"Created by..." An Avatar-Auteur Approach to Video Game Criticism

Comparing and contrasting Auteur Theory, its use in the film industry, and possible use in the games industry as both a critical and marketing tool.

France, 1941. Film critic Andre Bazin smuggled Hollywood films to show to the young students of his underground 'cine-club'. It provided an escape in the harsh time of the Nazi Occupation, as well as a contrast to approved Nazi propaganda. They discussed themes and the craft of the form. These students saw these films in a way that the typical American viewer wouldn't - as rebellion. Bazin and company went on to publish the "Cahiers du Cinema" (Journal of Film), which would become the foundations of modern film theory and criticism. The War primed this small group from France to look at film as more than mere pop culture, but as politics. As art.

The videogame industry today isn't much different than Hollywood in the 40s and 50s. The Studio was king. A single studio recruited, apprenticed, and grew an assembly line of producers, writers, directors, cinematographers, actors, editors on down to the grips. A Hollywood Film was more an Industrial product than art, amusements churned out to sell box office seats. An RKO picture. A Warner Brothers Studios Film. A Metro Goldwyn Mayer production. It's a model most world markets would follow.

In his "A Certain Tendency of French Cinema," Cahiers critic François Truffaut invented Auteur Theory purely out of frustration. Film is a collaborative medium -- so, who is the Author? Truffaut had trouble talking about a series of films without an artist behind them. He then broke down these films by Scenario Writers, Producers, Cinematographers,and finally settled on the director as the ultimate author of a film's "Mise-en-Scene".


Mise-en-Scene roughly translates to “what’s in the scene” or “what’s in a front of a camera” - the concept that every frame of a film and everything within that frame is made with specific intent. A cinematographer composed a shot of an actor performing words written by a scenario writer, costumed by a costume designer, on a set built by a set designer and lit by a gaffer - all under the approval of a film’s director.


This singular revelation would change the Film Industry within three decades. Directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, and Truffaut himself took this new role seriously, insisting on more creative freedom. The Studio System would slowly fade into a system of free agency. ´The first film schools popped up and the Cahiers became a text The concept of ‘Auteur’ inspired the first film students - George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and Steven Spielberg - to turn their name into a brand. Auteurs would have a voice.

In 1979, Atari would produce a graphical adaptation of a text adventure game previously only playable on University mainframes. That game was Adventure!. A hidden object opened a door to an empty room that only contained the words:

“Created by Warren Robinette”

Atari’s policy kept programmers and game designers from signing their work. Robinette used 5% of the cartridge’s available space, which made it too expensive for Atari to fix. Robinette invented the ‘Easter Egg’, and his name was etched in game history. He became gaming’s first Auteur.

The video game industry would collapse under its own weight by 1983. Atari - and other companies - insisted on making as much software as possible with little regard to quality. In the same year that Spielberg's ET mesmerized audiences, Atari's video game adaptation of the film became known as the worst video game of all time- It filled retailer’s shelves with unsellable and expensive cartridges, eventually disposed of in a massive landfill. This became the symbol of the market collapse.

No tin Japan, however. The Japanese approach was subtly different. While designers were not anonymous, they represented the Corporations they work for. Namco designer Shigeo Funake would create the first video game pop culture icon in Pac-Man. Taito designer Tomohiro Nishikatu took Japanese and then American arcades by storm - creating the first "killer app" - Space Invaders. Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto would adapt a Popeye game, lose the license and rename it Donkey Kong. That game featured a little guy named Mario.

Nintendo released their Nintendo Entertainment System to a western audience, securing Japanese dominance over the industry. They also invented the Nintendo seal of quality, providing a counterpoint to the bad reputation Atari earned. The game industry became less about hardware and more about the quality of the software. From this collapse, a renaissance promoting creators - not companies - emerged.

"Why do we cry? Why do we laugh, or love, or smile? What are the touchstones of our emotions?"

"Until now, the people who asked such questions tended to not be the same people who ran software companies. Instead, they were writers, filmmakers, painters, musicians. They were, in the traditional sense, artists."

"We're about to break that tradition. The name of our company is Electronic Arts."

Trip Hawkins founded Electronic Arts to promote whom they called "Software Artists" as rockstars - names like Bill Budge (Pinball Construction Kit), Dani Bunten Berry (M.U.L.E.), Wil Wright (SimCity), and Peter Molyneux (Populous).


Husband and wife team Ken and Roberta Williams started Sierra On-line, adding "About the Author" style blurbs on the back of every box, building fan-bases for Roberta Williams herself (King’s Quest), Al Lowe (Leisure Suit Larry), Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy (Space Quest), Lori Anne Cole (Quest for Glory) and Jane Jensen (Gabriel Knight).


