Death of the Developer

Written by Dean Bowman and Susan Marmito
This article contains spoilers for the endings of Prince of Persia (Xbox 360) and BioShock.

As a relatively young medium, intellectual discourse around videogames has only just begun to emerge. For instance, little has been written still on how games tell stories and how the way they tell them should differ from any other medium. But with narrative becoming an increasingly vital component it is somewhat enlightening to take some of the theoretical ideas encountered in the study of literature and film, and apply them to video games.

One such theory from one of the most influential modern theorists, Roland Barthes, is particularly interesting in this context. Barthes wrote his piece ‘The Death of the Author’ in response to a trend in literary criticism, which looked to the biography of the author to provide meaning to a narrative. Barthes sought to oppose this trend by suggesting that when readers read a text, the author becomes absent. While of course there needs to be an author to write a text, when the reader comes to it, they do not think of the author, but rather of their own personal relationship with the story.

In terms of literary criticism, giving the text an ‘author’ allowed the critic to find a definite ‘meaning’ based on that author, but such an approach imposes a limit on the text. If you assign the text an author instead of thinking of the text in its own right, or in its own context, then you limit the interpretations you can find and the avenues that can be explored. The beauty of interpretation is that you bring your own experience to the table, and draw your own conclusions with no punishment for being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

In Assassin’s Creed 3 you play as Roland Barthes, purging the Paris rooftops of pesky structuralist critics…

In our field, the Death of the Developer can be said to be very much in force – after all, we don’t think about the personal background of the developer who made the game that we so excitedly lay our hands on, nor is it necessary to do so to understand and enjoy a game. Also, unlike the author of a novel, to speak of ‘the developer’ doesn’t necessarily make sense given the number of people who go into making a game. The writers, artists, designers, programmers and so on. There can be so many that to consider their backgrounds when interpreting a game is a little silly. The Assassins Creed series tells us significantly at every startup that ‘this work of fiction was designed, developed and produced by a multicultural team of various religious faiths and beliefs’ to encourage us to enjoy the narrative as it is presented without being concerned about any kind of agenda.

If the Death of the Developer is very much in force, then so is the Birth of the Player. When Barthes says that the meaning of a text is basically created when the reader reads it, the same can be said of video games. Of course, video games, by their very interactive nature encourage that creation of meaning; unlike books and films as we play through a game we craft the meaning of the story, and in some cases, the very story itself through our experience.

One problem with Barthes’ declaration of the Death of the Author is that it can be just as extreme as the thing it replaces, trading the cult of the author for the cult of the reader. However, the way that the creative process has evolved in the modern medium of film has had a very different agenda. Developed in the 1950s, auteur theory established the director as the sole creative force behind a film. This was partly because of the personal view of film taken by Andre Bazin, the film critic behind auteur theory, but most importantly it was a radical attempt to establish film as a serious art form. Critics like Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut dared to find artistic merit in Hollywood cinema, which had been seen as little more than a conveyor belt of entertainment up to that point. Celebrating (and later emulating) directors such as Hitchcock, Billy Wilder and Howard Hawkes, they found recurring motifs and themes in their films that, when traced back to the director, proved that cinema was a valid and vital art form.

Shigeru Miyamoto and Hideo Kojima have become cult figures within an industry that is surprisingly light on (non-virtual) personalities.

Instead of limiting the meaning of the text, the figure of the artist/creator in film became a way of gaining cultural recognition of film as an art form. It’s interesting to note that video games share many things with film: they are a multi-million dollar commercial industry and they are created by a huge team of people. In recent years, games have also reached the situation that faced films in the 1950s and 1960s: they have been accepted as the dominant cultural force but still struggle to be taken seriously.

Given the mystique surrounding the production process behind games (the idea of a person sitting in front of a computer endlessly coding is less romantic than a director presiding over a film set) it’s much harder to credit an individual with the role of creator. Of course, a few legendary auteurs still exist, such as Hideo Kojima and Shigeru Miyamoto, but they seem to have a slightly different role, more like mediators or spokesmen than possessing the absolute creative authority of a writer or director.

Of course realistically we cannot think of a developer being completely removed from the work because we need someone to actually create the game. Barthes may have metaphorically killed the author in terms of interpretation, but with a video game it’s even more vital that the framework for players to create their own stories and narratives needs to be created in itself. Video game developers are intelligent, creative people with wide and varied interests and there’s no doubt that these influences make their way into the game. A game is a composition of many creative inputs, identities and influences, but ultimately the essence of meaning from this creative cauldron comes down to the player. In this way, the overall process of creation from initial idea to final interpreted meaning can be said to be shared between the game’s developers and the player in the form of a dialogue or negotiation.

