Thursday, December 11, 2008

A question of motive

Between the Mirror's Edge conversation* and some recent shots across the bow of the Serious Games Journalist Network of Pretension, I've seen a couple of people mention that reviewers and gamers need to be considering more seriously the intentions of a game's developers. My gut reaction is to say "No we don't" and move on, but I'm incapable of letting this sort of thing go. Plus, upon further inspection, I don't think it's all that simple. Only mostly that simple.

Whether we're talking about books, movies, or games, in general I don't put much stock in authorial intent. I think my distaste stems from way too many encounters with sloppy writers who wanted to blame their own shortcomings on their readers. It is true that sometimes a writer might be perfectly clear in his meaning, and run up against a stubborn, uneducated reader who doesn't know or care what words mean, and disdains those who do. But that's a rare case -- sort of like all those fat people who claim that they have a glandular problem just because somebody, somewhere, actually does.**

The truth of the matter is that if a reader doesn't understand what you wrote, it's almost certainly because you did a bad job writing it. You chose vague words. Your grammar was careless. Your syntax was confused. If someone responds to something you wrote, having derived a wholly different meaning than what you intended, then it's a sign that you didn't do the best job you could have -- not that the reader was an idiot. And yes, this is extremely hard to remember when somebody slams your writing. That's all the more reason to keep it in mind when we talk about a developer's intent.

So, as I said, I'm not terribly interested in what a developer was trying to do. I care about what they did. Even trying to read interviews in order to uncover their intentions doesn't seem all that valuable, because I'm willing to bet that they intended to make a good game. Should they get points for that? Trying to consider any factors other than the direct gameplay experience seems to lead in a direction I don't want to go. We should be talking about what works and what doesn't, and, more importantly, what playing this game is like. I can't read the developers' minds, but I can play their game.

Still, this is a bit of a straw man. The side of the argument that makes sense to me is that a developer sets out to make a specific type of game, and it's nonsensical to review their product as though it were something else. For example, talking about Left 4 Dead as though the single-player mode were its top priority is probably not a great idea (but I certainly wouldn't see anything wrong with bringing up the strengths and weaknesses of the AI teammates).

Here's the thing: If the developers did their job right, then you don't need to know what they intended, because it will all be right there in the game. You don't need to know, going in, that Valve was trying to make a multiplayer shooter. Every design choice they made underlines that fact. Hell, maybe they were trying to make the best single-player shooter ever, botched it, and ended up with this sweet team-based shooter instead.

That's why, when I answered Shawn Elliott's questions last week, I said that I try to answer these questions in my reviews: "How do the game's apparent goals seem to mesh or conflict with its execution? What is this game trying to say?" I specified "game" and not "developers," because a game can speak for itself. Once it's finished and shipped, it doesn't belong to the developers anymore. It belongs to the players.

*No, this doesn't count as a mention of Mirror's Edge!
**Oh my god, I didn't just.


Etelmik said...

The main reason I harp on intent is so that this kind of stuff doesn't happen. Intent is a two-part question. What is it trying to do, and does it do accomplish that well? You're arguing we don't need to consider intent; I agree with you on that point, and always did; it's my own writing (hah) that isn't clear.

I am personally just tired of so many people saying "X sucks" instead of saying "Y sucks" where X is a title and Y is a genre, and wondered if there were some sort of mindset that could be established in both writer and reader that would prevent this. Considering the issues of authorial intent and the connotation a word like "intent" carries, it probably won't work though.

This all seems to go back to literary criticism; I agree with Bogost that it's a good framework to begin with. Is starting with the author a valid approach? I think it is. Is it the best? Is it what most people would do? Almost definitely not.

I have to say you got me.

Etelmik said...

Also, I agree with L.B. Jeffries and Dahlen that a symposium that asks people to produce some work in response to the questions to show as examples would be a good idea. Make a list of five highly disputed games (Little Big Planet, Braid, GTA IV, etc.) and have 'em hash it out. I tried to do that something like that earlier and failed miserably. I should probably learn to pitch first.

Mitch Krpata said...

I guess I have a hard time seeing a game's genre as being the core of a designer's intent. Look at it this way: if a developer tried to pitch a publisher a first-person shooter, with no further details, the publisher would hit a button that dropped the developer through a trapdoor. Clearly the intent is to make a first-person shooter that is distinguished from others in that genre in so many ways, and it's those ways you'd need to judge the game by. But, again, intent doesn't really factor in. You say, hey, I've played other FPSes -- this one is different, here's how, and whether it's a good or a bad thing.

Of course, if you're saying that no one should review a genre by proxy, I agree. I ran up against that problem the last time I tried to review a strategy game (and it's why I try hard not to review strategy games at all). Although I certainly wouldn't mind reading a takedown of a particular genre as a whole -- it's just not the same thing as a game review.

Julian said...

I agree with your distinction, that we should take the game for what it is and evaluate it from there, but that authorial intent isn't the issue real. But I'm not sure what that looks like in actual conversation. When we talk about the game's goals, how is that really different from talking about the developer's goals? I think what we really want to talk about is the developers goals as evidenced by their game. The game itself should stand or fall on its own merits, nut the developer's unrealized dreams.

