Death Of The Author, Rise Of The Auteur

How influential directors have both risen (in the East) and fallen (in the West), and how it's shaped the medium. Published on Sat, Nov 02, 2019. Written by Michael Bassili.

Part I: The Death Of The Author

Literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes. — Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’

The West: a place of much artistic diversity and plentiful creatives willing to subject themselves to the tortures that encompass modern-day games development. But, a trend has emerged: one that’s profitable as it is pernicious. Behold, the Death Of The Author! Video games are being produced , and with little artistic care expended. Focus groups inform creative decisions instead of relying on one or more artistic choices from the game’s director; yearly iteration takes precedent over unique and interesting new IPs; video games are all looking, playing, and feeling the same, not because of communal advances in tech and culture, but because of publisher demands. It’s crazy to think that there was once a time where game development was personal and creative in the West. The likes of John Carmack and John Romero are said to be connected to the creation of DOOM, a cultural touchstone and a timeless classic. Will Wright’s SimCity and Sims games became some of the highest-selling games franchises of all time, spawning entire genres of competition and imitation. Peter Molyneux’s flaws are what most remember of him today, but regardless of his infamy, he brought games like Fable and Populous, two genre-defining classics. The 90s and early 2000s were a time of creative passion and innovation in the West. It’s uncontroversial to say that the men mentioned above helped plan what a “video game” could be, and indeed how a “video game” should feel and look like. Control schemes, iconography, themes, essential systems, you name it. People—real human beings—paved the way for the genre that now accounts for over $48 billion in sales revenue.[1]

But, it’s not praising I’m dealing in; I want to talk about recent pernicious trends in the Western gaming market. The Death Of The Author, a term coined by Roland Barthes.

I: Homogenization In Video Games

Microsoft’s XBOX ONE console can be classified as a disaster. It is very little features, games, functionality, ease-of-use, or attractiveness on offer. Compounding all these issues is a set of consoles that are better investments. The PS4 and Nintendo Switch both houses a dozen must-have exclusive titles, quality-of-life features, and technological innovation than Microsoft’s offering. In short: there’s no real reason to buy an XBOX ONE. It’s easy to criticize Microsoft’s fumble; it’s trickier to comment on the state of Microsoft’s exclusives. Games like Gears Of War and Halo—once incentives to buy the company’s expensive, clunky consoles—can now be purchased on Steam and the Microsoft Store for a fraction of the price. Moreover, players on PC get access to higher framerates, resolutions, modding ability, as well as the ability to play online for free (instead of paying a premium every year to access online functionality, like on consoles). What was a good move for PC players became a devastating move for Microsoft’s platform. Valve’s Proton lets Linux players in on the fun, so you can now play your favourite Halo game without ever having to own one of Microsoft’s platforms. Amazing!

But, we have Nintendo. Buying a Nintendo console, like the Switch, grants you access to dozens upon dozens of exclusive games you’ll never get to play elsewhere. Games like Donkey Kong, Mario (Kart, Odyssey, and the other 2-2.5D entries, Party, etc), Smash, Zelda. If award-wining, sales-topping IPs weren’t enough, Nintendo’s console offerings often incentivize thought their gimmicks. Motion controls, pointer-functionality. The list goes on. Nintendo could sell off half their IPs and their bottom line might never even notice. It’s pretty unfair to the competition. The PS4 is also an exclusive powerhouse; Last Of Us, Uncharted, God Of War, oh my! Their controller is also the defacto-standard for PC players. But, back to Nintendo. What sets them apart from their competitors is often their gimmicks. A console only utilizing motion controls; a console that lets you play on both the couch and in handheld mode; a console that lets you play with four friends because one of the five of you can use the gamepad as a screen. These aren’t system-selling features, but they set Nintendo apart. It’s humbling for some to admit, but the Wii won the console wars in the seventh generation; everyone had a Wii, and people of all ages could pick one up and figure it out. Nintendo is good at not being like everyone else. And, with console idiosyncrasies come idiosyncratic games, what Japan does best.