After all part of what makes a game interesting is having interactivity tied to a scripted central narrative thread. Alex Garland (author of The Beach and 28 Days Later) did a very interesting interview relating to his attempts to get into writing for games, and his frustration that many games aren’t created with a writer on board from the offset. The tension between story and design can be very productive and meaningful; consider for example the ending of Prince of Persia on the Xbox, which places the player in a very interesting position. In order to complete the game he must release the demon he has fought so hard to imprison, repeating the same action that unleashed it at the beginning of the game. Many players were immensely frustrated by the way in which all of their hard work was undone in the end, but this is one of the most intelligent endings in recent years. Philosophically speaking, it forces you to realise that the value of a single human life is more important than an empty city, no matter how grand it once was; that the future is more important than holding onto the past. Here, narrative negates (it might be better to say transcends) gameplay, but not before gameplay enhances narrative (the hours you spend carefully liberating the city from evil help to hammer home the point). As you can see from this example, the two elements of gameplay and narrative have a complex relationship but ultimately come together, at least in the more successful games, to create meaning. However by forcing you into this action, rather than leaving it to choice (as would have been the case in a Bethesda game), the designers of Prince of Persia arguably lessen its impact.

The Mass Effect dialogue wheel highlights your moral choices

Bioware are one of the leading examples of the marriage of gameplay and narrative, with Mass Effect and Dragon Age being good examples of the developer starting the player off on their own quest for meaning. Both games have a basic narrative: recruit a team and save the world/universe from certain doom. The nuances of meaning for the player come from the gameplay experiences that help create that narrative, for example the Renegade and Paragon choices in Mass Effect that shape your character and other people’s reactions to him/her. The player is encouraged to invest the narrative with their own meaning through the presentation of moral choices.

Of course, choices need to be anticipated and programmed, and looking at the standard Bioware dialogue tree highlights this limitation. The game’s writers and programmers set a series of responses, but ultimately the player chooses which one to realise. Even so, the game needs to be able to accommodate that choice. It’s a collaborative give and take. It’s impossible (currently at least) to codify reality in its entirety and the choices are therefore limited. While it is not a total freedom, the appearance of freedom is still important for driving the player’s interest in the game. When that appearance of freedom is removed, there is a massive impact on the player.

BioShock draws heavily on the ideas of American philosopher Ayn Rand

Lack of freedom is the very subject of BioShock, one of the most philosophically deep games of them all. All the way through the game, the player believes himself to be in full control over his moral choices, such as whether to free or kill the little sisters. Even during the few cutscenes, you remain in constant control of your character. Then there’s the famous revelation that’s made during your confrontation with Rapture’s founder, Andrew Ryan, in which he reveals how he has manipulated you all along and then forces you to violently beat him to death with his own golf club, simply because he commands it. You may have defeated him physically, which would be enough in 99% of games, but significantly he has won the intellectual battle; you are still a slave bent to another’s will and he is a master, albeit a dead one,  in total command of his own fate. It is a point that would not work so powerfully in any other art form, because video games require an active participant unlike the passive mediums of film and literature. The game’s creators cleverly take this interactive element that is unique to video games and use it to explore the age old notion of subjectivity. The scene is so psychologically scarring precisely because you are made powerless to stop it – stripped of your freedom at a crucial moment – and it throws open many interesting questions regarding individual freedom.

With rich, deep and philosophical stories like this taking an increasingly central position in video games it is time to start thinking about the creator’s role in all of this, and perhaps using ideas generated in the study of literature and film can help. More importantly, perhaps this developing dialogue around games will help to elevate the medium to be taken seriously culturally, allowing games to be recognised for the powerful artistic potential they have. In every genre and even in the mainstream, developers seem to be constantly challenging player subjectivity and expectation in new and innovative ways, pushing at the boundaries of what video games can express. It’s time this endeavour was recognised more broadly and celebrated for the creative force it is.







One response to “Death of the Developer”

  1. Celeste avatar

    Really interesting article.

    Stories in games have always fascinated me. The role of a game author is complex. Storytelling engines – such as those in The Sims and other simulations – confuse the matter further because they place the player even more in the role of author despite the developers creating the game world and props and defining character limits.

    I still see a place in games for entirely predefined stories, such as those of Heavy Rain and BioShock – the interactivity is a conduit channelling the artist’s message to the player and the result can be quite profound.

    Some people think that such authoring has no place in a medium with interactivity at its core because the interactivity is rendered essentially meaningless by the creative power and predefinitions of the developer. But I think that interactivity often gives this meaning to stories.

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