Auteurism

romero_ad.jpgOr, “Gore Verbinski’s Going to Make You His Bitch.”

If you want to see me start channeling my inner crotchety prospector hankerin’ for a feud, there’s no easier way than making the claim “videogames need to adapt the auteur model from movies!”

It comes up fairly frequently on the internets, and I’m usually able to summon my Bruce Banner-like reserves of calm to keep the beast at bay. But sometimes, like with this post about Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski at the DICE summit, it’s compounded with so much inanity that I’ve got no recourse but to commence to bitchin’.

Start with this quote:

“We created value out of nothing, and then I watched as they created nothing out of value,” he said of the games based on the Pirates films.

You created value out of nothing, Mr. Verbinski? Really? In a movie called Pirates of the Caribbean, that in its first minute of screen time attempts to recreate the theme park ride the movie’s based on, down to having someone singing the ride’s theme song? This idea about a Disney movie with pirates who are in the Caribbean just sprang Athena-like from your skull, fully formed right down to the clever scene with a dog holding a jail key just out of a prisoner’s reach?

Could this guy have possibly picked a worse platform for launching a campaign for originality? It’s not like the Pirates movies are his only claim to fame; his breakthrough was a fairly well-made and extremely popular horror movie (which was a near shot-for-shot remake of a Japanese original, but whatever).

So let’s assume that was just a poor choice of quotes, let it slide and move on:

Verbinski said that he was pushing for a massively multiplayer online version of Pirates to coincide with the films’ release, but “it wasn’t in their business plan,” he said to an audience mostly comprised of game industry executives.

“They actually contractually come under merchandising, they’re considered the same as a poster or a wind-up doll.”

Wait wait wait, Mr. Verbinski — you’re actually saying that Disney executives made a decision that was marketing-driven instead of based on creative or artistic merit? Holy shit, you’ve just blown the lid off the entire industry!

Just ignore the fact that it’s a bad idea to take the actions of one developer or one publisher and extend that as being endemic of all of videogames. In the case of Disney, it’s not just a bad idea, it’s completely absurd. Nobody takes Disney’s games division(s) seriously, not so much because they do bad work (although they often do), but because everybody understands how they work as a corporate entity. They are totally, unapologetically, and surprisingly successfully, a marketing channel, or a revenue stream. People know this. People within the company know this — it’s not some dirty little secret shame; it’s what they do.

But that’s still all just effluvia spiraling around the dumb idea at its chocolatey center:

“On a design level, you need someone to carry the vision. It is time for the auteur of gaming.”

“Homogenization of voice,” he said, is the biggest issue facing the industries today.

As a director, “I fight tooth and nail for my opinion because I cannot stand watching a film that has too many of them,” he said. Game designers’ ideas should make executives “shit themselves,” he added.

Except for the executive incontinence, that all sounds reasonable enough. It should, because it’s all a rationalization, and that’s what rationalizations are supposed to do — sound reasonable.

You can’t argue against that stuff, because it’s trivially true — games should be creative works, and a creative person’s influence on a work should be visible from project to project over the course of his career. But that’s not something you need to declare, any more than I need to insist that eating an entire box of cookies is going to make me fat. It just happens, whether you want it to or not.

And nine times out of nine, the people arguing for the “auteur” in videogames are doing nothing more than throwing an ego-driven temper tantrum, insisting that everybody should listen to them because they’re awesome.

(Incidentally, while it’s now common to hear the “Directed by…” or “A film by…” credit given the voice-over at the end of a movie trailer, I still remember then this started happening. It was around the release of “The Ring, a film by Gore Verbinski.”)

I’ve worked for companies that were primarily production- and schedule-driven, and I’ve worked on games that were pure marketing, existing to fill a SKU plan instead of because they were games that cried out to be made. And still, there’ve been creative people who’ve come up with ideas to work within those constraints, and had the skills to see those ideas through to implementation. And if those ideas are strong enough, they carry through and are visible from game to game. It’s a meritocracy, and it happens as a nice side effect of putting the quality of the game first, before pitching a fit over whether your name is in front of the title.

Last month, Wired’s blog ran an interview with Warren Spector, where he tackles the same question. He acknowledges that there are a ton of people involved in the production of a videogame, and that crediting one person for the success or failure of a game (except maybe Rollercoaster Tycoon, I guess) is wrong. But Spector’s built a name for himself; I’d say that it’s not from insisting that the game be titled Warren Spector’s Deus Ex, but simply by virtue of the fact that he’s the common factor between a lot of great games.

The topic bugs me, because we all saw what happened in the 90s when there was a push to sell videogame designers as rock stars. I was hoping we’d all outgrown that, but the topic keeps coming up.

It also bugs me because it’s ego-tripping disguised as advancement of the art. It kills morale on the team, and it does the opposite of what it claims to do — how do you expect to encourage a creative work when you’ve cut off 99% of your team from feeling any real ownership over the end result?

There’s always going to be some element of this, simply because people are attached to names. I know I tend to give Wes Anderson or the Coen Brothers all the credit for the movies they release, and I couldn’t even tell you the names of their cinematographers, art directors, etc. And I’ve got no doubt people are going to give Will Wright all the credit for Spore when there’s in fact a whole team of designers working on that game (and Wright seems pretty selfless and secure enough in his position to acknowledge the team, and EA has done a good job of giving everybody a voice in the game’s PR). So if it’s going to happen anyway, why would people keep encouraging it?

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