George Lucas himself entered the video game industry with LucasArts - a place where game designers Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert to find an audience. They earned a reputation for comedic adventure games that rewarded exploration and experimentation with humor.


Sid Meier began putting his name on all of his titles regardless of publisher - Sid Meier’s Pirates!, Sid Meier’s Civilization, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri - a brand that followed him throughout his career.


A teenage Cliff Bleszinski would create Jill of the Jungle, and then the groundbreaking 3D shooter Unreal.


Chris Crawford hosted the first ever Game Developers Conference in his San Jose living room to make sense of this growing art form.

At id Software, Johns Carmack and Romero ushered in the 3D revolution with Doom. Romero brought the original easter egg full circle with a hidden phrase - “To win the game, you must defeat me, John Romero” in the final level.

Then the game industry grew up.

John Romero left id Software and create a new studio based on his newfound celebrity status. They released his long hyped game, Daikatana with the ad campaign “John Romero will make you his bitch!” The game was a critical and financial failure.


Bleszinski’s Epic Games became more about licensing the Unreal Engine to other potential game companies. As home consoles became more complex, Engine and Middleware development also became a growing business for companies VALVe, Crytek, and id Software.


Electronic Arts went public, earning a reputation for annualizing franchises into sequel after sequel, and buying up small and promising development studios only to lay off their staff. EA became synonymous with corporate greed in a profit hungry industry.


GDC became less about game design discussion and more of the pageantry for companies to announce new games and technology. Crawford loudly and publicly left with his famous “Dragon speech”.


Companies grew larger, budgets inflated, teams increased. The names of yesteryear either disappeared into obscurity or became spokesmen for larger companies - people like Shigeru Miyamoto, Peter Molyneux, and Cliff Bleszinski. Designers disappeared from the public eye, replaced by PR professionals.

The Publisher is now king.

Ken Levine, founder of Irrational Games (now owned by 2K Games) is an interesting example of a current, respected game creator. While promoting the game Bioshock: Infinite, 2K would set him on the interview circuit as the visionary behind the Bioshock series. When Wired Magazine asked this respected game developer why Elizabeth - a primary character and your companion throughout the game - was not on the box cover, he said:

“We went and did a tour… around to a bunch of, like, frathouses and places like that. People who were gamers. Not people who read IGN. And [we] said, so, have you guys heard of BioShock? Not a single one of them had heard of it.”

"Games are big, and they’re expensive, I think that’s very clear. And to be successful, and to continue to make these kinds of games which frankly, of the people who make these types of games, there’s not a lot of them, and they haven’t exactly been the most successful with these types of games that have come out in the last few years...."

“We had to make that tradeoff in terms of where we were spending ourmarketing dollars.”


Contrast this with how Alfred Hitchcock promoted Psycho. He forbade the film's stars from doing interviews with the press and promoted it all himself. He starred in a trailer in which he simply teased sequences from the set without giving anything away. Every poster and marketing material was approved by him to send a controlled message to allow movie-goers the experience he wanted them to have.

In fairness to Levine, this is a systemic problem with the games industry and not a personal failing. Hitchcock was an exception during his time. The difference in control displayed over these project illustrates a difference in how a creator is valued, and the responsibility a creator has toward their creation. Levine talks about his game as an Industrial product (indeed, the full quote has him compare the marketing of games to that of salad dressing), Hitchcock creates an experience for his audience.

Video Games have become what Cinema was in the 50s - industrial products, with no visible auteur to take credit. No auteur to take responsibility. The corporate culture at most game companies no longer cultivated rockstars, much less "Software Artists."

What makes games, well games? What makes them unique?

Again, let’s compare games to film. Both media have what’s called a “water cooler moment,” but each are profoundly different:

When discussing a film or a TV show, it's about moments that are shared amongst its viewers - a new revelation about the island on Lost, the ending to the Sopranos, or asking “Who Shot JR?” on the season finale of Dallas. They’re shared cultural events.

However, when discussing games it's about strategies used in a Civilization campaign, comparing what players did at specific points in the narrative of Mass Effect or The Walking Dead, or discovering villages, dungeons, and mines while wandering Skyrim. Every player’s experience is unique, something that happened only to them.

Where film and television provide a common, shared experience, games provide individual experiences. What the player gets out of a game wholly depends on what a player does. Is the player - therefore - also a co-auteur? 

If Mise-en-Scene is “what's in front of the camera”, in games it’s analogous to “what's on a board”. A board game is an untouched set of pieces, die, and a game board until players set it up. A digital game is an interweaving set of systems and algorithms waiting for player input to respond. Everything within that system is made with intent.

