The Top Ten Video Game Auteurs

By James Hawkins in Lists!
Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 10:00 am
There are many creative geniuses that have sculpted the video game industry. There are innovative, culture-defining pioneers, like Sid Meier or Will Wright. There are developers that have built an entire brand around their masterpieces, like Shigeru Miyamoto. But the scope of their resumes is far too broad to label them true auteurs. Not to take away from their impact, or their influence, but they've become something much different.

An auteur is, at least in film, a director who maintains complete control over the creative process and infuses a distinct personal style in his or her works. In the gaming industry, the term "auteur" takes on a similar meaning -- a video game auteur is someone who manages to have games that feel distinctly theirs, with strong narratives, styles, and a loose adherence to typical conventions. They are people who create that certain kind of game you can't find by anyone but them. And we've decided to give you the ten who have emerged as the best in the industry.
10. Jonathan Blow
Career Highlight: Braid
Jonathan Blow may have made the single greatest dent in the downloadable video game culture of our current generation. Practically by himself, he managed to create a hugely successful, wildly imagined title that set itself apart from all the rest with its unique style and intriguing gameplay. It is one that we will be talking about for years to come.

While there are many pioneering games circulating through retail stores and online these days, Jonathan Blow has solidified himself as a true artistic mind -- he write and produces games based on a strict code all his own: he contemplates very deeply the impact his game will have on the player, and tries to imbue some sort of lasting mark on those that see his games through to completion, painting the story with dramatic, beautiful brush strokes.

9. Yu Suzuki
Career Highlight: Shenmue Series
Suzuki has had a storied career in game development. Taking on a number of Virtua games and their sequels, he helped shape the Sega brand at its peak. But it has been since then that he has shown his true colors as an inspired, intelligent video game designer with a vision. It shows, most adequately, in the Shenmue series.

Shenmue was a strange tale that Suzuki crafted on a beautiful, interactive backdrop. Before large, open-world games were even really possible, Suzuki was out creating a complex and lively world in which the gamer could explore. 

8. Swery
Career Highlight: Deadly Premonition
Swery has had a rather limited run of games to his name, but each of them has been hotly contested critically, and garnered enormous cult followings. Most recently, Deadly Premonition has won the hearts of gaming's most patient participants, with its absurd humor, intricate storytelling, and brilliantly cheesy atmosphere. And Swery has been skyrocketed to the top of the cult food-chain.

Swery owns his characters in a way that is typical of a screenwriter or novelist. He fleshes them out before putting them into a story -- gives them childhood memories, greatest fears, favorite foods -- anything that, to an outsider, might seem erroneous. But it works for him, as his distinct characters become quietly legendary with each title he puts out. And we know that the next one will be even weirder than the last.

7. Jason Rohrer
Career Highlight: Passage
Jason Rohrer quietly amazed the video game world with his indie classic Passage. The game, which explores aging, death, and dying, was created by him in a few hours, using simple technology and simple concepts. But the final product was a heart-rending masterpiece of small-time video gaming. And he hasn't stopped yet.

Rohrer is special in how he toys with typical video game conventions. His games don't follow any rigid structure, and his candid look at life proves to be the real cornerstone of his gaming endeavors. Rather than inspire with amazing graphics and sound design, Rohrer instead points his games towards our weak spots emotionally, and as we play them, we become something quite changed.

6. Atsushi Inaba
Career Highlight: Okami
Inaba sat just beneath Shinji Mikami on many of gaming's great games, but he has a few titles to his name that are striking works. Namely, Okami, a PlayStation 2 and Wii game that enhanced the art vs. video games debate to the next level. It is a moving portrait -- watercolored and built on Japanese folklore.

While Inaba's influence can be seen in titles like Viewtiful Joe and Ace Attorney, it really has been the way he pushes artistic direction in the games he takes on. Okami is the perfect example of a game that managed to become greater than its sales figures -- it is frequently named among the greatest games of all time and referenced as a validating title in the argument that video games are, in fact, art.

5. Fumito Ueda
Career Highlight: Shadow of the Colossus
The creative head of Team Ico has built a monolithic cult following around a few very simple games: Ico and Shadows of the Colossus. His method -- building epics of sweeping grandeur built on a very simple premise of dark morality -- has motored two acclaimed games and is the basis for a third. 

Ueda's emphasis on creating a unique relationship between the characters in the game and the players controlling them has pushed the industry to shape their games in a similar fashion. With each of Team Ico's releases, it seems that we become closer and closer to those that reside within the renderings -- that maybe they become, intrinsically, an extension of ourselves.

4. Hideo Kojima
Career Highlight: Metal Gear Solid
The Metal Gear series is the brainchild of Hideo Kojima, and each piece of its realization is under his very strict guidance. Since the beginning, Kojima has pioneered narrative structure in video games, and his entire Metal Gear body of work is among the most robust in all of video gaming. The guy is every part of the Metal Gear mythos.

Focusing on story-heavy, character driven plots, Kojima has made the stealth genre something far more than just an exercise in not being seen -- he has woven together a long and intricate narrative that rivals literature in some cases. And this magnificent portion of the video game industry lives and dies by his command.

3. Shinji Mikami
Career Highlight: Resident Evil
Mikami's claim to fame is, and will always be, how he kicked survival-horror to its top-level with Resident Evil. Before him, it was a fledgling genre. After him, it became one of the most popular genres in all of gaming. But his impact and innovation has gone further than that. He's made a hugely successful franchise out of it -- and now he's on to making a new style for himself.

His non-Resident Evil games have allowed him to explore his weirder side. Killer7, a very difficult and bizarre title, has baffled many critics and fans with its strange, progressive storyline and even stranger presentation. Up next, he'll blur the line between survival-horror and action with Shadows of the Damned. And we know that, with its Mikami stamp, we'll be in for something innovative and fresh, with a very creepy twist.

2. Tim Schafer
Career Highlight: Grim Fandango
Tim Schafer is a master video game writer. His games are generally beautiful, heartfelt tales that surround the adventures of regular folks in irregular situations. He likes to take the everyman and make them extremely compelling characters that overcome great odds. And he likes to do it with a style all his own.

Grim Fandango is probably Schafer's best example of his true auteur-ism. The game is a collection of influences -- from film noir to the dia de los Muertos -- that are all tethered by Schafer's unique wit, telescopic vision, and intriguing writing capabilities. He has managed to draw from others' works to create something all his own. And he's done it better than just about everyone else out there.

1. Ken Levine
Career Highlight: BioShock
Ken Levine has garnered some notoriety for being a hardass, controlling creative director who lords over his team at Irrational Games. But, if its true, it is sort of hard to argue that his method isn't extremely successful. Just look at what he's been able to do, as far as push video gaming as a respectable entertainment (some might venture to say artistic) medium. Very few can claim the same level of success he can.

If you pick up a Ken Levine game, you know its a Ken Levine game. The quality is always beyond just about everything else available, it is infused with a story-heavy plot, a lot of artistry, and memorable twists. System Shock 2, BioShock, Thief: The Dark Project -- each of these games has have a considerable impact on how the world looks at video games, all benefiting from his fierce intellect and vision.
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