Can games mean? How? And when they do, who’s responsible? AJ and Dix take on authorship. Read on!
AJ: I’m going to make a bold statement. Games are challenging. I don’t mean that in the sense of, hitting the right jump or shooting the right man is challenging. I mean that in the sense of, games on the whole are a challenging type of literature to grasp. To understand a game requires an education. I’m not the first person to say this, but it’s how I’ve framed a lot of my thoughts on games recently.
I’ve noticed increasing discussion on the topic of not just what games mean, but how games mean. That is, how do games deliver their message, through story, mechanics, and the convergence of both. I’m inspired a lot by the writings of Clint Hocking on this issue, from whom I’m lifting the “how games mean” phrasing. He has also spoken previously about authorship: who ultimately are the people who are speaking through a game? Who and what delivers that meaning?
Clint Hocking worked on a game called Far Cry 2, which was a game that was designed to mean something. Now there is a game called Far Cry 3, and it’s designed, supposedly, to mean as well, though to mean something a little different. I’m going to start by saying I haven’t played Far Cry 3, but I’ve been watching with interest the discussions surrounding the game and its meaning. Jeffrey Yohalem, narrative designer on Far Cry 3, gave a much-distributed, oft-derided interview with Rock Paper Shotgun about what he felt was the real meaning of Far Cry 3. It’s a great read, but, basically, he felt like critics didn’t “get” Far Cry 3.
I don’t know if it’s fair to make that complaint. Do you think an author can really chastise his audience for what they take from a work? Can we have the Death of the Author conversation about video games?
Dix: Sometimes I wonder if we could even have a Birth of the Author conversation when it comes to video games. There are a lot of parts of this entire conversation – one to which I’m hardly a newcomer – that feels to me like trying very hard to apply theory based on one medium to a wholly different medium. With games we tend to muddy the waters by being unsure of whether we should talk about them like we talk about movies, or like we talk about literature; one of the things that makes games challenging, I think, is that we’re really resisting just addressing them as their own thing.
I should probably say up front that my opinion on authorship, in general, when it comes to literature, is that an author can only intend meaning but not create it. If we take the example of a novel, the author cannot control the context of each individual reader. The content contained therein, informed by the author’s experiences, may mean something quite different once informed by a reader’s experiences. This is why we can manage to have literature classes at all: it’s not a debate about “What did the author intend?”, but “What meaning have you found in the author’s work?”
The question of “how games mean” is still a relevant one, though, and I think to understand it we have to dispense with the idea of authorship, at least in part. Mostly linear games could be argued to have an “author,” I suppose, in the way that many linear narratives do, even if it’s hard to pinpoint who that author is (except in cases when there are literally only one or two people making a game, such as Braid or Super Meat Boy). Because of the dissonance between gameplay and content, I think that in most cases – there are always exceptions, but in most cases – the gameplay doesn’t do a whole lot to enforce the meaning. It creates the fun and convinces players to come along for the ride. It’s practical, but it’s rarely rhetorically functional (not that it can’t be).
The games best at meaning are, like the novels best at meaning, ones that create an experience where multiple possibilities can be considered, and only the player/reader can conclude what they take away from it. As many things as I didn’t care for about Yohalem’s perspectives on Far Cry 3 – which I have not played, either – I thought his use of the word “curate” is apt, especially in games where the player is largely untethered and has many choices about how to spend their time and how to react at critical junctures in the story. The developers array the game experience around a particular topic or theme, and it is for the player to explore it and discover how it affects them.
AJ: Braid and Super Meat Boy are both great examples, I think, of games with very distinct authorial voices. But I think they’re also great examples of games where the gameplay actually does express theme and content. It’s possible that, the bigger the game, the more hands in the pie, and therefore the less unified that authorial expression is going to be.
I think we’re in agreement about intended meaning versus created meaning. It’s one thing to create something with a message or plan in mind. It’s another thing to create something and demand that your own interpretation is the only right one.
I’m going to go back to Braid again because it’s really illustrative of this. When the game was first released, I remember there being a lot of discussion about how to figure out what it’s trying to say. And the message in the game being both mechanical and in the text, it’s a really difficult read. It felt like no one “got” it right away. When Jon Blow showed up in comment threads and forums talking about the game, it was often to lament that people didn’t understand his work as he intended. Indie Game: the Movie even ribs him a little for it.
