I am sure that everyone has read the article in The Atlantic about Jonathan Blow. If you haven’t, here it is.
Here is a quick list of what I learned from the article:
1. Jonathan Blow is kind of a dick.
2. Traditional media is very invested in embroiling video games in the high vs. low art debate.
3. Some people in the video game world really believe that the industry needs auteurs to become a site for art to flourish.
The third point is the most important one. I struggled for a minute with how best to say this, but maybe being direct is best: the video game industry does not need idols to hold up and say “See! See! This person makes the good stuff!” While there is certainly space in video games for creation by individuals and small groups, the industry is currently, and will be the for foreseeable future, dominated by the studio/production system.
Big productions require large teams of people to create them, and the studio system is a way of making those big productions possible, especially by funding new intellectual property that gets developed. (Aside: Someone reading this definitely just thought of Kickstarter, but remember this: all of these sweet games getting millions of kicked dollars are sequels). Like it or not, the big sellers in the game industry, just like in the movie business, are the big budget graphic-intensive bulletfests. People like to be amazed and they don’t like to think very hard (remember Avatar?). You might argue that the studio system is all messed up and that we need to escape that mode of production. I totally agree with that, but the creation and entrenchment of the auteur doesn’t fix that.
I think it is is Bissell’s Extra Lives where he recounts his meeting with a person who says something along the lines of “Yeah, I made the rain for GTA IV.” The person that makes rain is merely a cog in a big machine; that is a sad truth. But right now, if you asked me who made GTA IV, I would tell you that Rockstar did it. I don’t know the name of the head developer. I don’t know the name of the artist(s?) who designed Niko Bellic. I just know that an entity called Rockstar made the game, and that Rockstar has made, and continues to make, lots of games that I enjoy.
Film sort of skipped right through that period. The studio system of the 1930s had a lot to do with that, and replication rather than innovation was the name of the game. Studios, for the most part, were not differentiated based on content. However, film studios did undergo the transition from studio-based production to director-focused production.
Let me be clear: the actual political economy of film did not change. Films were still vetted by execs, funded by studios, and ran by unions. What really occurred during the shift toward the auteur was that the public had a name and face to attach to a movie. Directors were names attached to bodies. That was just an illusion, though. No matter how much I liked Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the lesson that I got from the book was that power will never rest in the hands of a creator who will not play the studio game–every famous director is a puppet. That’s the reason Coppola decided to open up a vineyard.
So when that article spews on about how Blow is outside the studio system and doing his own thing and is owned by no one, what you should really be thinking is that Jonathan Blow is only as free as the games industry allows him to be. The fact that Braid made massive bank and allowed Blow to have his total freedom is awesome, but that money came from XBox Live. The means of distribution, without which Jonathan Blow would still be no one, are 100% owned by the publisher system. Independence is impossible without a platform to distribute through, and if he were really a threat to the way that the games industry operates, he wouldn’t be able to publish games.
Jonathan Blow is a marketing technique.
So auteurs and studios. While this might be a terrible blow to the ego for basically everyone, I think that we should stay away from the figure of the game creator as an idol. The blinding light that is Stephen Spielberg absolutely eliminates Janusz Kaminski. The idol displaces the collective. How can Kaminski take pride in Schindler’s List if no one knows he exists? Better to exist in an egalitarian obscurity than have your work attributed to an overriding force.
It is Boris Groys writing on multiple authorship that got me thinking about the whole thing. Talking about curating art shows, he writes:
When confronted with an art exhibition, we are dealing with multiple authorship. And in fact every art exhibition exhibits something that was selected by one or more artists–from their own production and/or from the mass of readymades. These objects selected by the artists are then selected in turn by one or more curators, who thus also share authorial responsibility for the definitive selection. In addition, these curators are selected and financed by a commission, a foundation, or an institution; thus these commissions, foundations, and institutions also bear authorial and artistic responsibility for the end result. The selected objects are presented in a space selected for the purpose; the choice of such a space, which can lie inside or outside the spaces of an institution, often plays a critical role in the result. (“Multiple Authorship” p. 96)
So all of these layers are true in any kind of art production, but particularly video games. Designers, artists, producers, marketers, programmers, and lots of other kinds of people produce the final product called a “game.” The figure of the auteur masks this production process; it implies that one mind, one singular genius, birthed this massive project. Studios are collectives. We should put our faith in collectives, not individuals that mask the accomplishments of hundreds. Creators are a part of an assemblage, and the more we recognize that, the better.