Gaming journalists love talking about the auteur theory. Seeing as gaming is still leaving its unfamiliarity stage, where the transition from a prior medium — in this case, the cinema — necessitates the use of cinema’s tactics, genres, celebrities, concepts, to make some initial semblance of sense about gaming. Some basic attempts have been done in list format; strange Japanese examples were used as evidence for its resurgence by VICE; and hey, even this year we still had two equally pale, equally bored dudes making the bare sketches of a slight disagreement about it in the ever-heated “Face Off” section of PC Gamer. Reddit discussions all but announce the origins of the debate:

I’m a cinephile (film lover) and I also love video games. I wanted to make a video essay on my Youtube channel discussing the subject of autuerism (authorship) and it’s relationship to video game visionaries. What do you think? Can video games have auteurs? Or is auteurism strictly for film and tv?

It’s an appealing comparison, given that the two mediums share some common production hierarchies: both operate in studios, and these studios have a tendency to become well-known for a certain worldview, specialisation, generic interest, and charismatic talent.

So why do we question the thought of the author? Why is it journalistic fodder and not common comparison?

There is a certain criteria to auteurship that Andrew Sarris stated way back in 1960 when he ported it over from France:

  • Recurring characteristics of style
  • The “outer circle of technique” — technical mastery
  • The “middle circle of their personal style”
  • Their “inner circle of meaning”

These must be perceivable so as to become a signature upon the work. I’ve written former papers about how you can find these same characteristics in someone so underrated as a film’s sound designer, so perhaps I’m the wrong person to take up the claim of appropriation. After all, as a matter of personal belief, the auteur strikes me as more a tool for viewer classification; a kind of cousin of the genre, that gives us expectations of what it is we’re in for when we experience a film. Much as a computer sees a file type — mp3 — and then knows that this is a music file, decoded in this way, and has the right software to make it into something understandable, genres and auteurs really only function for our understanding of the material, to guide us through the experience with a touch of familiarity as we can glean it.

We project upon the text, and deep within the text, the ghost of a man who has nothing to do with the literal auteur — a kind of ghostly David Lynch, for example, who has a distinct set of ideals and stylistic considerations, and the disalignment between the two sometimes comes into conflict depending on what is appearing to be communicated. After all, when Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 about his fears of television, it became a seminal work against censorship.

The issue is that in the context of gaming, I have more faith in medium specificity than that.

Film and television operate as a receptive medium. You sit and receive a message. You identify with a spectator, with the act of looking, but it is only used to communicate a message to you. Various theorists, including Walter Benjamin, based their ideas about the potential of the cinema to do good on the foundation that viewers are active, yet they merely function as passive, receptive agents.

It is only in gaming where we are truly active.

So the possible questions become:

  • What is the viewer’s relation to the identification with the act of looking? That is to say, who is the active spectator in the game world that we become? What is our relationship to them?
  • What is the active spectator’s (or, say, “lead protagonist’s”) relationship to the game world?
  • What is the possible and prioritised spectrum of action available to this active spectator? That is, what can we do in the game world? If conversation is possible, is it merely secondary to the action of killing another person? Is it easier to speak to or to hurt others? Do we even have a choice?
  • What are the constraints of genre in the game world, and do they challenge their generic expectations in a way consistent with a political or ideological message?
    • How does this operate with the prioritisation of player action?

These are the possible dimensions of player receptivity. Beyond that, we are meant to control, to take part, to challenge, an interactive game world. Is this enough dimension for an auteur to even operate, to become perceivable, within the studio system?

Current considerations of auteurship focus upon Japanese auteurs that operate in a different production environment and leave their mark upon the game world in an incredibly, perceivably idiosyncratic way; that is to say, we perceive a signature, and yet beyond these very few — who, might I add, are incredibly influenced by and often even pay homage to film, and so distinctly operate their games in a way that might emulate a medium that allows for auteurship to exist — the signature is a little less apparent.

How might we describe Miyamoto, for example? He has a focus on emphasising the artificiality of the game, as he did when he suggested that at the end of Goldeneye, you shake the hands of your foes, as if at the end of a play, bowing at the curtain. Beyond that, his specific markers, only really evident in contrast to Mario games produced by Nintendo subteams, only belong to the academic few who highlight differences in player progression, worldbuilding, self-consciousness of themselves as games…above and beyond these considerations, Miyamoto’s idiosyncrasies have become folded into what we just call “Nintendo,” much as we label other game series by their studio units, who themselves may or may not have generic or ideological concerns.

In games that become far more conversational — invariably, games that are outside the AAA studio system — the one-on-one approach lends itself to more of an auteurist comparison. When a game is literally made by one person, there is literally nobody else to be the auteur anyway; and when a game is really made by a designer and a selection of “studio programmers” making the conversion from idea to gaming artifice, then the marketing and production of the game privileges and encourages the very idea of an auteur.

Yet beyond these considerations, can they still be there in the same way, or are we just trapped in the considerations of a different medium entirely? Why do we struggle nevertheless to find something human in a literalised experience? Can that “conversation” still happen — the same “conversation” that made people find auteurs in books, the sublimation of the narrator in film still allowing for that perceivable person, carrying forth in an active world that, by and large, belongs to a “studio”?

Can a “conversational” game only be saved by the one-man teams churning out microgames, Twine builds and modest, yet, multi-year efforts? Will we know these people as auteurs, or are we unable to think of what they must be in this new medium?