I’m still getting into casual arguments with people about what Braid actually meant. And I think that’s a good thing. If you just have the cliff notes version, and it says “this game means X,” it takes away some of the fun of trying to explore and extract your own meaning from a work.
(It’s not about the atomic bomb, by the way. Or rather, it’s not just about the atomic bomb. Come on, that’s way too simplistic.)
I didn’t mean to imply (though looking back I clearly did) that either of those games lacked meaning within the gameplay – they don’t. But they’re still the exceptions to the rule. Some of that is just the proportion of games made by large teams and large companies – deep meaning doesn’t sell so well as competitive multiplayer, and sometimes you’ve only got time for one or the other. Plenty of indie games go for just being fun games that might take risks big titles wouldn’t without necessarily counting a thick layer of theme as one of them.
I do think it makes a difference, though, that Braid and Super Meat Boy are relatively linear games – you can go back and replay levels, which matters, but you won’t encounter parts of the game in a dramatically different order, in the first place, than any other player. Losing linearity makes the entire question much harder to engage. Does the player, who chooses their course through a game like Skyrim, share authorship with the developers because of it? Is making the critical choices via Commander Shepard in Mass Effect “authoring” the game in any way?
I’d be inclined to say…well, probably sort of.
AJ: (Yes to the atom bomb thing. Cracked claims it’s True Facts!)
But, yeah, the bigger the game, the more diverse the action, the less likely those meanings are going to be unified with the entire experience. I am not entirely sure that’s the fault of the interaction method. It may just be a function of size.
One of the games that was really huge this year with critics that like meaning was Spec Ops: the Line. I finally got around to playing it, and enjoyed it for all the reasons I knew I would, and disliked what I knew I’d dislike. I feel though, that a big reason the game was so popular with critics was it was very unified about its message. Even though it’s a shooter, Spec Ops did its best to wind the shooting mechanics into the story it was telling. The shooting didn’t feel great; the developers seemed to know that. And they made it work.
But I couldn’t help but feeling like another reason that Spec Ops was critically popular as a message game is because… as a game, it was a very “easy read.” Again, that’s separate from it being an easy game. I’m pretty lousy at military cover shooters. But Spec Ops was a message game that was really clear about its message and conveyed it with pretty simple imagery. And it’s also a very linear game, with only a couple of branching choices. It’s also a smallish, seven or eight hour, game.
Mass Effect (on the whole) and Skyrim clearly have some things to say, but those things are very scattered. Yet I’m not sure that’s entirely due to the way they’re played. What I feel from them, especially Skyrim, really are the hands of multiple authors. It’s clear some quests are written by different teams than other quests. It’s not just that the player jumbles the meaning with interaction; the meaning is jumbled from the get-go. So Mass Effect 1 ends up very different from 3. The Mage’s Guild story ends up very different from the Thieves’ Guild story. Is it really the player sharing authorship in these cases otherwise? The quest chains, in either game, are really also linear when you come down to it.
Dix: Indeed. And that’s part of the reason I like the “curation” terminology: obviously, despite the feeling of immense freedom of a game like Skyrim, the player is limited by what the developers have enabled them to do and experience. When this is done with focus, the result is a lot of different situations and perspectives that reinforce the theme of the game.
I think Mass Effect 3 is a good example here because the developers clearly wanted to get at the “needs of the many” dilemma that created some of the previous games’ best decision points. The game repeatedly offers up decisions that could mean the deaths of countless virtual lives, or the functional death of entire species, often with the possibility that doing what seems the “good guy” thing right now may cost even more lives later on. And there’s always some NPC or party member to tell Shepard why one choice is better than another. It’s not exactly delicate or subtle, but they do a pretty good job of staying on topic.
Still, I’m not sure that the size of a game, or the relative lack of overall focus on a message, necessarily introduces a problem here. A lot of games – especially big, open-worldy ones – have an episodic feel, I think, where the episodes are quests (or quest lines). It’s at this level that the focus needs to be felt. A game as a whole might be more memorable or affecting because of superb direction that keeps the thing feeling like, well, a whole, but certainly components of games can still mean something on their own, can’t they?
