If you wanted to piss off literary critics in 1967, you probably should have written an essay called ‘Death of the Author’ like Roland Barthes did. The author, he maintained, is irrelevant to understanding a text. Those critics who want to wring the truth out of the author, to unlock the One True Meaning, are lazy cretins. Producing art is only half the job; it is the audience who breathe meaning into it.
This idea has not gone unchallenged over the years although it is now commonplace for patrons to figure out their own interpretation of a work of art. In videogames too. Aram Zucker-Scharff wrote a piece in July called Indie Devs vs New Games Journalism: “As a result, a critique from the reviewer’s experience will always be far stronger than an attempt at interpreting the developer’s ideas. Let the text stand alone.”
There was discussion about Cardboard Computer’s Ruins over on Tap-Repeatedly about intent versus whatever shit went on inside the player's head. Gregg B let his rage fly with this barbed anecdote:
I love subtlety but there’s a fine line between reading things that aren’t there and identifying things that are there by design. The former I really hate, mainly because at uni I did an animation short which, looking back was utterly pretentious but there was meaning in it and I stood in a presentation and explained what it all meant. I nearly failed. Another lady on my course — my arch nemesis — filmed water going down a fucking plug hole and said in her presentation “It’s open to interpretation” and she passed with rainbows, stars and miles and miles of smiles. I’m not bitter at all.
Calm down Gregg and have a nice cup of jasmine tea. While we’re waiting for the flavour to diffuse, I want to chat about the author, the artwork and whether these things are as separate as we like to imagine.
Love and hate
Every day, consumers make decisions based on brand. With art, it is the artist who is the brand.
The author Orson Scott Card has all sorts of “interesting” opinions on homosexuality which he has been quite open about. Gay sex should be banned. Sexual abuse is the root cause of homosexuality. Most homosexuals long for a “normal” life.
The game Shadow Complex takes place in one of Orson Scott Card's fictional worlds and whilst author Peter David was the actual writer for the game, the development team consulted Card on the storyline. As the game had a clear association with Card, there were calls for a boycott of the game. David argued it wouldn’t be fair to persecute someone who speaks up for gay and lesbian rights, so why apply the same tactics to Card?
What's the end game here? To try and send a message to as many sources as possible that if they hire Orson Scott Card to work for them, they're going to take a financial hit? To put Card out of business? To make sure that someone is going to face financial ruin because he has opinions that differ from yours? That is intolerant. It's inelegant. It's cheap and vicious and small-minded.
Card isn’t the only one whose personal views had an impact on his creative works. Frank Miller, the author of graphic novels such as Sin City and RoboCop vs. The Terminator, wrote a diatribe against the Occupy movement on his blog towards the end of 2011:
“Occupy” is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness.
Some fans of Miller decided they no longer wanted anything to do with him or his work. The first comment under this blog post reads, “I used to be your biggest fan. You're now dead to me.”
When Valve Software launched a fee for Steam Greenlight in an attempt to control noise on their new platform, not everyone was comfortable with the change. Game developer Jonas Kyratzes wrote a piece arguing against the fee but this led to some blowback from not just other developers but also players. On a followup post, Addendum on Classism, one of the comments reads:
Finally I have played just about all of your games. Though not all to completion. I used to admire your work. Though at this point I have grave doubts about you as the compassionate human being you claim to be.
Things also work the other way around. The author can be the very reason why the crowds come. Witness the success of certain Kickstarters which garner cash more through faith than proof of concept. Notch's followup to Minecraft is no doubt going to be financially successful because it is by Notch.
Whether this kind of pre-judging via author is good or bad is arguable. Sometimes being a prick is the only way to make a point. To engage only the creative works of those authors you could personally get along with is just another way of creating a filter bubble.
These are all shallow examples, though, where knowledge of the author affects our decision to experience the artwork at all. Does the author affect our understanding of the work itself?
Sometimes knowing who the author is will change the experience. (Some mentions of sexual violence in the following paragraphs.)
Lim is a stealth game where hiding is painful. Where being discovered is painful. It’s a game about violence. About fighting for every inch gained slowly, slowly.
