other hand there are creators like Tim Schafer who have likewise earned reputations as (possibly eccentric) innovators. There are expectations that precede games based on the individuals behind them, whether of quality or style or raw uniqueness.

Some games are furthermore sold using the name of their "creator," similar to the way in which Hollywood uses directors' names to sell their films. This can engender positive results, as with Sid Meier's Civilization IV, or Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds; it can likewise backfire when low-quality products are sold on reputation alone, as with John Romero's Daikatana, or Transformers: A Michael Bay Film.

More interestingly, however, Ashcroft points out that development studios are sometimes identified in much the same way that the auteur theory treats directors. Fans of games by Blizzard, Maxis, Lucasarts, Quantic Dream all expect a specific type and quality of game from each of the studios. These are not individual creators but rather collaborative entities that have developed distinct identities in gamers' minds. This begs questions as to the reasoning behind the consistencies in their products: is the auteur-esque less a personality and more a set of basic principles? Can their commonalities be explained on a flowchart, and if so is this type of logic extendable to film? Probably on both counts, but what does that mean?

Torchlight, a Diablo rip off?

A game like Torchlight problematizes this identification. Many have noted its similarities to Blizzard's Diablo series, and the fact that former Blizzard staff founded the studio behind Torchlight, Runic Games. So is Torchlight a "Blizzard game" then? Or are the individuals behind the new game responsible at least in part for the Blizzard persona? How responsible? How many former Blizzard staff does it take to create a Blizzard game? Curiously, is Diablo 3 a Runic Games game?

The upcoming Diablo 3, a Torchlight rip off?

The application of the auteur theory to video games is problematic because of the collaborative nature of the medium, but it's actually more complicated than that. One also has to consider the business behind the industry, and more crucially the fact that it is a medium of literal codes. People come together to create something but they do so under a company that retains the overall rights to the intellectual property, likeness, and the code. With this they can give the assets to newcomers to produce something like Bioshock 2. Considering Ken Levine's absence from the development team it would seem difficult to argue that it is 'his' game, like System Shock 2 and Bioshock are. At the surface level, however, there seems little reason to avoid this designation: the game clearly evokes his style, and on a spreadsheet breakdown it hits all the right bullet points. Why not call it Ken Levine's Bioshock 2, both colloquially and commercially?

Because video games are built with strings of codes they can be replicated without any alteration. This could not be possible in film: even if a director consciously chose to replicate the style of another they would still make their own choices as to what that constituted, in both form and content. With video games there is simply the code.

Walter Benjamin spoke of the loss of an artistic work's aura in the age of mechanical reproduction, but the issue is multiplied in the age of digital reproduction. More than that the concept of authorship becomes central when one considers the question, "can video games be art?" But that's a subject or another day. For now I will just say that the auteur theory seems ill-suited to the medium, but then the medium is still young. Things are just getting started.

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