AJ: Yes, when you put it that way, I think they can. Though I wonder if the general game audience gets the same read off of this that a critic would. Do they get that the multiple authors are saying different things? Do they get the message at all?
Which I guess brings me to my next question. Is there reason to put messages in games if they’re not for the majority of the audience? Are most players just in it for the action? Do general audiences really come away from something like Mass Effect feeling the weight of a thematic structure? Is there any way to tell if they did? This was a year when we had a public outcry over a game’s ending like never before. But I felt that was more because players didn’t feel like it was a proper victory, rather than feeling like it didn’t express its theme well.
I think in the years to come, we’re going to see a stronger lean toward AAA games with a message. I felt like Spec Ops, even Halo 4, were strong attempts at this. But if you stick a theme in a shooter, is anyone really reading it? I don’t want to be some kind of snob, but I did feel like even lots of critics didn’t “get” Halo 4. My being a snob about it is a paradox. “You guys just didn’t get the narrative depth in my shooty space marines game.” Is there a point to putting depth in such a game or is that just a waste of time?
Dix: I think there’s no real harm in it, if it doesn’t interfere with what the audience wants – you’re bound to have some who will appreciate it, even if they’re in the minority. But that’s not the place to do something that’s going to take precedence over the game parts. That would be getting confused about your audience. I mean, I don’t play shooters a whole lot, but when I do (because sometimes you need to frag something), I’m psyched if I find there’s something I can dig into thematically.
There’s nothing wrong with having a game whose audience is “people who want to blow stuff up and shoot stuff and generally have fun with that.” I think the problem we have at the moment is that AAA production has been so focused on that audience primarily (and a few counterparts in other genres) that many players who would specifically look for the thematics have given up on mainstream gaming as a place for it. They feel they aren’t part of the audience for whom those games are made, and they may well be right. That’s why things like Spec Ops: The Line shock us so much, because they look like the same kind of action game we’ve come to expect, possibly quite competent but not filled with lasting meaning, but then we find that they’re really taking a good shot at putting depth into a major game release.
I think, for that reason, it might be all the more useful to do it now – because it’s going to be an uphill battle to reaffirm that video games can be more than just shoot-’em-ups, and mainstream implementation of that is at least the most visible way to do it. I think it would be beneficial for people to acknowledge that games can do both things (separately or together): fun and deep.
AJ: I agree with that conclusion. I’m just hoping that we can continue to develop an audience that will appreciate games on multiple levels. If not, people might start wondering what the point is to be thought-provoking when you make just as much money phoning that in. This is one situation where games can parallel with film. There’s mindless blockbusters, thoughtful indies, and every other combination in between. I just can’t help wanting bigger games to also at least try to have some higher purpose or thought put into them. This is probably just selfish, because I like talking about games.
Because I like a strong authorial voice. I think some of my favorite titles recently have been games with a distinct author. I think it adds a sense of purpose and unity. But I also enjoyed Skyrim, as messy as it was. There’s room for… well, there’s room for play, in games, obviously.
Dix: The challenge is how to develop that authorial voice. Literature has the advantage of having only one or two creators involved at a time. Film occasionally has your writer/directors who can reasonably be said to be the “author” of the work, though even then you can start pointing to the myriad contributions of other people involved, like the cast, and asking how far the blanket of authorship can extend. Games have a similar problem in that they require, usually, large numbers of people involved, even for design and creative direction. You occasionally get the directors whose names become attached to their games – Sid Meier, Shigeru Miyamoto, Tim Schafer, Will Wright, Peter Molyneux – but that’s hardly a guarantee of the game having distinct authorship in the end, nor is it a practical model for the industry.
I think gameplay will always be the priority. That’s what games are. We forgive a great game for its terrible story more easily than an unplayable game with a great story. And gameplay’s what sells more units. But this whole question of meaning, this is where we ought to be pushing the envelope now – especially when gameplay tends to stick to proven formulae to ensure good sales numbers. Let those who just want to frag skip it or ignore it – but put it in there. You never know when you might get somebody to stop and take notice.