The auteur problem, re-revisited

William Vitka has a nice article at cbsnews.com about the question that’s becoming the “Do you believe in God/Why are we here” discussion for video games: Will there ever be a Citizen Kane of videogames? Vitka goes into all the issues the question brings up, and talks to a range of people to get their thoughts.

I’ve written about this issue several times recently, starting as a response to Roger Ebert’s deserved putdown of games last year. The frequent answer that games’ interactivity is better than more “static” narratives doesn’t work for me. For one thing, the range of choices players have is ultimately still limited and prescribed. But more importantly, player-created stories are vastly different from authored narratives. And that’s where video games really fall short.

I call this “the auteur problem.” There are two aspects to this. First, there’s a misconception that the great video game creators — Shigeru Miyamoto, Will Wright, etc. — are equivalent to the film “auteurs” and other great storytellers. They’re not. Here’s how I put it:

Scorcese is so admired because he has used all of the tools available to the filmmaker — both the technical tools of the medium and the artistic tools of acting, writing and design — to tell some of the most penetrating, engaging stories cinema has seen. To take another (auteurless?) example, Citizen Kane is revered not just because of Orson Welles’ performance, or the tricky and smart screenplay, or the then-new or perfected technical tricks. It’s because Welles and his collaborators put all of these together in the service of telling Charles Foster Kane’s story: the long-focus shots highlight Kane’s loneliness; the camera built in to the floor during the song-and-dance scene subtly gives you a sense of how everyone saw him as a towering, larger-than-life figure; the flashbacks, newsreels and loopy construction give the story a mythic power; and Welles makes sure none of this goes to waste by thoroughly becoming CF Kane. Of course, not all film “auteurs” are as concerned with narrative and telling a story. But in many of those cases, the exploration is in purposefully subverting narrative, playing with and challenging conventions.

The oft-cited video game “auteurs” are nothing like this. They’re one-dimensional savants of game design or caricature.

The second aspect of the auteur problem is the obsession with Miyamoto and the gang takes the focus off a more important point. Forget the meaningless, highbrow “auteur” moniker. Video games are a stunted art form because they are created almost entirely by technical geniuses — rather than accomplished writers, visionary visual artists, cinematographers, etc. As I said,

Where is the video game Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Frank Miller, Dave McKean — the figures whose unique styles change the possibilities of what a medium’s visual art can do? Sure, the Super Mario Bros. characters are cute and memorable. But there are few video games that show a unique art style and sensibility rather than just presenting some version of cliched sci-fi or fantasy. And where is the video game David Lynch, Neil Gaiman, Quentin Tarantino, David Milch, [insert Simpsons writer/producer here]?

Vitka’s piece is one of the few I’ve seen that talks about this. Comics writer Warren Ellis has some imortant things to say:

“Great storytelling begins and ends with the storyteller, not the physics engine or the rendering,” he says. … “But let’s be straight,” Ellis says. “You’re not going to get anything on the level of ‘Kane’ in video games until someone somewhere pays an honest-to-God writer to sit in a room and create a story themselves that they are passionate about telling through game play and visual narrative.” Ellis continues, “Committees will give you kinda fun B-movies and mildly entertaining network television. But if you want an actual story that people will remember, then you go to an actual writer first and you stay with that writer throughout the process — and that’s not going to happen.”

Amen.

— March 28, 2006

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