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Opinion: Fish, Blow make 'auteur' a more interesting word
Opinion: Fish, Blow make 'auteur' a more interesting word Exclusive
April 16, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

April 16, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Exclusive, Design

The Atlantic's recent, widely-circulated profile on Braid and The Witness creator Jonathan Blow caused a bit of a stir in gamer circles, as is to be expected when major publications turn their "outsider" eye toward our space.

While many on social media generally agreed it was a compelling profile of "flinty"-eyed Blow and his oblique, unsettling persona, they didn't care for the Atlantic writer's universal dismissal of games as "juvenile, silly and intellectually lazy."

Obviously games wouldn't have the economic weight they do today if a majority of their fans agreed with that assessment. We can probably forgive that the article lacks the context of the commercial industry's necessarily risk-averse, mass-market nature and how designers like Blow must double down on independence, on personal message, must eschew the visible system, in order to act as innovators in this environment of products that outsiders find dumb.

We can forgive it because mainstream publications and their audiences have just recently begun to understand what "we" have known for years: that it's possible for games to be personal expression, media capable of experiences unique to games alone. This is a big huge revelation for them, so we might even be able to forgive that "Citizen Kane" thing. Oh man.

I don't think "games" as a medium need to be, as the Atlantic puts it, "addicted to laser guns and carnivorous aliens", else I wouldn't be doing the work I do. But if you can't see how someone from the outside looking in might have gotten that impression of our world, you're in denial.

Is the Atlantic right? Are games dumb? Do they need to be art? Does honoring game developers as creative personalities confer some legitimacy upon them that didn't exist before? This is a really, really tired discussion, the whole "games as art" thing. Can't answer it; don't want to, don't care. Some games are objectively meaningful to many in spite of being "stupid," as the New York Times found when it likened an Angry Birds habit to rosary prayer.

But there is one thing that makes me excited as regards the Atlantic article that would persist even if it had levied even a weightier doom sentence on this medium we work in and love.

Okay, so the piece incorrectly paints Blow as a lone noble, "the only one" standing against a tide of moronic commercialism. I like to think that Blow himself wouldn't absolutely agree with this characterization. Yet the Atlantic article does entertain a lavish fascination with the game developer as simultaneously an architect and a storyteller, the designer of an experience that -- here, this is important -- can also be personal self-expression.

Most importantly, it demonstrates that none of these are mutually-exclusive, that the player can own a story that is also an intended expression of the creator.

It demonstrates, to an audience potentially widely unfamiliar with games, that games can provide an experience for players that might invite them into a stranger's mind and let them make their own sense of it. My favorite bits of the article are the ones that make the connection between Blow's distinctive, crooked widow's peak and some of the narratives written into The Witness, which the author found himself surprised to be invited to play in its unfinished state. I was touched by that strange connection between open-minded, curious journalist and unapologetic creator.

Discussions about 'auteur theory' in games tend to hinge on the same debates: Should a game developer "tell a story" or "allow the player to create his or her own story?" This binary argument seems increasingly silly in an environment where reports on the human experience, whether they come from what we call journalism or from an individual's personal thoughts on Twitter, exist on an increasingly-broad spectrum. We participate in others' stories and we write our own every day.

Look at the way the Atlantic's writer views and interprets Blow, and notice that there are all kinds of ranges in between; the writer found himself creating his own narrative from being exposed to Blow's abstract and mysterious -- yet doubtless personal -- approach to creating player experience.

The question of how much we ("we" being "games critics," fans, developers, players, whatever) should consider the identity and personality of a game's creator has been on the minds of many since the release of Fez, Phil Fish and Renaud Bedard's Independent Games Festival grand prize winner five years in the making.

Whether he intended it or otherwise, Fez originator Fish hasn't been shy about struggling with himself and his relationship to his magnum opus in the public forum, rapidly developing a reputation as a challenging personality who often puts his foot in his mouth. Obviously Fez was no solo project, yet it's become Fish's bete noire, uniquely -- or perhaps vice-versa, for the good or ill of all involved.

That Fez has received incredibly high acclaim from fans and reviewers since its high-pressure launch hasn't made it any easier for game fans to work out the degree to which they should associate the creator with his creation (as of press time Fez enjoys a high 90 Metacritic rank, but a middling 6.5 rank by user vote).

But that they ask the question, that they debate it amongst themselves on social media and in fan forums, speaks to an interesting age for games. The field has hesitated strongly to christen the age of the auteur, since historically the idea of "authored experience" has been so deeply fraught, bringing with it the presumption of scripting, of overbearing intention that might quash, gate and limit the player's sense of freedom and self-expression. Long has the argument of extremes -- are game developers narrators or theme park designers? -- raged.

