The game author is dead. Meaning comes from the gamer

One of the things you learn about books when you study literature in school is that analysis through the lens of authorial intention is generally a fool’s task; analysis is its own act of creation, not some disappasionate accounting of biographical clues. Remember Wilde in The Critic as Artist:

To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticises.

Read him broadly here, not just as a statement about arts criticism, but about reactions to art in general. Now read PC Gamer’s revealing interview with Ken Levine about the reactions to the social and political concerns of his games:

When I started working on this game, relatives of mine were very offended, because they thought it was an attack on the Tea Party. Specifically an attack on the Tea Party, which they were very active in. Then, when we sort of exposed the Vox Populi people, I saw a lot more left-leaning websites being like, “This is trying to tear down the labor movement!” I remember that I saw postings, unfortunately, on a white supremacist website, Stormfront, where people literally said, “The Jew Ken Levine is making a white-person-killing simulator…and BioShock had the same thing, where you had Objectivists being infuriated by it, and people more on the left thinking that it was a love letter to Objectivism. I think these games are a bit of a Rorschach for people. It’s usually a negative Rorshach. It pisses them off, you know? But I’d way rather have that than to…These games are, to some degree… If they’re about anything they’re about not buying into a single point of view.

Our interview with Far Cry 3 writer Jeffrey Yohalem revealed a similar dynamic at play; his game has no set meaning to unlock, no code to enter. It offers a set of themes and symbols, and a narrative from which to hang them. The meaning of the game is generated individually; not globally. Is it pro-American Or anti-American? Pro-violence or anti-violence? The point, to me, is that it can be both. 

Failing to understand that art can hold a constellation of meanings simultaneously is not a fault exlusively of gamers; indeed, look at the rabid controversy that has attached itself to the new Kathryn Bigelow movie, Zero Dark Thirty. Games are so open and signify in so many directions, though, that I hope gamers will learn a lesson that I’m not sure moviegoers ever have: the author is dead.