Thursday, November 15, 2012

Game Design Auteurism

What on earth is Game Design Auteurism? Auteurism doesn't even show up as a 'real word' in my spell-check program. It's certainly not a common word- not outside of film, that is- but it could likely be applied to any creative discipline, and could certainly be applied to film's next door neighbor: video game design.

Auteur theory holds that a film reflects its director's personal creative vision. The film exists as a manifestation of the director's design philosophy. For us to study game design auteurism is for us to look at video games and to try and extract from them the personal design philosophy of the 'directors' who orchestrated them.

One of my first questions when entering this class was to wonder whether or not this class really ought to be, 'The History of Game Design.' Then I considered that perhaps it ought to be, 'The History of Thinking About Game Design.' It was only after I cared to look up the definition of 'auteur' that I suddenly comprehended why my college so valued this class.

Auteur theory stresses that a film will reflect it's director's vision despite the fact that films are the end result of a highly industrialized creative process, involving hundreds if not thousands of additional minds, opinions, and design philosophies. Although games and film different in many key ways, the overall form of their production process is very similar. This 'industrialization,' this collection of massive numbers of warring ideologies, is what makes Auteur theory just as applicable to game design as it ever could be to film.

Here at the Savannah College of Art and Design, there is a strong focus both on anchoring ourselves in our artistic values, but also on one day obtaining a job. Nowhere is this dichotomy more present than in the disciplines of game design. The idea that  a single man/woman's vision can rise above all this chaos and be heard in the final product is of immense value to us as art and design students. We are not training to become cogs. We are training to become visionaries  as vital to our own production pipeline as directors are to theirs.

Actually, that's exactly what Game Design Auteurism implies in its very name: that game designers can be, should be, are, directors. That a game developer to his/her industry is as a director would be to their industry. And that we are responsible for the creative vision that steers the game as a whole.

Of course this levies upon us games students a heavy responsibility. No longer can we be content to be programmers, technicians, engineers, or managers. We are not even craftsmen or artisans. We are directors. Our voice, our leadership, our vision is going to be heard. And should we avoid this role, or should we neglect to cultivate a powerful design philosophy, the result will be felt in our games.

Before this quarter, I had never considered what my own personal design philosophy might be. I had started looking at how I designed games differently, to be sure. I had moved away from boring tasks like trying to 'fix' the games industry, and headed off to find blue oceans of untapped gamers, and was investigating new forms of game play that had not yet been thoroughly explored. In my studies on women in video games, I realized that one of the reasons I played games was because my father had originally shared them with me as a small child.

I had never considered what it is about games that actually gives me pleasure. I knew what genres I liked, and I could tell a game I cared about from a game I hated. But when it came down to it, I lacked the vocabulary to talk about my choices. I could title a game good or bad and explore its strengths and weaknesses, but I had not analyzed my own sense of taste. The closest I had come to doing anything of the sort was to say that I liked strategy games because I was a highly logical person. But that didn't explain why micro managing alien armies made me comfortable, happy, and relaxed.

This 'taste' was important not just because it reflected what I chose to consume, but also because I have long been a producer of game and game-like products, and in that too, I had a sense of taste. In fact, I was incredibly picky. There were certain areas in which I refused to consume anything at all, because only the ideas I produced were 'good enough' to me.

Okay, but then what was my 'taste' like?

I honestly had no clue.

At first I considered the video games I liked to play. Then, as I kept going with the readings in the class, I began to realize that the true driving force behind each individual didn't necessarily have to do with the products they liked to consume, or the media they cared about. Each individual had been sculpted by childhood experiences. Will Wright had gone to a highly creative school where learning was built around playful exploration of toys and spaces. Carmack had been denied access to computers. Jobs had been something of a social outcast, totally removed from the office-type white-collar worker that usually consumed computer products in his day.

The more designers we studied, the more it became clearer: there was a vision deep inside me, and it didn't come from games. It was a lot deeper than that. And I had to find it. Because if I couldn't identify it, I couldn't cultivate it. As an Auteur/Author I could not permit this to happen.

I sat down and thought about it for awhile. I stopped thinking about video games and I went further back. What forces had driven me out into the forests as a young child to build stick forts and dig up bugs? What had my favorite movies been? What kinds of impossible Christmas presents had I asked for on my Christmas list?

I was very surprised to find out that Agon and Alea, my current project, is all about bringing a digital companion to life. And judging by my childhood Christmas Lists, I was constantly asking for a real-life miniature dinosaur/dragon/unicorn/Power Ranger to play with.

I kept thinking. I pulled out gardening books, and started looking for images that struck a chord in my soul. I searched the internet for some of my favorite kinds of images in the world: images of mountain-top temples, in places so far removed from modern civilization that nothing can be seen in any direction but the temple, stone, water, and trees.

A movie I loved lately was "How to Train Your Dragon". I'd once asked my father as a child, "If you really love something that's not real, how do you make it more real?" and was totally devastated by his answer, "You can't."

It that moment of recollection, I hit soundly upon my design philosophy: To undermine that, 'You can't.'

I design games because I want to make the unreal, real. Just for awhile, just for the duration of an escapist journey, just a little. I want to give everyone their, 'Where the Wild Things Are,' their own fairies, their own dragon, their own unicorn, their own Power Ranger, their own hero. I wanted to send them to worlds they would never otherwise experience, and meet people they could never otherwise meet. I wanted to put more poetry in their lives, and to chip away at the mundane. At the end of these stories, the children/protagonists always return to the real world to live out their lives. But they are better for it. Happier for it. More joyful for it.

Game Design Auteurism started out- to me- as The History of Game Design. But what I left with was a surprisingly deep insight into myself, into what I believe in, into what I value, into what I love. I have finally thought to wonder what the force is that powers me, and I have started to piece together what that force is. This is the design philosophy- the heart of my beliefs- that will have to anchor me through any rainstorm, that will need to persevere through the chaos of the production process, and emerge unscathed and handsomely clothed on the other side, shining for the world to see.

And as a result?

I am ready to put on my director's hat. Cut!

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