But it's the work of game development's standout personalities that seem to be the most interesting to followers of game culture. It's actually always been this way: Look how quickly the most outspoken showmen in even mainstream rank-and-file AAA development teams develop cult followings, become victims of media pull-quote behavior, become icons to be swarmed at events.

It's only now that increased attention to and interest in indie designers, who often work solo or on small teams, has shined a spotlight on the fact that audiences have a deep and abiding appetite for conversation with creators. There is hunger for games that feel like tangible reflections of an actual human being. It seems "author" could mean something different in interactive media than it does in other spaces -- and maybe it isn't such a bad word.

More simply, that the Atlantic was more fascinated with Blow than with video games, and that fans are often ready to scrutinize Fish more closely than they do his game, illustrates opportunities now for a wider definition of "auteur" in games. More importantly, it shows why audiences want and need strong-voiced creators. The medium lets us join others in their relationships with themselves. We learn more about ourselves that way.

This is what lets me continue to love games: the idea that, okay, most of them will be entertainment products that I might like or I might not. But some of them will be dialogues with visionaries, unflinchingly honest interaction in the way that only games can offer.

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Christopher Totten
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Great article. It's funny, a friend and I were having a discussion about gamers' relationship with game creators in light of Kickstarter's success. I think there's something to the idea that some gamers not only want (and will help crowd-fund) games outside of the same old AAA titles, but also that they want to see how the process works. In the case of Kickstarter, this means the "project updates" that are part of the system.

I also find it interesting to observe the disparate scores between game creators' and critics' reaction to a game like Fez and the reaction of gamers. While there are the aforementioned gamers hungry for new content and developer transparency, there are also ones that are perfectly happy with military shooters and crossover fighting games. While we should do our best to cater to both markets, perhaps a good topic of discussion for the industry would be how to usher gamers into a mindset where the auteur game can thrive.

Michael Rooney
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Imma put this here (old but good):

Raymond Grier
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Thanks Michael. I didn't know they had a show but that was a great interview.

Nicolas Barriere-Kucharski
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To my knowledge, this is the first article I've seen that mention and credits Renaud Bedard as co-creator of Fez.

Thank you.

Austin Ivansmith
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Great article, Leigh. Although it is neat that individuals are getting admiration for their creations, it can be simultaneously annoying when reviewers, both professional and fan based, can have such absolute and quantitative critiques in reviews. Game development is a personal process for more than the story or the message, because developers pour their hearts into mechanics and systems as equally to make sure the experience is great, but that personal touch can be so quickly thrown to the curb with "If the developers did X to their game it would have been better." It's a tough double-standard to witness, and I wonder if these kinds of criticisms will ease their way out of bigger publications as the years go on and the industry evolves.

Nick Martin
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I'd just finished up the Atlantic article last night, and it was an interesting read, but like was stated here, it really ignores the fact that being popular and mainstream isn't bad. Blow is right in one stance, that often, explaining simply doesn't need to be done, and that applies across all mediums.

While our culture has gone on to take the other end to an extreme in wanting each facet explained (a simple jaunt to Wikia shows exactly how far that can go), there's something to be said for leaving the mystery or intrigue in place. It seems like that's what was done, to an extreme, in Bird's games, and the point that was being made.

But there's also something to be said for immersion in a game as well, in getting a player to buy in and believe in what they're doing in a game. Take the Mass Effect series, which is extremely mainstream, and the backlash that players unleashed when they felt slighted because their investment was not rewarded. And while games like Skyrim and Modern Warfare can be called mindless or even "stupid," but they deliver an experience beyond the core game in how players have interacted with them. They deliver something special to millions of players, and there is something to be said for it. Popular, by itself, is not bed. And if it abuses it's fans and customers long enough, popular alone cannot save any game.

Mike Griffin
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Re: User Vote averages and the knee-jerk, throwaway user comment insanity on Metacritic, with all due respect to well spoken users: Never get too hung up on Metacritic user votes. Many of those scores and opinions are burped up, attention-seeking, controversy-mimicking, fire and forget impulsiveness.

The side-effects of a social media generation where throwaway comments are an encouraged, normal practice. Participate or die! Make a splash, ramifications be damned! Cause a stir, get linked! Ride trends and popular opinions you may or may not believe in, because there's a buzz to ride! Stand-out, even if you're not being genuine or accurate! Fire and forget. Do it again tomorrow.

Austin Ivansmith
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Fitter, happier, more productive.

grumpy pumps
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There's a FANTASTIC rebuttal to the Atlantic article over here:

As for the strange disparity between the critic and player scores for Fez, there's another possibility. What if Fez is an example of the industry offering the players an auteur... and the response is the players simply saying "no, thank you"?

Chris Huston
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Thanks for the link, grumpy. So funny, on the transitional ad page before I got to the article, the Forbes quote of the day was, "An infallible method of making fanatics is to persuade before you instruct." Voltaire ... The Atlantic article seems to use that as its driving philosophy.

