A few days ago, Kill Screen Magazine’s web site published the first of a regular series I’m writing for them called “Top Down.” It’s basically a series of posts that draws out the worldview impressions and implications that games have, as a result of their story, mechanics, and aesthetics. I started with the obvious choice: Hydro Thunder Hurricane.

Okay, so it’s not so obvious. How can a game about racing boats in crazy environments with arcade gameplay imply anything deeper than “whoah”? Well, you’ll have to read the article for the answer to that question.

Still, even after reading, you may think it’s a little bit of a stretch. After all, even the developers of the game, Vector Unit, tweeted that the article was “highly amusing”, and well, that’s not exactly what I was going for. In reality, I was attempting to draw out some of the dangers of escapism and avoidance, and point out ways that Hydro Thunder (whether consciously or not) draws these dangers out.

Still, I had to consider whether it was valid to write about impressions and implications that were not intended by the original designers. In other words, when it comes to writing about games, how important is authorial intent?

Christians love to go on about the importance of authorial intent, and I used to do the same. When it came to novels, movies, music, the main question at hand was “what is the author trying to say?”. We can go from there. Lately, I’ve started to move a little on that issue, but that’s a topic for another, longer post. With games, though, it’s clear: it’s not about the author. In fact, the authors are so numerous, and the development cycle is such a collaborative endeavor, that the author’s intent is nearly impossible to isolate most of the time. Not to mention that the best games excel at providing an experience that differs drastically from one player to the other. The developers can guide this experience, but subtle differences in how the game is played can change the meaning drastically.

Let’s discuss this in the comments. Is it possible to interpret the author’s intent in a game? Should we even try? What are some experiences you’ve had in a game that you’ve found to differ drastically from the experiences of others?



  1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is basically Ebert’s reasoning for why video games can’t be art. In order for something to be art, there needs to be a clearcut authorial statement or guidance, which games — as they become increasingly open-ended — deny. (I realize I’m probably over-simplifying his arguments, but I recall that being the gist.)

  2. Ahem. Film. If you’re looking for a communicative medium that obfuscates authorial intent, visit any cinema in the last hundred years and you’ve found a prime example.

    Films are congested with a cornucopia of intents. You’ve got the screenwriter, the director, the cinematographer, the sound tech, and the editor (and all the people who work under them, making their personal contributions). You’ve got the actors, each spinning their own meanings and purposes into the creation (just listen to how actors rhapsodize over how they interpreted this role or that). And then you’ve got the producers and distributors each doing their thing.

    There is no singular creative vision for any film that isn’t made by one guy in his garage. Intents may creep through but intent is a faery tale.

    In other news, authorial intent is important if you want to know what a particular person is trying to say. If you’re not concerned with that, then it’s not important at all.

    Oh, in answer to your question, this one time, I was playing Super Mario Bros with some friends. They got frustrated and died in one of the obnoxious fish levels. I got frustrated when I died in 8–4. So see, the game was great because we all had completely different experiences AND the game was great because we all agreed that the fish levels were stupid.

  3. @Jason That is sort of what he has said, but in his almost-apology for his first article on video games, he says:

    I thought about those works of Art that had moved me most deeply. I found most of them had one thing in common: Through them I was able to learn more about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of other people. My empathy was engaged. I could use such lessons to apply to myself and my relationships with others. They could instruct me about life, love, disease and death, principles and morality, humor and tragedy. They might make my life more deep, full and rewarding.

    In fact in both articles that Ebert has published on games, every time he comes close to giving a definition of art, I immediately think of gaming experiences I have had that fit his description.

    In fact, I just wrote an article that will be published soon that expresses how Fallout: New Vegas inspired me to “transcend” myself in a way that Ebert seems to suggest they cannot. In every instance–for Ebert to learn from the art he so cherishes, he was forced to engage his cognitive faculties and that engagement leads him to define some things as good art and other things as less than that (though he does admit that gamer can have an experience “that for them, is Art”).

    That said, what I loved about Rich’s article is how he showed how games can, if we play them thoughtfully, provide meaningful experiences and lessons that that author did not intend. I suppose books and movies and paintings can do this for us as well but I think games are uniquely equipped to do this more effectively because of the necessity of interactivity (no interactivity and what you are experiencing is not a game).

  4. In response to the question at hand, I would say, yes it is possible to interpret the author’s intent at least on some level, though I would agree with Seth that that becomes more and more complicated as more and more people become involved in the creative process.

    There are certainly games that drive you to an inevitable conclusion and tell a story that really doesn’t play out any differently no matter how you play it. I immediately thought of Red Dead Redemption. The last few hours of that game lead the player to an inevitable conclusion, if you want to see the credits roll, you have to do some very specific things or turn the game off.

    I mention this because I very nearly turned it off because I felt like I was being forced to do something I didn’t believe in–in the end I did it–I did what the game was asking me to because though I didn’t like the theme being presented, I realized that I didn’t have to feel like I was the main character, in fact the game plays throughout as if you are getting to know the main character rather than playing him. This was actually a very meaningful experience because RDR ends up playing like a very well written tragedy in many ways (that is not to say it doesn’t have any faults). In the end I did not feel like I had beaten RDR but that RDR had beaten me.

    I will shut up now–but I think games can force ideas upon gamers–but I would also say that our place in the story as “player” makes them have the power to tell very personal stories that cause us to look more carefully at ourselves.

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