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The Return of the Video Game Auteur

When games come out that resonate with the personality of just one person, a sole captain who takes responsibility for 100 percent of the final product, that’s when gaming turns from a mass-produced, mass-consumed pastime into something rather more...

by Mike Diver
Oct 9 2014, 6:40pm

Above, Games auteur Hidetaka Suehiro, a.k.a. Swery. All illustrations by Stephen Maurice Graham

It’s easy to view video games as one gigantic money maker, with mega-proportioned teams of energy-drink-fueled tech heads coding umpteen hours a day to deliver the triple-A hits that top sales charts. You know: Call of Duty, FIFA, Battlefield, Halo, Destiny, Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto. The franchises that destroy all before them—or, in the case of Destiny, hope to.

Scratch at the surface of this perception, though, and just like any other medium in which a select group swallows up the most significant audience percentage, freaks emerge from the depths—singular visionaries crafting inimitable experiences. We’ll call them "auteurs" for the sake of convenience, but of course these games directors have teams around them, willing members of a digital cult.

The trailer for 'Splatoon'

It’s true that one can look to certain companies as only ever following their most impassioned paths—Nintendo makes Nintendo games and Nintendo games alone, and even at a stage where the Wii U isn’t exactly selling like hot cakes, its designers are maintaining faith in their established methods. Hence forthcoming games like Splatoon, a co-operative shooter where the intention is not to kill but to claim territory with paint guns (I’ve played it, four on four, and it’s great), and Mario Maker, where they invite the player to design their own Mario stages and, presumably, share them online. Both are very Nintendo—family-friendly but appealing to the curious of any age.

Smaller studios have stood out in the past, too, and will continue to do so: Insomniac Games, based in California, has the colorful Xbox One–exclusive Sunset Overdrive out on October 31, which follows their sterling work on the Ratchet & Clank and Resistance games. (After a ten-minute hands-on with Sunset Overdrive at this year’s EGX, I’m pumped to see more of its gooey silliness.) But when games come out that resonate with the personality of just one person, a sole captain who takes responsibility for 100 percent of the final product, that’s when gaming truly turns from a mass-produced, mass-consumed pastime into something rather more niche.

The launch trailer for 'D4'

“Niche” being entirely the most appropriate adjective for Swery, aka Swery65, real name Hidetaka Suehiro. A writer and director for a handful of unremarkable PlayStation 2 titles, such as the Metal Gear Solid–inspired Spy Fiction, Swery made his mark on gaming’s global consciousness with 2010’s bizarre detective-mystery-cum-survival-horror game Deadly Premonitiona release that divided critics to the extent of IGN awarding it a 2/10 while Destructoid considered it to be perfect. But enough of the past, as Swery is back, with Dark Dreams Don’t Die, a.k.a. D4.

An Xbox One exclusive that slipped out a few weeks ago, D4 is just as befuddling as Deadly Premonition is celebrated/castigated, featuring bizarre characters and surreal situations aplenty. The player is David Young, a private investigator looking into the murder of his wife who, because this is a video game, can travel through time when the game allows him to—i.e., when he encounters an object that magically activates this power. Visually, it’s not a showcase for its platform’s capabilities, but its cel-shaded style is at least a progression from the PS2-like textures of Deadly Premonition. Delivered episodically, D4 isn’t the complete package yet, with three episodes available now, and Swery not exactly forthcoming on how many more will follow.

That’s assuming they do, at all. Sales of D4 have been atrocious. Its director has stated that the series will continue “if the fans like what they see”—but so far it seems like very few potential players even know of its existence, with week one sales somewhere in the region of 10,000, according to this Neogaf thread. Fans of the game, and Swery in general, are encouraging others to share their own support for D4, with the hashtag #saveD4 already well in use on Twitter. Sales for Deadly Premonition were never completely clear, but its director said in 2013 that it was “no economic success." Makes you wonder why Microsoft took the punt that they did on him with D4, given the Xbox One is proving a flop in Swery’s homeland.

Hideo Kojima

D4 nevertheless represents an auteur’s first leap of faith into the new console market, exclusively—unlike Hideo Kojima’s cross-generation approach with both 2014’s Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (more on that here) and next year’s MGSV "proper," The Phantom Pain. He will go completely new-gen with the help of Hollywood, though, with Silent Hills—the next entry in the Silent Hill survival horror series, with a release date still very much TBD—pairs the Japanese director, designer, writer, and producer with Guillermo del Toro. Perhaps you’ve already seen its playable teaser, P.T.—some 30 million people have, whether watching or participating, and most of them have shit themselves while doing so.

