The Ken Levine Allegations Highlight Gaming’s Problem With Auteurs
We all know Ken Levine, right? BioShock creator, and now alleged terrible boss, Levine represents one of the biggest problems in our industry. When you think of BioShock, you think Ken Levine. When you think The Last of Us, you think Neil Druckmann. God of War? David Jaffe, or if you're new to the series, Cory Balrog. Any game that Kojima even sneezed near, you think Kojima. Creators play a vital role in our medium. In a sea of incredibly bland multiplayer titles, and the floating driftwood of remakes, remasters, and rereleases, having one person stand up to do something different is what keeps us going forward – but is it ever really just one person?
Video games are probably the most collaborative art form there is. With a novel, you may get the input from a few readers, edits from a publisher, but for the most part, it belongs to the single soul who wrote it. Music, if you write for yourself, goes through a similar process. When you get to film and television, it expands to include producers, additional writers and script rewriters, crew, designers, and actors, and then for video games it balloons further. 2,000 people developed The Last of Us Part 2. Halley Gross co-wrote it. Yet it's Neil Druckmann's game. When It Takes Two won Game of the Year at The Game Awards, Josef Fares alone went up on stage to collect the trophy – presented to him by 'last year's winner' Neil Druckmann.
Related: "Play To Contribute" Could Be Cool If It Wasn't A Huge ScamOur own Cian Maher wrote about this issue a few months back, after Fullbright co-founder Steve Gaynor stepped down following allegations of an abusive workplace. Whether Gaynor had produced enough games with a significantly similar set of themes to be accurately deemed an auteur is largely irrelevant – that he operated Fullbright's Twitter account as if it were his own personal account and that he changed direction on his games on his own personal whims suggests he sees himself as an auteur. In the wake of Levine's alleged behaviour, it's worth revisiting.
Too often, we conflate 'being an auteur' with 'being an arsehole'. This is not what it means. An auteur is the author of the film – a person so distinct in their style across several works that their impact on the movie is recognisable above all else. Paul Thomas Anderson, Stephen Spielberg, and Edgar Wright are all auteurs, and none of them are arseholes. We even went through the recent "ask a director about the MCU for a spicy quote" cycle with Paul Thomas Anderson and he was so boringly nice that everyone immediately dropped it. To be an auteur you need to unmistakably push your identity onto your stories consistently – since films take a shorter time to make and since the role of the director is elevated, movies are full of them. Wes Anderson, McG, Quentin Tarantino, Chris Nolan, Robert Rodriguez, the Wachowskis are just a handful of examples of auteurs currently working in film. Let Greta Gerwig make one more movie about unconventional love and feisty women, ideally starring Ronan and Chalamet, and she joins their ranks. One more dark satire from Adam McKay and he's there too, if he's not already.
Gaming does not have these figures. It doesn't have Andersons, Spielbergs, Tarantinos. I'm not sure it even has Gerwigs loitering on the edge. That's because games take such a long time to make, take so many people to make, and are far more married to the idea of sequels than film is. Imagine telling Wes Anderson he needs to make a sequel to The Royal Tenenbaums because market share indicates it could be profitable. Films still have sequels – some auteurs even make them – but there is a difference between blockbuster sequels and the peak of the industry. In gaming, that’s not true.
Gaming is desperate to be taken as seriously as film, an artform nearly a century its senior, so it loves the auteur idea. I will concede that Kojima might be an actual auteur, but he has earned the title over many decades and, while he has done a lot of sequels, has never played it safe. That we still hold up TLOU2 as Druckmann's alone, despite Gross' writing contribution, the 2,000 strong staff, and copious crunch, points to how married we are to this idea.
This is where Levine comes back into it. When TheGamer tackled this issue on Fullbright, we examined how the auteur myth, and specifically the conflation of auteur with arsehole, often meant minority developers being pushed down while men told stories that belonged to women. See Druckmann in The Last of Us Part 2, Gaynor in Gone Home, and David Cage, who allegedly once said "in my game, all women are whores" on Detroit: Become Human.
Levine is different. BioShock is not a woman's story. Infinite revolves around Elizabeth, but specifically from a father’s perspective. There are other problems, of course. It's a politically reductive and in places racist story, but the biggest issue here is that Levine sees himself – and we as an industry allow him to see himself – as the man who made BioShock happen. He, alone, brought BioShock into the world. And that means if he changes his mind on his new game, the team below him must change too. If he changes back, so must they.
He, like all others who have bought into the idea that the auteur is the arsehole, not the author, of the film, will not be questioned by those below him. He is Mr. BioShock. We allowed him to think that. We allow too many men in this industry to think similar things. We need to stop.
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