Editorial: Singular Voices

Majora's Mask may be an exception.
Zelda is a wonderful artful series, but usually lacks a distinct creative voice powering it.

I went to an old work acquaintance’s apartment last night for the first time (which I suppose means that we are now upgraded to “new friend” status) and I had a fun time being the least terrible at Mario Kart 8‘s new wild 200cc class. Like pretty much all of the Wii U’s best titles, it is a game best played in the same room with others. Even if Nintendo realized what the internet was and added competent voice chat, there is an added element when sharing a couch in the same physical space as other humans; turning and shouting at a wild moment, deciding what mode to play, taking a break together, and sensing the tension and frustration in the people sitting beside me all seem to be factors built into the gameplay of titles like Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros., and Game & Wario. And while these games share this strong local multiplayer factor and a strong “Nintendo” feeling, they – and no other Nintendo game really – seems to reflect the singular voice and intention of just one mind. Even early Nintendo games or the strongest of their strongest work helmed by a genius such as Shigeru Miyamoto feel like games that have come from Nintendo and not one person’s vision. Put another way through an example, I would say that Miyamoto and in turn Aunoma ultimately serve Zelda rather than the other way around.

This is not always the case in gaming as a few voices have shot their way to an elusive position of creative control during the explosive and unstable beginnings of game design. I do not have the gaming history knowledge of some of the other members of LCom, so I am sure that there are a large number of significant names I will not mention, but whatever, that is what the comments are for!

Loss, strength, loneliness, and hope.
A carefully constructed feeling.

Hideo Kojima is a man who had very lucky timing. The Metal Gear games certainly have strong design, but they have also served as a platform for Kojima’s interesting, but incredibly bloated ideas. His early success in the landscape of gaming ensured his creative freedom, no matter how ludicrous and oblivious. But, for all the madness inherent in those games and as far as they may fall from my interests and what I can stand in a gaming narrative, I have great respect for them. They are games that seem to be unmistakably a product of Kojima’s mind. They impress me simply by existing. As more people are required to bring a creative product to fruition and as more money becomes involved, it becomes more and more difficult from a practical and emotional standpoint for a single creative vision to be a driving force. This has been a struggle since film’s inception as well, the most comparable creative medium in terms of number of people and amount of money involved.

As game design continues to find itself through fits of financial successes, market research, indie gaming, and the slow emergence of serious critique, singular creative voices are starting to stray from the Kojima style of “anything goes as long as there is a functional foundation”. Fumito Ueda showed off two strong works that were distinctly his own and were both distinct expressions of gaming, using mechanics, atmosphere, world design, premise, and music to surround focused themes. In short, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus were games that said something. They were projections of a single person’s vision.

Indie gaming has helped immensely to shine a spotlight on this relationship. Competent and popular visions like Fez and Braid made it more common to associate a single name with game ideas much like one would do with music, literature, or film. Jonathan Blow, the designer of the latter game decided to follow up his philosophical 2D side-scrolling platformer with a 3D first-person exploration puzzle adventure game The Witness due out this year. This method of resisting the compulsion to just make a lazy sequel like many rich publishers decide to pursue is an encouraging emerging trend. In the AAA scene, Ueda was the biggest recent name to do this until The Last Guardian collapsed upon itself and became whatever tangled mess is still apparently in development. Fortunately, Hidetaka Miyazaki has stepped up to continue to show the benefits to this method. While I am only familiar with Bloodborne and while all his games share many traits, detaching the creative process from the expectations of sequels has allowed Miyazaki to more clearly output his distinct visions.

Games are complicated and difficult to create. Not only because of the time, money, and manpower needed, but because of the unknown complexities of its practically still brand new form. The more that strong single creative voices are able to harness a team to produce their specific vision, the more we will be able to understand gaming’s potential as an art form.

Or maybe you disagree, fine readers. Do you think games are too big to reflect a single person’s vision? Are there games and people too important to have not mentioned here? Engage with your singular vision for what a comment to this article should look like.

5 comments

  1. As with most things, I think it’s largely contextual. Some game leaders are better at using their managerial skills to project a vision onto a team of people and get them motivated toward achieving that vision together. Others use the group itself to help create and execute the vision. I’m not sure one or the other or even other alternatives are better or worse equipped to put out a good game.