Maybe this is kind of a cheap shot, but here's a quote from the Mirror's Edge discussion: "Every once in awhile, I got what they were going for -- which, oddly, only made the rest of the game even worse by comparison." The way this reads to me is that you're not only talking about the developer's intent, but it sounds like the deficiency lies with you for failing to get it the rest of the time.

Julian said...

Wow, apparently I drank more than I thought I did last night. Please disregard the embarrassingly numerous typos in that post...

Rosanna said...

I disagree. I fall on the other side of this argument and believe that developers are more sophisticated than gamers and reviewers give them credit for.

I think more often than you'd expect developers put some interesting twist to the gameplay, some subtlety and it goes over people's heads.

An example, was the risks that Ready for Dawn took with God of War for PSP. This isn't my idea but it's from one of the folks at Ubisoft Montreal. He was talking about the last scene where you have to push away your daughter. And he was commenting on how brilliant that moment was because your using the same violent button mashing you use on enemies to keep your daughter away. I thought it was brilliant.

I'm sure players just glossed over it, never minding realizing what the developer wanted to do with the scene. But I'm one of those guys who likes reading and trying too figure out what the author meant.

Carlos said...

Wow, I kinda feel like I got this one started ...
Well, first of, I really wasn't trying to rant and I appologize if it came through that way.
But I do feel like I'll have to disagree with you yet again. Not because I'm offended by someone not liking Mirror's Edge, mind you. But because I think you are indeed taking the easy route out on this issue. In your book/writer/reader/understanding comparison you neglected the fact that the reader might just really be the one that's wrong and not the writer. Hell, I remember back in school I got to read a couple of books which at the time I thought I understood but got proven wrong first by my teacher and then in retrospect by myself. I was convinced to have the meaning and the intention of the writer down but didn't. Now I'm not trying to call you illeterate gaming or otherwise and I do agree that Mirror's Edge has flaws (I even pointed one out in my other comment) but I strongly believe you (and a lot of other critics) are wrong when you take those flaws, dismiss everything else there is about the game and go as far as indicating it might just be the worst game of the year in your book. Really?! DICE tryied something wastly different with this title. I think they succeded with a lot of it and judging by it's metacritic score of 79 (and no I usually don't give a dime about ratings I'm quite confident in my tastes, thank you) there are quite a couple others who believe so, too. It is funny and almost tragic that a lot of critics say DICE failed at the shooting which usually should be something they manage to pull of just fine in their Battlefiled series but I'm not going to stretch again that shooting isnt't the focus of the game and DICE really want you to do without. The main gripe is the difficulty which nobody seems to mind with a title like Megaman. And while I agree that Mirror's difficulty stems from trial and error at times it usually turns out to be really just excactly what you thought you have to do the first time but you do have to do it just perfectly. Some folks like that hence the Megaman refference. And the times when the game forces you to fight is essentialy it's equivalent of a bossfight. Did I mention time trials which has no shooting at all?
So to bring this (rant again?) to an end: I don't like reading Nietzsche. Do I have to? No. Does it lessen the value of his writings? No. And yes, I do realize it is kind of a far stretched comparison but hey, you started it ;-p


Carlos said...

I agree. I think we got so used to games having bad writing (btw Mirror's Edge is guilty of it, too) and just generally being intelectually underwhelming that we don't even try to notice subtlety in games. That's why I'm a sucker for making ofs and commentary tracks. Running thre risk of sounding like a complete dork I'll even say that's why i appreciate a good animee over any real movie. Because a movie can have great cinematografy, great script etc but in an animee just like in a game every picture you see is constructed. If you see a leef falling from trees in a movie they might have planed it in an animee/game every single leef falling from a tree has had to animated by hand and somebody had to spend a thought on that detail. I like to think that high profile games are constructed the same and that's why I'm willing to look over certain aspects when some details give me the feeling the developer put thought into it and wanted it that way. Call me jaded.

Garrett Martin said...

It is true that sometimes a writer might be perfectly clear in his meaning, and run up against a stubborn, uneducated reader who doesn't know or care what words mean, and disdains those who do.

Take a look at the two or three most popular online comic book forums to see this in action about a million times over.

I agree authorial intent does not need to be considered, especially with works as blatantly commercial and multi-authored as a video game. Julian makes a good point, though, about your Mirror's Edge review. Considering that, unlike movies, books, and other artforms, entertainment is the fundamental intent of almost all games, and since the concept of "fun" is highly subjective, is it possible that the sussing out of intent is not just unnecessary but completely useless?

Mitch Krpata said...

I do accept the possibility that the fault is my own, but like I said, I think that most of the time this isn't the case. It's the developer's job to make me get it. This ain't my first rodeo, you know?

But again, it seems like part of the problem is trying to settle on a common definition of intent. When I say that, in a few instances, I got what DICE was going for, that's all the more reason why I gave the game a negative review. Because I thought I understood what they were trying to do, and I thought they didn't get there. The crucial distinction is that I felt the game itself sent mixed messages.

