Wednesday, November 01, 2006

2nd to last bit of draft...

sooo drafty

The auteur debate

Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert famously wrote that games could never be a true art form (as compared to film and literature) because their interactive nature prevents a game designer from exerting full authorial control over what the audience experiences (Ebert, 2005).

From a fine art perspective, this argument can be quickly dismissed. Ebert’s definition would discount all forms of interactive art, art that involves audience participation (several forms of drama, for example). Even abstract art, designed to evoke intellectual exploration and interpretive autonomy would seem to fall afoul of Ebert's criteria. Celebrated game designer Will Wright compares player participation in games to the high degree of subjectivity built into modern art, in which "the viewer became part of the artistry; it was kind of shared authorship that I think we're actually seeing happen to games right now."

The definition of art that passes muster in the art world, however, is largely irrelevant in game development circles. Game designers don’t typically compare their work to "modern art"; they compare themselves to the “lively arts” of film, television and modern literary-forms – heavily narrative based linear media. Ebert's belief in that interactivity is incompatible with art is in fact shared by many game developers (reference).

Regardless of Ebert's commentary, the question of authorial control is a key meme in game development that has always been around, manifesting itself in various ways and implicated in various questions. One recent manifestation can be seen in the methodological tension between approaches that can be loosely grouped into storytelling on the one hand (strongly narrative-based structures, "media convergence" with film) and open-ended play spaces on the other ("emergent gameplay", Will Wright’s "doll’s house" approach). Another manifestation of the authorship meme is in the question of the “auteur”, or “vision-carrier”.

The history of game production is the history of famous development teams as much, or perhaps more, than famous individuals. It has been argued that if are to be treated as a serious art form, and developers respected as creators, we should learn from the film, music and publishing industries where the cult of the artist is very strong, and cultivate the notion of the game "auteur".

The “auteur” idea is also pragmatic: as a way to elevate the status and power of creative side of development above and beyond the power that the "bean-counters" currently wield, and champion the creative integrity of the project, against the polluting forces of increasing team sizes and meddling corporate stakeholders.

It is also proposed as an answer to the problem of credit and power within the game industry. Games are credited in the same way a tin of peas is credited – they are branded (typically with the publisher's label, the game franchise brand, and the development studio less prominently).
“The picture they [publishers] are painting of game industry is that the Publishers take select franchises and properties, add their valued branding and marketing talent, and then have the videogames developed in factories," according to Jason Rubin.
The idea is that if an individual's name was promoted rather than the brand, it would change the power relationship between publishers and developers: publishers may legally be able to control a brand and take a game franchise away from developers who created it (something that happens frequently), but they can’t own the name and reputation of individual developers.

Of course, there is the feeling of frustration with a situation where the world's most successful game designers live in relative obscurity compared to their celebrity peers in other creative industries.
"God of War" designer David Jaffe complains about the reticence of game developers to promote themselves as artists, leaving the credit for their work to the corporations: "I think there’s almost this kind of insecurity vibe that a lot of game makers have, that it’s like “you know what? Fuck it, man, take the fucking brass ring; stand up and say I was responsible, with my team, for doing this, and I’m going to reap the benefits: financial, socially, status-wise."

This reticence among game developers is not mere self-denial, however. While the medium of the game may now have much in common with other entertainment media, behind the scenes the traditions and values of software development are still very evident. Game developers share many of the values of the larger software community, a community that sees their culture of great teams and (relatively) flat hierarchies as not only practical, but also as a progressive tradition to take pride in. "Team" is not merely a production methodology, it is value-laden and culturally significant within the industry.

Epic Game's lead designer Cliff Bleszinski warns that a designer who singles themselves out as an auteur "runs a serious risk of alienating the people who made the game great", and according to Deus Ex designer Harvey Smith game development is so collaborative that “it just feels wrong to me to have “so and so’s such and such”.”

Dan Cook takes the auteur debate to the nature of the game medium itself. He posits that unlike older media forms, the sheer level of aesthetic complexity of games precludes the notion of an auteur:

“If the vast majority of publicly celebrated creative works of the past have been attributed to a single artist, then surely game design must follow the same model? The only problem here is that most games are not created by a single person with genius level skills in a mature craft. They are team activities that involve the creation of complex, new-to-the-world interactive systems.”

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At 12:13 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To read a serious work on game auteur and auteur criticism:


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