II: Fall Of The West

There was a time (roughly landing in the mid-2000s and early 2010s) where Japan’s gaming scene wasn’t doing well. It prompted a game-developing, FEZ-publishing Phil Fish to declare that modern Japanese games “suck.” [3] Now, almost eight years later, Japan has risen. Bayonetta, Resident Evil 7, Dragon Quest XI (Echos Of An Elusive Age), Breath Of The Wild, Mario Odyssey, Devil May Cry 5, Metal Gear Solid V, Dark Souls, Fire Emblem, I can go on for pages. There are so many best-selling IPs flowing from Japan’s bosom that there’s a Wikipedia page listing everyone. [4] And, a closer inspection of these games reveals something games built right here in the West seems to lack: auteurship. While I’ve never programmed video games, I have programmed. And, I can tell you that project planning is a corporate affair. Meetings with stakeholders and directors dominate the process, with the higher-ups steering the ship. Large amounts of stakeholders (usually involving investors, other teams, and their target audience) lead to large amounts of homogeneity as managers try to avoid the controversy that isn’t manufactured. Exciting ideas remain ideas unless their creators can define a clear business plan and generate accurate return projections. The process of writing software is as creative as management will allow it.

The process of directing art is a personal one. What I lack in Japanese game development experience, I piece together using interviews and BTS documentaries on film and book production, as well as my own Canadian development experience. I also supplement with ample articles written by far-more-qualified journalists. [5][6][7][8]

III: What Happens To Artists Working In Warehouses

I don’t have the patience for Stanley Kubrick, but watching him operate is something I find fascinating. [9] In fact, watching any passionate auteur is insightful; the ones who take charge and are unapologetic in their direction often produce the most substantial works. Think Steve Jobs with the original Macintosh. [10] Steve knew he had something special, and he pushed hard to get his vision for the Mac out the door. Little things, like pushing to paint the factory machines bright colours, are what make art and creation stand both the test of time and the critique of today. For an example of the contrary, look no further than Marvel movies. Besides some early flops (i.e. the first two Thor movies), all MCU entries tend to be well-built, blockbusters that sell tickets and put butts in seats. Now how many MCU movies are as remembered as Sam Rami’s Spider-Man 2, from 2004? What can you say about Avengers: Age Of Ultron? Now, what can you say about The Dark Knight? Poke around a little, and you might find that some of your favourite movies may have been directed by a grade-A auteur! I know! It’s wild! Even the bad ones!

Remembering something, in general, relies on said thing to either be important or interesting. The older I get, the less interesting generic action in superhero movies becomes, and the more interesting wacky, odd things become in general. Baby-Michael may not have enjoyed Metal Gear Solid 3 as much as young-adult-Michael, but who’s to say he wouldn’t have connected with it a different way. I tend to argue that weirder the creation, the more favourable I tend to find it. That’s not to say that work produced by the committee are inferior in any way to more personalized work, just that the personalized work tends to connect with me more…. And, I’m finding that an increasing number of games originating from the West are losing that personal touch that elevates them. Is this me? I’m convinced that the weird, personal, odd, and creative games adult-Michael craves don’t seem to come out of my part of the world, for some reason. I can poke and prod the feeling all I want, but it’s still a feeling, at the end of the day. There was once a time where people were making crazy shit and players were begging for more.

A time where Will Wright was trying to sell a game about building homes for your virtual people; a time where Warren Spector was pitching a weird RPG-simulation to a mass-market audience; a time where Romero and Carmack were getting into trouble for profiting off the Satan-scare of the 90s; a time when the West was the place to be for games development. A time before glorious Nippon reigned supreme. [11] Well, I guess it doesn’t matter for the average player; to us, games are getting better, more creative, and more fun. And, isn’t that what matters…

