Video games are unique among forms of entertainment for a few reasons. Interactivity is the most obvious factor which distinguishes games from books, movies, etc. While that is very much the case, there is another factor which sets them apart: Authorship. Video games, like movies (or TV shows), are products of collaboration and require creative input from a variety of people.
The term ‘auteur theory’ was coined by the French film criticism bible Cahiers du Cinéma. It refers to the work of a single artist who exercises a level of thematic and stylistic control that runs throughout his/her body of work. There are some filmmakers who clearly fit this mold (David Cronenberg, Martin Scorsese, and Alfred Hitchcock are but three examples), whose work is unmistakeably theirs regardless of subject matter or collaborators on any individual project. Unlike other art forms such as books or music, video games are similar to film in that they are by and large the product of a collaborative process.
Every project has a leader or small team of leaders. The auteur question is whether it stands up as a whole; on a technical level, or a thematic one. Take Titanfall/Call of Duty creators Jason West and Vince Zampella from Respawn. These men are definitely influential as architects of the modern shooter and are highly skilled developers. However, does their work resonate on a level beyond the enjoyment of particular titles they’ve done?
Conversely, legends like Hironobu Sakaguchi or Shigeru Miyamoto are unquestionably major figures in this industry for the franchises they created. Both of their respective works were very much the product of their distinctive vision, even though they had, over time, taken on more of a background role in the actual development process. They are less auteurs and more overseers, like Walt Disney types who have established a narrative, thematic, or ideological universe within which others can create. Instead, here are some possible candidates to be considered as true auteurs within the world of video game development.
Kojima is probably the first name that comes to many. He certainly fits the bill in terms of his vise-like grip over every aspect of his content. What works against him however is his relative lack of breadth in his body of work. In many ways, his career mirrors George Lucas. Like Kojima, Lucas brought a new sensibility to his respective field that felt fresh and innovative at the time. However, after decades of being steeped in pretty much nothing but that series, and without anyone in a position to address his shortcomings, we have an artist who skirts dangerously close to self-parody. Like Lucas, I’ve always felt a little bad for Kojima. He is so inexorably tied to the Metal Gear series that it’s become essentially his entire career. Hopefully he’s able to let it go someday and focus his attention on something new before he uses up every bit of goodwill he’s gained over the years.
Levine is one of gaming’s finest examples of a developer whose work has clear thematic lines that run through his various projects. His notable titles; System Shock, BioShock, and BioShock Infinite, address issues of player agency and the dangers and consequences of extreme ideologies when wielded by flawed individuals. Along with this heady material, there is a distinctive design philosophy in his games that can be seen in environments and in play-style. Critics may argue that gameplay in his titles is not very good (which is an exaggeration), but his status as an auteur isn’t necessarily about that kind of achievement. Rather, it’s about consistent and deliberate execution.
Suda 51 is a prime example of how a game developer can undeniably fit into the auteur mold while making games that are not particularly great. Visually, his titles exist in a middle ground between hentai anime, arcade games, and your nightmares. Along with that, his games deal with shadowy underworld types such as assassins. While he is indisputably the primary creative force behind his games, his status comes in spite of their consistently poor gameplay and design. It’s tempting to write his games off as masturbatory fantasies with lousy gameplay, but his consistency of vision and distinctive style is what elevates games like No More Heroes or Killer7 above pretenders like Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. Besides, being a creep with a tenuous grasp of technical ability never harmed Lars von Trier’s reputation.
As a writer and a developer, there are few people in the video game industry as beloved as Tim Schafer. His resume demonstrates a wicked sense of humor and amazing characters. While there is a diverse blend of genres represented in his work, his games consistently center around strange people in strange worlds, and feature protagonists who are outsiders that fit right in. As with Suda, gameplay has never been Schafer’s strength, but his unique ability to blend inherently dark content with funny and believable characters shines through as his calling card.
*ahem* Anyway, who do you think are notable auteurs in video games? Is the auteur theory applicable to the format? Leave a comment and let us know.