We all know that Cory Barlog didn’t single-handedly make the latest God of War, and Hideo Kojima didn’t go it alone on making Metal Gear. Yet as human beings, we can’t help but latch onto figureheads and their personal successes and failures. On this week’s Kotaku Splitscreen, Kirk and Jason and I discuss video game cults of personality, in response to a piece of listener mail asking us about striking the balance between acknowledging gaming’s big shots as well as the rest of the teams of people who make games.
The full episode includes our answers to tons of other great emails about Bloodborne (16:07), gaming fans’ obsession with studios’ financial results (29:55), and our dream Assassin’s Creed settings (52:03). We end with another riveting instalment of Jason’s recaps of the NFL play-offs, which has a happy ending for a certain team that my parents love and unhappy endings for almost everyone else.
Get the MP3 here, or read an excerpt:
Kirk: This question comes from Daniel, who writes, “Hey, Kirk, Jason and Maddy! Happy New Year. My question for this mailbag episode is about Triple-A game directors and the sort of cult of personality that seems to develop around them. There’s a TL;DR of my question at the bottom of the email.” Oh, ok, I won’t read that. I’ll read the actual question.
“When God of War released last year, director Cory Barlog instantly claimed the spotlight after he released a video of himself reacting to reviews of the game. His emotional reaction was really striking, and stuck with viewers because it reminded them of the human cost of making their entertainment. It was this cool moment where we were forced to think of the collective team that made the game we enjoyed.
“Yet since then, I feel like Cory has kind of become the face of God of War. It was him who got a trophy at the Game Awards, he who primarily featured in NoClip’s documentary, he who appeared on your show and many others representing the game.” We did have Cory on. That was a cool conversation if you want to go back and listen.
“It makes sense that he would, as he was the director overseeing the project. Yet I feel the coverage he and other large-personality directors get (people like Randy Pitchford, Hideki Kamiya, Hideo Kojima, and others) kind of diminishes the role of the massive teams that develop these games in earnest. Sure, Cory oversaw the game, but hundreds also tirelessly worked on it. I feel this type of coverage is more appropriate for indie devs like Jonathan Blow, Lucas Pope, or Eric Barone, who often are one-man-shows and make these games on their own.”
All right, what do you two think of that?
Jason: So the big question that Daniel asks is, how we feel about that and does it diminish the sacrifices that the team has made and how should reporters handle this? I have so many thoughts on this, because I wrote a book about game development and as I was writing a book, I found that the way—I mean, part of storytelling 101 I’ve spent my whole life studying stories and the way stories are told and how to tell good stories.
Storytelling 101 is, you have to have a character. The definition of a story is a character changing in some way, or a character having a goal and setting out to either accomplish that goal and eventually either accomplishing it or not accomplishing it, and all the obstacles that the character runs into along the way.
Humans love stories. Stories are the way that we communicate with one another, the way that we just are enthralled by stories has happened since the dawn of mankind. So it’s very difficult to have a good story that’s like, “And then these two hundred people did this thing,” because there’s nothing to grab onto.
You can’t root for — I mean, you could root for a team, but you could not really humanise a team of people in the same way that you humanise a single person. And so that’s why we as people tend to latch onto these directors and these faces, because that’s what’s interesting to us. There’s nothing interesting about a brand, about saying “And then Sony Santa Monica did this, then Sony Santa Monica failed to do this, but they successfully did that.”
I think something that all of us could be better at, and something that I’m trying very hard to do for my second book, is putting the spotlight on—finding characters who are not those top developers and directors. People who don’t get as much time in the spotlight. But even then, you still have to spend the time to focus on those people and just get to know those people, and that can come at the cost of all the other people, right?
So I can’t write a book that’s like, “Here’s about one hundred different people, and each page is gonna be about a new person.” It’s really tough. It’s really easy to accidentally diminish all the work of all the hundreds of people because you only want to focus, just by definition, just by our human nature, we want to focus on the characters and find characters and grip onto them. So, really, really difficult challenge for reporters and for gamers in general.
You can totally understand why these colourful personalities and directors wind up getting all the headlines and the spotlight. But yeah, it’s challenging. Maddy, any thoughts on this?
