Thursday, 5 May 2011

Dearth Of The Author: Why the games industry needs stronger creative voices

Watching an action film like Hanna take so many creative risks, even if not all of them paid off, makes me wonder why there are still so few high-profile releases from the games industry willing to take a chance on more creatively ambitious projects. That's certainly not to suggest that there aren't any, nor that Hollywood is a bastion of creative expression, but there certainly seems to be a greater willingness within the film industry to experiment within the popular genres or to give full releases to films which could be seen as more experimental than mainstream audiences are used to.

I doubt, for example, that anyone could name a high-budget game in the last ten years which was so brave and successful in terms of storytelling, theme and content as Inception. Such projects may admittedly not happen particularly often in the film industry, but there are usually one or two releases a year that manage to surprise people. With the greatest respect, I doubt anyone could make the same argument for the games industry.
It strikes me that the culture in which the gaming evolved and the relatively young age at which the industry achieved mainstream acceptance - if we take that point to be the launch of the Playstation in late 1994 - might be reasons for the ongoing struggles for individual voices to stand out and more creatively ambitious projects to be given equal shelf space with the latest Call of Duty or FIFA. To contextualise my argument and look at how the film industry grew out of a similar predicament, a brief history lesson is required - but don't worry, attractive women will be involved.

We go back to France in the 1950s, a country still coming to terms with its wartime occupation by the Nazis and the collaborators who worked out of Vichy. A result of this was that the national film industry of the time was deeply reticent to create challenging or experimental work that might show France in a bad light while trying to rebuild its standing in the world. Instead, they invested big in 'cinémas de qualité', a propagandist term for films that reinforced safe and bland moral messages and adhered to a strict film-making formula on how to stage and present the story to viewers. These films were popular, but creatively void.

A small group of film critics (François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard amongst others), writing for the Cahiers Du Cinéma magazine, reacted against this artistic suffocation by the French studios. They championed a number of foreign directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock, who worked within the studio system but whose technical excellence allowed them to leave 'signatures' on a film through their visual style and tackle challenging themes through symbolism and allegory that would be off-limits to less ambitious minds. Due to their unique filmmaking techniques and singular creative visions, the critics called these directors the 'auteurs' (authors) of their films.

Those film critics went on to become film-makers themselves in what was known as the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave). The highly experimental movement ripped up the studio rulebook and twisted expectations of how a film was supposed to be presented and watched, appealing to the senses as well as the intellect (well, it was French). If you're wondering where the babes come in, being boho-hippy-Frenchie-types, New Wave directors were fond of filling their female roles with unusual, off-beat actresses whose personalities were livelier and more exciting than the subjugated 'role-model' women the studio pictures used. Not to mention the fact that all of them were extremely beautiful. Take for example, Anna Karina...

Catherine Deneuve...

Or Brigitte Bardot.

Apart from using it as an excuse to post pictures of gorgeous French actresses, the situation French cinema found itself in before these directors revitalised it bears some similarities to how the videogame industry is operating now. Of course the details are different: rather than family-safe, moral message productions, the overwhelming majority of games released by big publishers are sequels in a limited number of popular genres, often near-identical to one another in terms of visuals and gameplay mechanics. Gaming is in desperate need of 'authors' to drag it out of creative lethargy.

There are many possible reasons why gaming has so far struggled to find them. One might be that people seeking to enter the industry are overwhelmingly likely to be young: the medium itself is only about forty years old, so apart from those present at the beginning, new entrants will most likely be barely over half that old. Only very rarely do people of that age have a strong world-view and the experience to project it in a clear and confident manner. Asking them to helm a multi-million dollar project and assert their artistic personality onto the resulting game is an infeasible demand for most because they themselves will barely be sure of what they believe in. Yet reports abound over the internet of veteran programmers being refused jobs despite their years of experience: unfortunately, the industry seems to value the knowledge gained by age less than the malleability of youth.

While it's important to appreciate that the industry operates as a business and will therefore go where the money is, the growing reliance on formula sequels is strangling the young medium's bid to promote itself as a worthy cultural form. It is segregating the gaming audience in the same way that resulted in the graphic novel industry (which produces a much larger number of intellectually stimulating works than videogames) failing to find readers for its best works outside the stereotypical niche. The artistic merits of games and graphic novels are championed by fans, but apart from token bids by newspapers to bring in younger readers by showing 'open-mindedness', the assumption prevails that where books, film and radio have great cultural worth for everyone, gaming and graphic novels are best left to adolescents. And who can blame them, when the games industry itself continues to treat many of its products as little more than cash-cows to exploit juvenile fantasies?

Despite being derided by long-time fans for the manner in which they've gone about it, Nintendo's outward-thinking with the Wii has proven that the medium can appeal to non-gamers if offered in a manner that proves it has interests beyond those of the average teenage boy. Is Wii Sports colourful and child-friendly in its presentation? Absolutely. But for most people that's no bad thing: If they're going to be asked to play, childhood is where they'll be most comfortable reverting back to. It's the juvenile years, when we all thought we were cleverer than we were and lusted after the empty pleasures of life, that most sensible adults would prefer to leave behind. Games like Gears of War, despite the 'Mature' rating on the box, are more of an uncomfortable reminder.