It’s with Metal Gear Solid that Kojima has made his name—and it’s the series that he’ll be remembered for long after he’s retired. The blueprint for all stealth-action games since, the original Metal Gear Solid for the PlayStation, released in 1998, is a 6-million-selling classic that holds up remarkably well today, providing the naturally archaic aesthetics don’t upset you. On the downside, it was an introduction to Kojima’s bloated cut scenes, which reached a nadir with Metal Gear Solid IV: Guns Of The Patriots (2008), featuring one unplayable sequence that runs for 71 minutes. That’s 71 minutes of video, in a game. Wanna see it for yourself? Be my guest: Here’s the whole eight and a half hours of MGS IV cut scenes:

Oh Christ, Kojima, just get to the point

There are plenty more highly individualistic designers readying their next products. David Braben has Elite: Dangerous out in the wild for (updated) beta testing as I type—and holy space-age pirate Jesus, it looks incredible—while Goichi Suda, a.k.a. Suda 51, has his Grasshopper Manufacture team beavering away on the bloody Let It Die, a free-to-play PlayStation 4 exclusive due sometime in 2015. Always divisive, Suda’s track record just about features more quirky highs than derivative lows, with Killer7 and No More Heroes as winners—critically, at least. Yet the word so far on Let It Die isn’t particularly positive. Bloody Disgusting’s Adam Dodd writes, “Copious amounts of gore and violence can be fun, but they’re not enough to carry a game.”

At least the public knows Suda is up to something, and even if Let It Die bombs, you can guarantee he’ll have something sticky, saucy, and sublime his up a sleeve. The same can’t be said for God of War creator David Jaffe, who’s been quiet since the 2012 version of Twisted Metal for the PS3, or Ken Levine, the BioShock director who closed his Irrational Games studio in February 2014 and hasn’t announced any new project since, beyond confirming he’ll be pursuing “smaller, more entrepreneurial endeavors." Not knowing what these guys are up to is fine though, as what kills the fans is when a favored talent reveals an exciting new project only for it to sit in limbo for years.

Fumito Ueda

What we’re asking: Fumito Ueda, please, where the hell is The Last Guardian? Apart from a gig as animator on 1997’s WARP-developed Enemy Zero, Ueda (and his Team Ico crew, part of Sony’s SCE Japan Studio) has brought just two games to completion, both as director and designer: 2001’s Ico and 2005’s Shadow of the Colossus. I don’t need to detail the brilliance of these games, surely, which is why, in turn, expectation for The Last Guardian remains massive even though the last footage anyone saw of it was ages ago. All anyone from Sony will offer on it is that more will follow “when we are ready." Said Sony Worldwide Studios head Shuhei Yoshida in August 2014: “We have a time frame in our mind, and the team is making great progress, but still not to the point that we can say, here you go.”

What was a PS3 game expected in 2011 has since become, presumably, a PS4-only affair with a release date of strictly TBC. Yoshida has revealed that The Last Guardian has been “completely re-engineered," after the tech of the PS3 presented Team Ico with insurmountable obstacles. In late 2013, Edge interviewed Ueda himself, who apologized for the game’s delay, adding: “In the case of The Last Guardian, my creative work was mostly finished a long time ago, but the details of when, where, and how it will be completed are beyond my control.” Ueda is technically a freelancer these days, albeit one contracted to see out his responsibilities on The Last Guardian.

It’s impossible to say when his job will be finished. Shadow of the Colossus took three years to develop, whereas, so far, its successor has been in the works since 2007. It might be that it never comes out, which would be tragic, frankly, given the standards set by its predecessors. If Swery can find a way to follow Deadly Premonition with further kooky creations, surely the gaming gods will see fit to bless us with what looked, in its 2009 trailer, to be another beautifully unique expression of immersive interactivity.

Or perhaps The Last Guardian’s costs are simply too great and its commercial chances too slim for Sony to go for gold—despite assurances that it will, one day, come out. After all, when you’ve got an average CoD game like 2013’s Ghosts setting sales standards for "next-gen" consoles, why take the risk on something like The Last Guardian failing at retail?

The future for gaming’s auteurs might therefore lie completely outside the mainstream, in stylised F2P slashers and download-only episodic experiences. This is a business, first and foremost—money needs making, and guns traditionally sell better than small boys forging friendships with gigantic beasts in mystical lands.

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Video Games
Mike Diver
Dark Dreams Don't Die
Hidetaka Suehiro
The Last Guardian
Hideo Kojima
Fumito Ueda
Let It Die