I played Lim and wasn't exactly sure what I was supposed to take away from it. The only in-game clue you get is that your character's “power” is to blend in so I assumed it was a game about being different, the pressure to conform. Well, yes, it is about that, but it was crafted with a more specific intention. On RPS a link on the word “something” reveals it is about passing, the difficulty in trying to conform to gender norms. Zoya Street wrote about Lim on The Border House:
One of the charges of pretentiousness stems from the idea that you wouldn’t ‘get it’ unless you looked up information about its author. Merritt tweets publicly about the physical and social effects of coming out as trans and undergoing hormone replacement therapy. I feel uncomfortable describing someone else’s personal experience, but my understanding is that at the moment, she is sometimes read as male, sometimes as female, and can adjust her gender presentation for certain circumstances.
Under the death of the author methodology, we should forge our own interpretations; but if those who were in on the secret were the ones who experienced the game most strongly, then can we really dismiss the author as an irrelevance?
Someone asked Anna Anthropy on Formspring whether the fierce criticism of hentai card game Tentacle Bento – which turns alien tentacle rape into a game – would cause problems for her own works such as rape fantasy game Sex Cops of Tickle City. Anthropy was not pleased with the comparison but she offered a more interesting answer on a later question along similar lines:
i know that "the author is dead" … but context is important. it's cool to have fantasies, but don't externalize them in a way that makes people feel less safe, especially in a culture that's already so unsafe for women.
Anthropy acknowledges that authorial context has relevance. Knowing who Anna Anthropy is prepares you for the content, tone and intention of her games.
Lastly, my own experience of Polymorphous Perversity (NSFW) was informed by knowing the author, Nicolau Chaud. Some sections of the game featuring transgendered characters seemed to paint him as transphobic – something that made no sense to me. My own personal reading of the game was guided by this knowledge, thinking that the “obvious” meaning could not possibly be the real one.
It doesn't always work this way, of course. Wither is more enjoyable if you fill in the game's narrative blanks yourself. Letting the author explain the game’s intentions later mars this experience, especially when that explanation is less ambitious than your own. Indeed, sometimes you need to shoot the author dead - bang, bang - if they won’t stop talking.
Let’s go deeper. Can the author be a presence? A companion? A competitor?
All games are multiplayer
Johann Sebastian Joust developer Doug Wilson earned his PhD last year with a dissertation called “Designing for the Pleasures of Disputation” (PDF). The second chapter is entitled “Dialogic Game Design” in which he explains how art can sometimes be viewed as a conversation between artist and audience, and he rattles through several examples to support this argument.
Kazio Mario is a Super Mario World mod that is infamous for being not just hard but unfair on the player. Wilson suggests “the “game” here is not just the struggle of player against level; it is the contest of player against designer – a battle of wits and willpower.” The designer is trying to frustrate the player as much as possible, and the player refuses to admit defeat, desperate to outwit his opponent. It is not a single-player game – it's a two-player competition.
Wilson also looks to the murder mystery novels of Agatha Christie and says her lasting legacy is “her work as a puzzle-game designer”. Each book is a puzzle the reader wants to solve before Christie reveals the answer, but the author is well aware her readers will have read her previous works. She cannot re-use tricks and plot twists and must innovate to “stay one step ahead of her reader”.
Wilson considers the work of performance artist Marina Abramović whose work confronts the audience, often directly. Her most recent work, The Artist is Present, was the ultimate distillation of the idea that art is a conversation, with members of the public allowed to sit opposite Abramović – in silence – for as long as they wished.
Wilson concludes that “contrary to traditional usability wisdom, sometimes the designer really does “come in the box”.”
I recall making a similar point during a disagreement on Second Person Shooter in 2010. We were discussing why some of us were averse to using cheats to finish games and one commenter had asserted that all games were social experiences and cheating contravenes a social code between players. I couldn't agree because I was not part of a social circle of players, online or offline, yet I did concede: “If you really want to push the social aspect as an explanation, well, it wasn’t between me and other gamers – it was a compact between myself and the developer.”
The author exists
In the age of the internet, the author is more accessible, more real and more substantial than ever before. The author blogs. The author tweets. We know things about the author, something about his or her politics and personality. Maybe a few dirty secrets. It is all part of the modern media game and perhaps in these connected times we know a little more than we should.
But when I play Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV, I cannot help but think that Cavanagh is cheering me on, telling me that I can do it. Each room was crafted to be defeated and giving up is not an option, because it would disappoint the designer.
Developer Matt James embedded an image of himself in his game qrth-phyl, knowing that his games represent him. We are not just playing qrth-phyl, we are playing James himself.
Critics are free to dismiss the author if they wish, but it would be foolish to pretend that audiences are able to separate the artist from the art in such a clinical manner.
Or even whether they should.