The Wii is the brainchild of Shigeru Miyamoto, General Manager and Head of Creative Development at Nintendo, also one of the few men who can make a strong claim to being an 'author' of the games industry. His authorial signature comes through a devotion to mixing accessibility and depth, presented in a style that is cheerful without descending into garish infantilism. He operates firmly within the gaming mainstream, yet many of his games have strong surrealist aesthetic influences (Pikmin, Super Mario Bros) and narratives in his story-driven games are deceptively deep (examining loneliness in Majora's Mask). He also has a knack for bringing in audiences who would not traditionally call themselves game players. Certainly one of the reasons that the reveal of Nintendo's next console at this year's E3 is so anticipated is to see what he has come up with.

His presence is not just helpful for the games and consoles he invents, but as a figurehead the industry can use to give authority to their claims for cultural and artistic worth. One of the differences between the literary or film industries and graphic novels is that the former two can point out any number of great writers or directors, respected by people in all walks of life regardless of their entertainment preferences, as evidence of what their media can offer. Comic books can provide a handful at best - Alan Moore and who?

Having these figures, whose creative appeal stretches over boundaries and redefines the limits of what their medium has to offer, is invaluable not only in terms of cultural respectability but also increasing the number of people who would be open to trying things they otherwise might not. Audiences are attracted to big events and having a marquee name behind any product is a reassuring sign that the product in question will likely be among highest quality of its kind.

A further benefit of the presence of 'author' figures in an industry is that studios (or publishers) can feel safer in backing riskier projects. This is not only because they know that the person in charge is experienced in what they're doing, but also that the name alone will be enough to bring in a certain amount of publicity and sales. If we consider the upcoming Epic Mickey as an example, having Mickey Mouse as the protagonist might have given the game a certain importance over other platformers, but it was Warren Spector's involvement and gamers' knowledge both of the quality of his past work and the authorial gameplay signatures inserted within them (player freedom, a certain amount of role-playing elements, open level design) that elevated the title to something worth giving a large chunk of Nintendo's E3 stage-time to. Promotional interviews in newspapers and magazines have been quick to label him as one of gaming's most respected statesmen, making non-gamers want to know who he is and what makes his games more special than the myriad others they had ignored.

Beyond Miyamoto and Spector, coming up with a list of candidates as potential gaming 'authors' is dispiritingly difficult. Fumito Ueda, lead designer of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, is the most obvious candidate. Jonathan Blow, of Braid fame, has potential. Unfortunately, few other designers seem to meet the basic criteria that the Cahiers Du Cinema critics laid out for auteurship.

Hideo Kojima could be a front-runner, despite his sense of humour taking a bit of getting used to. Grasshopper Studios' Suda Goichi certainly has the signatures and creative talent in abundance, but operates too far outside the mainstream: his ironic deployment of gaming clichés are easily confused as the same old adolescent fare by those not in-tune with his mindset. 

As a team, Ice-Pick Lodge (Russian developers of Pathologic and The Void, two amazing games that I'll probably write about at some point) are worth mentioning for having a manifesto of design ambitions and dedication to creating experiences that expand how the interactive form can express story and theme. Yet while the themes they draw their games around (social decay, depression) are more broadly accessible than Suda's, the manner in which they do so is profoundly anti-mainstream and even seeks to make the experience uncomfortable for the player. The only other candidate I could come up was David Cage of Heavy Rain fame, but while his devotion to interactive drama is admirable, the quality of his work (and writing especially) is debatable at best.

As much as the present methods of business-focused thinking is proving lucrative for publishers, any industry so focused on finance above creative endeavour will almost certainly end up consuming itself and destroying any potential for expansion. The gaming industry's patronising approach to its customers is evident both in its oppression of young talent and reliance on formulaic genre sequels, as well as attempts to catch on Nintendo's coat-tails and the Wii Sports phenomenon, confusing understandable presentation for hand-holding. The resulting flood of low-quality 'casual' games decided that the best way of enticing those without controller experience was to treat them as though they had the cognitive capacities of a three-year old.

By developing more individual talents, publishers can not only give themselves a safety net for backing more experimental titles, but also have promotional figures to introduce the medium to new customers: surely the sign of a mature industry is how comfortably its creative and business brains cohabit. The argument about gaming needing to find its Citizen Kane may be a tired one, but it might be worthwhile to start looking for its Orson Welles.



hpseaton said...

Xander I really enjoy this post, but I will have to disagree with you. Although games may have a way to go to give you a 'Citizen Kane', I would point to Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 2, and the upcoming L.A. Noire as signs that the industry is moving in the right direction.

And Alan Moore is great, but I think Bryan Lee O'Malley, Robert Kirkman and Terry Moore have shown great ability to meld story with art in the comic book medium.

Great writing, I look forward to reading more of your work.

Anonymous said...

as for other 'authors' in the industry, Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman are all considered influential in the industry; their claim to fame being the adventure games of the Lucasarts golden years such as Full Throttle and the Monkey Island series.

I quite like the recent resurgance of adventure games as an episodic medium but it still doesn't get the attention I think it deserves (needs) but as a medium it allows creativity and ambition in terms of story, setting & character even if the gameplay is quite limited and inevitably similar to what's been played before. But the satisfying thing about adventure gaming is we'll be quite happy with the same old game mechanics as it's the world, story and hopefully well-written dialogue that keeps us going.