The new auteurs of gaming

Blockbuster video games like ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ have gotten boring, but there’s never been a more diverse crop of engaging, budget-friendly games to play instead.

The new auteurs of gaming

Blockbuster video games like ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ have gotten boring, but there’s never been a more diverse crop of engaging, budget-friendly games to play instead.

In the fall of 1966, after endless delays, the beleaguered and wildly over-budget film Doctor Dolittle hit another production snag when a giraffe stepped on its own dick. (At least that’s what choreographer Herbert Ross told Mike Nichols, who told the journalist Mark Harris, who wrote about it in his book Pictures at a Revolution.) It was a portent of the pain to come.

Dolittle had started out as a studio darling, ticking all the boxes for distributor 20th Century Fox. It was the first live action adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s beloved children’s books; it capitalized on a resurgence of musicals anchored by The Sound of Music; its deliberate excesses would justify a roadshow tour, which commanded higher ticket prices by including intermissions and merchandise.

But the movie tanked at the box office, recouping just half of its eye-popping $17 million budget. Fueled by dumb money and stale assumptions, its making epitomized everything wrong with 1960s Hollywood. Commercial filmmaking had by then become stagnant in corporate hands, stifled by inflated costs and a sclerotic studio system. As Harris noted in his book, Hollywood was serving up the same starchy diet of westerns, war movies, epics, rom coms, and musicals that it had since the silent era of the 1910s and ‘20s. “Many of these films would draw audiences,” he wrote, “and every year, at least a couple of them would get Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, in stoic recognition of their bloat and expenditure.” (Dolittle among them.) “But nobody, not even their makers, was particularly inclined to defend them as creative enterprises.”

Then a few things began happening in parallel. An art & copy team at Esquire wrote a stylish script based on a pair of forgotten criminals named Bonnie and Clyde. Peter Fonda got drunk one night and raved to his friend Dennis about an idea that birthed Easy Rider. Sidney Lumet helped neuter the infamous Production Code by lobbying for a nude scene in his film The Pawnbroker. Suddenly, the Hollywood system was imperiled. Power swung dramatically from studio bosses to independent producers and creatives, who saw an opportunity to make movies on a modest budget that were both artistically ambitious and commercially viable.

There had been ample precedent for daring, textured, thriftily-made films — just not in America, and not that most Americans would have seen. The movement on every cinephile’s lips at the time was French New Wave, but the world had also born witness to major works by Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, and Satyajit Ray. The theory applied to these innovative filmmakers became known as auteurism, and their work coincided with an explosive appetite for sophistication on the part of the moviegoing public.

The recent bumper crop of successful indie video games suggests that that industry is now experiencing a similar renaissance. Indie games are defined in opposition to the prevailing AAA model: Instead of a large studio pumping parent company money into established IP, like FIFA or Pokémon, a handful of developers crowdfund or self-finance smaller projects that they sell through online marketplaces.

Big games have gotten boring. Like their old Hollywood analogues, the pull towards conservatism impacts every aspect of development. It’s a natural consequence of their size.

Digital distribution has made indie games more accessible than ever; 7,672 games were released on Steam, the world’s largest gaming platform, in 2017 alone. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo — the big three console makers — have each opened online stores within the past 15 years, at least partly in an effort to stave off their own obsolescence. Today’s indies enjoy a robust and self-sustaining ecosystem. But the foundation of their appeal remains comparative. Gamers love them because they furnish experiences that AAA games can’t, or won’t.

Economics play a role. The cost of producing those AAA tentpoles — the Calls of Duty and Grand Thefts Auto — has spiralled into the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, countless acquisitions have consolidated studios into a handful of skittish, publicly-traded behemoths built to pursue fatter margins for myopic shareholders.

The problem is that video games don’t make natural investments. In their quest to squeeze quarterly earnings from years-long development cycles, the suits have steered megapublishers away from single-player, story-driven concepts and embraced the new paradigm of “games as a service,” in which the real money is made after a game’s initial sale, often through subscriptions or microtransactions. When they do greenlight one-and-done titles, studios hedge their bets by doubling down on established formats.

The result is a sea of copycat shooters, barren sandboxes, and multiplayer slogs. Exceptions are rare and generally overhyped. Even 2018’s most acclaimed single-player blockbuster, Red Dead Redemption 2, offers little more than a trope factory for the narratively deprived, stunningly rendered scenery for exposition-on-horseback, and ostentatious stabs at period authenticity alongside prompts like “press (▲) to skin deer.”

