I think every designer has an inner Voice, a style or muse that surrounds their work. A unique identity. A Voice of instinct and experience. Priorities and considerations that drive their games in a particular direction. In the end, something that makes their work unmistakably their own, like a mental fingerprint.
Consider Will Wright. His work, spanning from SimCity to SimAnt to SimEarth, The Sims, and Spore all has an identifiably “Will” quality to it. All simulation, playful, realistic (to a point), construction games, concerned with complex systems emulating part of real life. His games even “look” the same: top-down, zoomed out, different levels of scale. Mechanics are also common across all of them: the acceleration of time, autonomous agents, and heat maps. These elements aren’t unique to Will’s games, but combined together they form a kind of fingerprint. A Voice we would expect any future work of his to derive and expand on.
I see fingerprints wherever designers serve as directors. Shigeru Miyamoto (Donkey Kong, Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros, Zelda, Zelda 2, Super Mario Bros 2, etc.), Dustin Browder (C&C Red Alert 2, C&C Generals, LOTR: Battle for Middle Earth, Starcraft 2), Warren Specter (System Shock, Deus Ex, and Epic Mickey), Jenova Chen (Cloud, Flow, Flower), or George Fan (Insaniquarium, Plants vs. Zombies). Warren’s Epic Mickey might seem like a shock, but consider his constraints. He’s had over 5 years to grow in new directions. And if you were Disney and asked Warren to make a game for the Wii, what would you expect? A designer’s Voice shines through design constraints.
A designer’s Voice isn’t inherent. It’s formed out of my mentors, my influences, and something inside oneself. It grows through practice and reflection and more practice. It is a result of 10,000 hours of apprenticeship. In George Fan’s Voice I see the game we met on, Diablo 3. Can you see it? His experience both reflected and shaped his Voice, and his games-at-the-time-unmade. My games and my little parts of games will always be different from others, because my background and influences are different. My Voice will be my own.
I’ve been working on my own Voice. Very hard. Voice isn’t something I just have. I feel as if I have to deliberately run from the path, lose myself amidst the trees, and see where I ended up. And then get lost again. I have no guarantee a quality Voice will form. No guarantee, just a will to hear it myself. My Voice has been almost a gate, a barrier. Without one, I am forever a student. With it, I have something to share.
I didn’t even comprehend there was such a thing as Voice until I started to see it in my friends and mentors. I thought Voice was business-driven, not designer-driven. It was only through independent work on my own that I began to see how it was possible to share one’s Voice through game design, how my colleagues were driving their own destiny through the rapids of corporate constraints. My Voice is still weak compared to theirs and I will likely never catch up. But it is not a competition. Each Voice, in its own way, brings beauty into the world.
Sometimes designers come to me struggling with their Voice, and it’s been enlightening. Sometimes they are trying to rebel, to not rely on old tricks or expectations. Other times they are exploring, curious, getting lost. These struggles are necessary, leading to self-growth or innovation. But at times these struggles become prolonged and misdirected fights. Not futile, but ill-advised and unnecessary. A designer’s Voice seems to be a guide home rather then a trap. Something to embrace more often then to ignore. Yes, there are great designers to admire who do wonderful things, but their Voice is great because over and over they delved it.
And yet one’s Voice, even when well developed, remains incredibly nebulous and hard to see. I greatly admire Roger Ebert’s repeated engagements of the game community about the existence of game “art”. Most recently, he put forth that great art must have a recognizable author, and that he could not see one in games. I suppose this stands as an unintended rebuttal. It has taken me a decade of full-time practice to hear even a glimmer of a Voice. It has taken decades for designers to have the practice to create a Voice, the resources to exercise that Voice fully, and the body of work to make that Voice recognizable. The artists behind games are, and will remain for quite some time, very hard to see. But they are there.