BioShock Infinite

Thought Bubble:
We are artists
(so let’s start talking like it!)

This is a guest editorial from Navid Khavari (@Navface), Ubisoft Toronto’s senior narrative designer for Splinter Cell: Blacklist. His career in story development began at Toronto-based studios Lenz Entertainment and Story City, and he’s also worked at Bedlam Games, writing/designing the interactive motion comic for Lost Girl (Showcase/ABC), and several video game properties, including Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale. Views represented in this editorial are those of the author alone, not Ubisoft Toronto or Dork Shelf.

BioShock Infinite
Irrational Games’ BioShock Infinite

I might be wrong. This is how I’m feeling right now, and that could change. To think I was always right would be to ignore everything I’ve experienced up to now.

But there is something that worries me about the video game industry, something that needs to find alignment, something preventing us to reach higher than we have. And that is the lack of use in our common vocabulary of the words “art” and “artistry” and “auteur.”

I’ve worked on games that were received horribly, and games that I hope will be embraced. I’ve experienced countless conferences, get-togethers, roundtables, raging debates over coffee — and each seems so exhaustively focused on whether games are art, and how to defend that idea, or even what constitutes a “game.”


It’s the wrong debate to be having.

Are video games art? Yes. Should we move on? Yes.

What defines a game? Is it the controller? Is it the interaction? Is it the mechanics? Is it all of these things? Do we really care to know?

Sounds like an endless spiral to me.


thatgamecompany’s Journey

Maybe that’s an interesting point of debate for some, but focusing on this alone is harming the industry and how we perceive ourselves as artists. Balance is survival and we lack balance.

When the Cahiers du Cinéma came onto the scene in 1951, it helped define the idea of auteurism in film (Andrew Sarris would develop this into auteur theory). French critics had noticed a particular group of films seemed to share a similar vision, with the common thread being the director. It completely changed how Hollywood and the world looked at Hitchcock, Lang, Godard, and Renoir, and would allow later critics to look at the works of Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, and Jonze, and have the vocabulary to describe the feeling they had when experiencing someone’s vision on celluloid.

We must do the same. Now. We need to start hailing our auteurs as such. Beyond that, we need to start recognizing that those who strive for that vision, who work towards that goal, are artists themselves. Whether coders, concept, modelers, writers, audio designers, quality control, level designers, or animators, we are all artists working towards a vision — the game.

Take Journey — a game that created the most meaningful multiplayer experience I’ve ever had. Bar none. It is the potential for artistry in games defined. Where were the critiques of its impact on the world? Why weren’t we speaking to those outside of our art form?


The strong lack of willingness to talk to other mediums is surprising, and our loss alone. We desperately need to start using their vocabularies, ones that have quite literally been developed over centuries (canvas, photography, film, music). Or we must simply strive better to develop our own.

As a narrative designer I often get inspiration from going to the theatre, attending a gallery opening, seeing a new band perform, just as much as I do from downloading the latest XBLA title. We, as devs, need more opportunities to embrace other artists, and see what makes them tick.

But before that can happen, there needs to be a revolution in how we talk about video games. I’m just one game developer. But I know from my own experience that game devs are desperate to be talked to as the artists they are.

Papo & Yo - Monster and a Melon
Minority Media’s Papo & Yo

Vander Caballero makes a game about his experiences dealing with his father’s alcoholism. He is an auteur in the purest sense.


Hideo Kojima. Auteur.

Ken Levine. Auteur.

Maxime Béland. Auteur.

Patrice Désilets. Auteur.


Jonathan Morin. Auteur.

Tim Schafer. Auteur.

Look at the wiki pages of the games these amazing artists have worked on. Sometimes their names aren’t even listed in the sidebar.

And does all of this mean I think Call of Duty isn’t art? Absolutely not. Who are we to define what art is? What a pointless exercise!

Who am I to judge how someone enjoys the latest Call of Duty or Gran Turismo or Journey or Monkey Island? These games represent an entire team’s worth of art! And it’s beautiful!

Abram Zimmerman, when he was alive, once said to his son, “Isn’t an artist a fellow who paints?”

His son became known to the rest of us as Bob Dylan.

This is our new wave. Let’s embrace it!