When I went on Twitter earlier today and asked people who came to mind when I used the phrase “Video Game Auteur”, many of the replies were predictable names. Molyneux, Kojima, Suda 51, David Cage, Schafer, Yoko taro, Swery65, Mikami, Miyuzaki, Miyamoto, Inafune, Nomura, Ueda, Levine.
An auteur (French: [o.tœʁ], author) is a singular artist who controls all aspects of a collaborative creative work, a person equivalent to the author of a novel or a play. The term is commonly referenced to filmmakers or directors with a recognizable style or thematic preoccupation.
While the term ‘auteur’ is often applied to these men and their role in the creation of the game series they’re best known for, the term doesn’t really fit what most of them do as creators. Most of the men listed above are responsible for overarching tone and general plot decisions for their games, and they may write dialogue directly for them or they may work in aspects of development. But most of these people work as parts of increasingly large creative teams, with increasingly large publisher-funded budgets to account for. Games are expensive, teams are huge, and Auteur doesn’t fully apply to most of them..
Regardless, when people hear ‘Video Game Auteur’, they think of that handful of people, all men. While they may not strictly fit the definition of ‘auteur’ as it was originally applied to movies, the perception in gaming is that these are men deserving of the term. These are, as far as perception is considered, Gaming’s Auteurs.
Later, I went back to Twitter and asked a slightly different question: who are gaming’s female auteurs? Unsurprisingly, the internet had a much tougher time naming women who fit the bill in that same regard.
The above named men are largely (but not exclusively) working in AAA development, with the quality of all aspects of a game, from writing, to graphics, to gameplay attributed to their hand. I initially saw tweets suggesting Rhianna Pratchet, however her role in games largely consists of writing stories within pre-designed mechanics and set pieces. She has to write stories within established design constraints, which feels antithetical to the term Auteur.
Afterwards I got a lot of examples of female indie developers who worked on small-scale projects requiring very few credited outside collaborators: Anna Anthropy, Christine Love, Nina Freeman. I suspect the term ‘auteur’ was applied to many of these women in regards to authorial control born from small creation team size rather than out of the same sort of, lofty, inflated, grandiose sense of creative control over a large team applied to many of the above named male auteurs. Amusingly, women like Anthropy, Love and Freeman are perhaps closer to the intended meaning of auteur. While they generally work with far smaller teams, they tend to have a far larger degree of creative control as a result.
As time went on, I did eventually see a few suggestions of women who might more closely fit the Kojima school of Auteur notoriety, if to a lesser degree.
Amy Hennig, perhaps best known for her work as Creative Director on Uncharted through Uncharted 3, was given a large amount of freedom over the writing direction of the projects she worked on, and was heavily involved in the narrative structuring of the series. She was still often handed action set pieces and told to find a way to make the narrative lead between them, though, and the level designs were a constraint she had to create within rather than the other way around, which still feels fairly antithetical to the idea of perceived auteur-ship.
While most of the above men likely have similar creative constraints to work within, is it perhaps the fact Hennig acknowledges creative limitations that hampers perception of her as an Auteur? I can’t think of any of the above men who have spoken publicly about similar design limitations they work within.
Easily the best argument I saw for a female Auteur in video games was Roberta Williams, video game designer, writer, and a co-founder of Sierra On-Line. Williams was not only a vital part of the overall design and development of the King’s Quest series, her work is often credited with being the catalyst that created the graphic adventure genre. While she retired for working in video games in the late 90’s, the King’s Quest series was incredibly shaped by her work, as was the entirety of the genre going forward. The series and genre she created remain relevant and well-known long after her retirement. Perhaps her retirement briefly before the accessible internet age was a factor in her not attaining Auteur status, but it’s tough to tell. Many people associate her games with Sierra On-Line, but not the woman herself.
Honestly, I have a bit of a theory about why we don’t see more women labelled as auteurs within the gaming industry. The term ‘auteur’, as I said at the start of this article doesn’t 1:1 apply to video games in its initially intended form, and as such a concerted effort has to be made to highlight an individual and single them out as instrumental to the creative process. It’s a reality that it’s easier for a male creator to end up in this position. Typically (heavy generalisation, citation needed?), women are more prone to acknowledging collaborative efforts on team projects and downplaying their role, where often men will emphasise their importance on a project when given a chance. This differing dynamic makes it a lot easier for any male-dominated industry not pushing for diversity to lift up confident male creators willing to take credit for creative vision and label them auteurs, where female creators who acknowledge collaborative design are often not hoisted up to the same degree.
Do I think we will ever see female creators become household names to a high enough degree that in future their names come up without having to specify their gender in queries about auteur theory? Perhaps, but it won’t come easy. We need to think about who we apply the term to, why, and what barrier prevents us lifting up female creatives in that same way.