Big games have gotten boring. Like their old Hollywood analogues, the pull towards conservatism impacts every aspect of development. It’s a natural consequence of their size.

“The larger your team is, the more difficult it is to maintain a strong, singular vision,” Eric Barone, the developer of 2016’s Stardew Valley, told me via email. “AAA studios make very fun, polished games, but they often wind up in a ‘design-by-committee’ scenario. Part of what makes games like Stardew Valley (just me) or Hollow Knight (two-man team) successful is that you can ‘feel’ the personal touch in the game.”

All of Stardew Valley is painted in Barone’s fingerprints: he designed everything himself, from its vibrant pixel art to its tender soundtrack. The game — a farming simulator in which you restore an old property and befriend the locals — feels as intimate as a bedtime story, and gives itself so generously that Twitter has declared it a method of self-care. Its distinctive personality is evident despite the fact that Barone borrowed its premise wholesale from the Japanese series Harvest Moon. He’s quick to point out that the quality of his source material flagged over time, as it too fell victim to studio bureaucrats. “Interestingly, the first few Harvest Moon games were actually made by a very small team (by today's standards), and were mostly the product of [designer] Yasuhiro Wada's unique vision,” he said. “I think that's why they were so good.”

Though it’s often still treated as an upstart, gaming is old enough to be in conversation with itself, and efforts by indie developers to revivify aging genres echo the work of film auteurs like Kurosawa and Godard.

Jonathan Blow’s landmark Braid, released in 2008, used the venerable platformer to interrogate tropes that series like Super Mario Bros. had long since encoded. Lucas Pope drew inspiration from early Macintosh titles to design last year’s Return of the Obra Dinn, a monochromatic 1-bit adventure game of startling depth. 2017’s Hollow Knight, self-published by two-man Team Cherry, owes its format to one of the oldest game types — “Metroidvania,” a portmanteau of the famous Metroid and Castlevania series — but teems with more original, incandescent worldbuilding than most premium cable shows.

It’s hard not to see these creators as auteurs. But while some of the most interesting titles from the past few years have come from small and solo developers, many game makers view the notion of auteurism skeptically, even antagonistically. Others simply consider it a flawed descriptor for the complex alchemy that transmutes a piece of software into something indelible.

“I certainly don't think that rich, mechanically deep games can only be created through the vision of a single author,” said Justin Ma, the co-founder of two-man studio Subset Games. “I think it just requires a willingness to take risks and innovate.” Ma and his partner Matthew Davis self-published the indie hit FTL: Faster Than Light in 2012, and followed it up with Into the Breach — a devilishly smart, impossibly elegant turn-based strategy game — last year.

An old man gives advice in Golf Story.

An old man gives advice in Golf Story.

The risks Ma refers to are a lot more tangible than tone or sensibility. “For example, with Into the Breach we threw out 6 months of work multiple times throughout the early stages of development,” he said. “This style of trial and error iteration would be suicide in a large studio but it's how Matt and I were able to refine our idea and determine what we wanted the game to be.”

The freedom to gestate designs for longer — and start over when necessary — gives indie developers an edge that only minimal overhead can provide. You can’t know how a game will play until you play it, and pivots are inevitable. The product that reaches consumers may be unrecognizable from its earliest form. (There’s no easy comparison, but imagine a novelist throwing out her entire first draft.) Ideas are cheap; execution is everything.

Of course, the severe constraints of indie development tend to favor a certain style. “It's far easier to make retro games these days,” said Andrew Newey, one half of Sidebar Games and the co-creator of 2017’s role-playing game Golf Story, an instantly addicting and frequently hilarious love letter to the sport. Like Stardew Valley, Golf Story’s design imitates classic 16-bit animation, which is much less technically demanding than the 3D graphics that followed. The relaxed development freed Newey and his partner to focus on the game’s writing. Golf Story delivers on its title, reeling in players with a charming, self-assured narrative and reams of witty dialogue.

Newey was inspired by Nintendo’s Mario Golf series. “I think we're all pretty much copying old Nintendo games that people haven't been able to play for some time,” he said. He credited Sidebar’s “lower standards” for giving him the latitude to lend Golf Story its unique flavor — and he didn’t mean it deprecatingly. “Repurposing assets and cutting corners meant we could have a lot more variety and interesting moments,” he explained. “My favorite games are all the ones from years ago when [developers] didn't have to add so much detail to everything. I feel like they were more free to throw things in and see if they were fun.”