    I personally like the, for lack of a better term, precedent in the gaming industry that gives recognition to a studio for a good title as opposed to the way most other media distribute their praise. In films and television, the focus is typically on a few key players, mainly the on-screen cast and the director, sometimes a producer or composer. These people should be recognized, because they’re typically the most visible in any given production. But I like the way gaming doesn’t necessarily focus on a few key players and instead praises the entity as a whole, because that doesn’t, whether people do it intentionally or not, diminish the effort that every single member of the team put forth.

  2. Sigh. Here we go again. Stop equating games with art! You are doing a disservice to both! Stop stop stop!

    No game, taken as a whole, is art. A game may have individual aspects which are artistic. There are areas in the lovingly built pixellated world of Final Fantasy VI that are certainly art; the music of Final Fantasy IX is art; the narrative and dialogue in Final Fantasy XII is art. There are some games which are chock-full of art. But, the games where these things are found are not, themselves, taken in whole, art. They are games. And despite bizarre, wrong-headed morons thinking otherwise, the one is not somehow better than the other. Art is not better than Games; Games are not better than Art. They are simply categorically different things. (I just got through that whole paragraph without mentioning Final Fantasy VII. Until now.)

    Games are far more like Sport than they are like a painting, a novel, or a symphony, because their nature is wholly grounded in the systemic, and their whole ludic narrative (not the same thing as the narrative of dialogue and story action) is generated purely (and often individually) through user interaction. Again, this does not mean that they cannot have artistic aspects. There are aspects of Cricket which are, for example, artistic: a ground may be beautiful, a particular stroke by an excellent batsman may have a classical aspect; there can be symmetry to the field placements which are aesthetically pleasing–but these are aspects, not the whole ‘Sport’ itself. The whole does not become art simply because it possesses aspects which are artistic, in the same way a house does not become art by virtue of having paintings inside of it, or a person becoming art by memorising a great many poems, or an evening with the wife become art by taking in a Symphony as part of it: and yet, no one would dispute the value of such a house, such a person, or such an evening.

    (This is not to say that Games are Sport (they’re not; Games are Games, and I am being reductive about the differences for the purpose of the analogy); but rather to point out that they exist in a different category of thing than Art properly considered.)

    So it turns out that Roger Ebert was right after all, God rest his little soul, but he was right for the wrong reasons. He held up art as somehow ‘more’ than games, which he perceived as uniformly Pac-Man-like. Instead, Games are just as valuable as Art, for some of the same reasons that Art is valuable, and for some different reasons to which Art itself can never aspire. We need both! But we also need to stop conflating them, because so to do creates a false hierarchy which diminishes both even as it confuses both.

  3. @Lusi – Hrm, I remain unconvinced. All your argument tells me is that there is no suitable academic description for games as art which is something I believed already. Not that I even disagree with most of what you said – I don’t – but I think there is a short-sightedness and need for immediate categorization and explanation that is inherently dismissive about your conclusion.

    @Bek – I also like focus on the celebration of the team as a whole, although I think that is a different (albeit related) conversation. Few single people could make an entire game, and I think the best multi-person creative projects have a need for the director to encourage and include other artistic influences from the team, but regardless of public perception and reaction, I think games tend to have greater artistic value when they are ultimately reflective of a single person’s vision. A Sibelius symphony could not be played without the incredible talent and dedication of the instrumentalists, the conductor, and the many people who make the instruments and organize the space and the payments and all the other jobs nobody ever thinks about, but ultimately the symphony is an expression of something out of Sibelius and that vision is at the centre and all other work is best served pursuing that vision.

  4. “I think there is a short-sightedness and need for immediate categorization and explanation that is inherently dismissive about your conclusion.”

    When the abstract rules themselves on a list of rules are art, then and only then will games be art. You may continue to implicitly vaunt art above games by claiming categorical symmetry, but you are doing no service to games or art, and are only perpetuating the (quite wrong) belief that art is superior to games, hence the need to justify the latter by insisting it is the former.

  5. That’s an interesting interpretation of my position. I think it’s far too premature to write the concluding paragraph on the form of games. I agree especially about your examples of Final Fantasy. I’ve been thinking about that series a lot recently before this conversation and I agree that those games are not particularly artful as complete works (if at all, actually), and fit what you are describing perfectly. However, this is where I believe it’s too early to apply this to gaming as a form as a whole which is incredibly young and has used imitation of other forms heavily in its slow and blind groping to find its own form. But just because the examples of artful game design are primitive and very few does not mean in my mind that games need some final explanation in this moment that dismiss their potential and pure form as art (though not all games, not all film, not all music, etc). All art forms include the mechanical and all art forms include interaction, albeit not in such a literal form like it is with games.

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