IV: The Death Of The Author In Gaming

One who argues for the death of the author is one who believes that one’s work should stand on its own, without influence from its creator or its context. More and more, games are being churned out by the committee, told that their creation will be evaluated by the iffy value systems of corporations, stakeholders, and investors. Games that will be reviewed well enough, that will be purchased well enough, that will be played well enough. Games that will be forgotten soon after because they were more of the same. Same trends that sell copies, same mechanics that the industry has deemed “essential,” same tone that is familiar to players. Games you may have forgotten about because they weren’t that interesting or special to play. People talk a lot about Far Cry 2 and 3, but you’d be hard-pressed to find similar continued praise for Far Cry 4 and 5. Most have gone silent on those titles, despite the former two being much older and much more dated. It’s the mechanics and context that make those games stand out, from malaria & gun jamming to Vaas, those games brought something to the table that was different, odd, and polarizing. But, it also brought great success and lifelong appreciators. A net positive for the industry (and the IP, no doubt), but its sequels haven’t used this leverage to continue to improve or define themselves, relying instead on small iterative improvements to the gameplay we all expected regardless of the IP.

It feels like yesterday where Resident Evil changed the way their games played and felt. And, then they did it again. And, again. Resident Evil can be broken into different eras of gameplay; 1-3 are fixed-camera, tank controlled horror games; 4-6 are third-person action-horror games; 7 is a first-person horror game. And, with every iteration, every changing of the formula, the Resident Evil games add another title to their increasing list of genre-defining classics. RE1, RE4, and RD7 are considered to be timeless masterclasses of game design (less so RE7, but that’s due to how recently it’s released). A player might get sick of tank controls and fixed cameras, finding solace in three new RE titles that completely shake things up. These changes, mind you, are odd enough to be considered controversial in some circles; what savvy businessperson or investor would bank on removing all what made the last games successful (in their eyes). “Resident Evil is a game about tight, compact gameplay and scares.” Yes, but what if the next one was an action game, more akin to Evil Dead than Poltergeist. “That’s risky. Why not-“ And, what if the games after that ditch the over-the-top camera position . It will be a first-person horror game where you have to hide all the time, like those Amnesia games everyone loved back in the 2000s. Changes like these need someone or something to act as a catalyst; an IP running on auto-pilot may never innovate past expectations. People can cause change, and people are what make games the creative powerhouses they’ve always been. Assessing the RE games while ignoring the creatives behind the IP would be an exercise in confusion, as your expectations of future titles would be completely unpredictable. Some would even argue that ignoring the creatives behind the project is the ideal operating procedure because it lets you dissect and analyze what makes that individual title good on its terms. But, games don’t exist in a vacuum, and prior titles lend momentum that one can channel when talking about future titles. It’s no linear curve, but you can see glimpses of differentiation in RE titles as the creatives behind the project get bored or brainstorm new ideas. It seems like the natural progression of things, but someplace far lies another path…

Part II: The Rise Of The Auteur

“Auteur” is defined as “a [creator] whose personal influence and artistic control over a [work] are so great that the [creator] is regarded as the author of the movie.

It’s impossible to consume something without also consuming its context; the second you read a certain game developer or company is putting something out, your mind imbues said work with context. This context, big or small, alters the message of the media, altering in a way many disregards outright. “Peter Molyneux is behind it, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.” “Kojima might be making it, but I’ll let the game speak for itself.” Issues arise when people try to distance the author from their work. With this in mind, trying to drop the author through homogenization and corporatization is an exercise in futility. Players and critics alike can all access a bounty of context from the comfort of their smartphone. Nobody knows anything, and everybody can learn more. Lesser-known creators are given a voice thanks to the sheer easy of looking them up online, and disgraced creators find they cannot hide from the public, as the public has ample means of finding them. It’s a cycle, and it affects the public perception of the creator’s work.

Games like Kojima’s Death Stranding and Metal Gear Solid are interpreted being made by Kojima. One might say, “the shooting controls in MGS3 are difficult to understand and tricky to use.” While others, who are aware of Kojima and his work, may argue that, “Kojima intended for shooting to be difficult, as it provides an incentive to sneak.” That word, intend, comes up a lot when talking about the author. People take context clues, interviews, and BTS reports and apply them to the content they’re consuming (whether that’s a good or a bad thing). Design philosophies and ethos can be thus inferred from a quick play of an auteur’s newest game, because that auteur, by definition, had direct control over its direction.

