BioShock Infinite

Thought Bubble:
We are artists
(so let’s start talking like it!)

This is a guest editorial from Navid Khavari (@Navface), Ubisoft Toronto’s senior narrative designer for Splinter Cell: Blacklist. His career in story development began at Toronto-based studios Lenz Entertainment and Story City, and he’s also worked at Bedlam Games, writing/designing the interactive motion comic for Lost Girl (Showcase/ABC), and several video game properties, including Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale. Views represented in this editorial are those of the author alone, not Ubisoft Toronto or Dork Shelf.

BioShock Infinite
Irrational Games’ BioShock Infinite

I might be wrong. This is how I’m feeling right now, and that could change. To think I was always right would be to ignore everything I’ve experienced up to now.

But there is something that worries me about the video game industry, something that needs to find alignment, something preventing us to reach higher than we have. And that is the lack of use in our common vocabulary of the words “art” and “artistry” and “auteur.”

I’ve worked on games that were received horribly, and games that I hope will be embraced. I’ve experienced countless conferences, get-togethers, roundtables, raging debates over coffee — and each seems so exhaustively focused on whether games are art, and how to defend that idea, or even what constitutes a “game.”

It’s the wrong debate to be having.

Are video games art? Yes. Should we move on? Yes.

What defines a game? Is it the controller? Is it the interaction? Is it the mechanics? Is it all of these things? Do we really care to know?

Sounds like an endless spiral to me.

thatgamecompany’s Journey

Maybe that’s an interesting point of debate for some, but focusing on this alone is harming the industry and how we perceive ourselves as artists. Balance is survival and we lack balance.

When the Cahiers du Cinéma came onto the scene in 1951, it helped define the idea of auteurism in film (Andrew Sarris would develop this into auteur theory). French critics had noticed a particular group of films seemed to share a similar vision, with the common thread being the director. It completely changed how Hollywood and the world looked at Hitchcock, Lang, Godard, and Renoir, and would allow later critics to look at the works of Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, and Jonze, and have the vocabulary to describe the feeling they had when experiencing someone’s vision on celluloid.

We must do the same. Now. We need to start hailing our auteurs as such. Beyond that, we need to start recognizing that those who strive for that vision, who work towards that goal, are artists themselves. Whether coders, concept, modelers, writers, audio designers, quality control, level designers, or animators, we are all artists working towards a vision — the game.

Take Journey — a game that created the most meaningful multiplayer experience I’ve ever had. Bar none. It is the potential for artistry in games defined. Where were the critiques of its impact on the world? Why weren’t we speaking to those outside of our art form?

The strong lack of willingness to talk to other mediums is surprising, and our loss alone. We desperately need to start using their vocabularies, ones that have quite literally been developed over centuries (canvas, photography, film, music). Or we must simply strive better to develop our own.

As a narrative designer I often get inspiration from going to the theatre, attending a gallery opening, seeing a new band perform, just as much as I do from downloading the latest XBLA title. We, as devs, need more opportunities to embrace other artists, and see what makes them tick.

But before that can happen, there needs to be a revolution in how we talk about video games. I’m just one game developer. But I know from my own experience that game devs are desperate to be talked to as the artists they are.

Papo & Yo - Monster and a Melon
Minority Media’s Papo & Yo

Vander Caballero makes a game about his experiences dealing with his father’s alcoholism. He is an auteur in the purest sense.

Hideo Kojima. Auteur.

Ken Levine. Auteur.

Maxime Béland. Auteur.

Patrice Désilets. Auteur.

Jonathan Morin. Auteur.

Tim Schafer. Auteur.

Look at the wiki pages of the games these amazing artists have worked on. Sometimes their names aren’t even listed in the sidebar.

And does all of this mean I think Call of Duty isn’t art? Absolutely not. Who are we to define what art is? What a pointless exercise!

Who am I to judge how someone enjoys the latest Call of Duty or Gran Turismo or Journey or Monkey Island? These games represent an entire team’s worth of art! And it’s beautiful!

Abram Zimmerman, when he was alive, once said to his son, “Isn’t an artist a fellow who paints?”

His son became known to the rest of us as Bob Dylan.

This is our new wave. Let’s embrace it!

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  • Anonymous

    Yes, let’s descend into the same degrading culture of celebrity-worship that’s basically ruined the modern art and music worlds.

  • Navid Khavari

    It’s unfortunate that you feel celebrity culture has ruined modern art, and I wonder (if you are a gamer) you think your games have been ruined by celebrity culture (which is already rampant in the games industry, and just as pointless as in film). Im surprised you have reached such a drastic conclusion from a fairly simple and easily defensible article. To be clear, I’m not advocating creating a celebrity culture in games; it already exists anyway. I’m advocating for artists to know their worth, and more specifically, for auteur theory to become the norm. Celebrity culture did not benefit Scorsese as a filmmaker with a unique vision, but auteur theory did. It wasn’t a huge deal to be a director in the 30′s, and you were expected to pump out several films a year. Auteur theory allowed studios to look at Scorsese and say, here’s a visionary with a unique voice (that can also make us some money). I just would like to see our artists celebrated more. That simple. I humbly respect your opinion and your right to give it, but hope that oine day you are open enough to revisit it. All the best to you, and take care.

  • WakingLife

    Incredible article.

    I’ve definitely always found it tempting to think about what the next step will be for “the industry”. The expansion of games as a medium has been vast; do we regulate it’s direction and assure focus, or do we see how it can grow by itself?

    I am an immense silver screen fan and gamer. There is only so far movies can go on their own; before 3D glasses and surround sound is just not enough “immersion” to capture the attention of our distracted society. How do you envelop your viewer in the world you are creating?

    That’s the beauty of games; isn’t it? Although the story you are following as you control your on screen character is pre-determiend; you are driving the car on these predefined roads. There is no swerving in movies; there is no varying routes; no changing experience. Although some will spend until the end of time debating the fine details of Donnie Darko; ultimately the key is not to sync to an ultimate correct experience; but embrace the ability to allow varying experiences. It’s the difference between watching Indiana Jones and being Nathan Drake.

    Games should not follow movies; they should go into a path where movies simply cannot follow. If you ask me what is wrong with this industry; I’d have to pinpoint the interpretation of “immersion” getting lost along the way. Immersion is not wielding a plastic sword; or jumping in your living room. It’s about breaking the sense that “Rapture” isn’t more than pixels; or that you can actually breathe in the dead of space. You don’t get to that level with physical stimulation; a vibrating controller doesn’t equate to an earth quake. You reach that level with mental and visual stimulation. You create the world; then place a user in it. You can’t immerse a user into your world; if you have not made them believe in it. That’s the capacity of a true artist.

    The word “art” just begins to lose all meaning; when given a description. As an artist isn’t just a fellow with a brush; art isn’t just a medium. If you want a user to be emotionally involved; give them a sense of emotion. That’s the work of a true artist. That’s what we’re capable of achieving. It just starts with believing in what you’re working on; that will transfer into your final product. There are just not enough people who believe in what they are working on. You end up with the vision of one person; presented by a group of the blind.

  • Navid Khavari

    Wow, that is one of the most eloquent comments I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I 100% agree with you, and encourage you to share these ideas with others! Brilliant.

  • Russell J. Grigaitis

    “None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands. A glimmer of that feeling has shone so often in your eyes when—like the artists of every age—captivated by the hidden power of sounds and words, colours and shapes, you have admired the work of your inspiration, sensing in it some echo of the mystery of creation with which God, the sole creator of all things, has wished in some way to associate you.”
    Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists