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Sign Your Work

July 26, 2009

pollocksigI’ve been giving some time this morning to thinking about how artists sign their work due in part to my reading of a chapter in the book The Methodologies of Art by Laurie Schneider Adams, and, at a meta level, it is also related to a thesis I’m formulating. The chapter in question deals with autobiography, and, among other things, the way in which authors appear in their works. I am curious to hear what you have to say, and the ways in which you have signed your own work, if at all.

Here is a ridiculously simple line from the text:

When artists sign their works, they claim them as theirs.

Right, of course, but what this got me thinking about was the lack of this signature in games.  If our names appear in the credits at all, is that signature worth anything? Do we feel a sense of artistry, of ownership, when we place our names there, if we are the ones to place our names there? Do we feel a sense of artistry, of ownership, when we make something with 10, 20, 40, or 100 others? I think we very much can over whatever it is we made, and I wonder if we did, would this signature, this conceit to autobiography, to ownership, improve games overall?

There have even been cases in our market where artists (and here I refer to game developers as artists in the broader sense) have been forced by market forces, publishers or previous commitments to sign works of art they may not have otherwise signed. Pollock used to dump paintings he didn’t care for, literally. In our industry, that’s not an option. Your garbage gets released with rare exception. So, this complicates things, I guess. Poaching, the elimination of manuals, and the favoring of the corporate logo over the artist, have driven names off of games, even in the secondary role they already occupied. Imagine if in a Matisse exhibit, we only saw his claim to ownership in the catalog which accompanied a show.

If you have created a work of art or a game and were the one responsible for coding and bringing up your name on screen, I bet you felt something. Signing something is a per-formative ritual. Very early on in my designs (game or not), I remember the feeling that went into coding the screen which would bring up my name. In Wizardry 1, the designers even signed levels 8 and 9 with their initials. You can find my initials in later games. I appear in the Jagged Alliance series as Buzz Garneau, too. These allowances don’t amount to true signatures, of course. And signatures need not always be of the “sign your name here” variety.

Whistler signed some of his paintings with a butterfly to which he affixed a scorpion’s tail in his letters and critiques. Other artists integrated themselves within their own paintings as characters or as material using things from their own bodies or minds. I have signed my games with math on more than one occasion, and my Mechanic is the Message series includes multiple mathematical signatures. It is not my name I am signing, but a pattern that covers one game and bridges to the others. In a sense, I like weaving these things. In Siochan Leat (the Irish game), the game is signed in many ways and is highly autobiographical. It is my history and it also reveals my feelings about its present state. While writing this, the irony of the procedural signature above (“by bbrathwaite”) is not lost on me. I don’t even need to do anything, and so, I suppose I feel nothing with that signature as well.

So, think for a minute about completing a work of art by yourself. Think about that moment of decision and reflection when you take your brush, keyboard, pencil, whatever in your hand and write your name. It is a decision point, and it signifies the end and an approval. It is a simultaneous celebration and a letting go. I think something important happens here, and I think the lack of it in games perhaps makes them lack something, too.

Brenda Brathwaite, 2009.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. July 26, 2009 1:43 pm

    There are a number of ways of understanding signature. There is signature in the sense of a mark of acknowledgement (“I made this”) and authenticity (“I made this one“), for example. In the fine arts, signatures are often used to mark authenticity and also to produce scarcity (the signed original, the limited edition signed print). In games, we have the precedent of the easter egg signature (Robinett’s Adventure is the best example), an attempt to restate the first kind of signature, but emphatically (“I made this”).

    The ten copies of Guru Meditation I made are all signed on the cartridge, in ink, like a painting or a limited edition print. But the game is also signed, on the surface of its screen, in exactly the same way as a painter’s signature. The first kind of signature says “I made this one.” The second says “I made this.”

    Signature in the sense of a move or a style, which is how I understand your “signing with math” example, reminds me of the concept of signature in the thinking of philosopher Jacques Derrida. For him, signature is related to the moves or “traces” that constitute a work, what he sometimes calls the “idiomaticity” of a work. He gives the name “counter-signature” to all of the responses, reworkings, commentaries, copies, etc. of those moves. In that sense, signature is also the characteristic dynamics of a particular work, a particular orthogonality for example, that makes a thing Knizian or Brathwaitean or what have you, where those names no longer refer primarily to the authors that bear them.

    • July 26, 2009 2:04 pm

      Ian, I was wondering if you signed Guru Meditation, and I am glad you did.

      When I refer to the math signature in Train and Siochan Leat, I don’t mean it in the sense of a signature move or dynamic, though I do appreciate that addition. Knizia’s signature, one might say, is the way in which he plays with the numbers 1 to 6, and certain mechanics that seem to appear in his games. Ironically, Harvey Smith (@harvey1966) and I were discussing a recent Knizia tactic this morning.

      My signature is a number, and it appears in every one of my games. It began when I worked primarily in math, and it was the only signature I could make. It still happens, because I am a sucker for pattern and because it is beautiful to me to integrate a signature into the dynamics of the game.

      • July 26, 2009 2:12 pm

        I get it. It reminds me of the old tendency of Pomona alumni who became film/tv writers to use the number 47 in their work (more here).

  2. July 26, 2009 1:54 pm

    After writing this point, several people contacted me via twitter (@bbrathwaite) to share some observations.

    A coder noted that he and his co-workers often left comments in their code. I’ve seen the same many times, and some particularly amusing ones targeting other individuals or games.

    Manveer Heir of Raven also raised a question about authorship when we refer to large team games. It’s a game by Company Name, not a game by Creative Director. And yes, in this light, it can be challenging. However, I believe we can find individual authorship in these larger works. An artist made a texture. An artist made a model. An artist completed a rig. An artist animated it. Each is an example of authorship, of process, of someone spending time with something. No one need be lord over it all since we all have such creative input.

  3. July 26, 2009 2:58 pm

    There is certainly something appealing about being an “auteur” — about being so strongly associated with one’s work that such work is effectively viewed as one’s personal own — but it’s not necessarily fair to the many people who contribute to collective works such as games and movies.

    Would Hitchcock be Hitchcock without his writers and cinematographers? I think not, yet Hitchcock’s “signature” was always the one most visible in his works.

    Perhaps publishers should provide a space for game developers to sign their work as a way for each developer to acknowledge his/her personal contribution and investment in the project? It need not be conspicuous, but the expectation of signing your work in the future might be enough to provide the desired psychological investment during development.

    • July 26, 2009 6:03 pm

      Hi Adrian,

      I am not advocating for the big name person, but exactly what you suggest – that we all take ownership in some way of the smaller parts we make in a game that make it whole.

  4. John Sharp permalink
    July 26, 2009 11:17 pm

    Some of the earliest signatures on works were included as a form of intellectual property protection, marketing, even a form of documenting an event. Albrecht Dürer signed his works as a means of both marketing and marking the work as his own. In one of his early published groupings of prints, he include what was an early copyright notice asserting his rights for the images included. In his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, his signature is the mark at the bottom center.

    Artists like Carlo Crivelli signed his works as a proof of their creation– in his Annunciation, the signature is on the base of the middle column. For many artists in this period the signature was almost like the indication that a contract– most works of art back in the Renaissance were done based on very stringent contracts.

    In one case, the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait by Jan van Eyck, the signature has been interpreted as a legal signature vouching that the painter witnessed the marriage of the couple. His signature is on the back wall, just above the mirror.

  5. July 27, 2009 12:08 am

    I take it as a novel facet of the art that it is difficult to sign a game you’ve designed. I liken it to the way a performer of improvised theater says goodbye to a body of work as soon as the moment has passed. There are differences of course, but the similarity is that there’s a sort of noble loss of ownership baked right into the art itself. Besides, if designers go around plastering their names all over games what does that say about the artistic input of the player, whose interaction with the game is necessary to give it life? Signatures are for paintings. Games aren’t finished when designers are finished with them.

  6. July 27, 2009 8:52 am

    I am not a game designer. At best I can call myself a student in the area. But I’ve been working as a professional designer for several years, only focusing visual and interactives projects for internet and offline-medias, instead of games.

    I don’t know if I agree with designers signing their work. Not if it is a true “design” work. For what I undestrand, design is about making something to solve a problem. Although you sure have lot of personal influence on the outcome of the work, but you are not making something for your personal taste, but to answer someone/something…

  7. July 27, 2009 5:19 pm

    It would seem that every member of a development team would sign their works in different ways and overtime after an individual creates their own style the signature is merely their work. Not to long ago I dabbled in web design for a bit. Nothing elaborate, just simple sites for some extra cash. After quite some time, I began to obtain a style of my own. I would use bold and regular typography in unison without spacing, and other such specific styles. Eventually, a client of mine approached me one day and asked if I had done an earlier work – which had no mention of me or my ‘signature’ per say. Sure enough, I had worked on the piece. The client said to me, “Yeah I could tell. It screamed you.” So there it was, my signature.

    With that said level designs will sign with easter eggs or specific level techniques they use, programmers with comments or particular algorithms which they have a strong feeling for, artists with a specific type of style, model, or texture, and game designers with something deep within the system design such as Brenda does with math. A signature is a development of an identity rather than a visual presence sometimes.

  8. July 28, 2009 8:22 am

    If signing a work is a ritual, then it is only a recent one. Performing this “ritual” has both advantages and disadvantages, and we should take into account both sides. I would suggest that you read Michel Foucault’s analysis of the author funtion in his essay “What is an author?” Here is an excerpt: http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.authorFunction.en.html

  9. July 28, 2009 9:42 am

    One might wonder when the signature becomes too invasive. Prime examples would be Richard Garriot’s fantastic alter-ego Lord British or the appearance of Quantic Dream’s David Cage at the beginning of Fahrenheit’s demo.

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