V: Japan’s Influence On Video Games

No country has produced more auteurs than Japan; from Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid), Hidetaka Miyazaki (Souls), Yoko Taro (Drakengard, Nier), Hideki Kamiya (Devil May Cry), Shigeru Miyamoto (Zelda, Mario), Masahiro Sakurai (Kirby, Smash Bros), etc. These names are synonymous with their creations in a way unseen in the West for some time, since the early days of PC gaming back in the US. As a result, their games are almost always spoken about concerning their respective creators and directors; the author has not been killed in the East. If anything, the author (or the auteur) has been elevated beyond belief. Games are seen as an instance of a director’s work; creators are seen as individual entities that produce unique works as they see fit; design ethos transcends the corporation they are built under, instead of adopting whatever philosophies and techniques the human creator brought to the table. “Weirdness” in games is valued, seen as a “quirk” of the creator rather than a failure of the game as a whole. It’s this environment that spawns games like Metal Gear Solid 3, a game where you must hold down many buttons and bumpers to shoot your gun rather than holding down a single trigger. It’s an environment where odd premises, like being a Prince who rolls up objects to turn into stars, are embraced. Strange and unusual decisions are preserved instead of tossed out in favour of what’s mainstream at the time of creation.

It’s why most “different” games seem to come from Japan. Why the Switch (and all Nintendo’s other consoles, for that matter) seem to offer the most diverse, unique, and engaging exclusives when compared to Microsoft. Even Sony’s first-party offerings are more explorative and interesting than Microsoft’s offerings. For whatever reason, the personal human creator has been preserved as a directing entity in Japanese game development, and that’s allowed Japan to become one of the best places to source your video games. More than that, it seems like Japanese auteurs are given more of a voice, more reign to do as they please, with their IPs. Corporatization hasn’t overtaken the development pipeline, and personal artists are free-enough to try new, dangerous things with their games. I’d love to hear more about this from someone working in the Japanese gaming industry. I’m serious. Someone reach out and talk more about this, because I’d be super interested in hearing specifics.

The more an auteur is spoken of, reported on, or written about, the more their influence drapes over their creations. Yoko Taro is known for being kind of a weirdo (we can’t even see his face, because he wears a mask all the time), and those idiosyncrasies leech into his works. Speculating on why a particular work is a way it is without acknowledging its creator is to be ignorant of the context behind a work, to ignore what caused that game to be made in the first place. The East does not consider the author dead. Quite the opposite, it seems.

Part III: Concluding Thoughts

Auteurs in games are as important to game development as a painter is to paint; a piece of art is always discussed about its creator and the context that caused it to be created. And, it’s foolish to try to distance the creation from the author. Consumers will always have access to context; trying to intake content while discarding its creator is as wild as reading Shakespeare and pretending he was never a celebrated writer. If you know the director/creator of a certain game, it will alter the way you consume it. Period. While some argue the benefit of assessing games without the authors in mind, it’s futile. All works stand on the shoulders of what came before, literal context, and to ignore it would be to ignore the past that enabled the creation of the very game you’re trying to critique.

It’s important to support game developers who try new things. Death Stranding is releasing soon, and it looks very different. Regardless of whether it gains mass-market appeal the same way Kojima’s MGS series of games garnered, I’m willing to try something interesting for the sake of it. After all, where’s the fun in doing what everyone else is doing?

Appendix I: Thanking Patrons

I wanted to thank Kyle Isaak for his continued support. If you want to help fund whatever the hell this is, then consider throwing your loose change at me via Patreon. You can read more about it on the Support Us page. These articles take a while to produce, and pledging to support my efforts makes it a little easier to dedicate the time and resources to do so.

Here’s a list of references and sources I consumed while writing this piece. It’s not exhaustive, but I tried to keep track of the sources I used while writing:

Again, I really hope someone in the Japanese games development industry reaches out to talk about this. I’d be very interested to hear how auteurs are treated, and to what degree auteurs influence Japanese games.

3509 Words
19 Minutes To Read
Posted on 02/11/2019

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