For his game Ultima IV, Richard Garriott would use the Hindu term “Avatar” - meaning a material manifestation of a diety on Earth - to refer to the graphical representation of the player’s character. After all, the player is a diety of this universe, but they are not the Creator. they are an Actor, a co-author of a story designed to respond to them. The world is there for the Avatar to explore, to experiment, to play. The Designer created the world to respond to the Avatar in so many complex permutations. They are both gods, but one is playing in the others’ toybox. Director and Actor. Designer and Player.

The standard model of communication is a monologue. A sender produces a thing - a novel, a painting, a film - and a receiver interprets it. However, a game is a dialog. A conversation between Designer and Player, Director and Actor, Auteur and Avatar. What matters to games is how that conversation is framed.

That makes sense in an abstract way, but in a practical sense what does it mean? A game - like a film - has many co-authors. A system designer constructs the rules and mechanics, a level designer constructs the playfield, an art director dresses that playfield, the narrative designer - a relatively new position in games development - weaves in a narrative throughline, and finally a player - the avatar - drives the story once all the above is compiled into a working game. It's a massive collaboration. In most cases, there's a Producer, Project Lead, or Lead Designer approving these decisions, and role analogous to a film’s Director.

In today's games industry, it's hard to know exactly what role that is, and whether such a position exists at all. Some games feel like checklists of features provided by marketing departments. Some feel like imitations. Some feel directionless. Some feel incomplete.

Activision’s Call of Duty franchise is gaming’s highest grossing blockbuster series, and it changes studios on an annual basis. The original creators are long gone, but a game is delivered every year to meet certain expectations. That said, the last 3 Call of Duty’s have shown a steady decline in revenue, despite it still being the top series. The power of a brand can go far, but what happens when interest wanes?

Ubisoft’s annual franchise Assassin’s Creed had laid off its creator as well as the producer that managed it for several iterations. The latest title - Assassin’s Creed: Unity - was put together by the largest team ever placed on a video game, spanning several of Ubisoft’s studios across the globe. The game was released to mediocre reviews, complaints about bugs and quality, as well as story continuity problems.

Electronic Arts’s (formerly Microsoft’s) Mass Effect franchise lost their lead narrative designer between Mass Effect 2 and 3. Mass Effect 1 and 2 were largely praised for their story, while 3 was largely criticized by players and critics alike for being inconsistent and ending in a way that didn’t resonate with fans of the first two games.

The recurring theme? These are games put together by committee, without a public face in charge of all the moving parts that go into such large products. That these games tend to lose a sense of something between creators is not without precedent. In cinema, movies like Spielberg’s Jaws would spawn many sequels and imitators, but wouldn’t recapture the magic of the first. Game developers such as Grant Collier, Vince Zampella, Jade Raymond, Patrice Desilets, and Drew Karpyshyn (all developers with a hand in the above) were largely unknown in favor of a publisher driven product. These names should matter.

Auteurship is less a question of approvals but rather an attitude taken to the job. The Auteur is a visionary. Their collaborators work toward making that vision work. This doesn't mean that they don't make their own contributions - like the editor skilled at pacing, the actor skilled at improvisation, and the cinematographer skilled at composition - each individual craft adds to the project constructing a larger whole that flows out of a certain point of view.

“[A Designer's] sole responsibility is to know what a game is about and to ensure that the game teaches that thing. That one thing, the theme, the core, the heart of the game, might require many systems or it might require few. But no system should be in the game that does not contribute toward that lesson. It is the cynosure of all the systems; it is the moral of the story; it is the point.” - Raph Koster, A Theory of Fun

Consider this - Monopoly, SimCity, and Tropico are all about city building and land development, and yet are meaningfully different games.

Charles Darrow's Monopoly (itself based on Elizabeth Magie's The Landlord Game) is about competitive private development and the resulting effects on land value, utilities, and rent. Several would be Real Estate tycoons furiously buy up property, develop it, increasing rent until everyone is bankrupt save the last player standing.

Wil Wright's SimCity centers more on public resources and urban planning, based on ideas attributed to Jay Forrester's Urban and World Dynamics. It puts the player in charge of water, power, zoning civic buildings and services, taxes and city policy. For example, legalized gambling results in a leap in city tax revenue at the cost of increased crime rate and poverty. A new power plant may increase output, but also produce more pollution - lowering land value and citizen happiness. Densely populated areas will generate more revenue but more traffic and pollution. A fire can wipe out entire city blocks without a dedicated fire station. Strategically placed police stations can temper crime rate, but can be costly.