Timur Anoshechkin
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check user scores for ME3 and latest COD

Chris Huston
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Although I might be in the minority as a hardcore gamer that agrees, to a degree, with some of the "silly", "lazy" assessments of video games as a pastime, I agree that The Atlantic article is irresponsibly under-informed and wantonly prejudiced against that pastime, and Blow doesn't help matters. That irresponsibility effectively demolishes any credibility in what could have been some valid criticisms of the industry and the medium.

Video games are, *first and foremost*, games. Both outsiders and insiders too often forget this, leading in the latter case to bad games, and in the former case to destructive articles like The Atlantic's. Video games, like traditional games, aren't *essentially* meant to be art. Indeed, one could argue that no art is *meant* to be art. Art is simply a medium taken to a certain elevated status. So while video games are essentially *meant* to be entertainment, it also has the *capacity* to be art. That's one sense in which they depart from traditional games, which don't have any significant claims to artistic ambitions, and therefore have never threatened to claim the classification of "art form".

I think "outsiders" *can* make legitimate critiques of the industry and the form, and I think we "insiders" too often make the mistake of assuming otherwise. Unfortunately, most of those outsider attempts are as myopic as The Atlantic's, but they only suffer from the problem that plagues any criticism -- a prejudice strong enough to override genuine curiosity and investigation.

Video games deserve many of the "silly" "lazy" "juvenile" labels people attach to them, but with no more vitriol than would be attached to Yahtzee, Monopoly, or Clue. The point is that the attempt to denigrate them misses the point. They're games. That's somewhat akin to calling a baby ignorant or lambast a chef for being a horrible architect.

Any legitimate criticism first has to understand the scope and limits of the subject, and The Atlantic fails in that respect here; though, I would argue, so do many "insiders".

R. Hunter Gough
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opportunity missed by not titling this article "Blow, Fish make 'auteur' a more interesting word"

Joe McGinn
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The Atlantic article was just terrible writing, that was my problem with it. Nauseatingly sycophantic. I have no problem with Blow - I like opinionated people - but that article was simply unreadable. At least to me. Perhaps I've not a strong enough stomach.

grumpy pumps
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Agreed. It's a little disturbing how, if I respond poorly to the Atlantic article, I'm criticized for "hating on" Jonathan Blow. If I respond poorly to Phil Fish's antics or Fez, I'm criticized for "hating on" Phil Fish.

If this is auteurship, I can do without it.

Michael DeFazio
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Agreed, the author was "Blow"-ing some serious smoke, felt more like a love letter to Jon Blow (his lifestyle, habits, Tesla roadster, and Tai Chi) rather than divulging anything interesting about the games industry.

Not that I have a problem with Mr. Blow or his thoughts or opinions (I tend to agree with many of them). I just think the quotient of produced work (1 well-received indie game, which reuses mechanics from Mario and Prince of Persia with a story told through text rather than gameplay) verses the amount of talk and vitriol towards the "Games Industry" seems to be out of balance.

To put it frankly... I'm fine with JB's bad mouthing of the industry, if all this anger and frustration produces something truly innovative. I just don't think Braid goes far enough, (if you are going to talk the talk, walk the walk) lets hope the Witness has more to it than just an open world puzzle game...but from what I am reading, it's just Myst with better graphics... not something revolutionary like Antichamber.

On a positive note, I like the fact that there are people taking the art form seriously (although in Blows case I wonder whether he takes HIMSELF too seriously) ... Perhaps the Atlantic would do better to have a profile on someone a little less "rebellious/interesting", but with a bigger catalog of innovative titles (a la Jenova Chen).

Allen Brooks
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For those who found fault with the article for chronicling Jon's background, personal career growth story, tai chi, Tesla, etc - these are all things found in profile articles. Read any profile about a public or notable figure and you'll find the same trappings.

If you read it as a profile - and not interpret it as another mainstream attempt to label games as more than a curio - you'll find that it's well-written, informative and interesting. It does a good job giving you a sense of Jon's journey with the game, the motivation that drove him for four years during Braid's development, and of the interesting games and game makers that are yet to come.

Yes, the Citizen Kane thing is tired and pointless. But you know what? The only way to get the media (and game press) to stop pulling that line is to consistently elevate our games until the point is moot. As @taxincluded said on Twitter, "If you think any of the Final Fantasy games have amazing storylines. Do yourself a favor: read a book. You will freak the fuck out."

In the meantime, we're finally getting what we always wanted - for games to begin being accepted as a genuine means to express mature, thoughtful concepts (in addition to just being fun) - and just as with other forms like film, literature, TV, etc, the media likes to do profiles of the people who make them.

So everyone, please relax. This is a good thing.