Like any other creative endeavour, games require a direction, a vision to drive them, be that something as simple as a plumber chasing a princess, or a vast, conspiracy-riddled dystopia of cyborgs and aliens. Generally the work of a team, there are occasional individuals who will make a game their own, with a distinct design philosophy to carve their own creation, which a team will follow with its own cohesive contributions. This week, we take a look at the most famous and influential ‘auteurs’ on the Xbox scene.
Few members of the industry have received praise for narrative like Ken Levine. BioShock is one of the most critically acclaimed games ever made, a compelling meditation on objectivism and free will that must be played to be truly understood and appreciated, with environmental and emergent story-telling like nothing before it. In fact, its approach to narrative was so monumental that it seemed to influence games launching a year later. Both Gears of War 2 and Dead Space included optional side-narrative items like BioShock’s audio-diaries; whether the influence was direct is another matter, but that sort of narrative depth was hardly expected of Gears 2.
Speaking of, Cliff Bleszinski has shaped this generation of Microsoft’s console journey more than any other game designer; Gears of War has been the Xbox 360’s defining new exclusive, its grimdark atmospherics and design both gothic and industrial showing off the machine’s raw power early in its life, before Bleszinski’s famous ‘bigger, better, more badass’ ethos kicked things up a notch for Gears 2, with bigger set pieces, crazier weapons, enemies and game modes. And that giant worm… Gears 3 concluded the trilogy triumphantly, with more mature writing and the best visuals yet finishing the tragic story of Marcus Fenix. Now, the artist formerly known as ‘CliffyB’ has something entirely new to show us, and with the legendary Unreal Tournament and Jazz Jackrabbit also behind him, great things are expected.
Just like developers or publishers, some design or creative directors can build a reputation for infamy; though a beloved and celebrated industry veteran, Peter Molyneux has been nothing if not divisive on the Xbox. His role-playing series, Fable, has always promised much, but never quite delivered on its loftiest of goals such as the whimsical idea of planting an acorn at the beginning and returning to a mighty oak years later. That said, Fable has become the Xbox’s flagship RPG, and with a trademark British sense of humour, character customisation, co-op and the massive land of Albion to explore (fun fact: ‘Albion’ is the oldest known name for Britain), it’s not hard to see why – in fact, he was awarded a BAFTA fellowship at the 2011 British Video Game Awards.
But it’s not just AAA blockbuster exclusives that have creative maestros guiding them. When Braid landed on Xbox Live Arcade in 2008, it blew away critics and gamers alike, its beautiful art style is like a moving painting, delicate and exquisite writing and gameplay hinging heavily on the manipulation of time. All of this was done either by or under the creative supervision of Jonathan Blow, with the artwork itself by David Hellman. The minimal yet evocative writing tells the story of Tim, a young man in search of a ‘princess’, seeking to make amends with her regarding a mistake he once made, yet the final level paints a very different picture, and the epilogue pretty much scribbles all over both with something so much more horrifying and ingenious. Braid is the highest-rated XBLA game, and Blow is one of the most talented designers in gaming for both the concept and the execution of this masterpiece.
The good news is, gaming is amongst the most varied art forms on the planet, rich with not just gritty drama or mind-bending, thought-provoking philosophy, but colour and delight too! While the ’90s were the breeding ground of the 3D platformer, birthing Rayman from the amazing mind of Michel Ancel, the limbless loon returned to gaming in 2011’s Rayman Origins, with the brightest, craziest, funniest retail game in years. That’s right, a 2D platformer at retail in 2011, followed by a sequel, Rayman Legends in 2013. Both games feature imaginative worlds and crazy-awesome level and character design, all delivered from the hands of Ancel and his artists straight to the game with Ubisoft’s UbiArt system. Among Ancel’s other masterworks is Beyond Good and Evil, a slightly more serious action-adventure with its own fair share of colourful characters, varied gameplay and unique art style.
Finally, Tim Schäfer is a name on as many gamers’ lips these days as in the last few decades. He’s been particularly busy on Microsoft’s boxes, pitching in at the end of the Xbox’s life in 2005 with the pure insanity of Psychonauts, before teaming up with Jack Black and a host of other rockstars on the metal-tacular Brütal Legend in 2009. More recently, his team at Double Fine has cranked out XBLA hits, Costume Quest and Stacking. Along with their own distinct art style, each of these games also has a unique premise, not to mention brilliant writing and humour, the trademark of Schäfer’s work, even back to his early days of Monkey Island titles and Grim Fandango in the PC. Few games will have you laughing as much, or just plain grinning like a moron at the mad genius behind them, as these.
That’s just a handful of the creative leads and brilliant geniuses (genii?) in the world of Xbox; do you have a favourite? Perhaps a particular studio whose games you love. Give them a shout-out below!