On the other hand, Phil Steunmeyer's Tropico positions the player as a dictator of Banana Republic during the Cold War. "El Presidente" could build farms, mines, factories, and resorts to exploit the island's natural resources for export, but it requires happy, trained, and lodged workers in the vicinity. Each of these citizens align with leading political factions on the island and the game becomes about - ironically - balancing needs of various interests. Strike a trade agreement with the US and the Socialists get angry. With the USSR and the Industrialists will do the same. Create a church to increase general happiness and the religious right become more powerful. Build a University and Liberals and Intellectuals become more powerful. If one or more factions are angry enough, they begin to protest or form a rebellion. The player may create secret police, tap phones, and assassinate faction leaders. A very different take on a pure "city builder" focused more on politics and the people it affects.

Checkers, Chess, Go, Diplomacy, Warcraft, Sid Meier's Civilization, and Team Fortress all deal with political power and controlling territory. Sagaland, Super Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda, Prince of Persia, King’s Quest, Journey, God of War, and Braid are all takes on the Hero's Journey and myth. Missile Command, Defcon, and Fallout are different takes on the Cold War and mutually assured destruction. Theme, mechanics, art, and narrative all work together to create gaming’s mise-en-scene - every playfield - like a frame of film - should be made with intent.

Thanks to services like XBox Live Arcade, Steam, and Kickstarter a rising independent scene attracted a number of veteran, but anonymous developers to step into the light.

Former Microsoft programmer Jonathan Blow would create Braid, shepherding a new industry of smaller, downloadable titles aimed at smaller markets. Megaman co-creator Keiji Mafune left Capcom to Kickstart Mighty No. 9. Steve Gaynor - former level designer for 2K's Bioshock series would take the lessons learned there to make the critically acclaimed Gone Home. Mike Bithell - former lead game designer for Bossa Games - would create Thomas Was Alone on his own time and earn enough from it to start his own company.

Designers from the long gone Sierra On-Line - Al Lowe, Mark Crowe, Jane Jensen, and Lori Cole all recently started Kickstarters, and immediately got funded on their reputations alone.

Sid Meier still keeps his brandon his titles, and his games are known for themes of growth, exploration, and the constant thought of “just one more turn.” His company Firaxis also brought up reputations of young designers Jon Shafer (Civilization V, At the Gates), and Jake Solomon (XCom: Enemy Unknown).

The downside of a name is the responsibility that comes with it - Tim Schafer created a Kickstarter for Double Fine to create a new Adventure game, earning several million, setting the record for gaming related Kickstarters. Their delivery, unfortunately, had to be split into separate projects, and Schafer has been heavily criticized.

Peter Molyneux, Cliff Blezsinski, and David Jaffe all left their parent companies and took pay cuts to found their own studios and make their own smaller games for a more elusive form of compensation. Peter Molyneux’s company 22cans, recently found their project Godus to be an incredible disappointment - something predicted on Molyneux’s reputation for overpromising.

Ken Levine downsized Irrational Games, wanting now to focus on “smaller” titles where he has more control.

Chris Crawford returned to the industry with Storytron - an interactive storytelling game engine that’s still struggling to find funding.

An Auteur based approach to game criticism is one in which we would look at a game developer as an author rather than a cog in a larger machine. An Auteur weaves their theme into all aspects of the game - systems, level design, art assets, and narrative. It could be simply a core mechanic, a few sets of interconnected systems, or an ever increasing complex of algorithms - but everything in that system should fit a game's intent. It is with the theme in which we can grapple with a game critically - by finding and discussing how a game exposes an Auteur’s point of view.

What I'm arguing for is a critical paradigm shift. Auteurs reigned in Film in response to what the critical world was saying, they didn’t drive it. The Industry began to see value in Auteurs because critics saw value in their contribution, and the public happened to follow. That said, Bazin himself warned his students against a critical “cult of personality.” Other craftspeople contribute to the creation of a film, and that’s certainly true of the games industry. When praising writing, praise the narrative designer. Game feel, the systems designer. Encounters and architecture, the level designer. For the game as a whole - the game's lead developer, whatever position that may be.

For the industry, this doesn't come without risk. John Romero proved that. Peter Molyneux is proving it. Tim Schafer has lost some reputation making concessions in his company's Kickstarter and Early Access projects. Yet there are also successes - Sid Meier's Firaxis managed to also make names for designers Jon Schafer and Jake Solomon. Jon Blow is a go to designer for intellectual discussion on design. Mike Bithell is enjoying a reputation as a favorite interview in the indie scene.

The Film Industry has already dealt with this. The Hollywood Reporter releases an annual Star Power report, measuring box office successes and failures for talent such as actors, producers, and of course directors. After all, sometimes movies bomb - large, expensive products that they are. With it falls the reputations of everyone involved. This becomes a negotiation point - a measure of the amount of creative freedom and Auteur can afford. An Auteur wouldn't take such responsibility lightly, and that may be better than any company's "seal of quality."

Credit. Creative Freedom.

A name on the box.


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