In contrast, today’s AAA titles are defined by “polish,” a catchall term that refers to graphical fidelity, mechanical fluidity, and the myriad other factors that make blowing an enemy’s head off feel realistically gratifying. Among developers of all stripes, polish is often invoked as an end in itself — a prized expression of the care that has driven a game’s development.

But it also exists in philosophical opposition to digression and ingenuity, to unexpected interludes, to weirdness. Its Hollywood antecedent pushed ‘60s studios to return, again and again, to their production lots, symphony orchestras, and contract actors. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; masterpieces like Singin’ in the Rain were made from studio polish. But so were distended failures like Cleopatra. In the eyes of up-and-coming filmmakers, polish had became divorced from formal inventiveness.

AAA and indie games share a similar dynamic.

“Both sides struggle to do what the other side does well,” Ma told me. “Using the freedom of agile development and a small team's vision to craft a risky exploration of new ideas vs. using the knowledge and skills of hundreds of people to explore those ideas in detail and craft remarkable examples of technological entertainment.” Viewed this way, the tension between indie and AAA games is ultimately progressive. “In my opinion both indies and AAA studios are collectively advancing the medium and one couldn't replace the other,” he said.

One sign of gaming’s maturation may be the growing irrelevance of these labels. As the market expands — and as software development tools become cheaper, crowdfunding balloons, and digital distribution takes over — the distinction between the $60 shrink-wrapped discs you once bought at GameStop and the arthouse platformers you now download on Steam starts to disappear. (Indeed, many digital games are eventually released as physical copies on the strength of their initial sales.) This is especially true in the burgeoning world of mobile, where giant studios like King and Supercell churn out mindless distractions like Candy Crush and Clash of Clans while small developers craft games of real weight and substance.

Florence sits firmly in the latter camp. Released last year, it tells a tale of young love in a series of artful chapters that eschew text or dialogue altogether, relying instead on expressive puzzles and minigames. These mechanics, clever at first, soon become affecting as your swipes and drags mirror the emotional tenor of a given moment — playful through the couple’s meet-cute, tense and hurried during a fight.

Billed by some as a game, others as an interactive story, Florence stakes out territory beyond the usual conventions. “The goal was to make an excellent experience for mobile devices,” said Ken Wong, its Creative Director. “It defies traditional categories, but that's because categorization is boring and outdated. The only games I'm interested in these days are walking simulators, non-games, digital toys, whatever. So I'm just working in the space that I find interesting.”

Where Wong sees ambiguity as an asset, other developers covet the designation of “game” precisely because it proves the medium’s diversity.

Bury Me, My Love is a ‘real’ game,” said Florent Maurin, its lead designer and the founder of indie studio The Pixel Hunt. “Even if an unconventional one, and one you might even be reluctant to play, to be honest.” Bury Me, My Love tackles a sensitive subject: Syrian migration in the wake of the civil war. Players take the role of Majd, husband to Nour, who reluctantly leaves him behind as she embarks on the fraught journey to Europe. The game takes place on a WhatsApp-like interface and is comprised entirely of messages. Nour communicates with you in real time over the course of days or weeks, updating you and soliciting advice when needed. How you choose to respond will determine her outcome.

���Bury Me, My Love isn't a power fantasy,” Maurin elaborated. “You can't get better at playing it and reach a high score after logging hundreds of hours in it. That's because it's an unfair game, which requires you to make decisions based on incomplete information, hides things from you and masquerades incredibly important decisions in seemingly trivial choices…. We did that because Bury Me, My Love is a game about feeling helpless, and we thought its game design should reflect that.”

It worked. Anxiety permeates every interaction as well as the periods of silence between them: among Bury Me, My Love’s most haunting features is the sense that as long as you’re playing it, you’re never not playing it. Part of the game’s enduring dread is tied to its accessibility — no matter where you are, or when you see it, you can always reply to one of Nour’s messages. “If you know how to send a text message, you know how to play the game,” Maurin said. “There is next to zero barrier to entry, and that's definitely something we are proud about.” He punctuated the point with a telling observation: “Bury Me, My Love is the first ever video game that my 68-year-old mother played — and finished.”

What broke Hollywood’s studio system, in the end, was not a bunch of cheap, subversive films, but the revelation that a market existed for those films. New developers are minting the medium in their image. Every unit of Florence or Into the Breach or Stardew Valley that sells gives credence to their ambition. As Wong put it, “There's a lot you can do with digital interactivity these days beyond spawning enemies to shoot at.”

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Mac Schwerin writes about games, advertising, and pop culture. He previously wrote about a new canon of underrated games for The Outline.