The auteur problem, revisited

Chris Kohler has an interview up with God of War creator David Jaffe over at Wired. Jaffe has some interesting things to say, especially this:

One of my biggest complaints about the industry is that we don’t have enough creative people. We have craftspeople and tech people, and they’re great. But we don’t have enough creative people utilizing these amazing tools the craftspeople give us.

This is exactly what I was talking about here. Whenever the discussion comes up about games as art or games vs. movies or Where Is The Citizen Kane of Gaming, gaming folks always bring up the “video game auteurs” — Shigeru Miyamoto, Will Wright, etc. But the list of gaming legends is really a list of, as I put it, one-dimensional savants of game design or caricature. As I said in this post,

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]?

Come to think of it, are Mario and Luigi really even that memorable? Is Miyamoto really a genius at caricature? Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Woody from Toy Story, the Star Wars characters — these are all licensing behemoths because they managed to fuse personality with the flatness and universality of caricature. Do any of the classic video game characters belong here? Link is an anonymous elf-looking wood-knight. Mario is just a short fat man (he’s so removed from his plumber beginnings that you can’t even ad that to his description). Samus Aran doesn’t have a recognizable face; in costume she’s an anonymous sci-fi bounty hunter. Simon Belmont is an anonymous vampire hunter. They don’t even come close to the second tier of licensing giants, the ones that are created solely as toys and licensing machines: G.I. Joe, Transformers, Bratz, Barbie. The only video game characters in this elite group is Pokemon, and you can see why. They’re caricatures in the best cartoon tradition, but they’re also unique and have some personality.

I’m reading Edward Jay Epstein‘s excellent The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood, and one of his main points is that movie studios are no longer in the business of making movies (and actually “movie studio” is now a misnomer) — they’re in the business of licensing content, to home viewers and to children via licensed toys/games/sheets/clothes/etc. With the one-note revenue stream of video game companies, and the deep roster of characters available, you’d think video game licensing would be huge. And in the 80s, Nintendo was all over that. But video game movies generally fizzle (which means further product tie-ins fizzle), and video game action figures and sheets and backpacks aren’t big business.

That’s not to say that video game companies should start focusing on churning out licensable material. But the big toy giants are so successful because they resonate in some way that video games and game characters don’t. That says a lot about the people making games — and more importantly, the people who aren’t making games.

And that’s just the kids side of things. The kind of people who will eventually come up with the next Micky Mouse are the same ones who will come up with the next — or first, in video games’ case — Sandman/Watchmen/Brazil/Simpsons. The people who have unique creative and artistic visions, who can write or draw or frame like nobody else, are just as important to the growth of gaming as innovation or new revenue streams. It’s time to get them on board, and fast.

— March 2, 2006

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