Maddy: I have a lot of thoughts on it, too. Mostly what sticks out to me here is just the idea that it’s somehow ok to do it with indie devs, because my first thought there is, it’s also really not because a lot of times indie devs have other people who are helping them that we don’t even think about. Like, Jonathan Blow definitely does, and I mean, there are few examples—
Jason: Except for Eric Barone.
Maddy: Right. Or Toby Fox, or people where you’re like, “Oh, this one person really did all of this by themselves!” But even in that case, usually if you actually talk to the person, they’ll be like, “Well, my partner supported me through these things,” or “My family did.”
Jason: That’s the Eric Barone story.
Kirk: Yeah, if you read the story, that chapter, the Stardew Valley chapter.
Maddy: It’s a common situation where there’s some other invisible labour or even visible labour that just people don’t realise. Like, “oh, I hired a contractor to help me with the fighting mechanics for this one part,” and that person is in the credits, but no one cares or even realises that that happened.
I don’t know. I always think that’s kind of interesting. And also, I’m just thinking about how sometimes the people who end up being the face of a game—it’s unintentional, or it’s not even something that they want. A lot of times that can be really uncomfortable for those people, and that’s always hard to watch for me. It happens to women a lot. Jade Raymond got a lot of really weird scrutiny ten years ago. Or Amy Hennig, or—
Kirk: I remember Rhianna Pratchett.
Maddy: Rhianna Pratchett, yeah. A lot of times when women are the face of these teams, the way that people talk about them is really different and really awful. So, I feel like there’s often a dark side to the way that people end up getting elevated into these sort of “cult of personality” roles, and sometimes it’s a PR team doing it, and that’s because they’re manufacturing a story that they want to be told.
But sometimes it’s just that people have gotten obsessed with this person for some other weird reason, and they just want to know everything about their personal life. I don’t know where I’m going with this thought, it’s just what this question made me think about, how sometimes the human nature of wanting to come up with these stories—which I think is a normal thing, as you say, Jason—can have a sort of insidious side, where sometimes we start writing real person fan-fiction about what we imagine these characters are like.
And then when they don’t do what we want, we’re betrayed by them in some way, and that kind of thinking leads to the worst gamer rage that, you know, we’re all susceptible to. I’ve been—I’ve fallen into those narratives. It’s hard not to, sometimes.
Kirk: I always think about the—I don’t remember the particulars, but the story of Tim Schafer on, I think it was Full Throttle or Monkey Island. It was like, “A Game By Tim Schafer,” and the first time that he did that, and how that was sort of what made his career. So, it can be obviously very helpful for people to do that, even while it can also not be good.
I have a couple thoughts. One is that it is interesting to try to illuminate both the impossibility of talking about all the people that made something in this era of mass, massive creative endeavours. This is true of movies, too. This is something I got at in my Red Dead Redemption 2 review, which was, I was highlighting individual people and being like, maybe that person on the sound design did that amazing sound. Maybe that person in the QA team caught some bug.
But even in doing that, the point I was making was, it is impossible to even fathom the number of people that worked on this thing. And I think that’s true even beyond video games. And that actually there’s an inverse of what you were saying, Jason, which is that as much as you say it’s not interesting to not talk about a brand doing something, we do that constantly.
People do that constantly. It’s always like, “Oh, Bungie did this. Activision did that.”
Jason: Right, ‘cause we have to.
Kirk: Right, it’s a necessary shorthand.
Maddy: But you forget that humans did it, too, sometimes.
Kirk: Of course, of course. I’m not saying we’re wrong for doing it or anything. I’m just observing that we do it. Because of course we do. We need something to grab onto. And in the absence of, “Oh, Ken Levine created BioShock single-handedly, and all of its failings are his responsibility, too,” you wind up in this additionally weird place where a lot of times—we’ve talked about this many, many times on this show—people will be saying, “Oh, you know, this studio makes great games.”
It’s like, oh, well, this studio made a great game fifteen years ago. Everyone who made that game is gone now. That, I think, also is a weird place where we just lack almost the conceptual ability to talk about things that large. Similar to a lot of the societal problems we face, the systemic problems, the systemic issues and how hard it is to talk about things that are huge and have interlocking parts. Video games are no different.