Games Don’t Need “Director’s Cuts” and Auteurs, They Need Innovation and AccountabilityGames Features auteurs
While remastered, enhanced, and legendary editions of games are a dime a dozen (or rather $40-$70 a pop), there seems to be a new term surfacing for an updated version of critically-acclaimed game: director’s cuts. While director’s cuts are a cinema staple, allowing those at the helm of movies to customize a version as close to their original intent as possible, the notion is fairly new in games and—much like The Game Awards or the state of AAA games as a whole, honestly— reflects the industry’s ongoing effort towards becoming more “cinematic.”
In the past month, both Kojima Productions Death Stranding and Sucker Punch Studio’s Ghost of Tsushima have adopted this name for the upcoming enhanced versions of their games, both of which hit PlayStation this fall. However, there’s a lot to unpack with this new naming convention, and even more to be concerned about.
The idea of the director’s cut ties in directly with the idea of gaming auteurs, another film term that’s made the leap over into games vernacular. In film, an auteur refers to a filmmaker whose artistic control and claim over a movie is so great, they are said to be the guiding force and author of the work, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino, or Guillermo Del Toro. As games have evolved, the term has been used with more and more frequency in reference to game developers so prestigious they are directly tied to the projects they work on, developers such as Bioshock’s Ken Levine, Metal Gear Solid’s Hideo Kojima, Dark Soul’s Hidetaka Miyazaki, Nintendo legend Shigeru Miyamoto,The Last of Us’ Neil Druckman, and Square Enix’s Tetsuya Nomura.
Without a doubt, each one of these men have earned praise for their accomplishments in gaming, creating works that have paved the way for countless games. However, while we celebrate and elevate the creations of these chosen individuals—heralding them as champions of artistry and unrivaled innovators—the concept of having “auteurs” can directly contribute to some major problems we’re facing in the games industry, such as loss of innovation, poorly managed production schedules, and a major lack of accountability.
First and foremost, when we uplift these icons, we boldly state that above all others, these are the folks you should aspire to be like, which ultimately leads us to be less accepting of game makers that deviate from what is deemed “art of merit.” Furthermore, while there’s no question that allowing yourself to be inspired by and learn from “masters of the craft” can lead to progress, it can also lead to emulation and stagnation, an issue that is abundantly clear in the AAA games space in which our gaming auteurs inhabit. As a whole, big budget studios have grown increasingly fixated on creating “cinematic” games, which while they can contain heavy narrative and original storytelling, should not be confused with games boasting solely that.
Instead, cinematic games, as a genre, are big budget behemoths that focus on hyper-realistic and expansive journeys, are generally dark or serious in tone, and utilize lessons in cinematography and eliciting emotional reactions observed from film—which isn’t even proper use of term cinematic, if we’re being honest. These AAA “cinematic” standards, which require a whole hell of a lot of money, effectively keep many developers and studios out of the mainstream while also leading to redundancy in game mechanics and stylistic choices. As they trudge away at making games more “artistic,” they leave a lot—including a whole lot of weirdness, diversity, and innovation—behind.
In addition, there is also an inherent defensiveness and resistance to criticism that is both perpetuated by and surrounds auteurs. As the face of their respective games and studios, they are the individuals most often invited to speak on behalf of them, and understandably so. There’s no denying they are most intimately connected to all aspects of the game, so it feels natural for outlets to reach out to them. It’s even more natural, then, that these developers turn into friends and personalities, which—regardless of if it’s intentional or not—shields them from a significant amount of criticism. We, as both consumers and the media, want to like and appreciate them.
Therefore, because of their presence and accomplishments, auteurs, their art, and their artistic intentions are defended more heavily and by more people—including fellow auteurs with large followings of their own. Whereas smaller developers and studios without a “frontman” are more accepting and susceptible to critique, Naughty Dog creative director Neil Druckmann, for example, conducted severalinterviews just last year while promoting The Last of Us II where he denied the legitimacy of various criticism and was defended by folks such as Santa Monica Studio’s Cory Barlog. However, while it’s one thing for developers to be unreceptive to criticism of their games, auteurship leads to an issue far more greater than the debate over artistic merit: the ethical treatment of the game developers working below them.
For starters, just the very presence of an auteur casts a very large shadow on the rest of a studio’s team and can make other developers and their work seem secondary or small in comparison. This is made all the more frustrating by the countless reports of how the developers in the metaphorical trenches are treated by their studios, as they are expected to crunch repeatedly for a game considered the work of an individual before it is a collaboration of minds. And, when assumption isn’t enough, some auteurs have made comments actively erasing the work of their teams, such as Hideo Kojima.
Back in 2020, Kojima tweeted:
“A HIDEO KOJIMA GAME means the declaration of me doing concept, produce, original story, script, setting, game design, casting, dealing, directing, difficulty adjustments, promoting, visual design, editing, supervising the merch.”
While the tweet was largely criticized, it remains up and allows us a glimpse into how Kojima views his projects: as his. While it is natural to feel that sense of pride and ownership over your project, Kojima is a very talented man, and we can assume he didn’t mean to come across as callous as he did, the point still stands and is pretty insulting towards the rest of the people who assisted him along the way.
Perhaps the most glaring argument against auteurs in gaming remains Ken Levine of Irrational Games. After the success of Bioshock, Levine was given enormous resources and creative freedom to produce Bioshock Infinite. As detailed in Jason Schreier’s book Press Reset, Infinite’s production was arduous and poorly managed, and resulted in a game that was neither critically nor commercially as successful as the first Bioshock. In the process it brought about the end of Irrational as a company, disrupting the lives of dozens of developers, and drove Levine away from AAA development. It’s been over eight years since Bioshock Infinite’s release, and despite reforming Irrational as the much smaller Ghost Story Games, there’s still been little information released about Levine’s follow-up.
Ultimately, a director’s cut only greatens the disparity between the “artist” and the team that is also creating the art. Quite simply, auteurs couldn’t create their works without money, a team, and somebody helping to manage the whole thing, and more often than not it feels like that goes unrecognized. In addition, they fail to recognize how much it would help if they stood aside and lifted up names other than their own at times. They fail to realize that diversity and uplifting in the games industry isn’t done by creating characters and telling stories, but by including and supporting those around you.
The simplest way they could support these developers is by providing them with a safe place to work, with ethical hours, practices, expectations, pay, and a zero tolerance policy towards harassment, which despite sounding simple, has repeatedly been a problem. Furthermore, auteurs taking the backseat and understanding their role, the importance of their team, and how gross it is to have dozens of people working on a “director’s cut,” will also go a long way.
In a sense, I think I understand where the games industry’s push for cinematics, auteurs, and director’s cut comes from: insecurity. Since games inception, we’ve tirelessly had to defend games as art as well as our roles within them, whether we make them, play them, or write about them. There’s always been this invisible push to make games feel legitimate, but in striving to achieve that we fail to realize we needn’t mush them into something they’re not when what they are is already incredible and art in itself. Games don’t need to be movies. We don’t need the games industry to continue developing the same problems we know the film industry has. We don’t need “director’s cuts” and auteurs and endless abuse. We should want to be better and while sure, calling a game a director’s cut is a small nitpick in the grand scheme of things, it’s a small thing that scares me and is a part of something bigger and I hope we can change before it’s too late.
Jessica Howard is the managing editor at gaming site Uppercut and a freelance writer with works published at Paste, UPROXX, Collider, and more. She enjoys loud music, hot coffee, and games with romanceable NPCs.