Matthew Gallant said...

This reminded me of a post Duncan recently wrote about Bioshock. He argues that the game people remember as last year's "game of the year" wasn't actually the real game. The real Bioshock fell apart and never delivered on the promise of the Ryan scene. We've extended our praise of the game to include elements that don't exist, concepts that the game only hinted at.

Though I'm certainly guilty of it, using developer intention to forgive a game's faults should be unacceptable. I agree with you; the game you play is the game that shipped, whatever state it's in. As you said, judge what was done, not what they tried to do.

Mitch Krpata said...

I agree with Duncan's point in general, although not specifically about BioShock. The boss battles wasn't amazing, but I must be the only person in the world whose mind was blown by the idea of dressing up as a Big Daddy and protecting Little Sisters. That was awesome.

Julian said...

Sorry if I was unclear, I don't believe that you simply didn't get it, I think DICE failed to convince you and/or it simply wasn't your bag. ME is very demanding in terms of the precision it wants from you, but I can agree that it maybe wasn't adequately communicated in the design of the story or promo materials, and the difficulty ramps up perhaps too quickly. I'm just saying that a lot of your original post was focused on the language people use to talk about similar concepts. I did say it was probably a cheap shot, since you can't (and shouldn't have to) be as rigorous with your language in the comments of your own blog, and to be fair, you didn't use language about DICE's intent or goals in the review but talked about it in terms of wasted potential. I was merely trying to call your attention to the perils of being too picky about nomenclature.

"But again, it seems like part of the problem is trying to settle on a common definition of intent. When I say that, in a few instances, I got what DICE was going for, that's all the more reason why I gave the game a negative review. Because I thought I understood what they were trying to do, and I thought they didn't get there. The crucial distinction is that I felt the game itself sent mixed messages."

Is it fair to judge their intent against them, but not in their favor? So they fell short of their goal, and that's extra demerits against it? If we're not going to credit devs for having a good idea but sloppy execution, I don't think we should judge them extra harshly either. I stand by my assertion that ME is a good game that could have been great, but that greatness that's just out of reach doesn't cripple my enjoyment of the game for what it is.

Ciryon said...

Great piece! My thoughts exactly.

I've wondered for a long time that are "we" reading too much into games. I mean, when we're constantly presented with sub-standard writing we still want to interpret deep and meaningful moments when there's at least a marginally well written game in front of our noses.

So many games lauded for their storytelling still contain moments that are sometimes downright stupid, or at least jarring... so until I play a game that's consistently amazing in its storytelling I won't read too much into them.

I just can't believe that these "deep meanings" are intended by the writers, who may not even have any education in it.

Maybe I underplay the game-writers' intelligence, but sheesh... take a look at this fakeyfake707's piece on Gears 2

I just can't give Epic credit of that. The game is so get-to-tha-choppa-funny-stupid that I just can't...

While it's nice that people think deeply about the games that we play, I still think that it's easy to go too far in the analysis.

Sorry for my grammar. English is not my main language.

Ciryon said...

And I'm aware that that's not the best example, since she/he/they is/are only speculating. :)

But there are many similar entries around.

Ben Abraham said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought the idea of authorial intent was that the developer puts something into a game and we, the audience, receive it without having to ask them what they meant.

The contentious part of that idea is that, for a bunch of reasons, while we can get close to what the designers were intending, we can never really be certain without actually asking them... or do you think we can?

Anyway, I thought it was interesting you described yourself as not "putting much stock in authorial intent", which would seem to imply you don't think the author has a say in what we interpret from the final product.

But it seemed like you *were* arguing that we get something from the designers, and by reading what the game was "trying to say", etc.

Sorry, not tying to pigeon hole you here, just understand your argument better.

Mitch Krpata said...

Basically I'm just applying the intentional fallacy to video games, and possibly not doing such a great job of it. The designers make the game, sure, but once I'm playing the game, I don't think it matters anymore what they were trying to do, what they wanted to do, or the circumstances under which they did it. That could all be interesting stuff to read about, but in my opinion it's not necessary or even terribly helpful when you're reviewing a game.

Darius Kazemi said...

Yep, I think the intentional fallacy pretty much covers what I was going to say.

Dave said...

Mitch, I totally agree. Once the game exists, it doesn't matter what it was intended to be; all that matters is what it *is*.

But here's the tricky detail: as we experience a game (book, movie, etc.), many of us react to the game by thinking about what we perceive to be the intent. And that makes our perception of intent an integral element of how we experience the game. We judge a game based on what "could have been" or what we feel "should have been". I've noticed movie critics do this all the time. Take, for example, the movie that has a big "twist" -- that you saw coming a mile away. Or the scene that was "supposed to be" funny, but wasn't. Or any time you can sense the director trying to make you have a certain reaction (laugh, cry, be surprised, be scared) and yet you fail to have that reaction. These sorts of comments show up in movie criticism frequently.

So, back to agreeing with you... The author's intent is irrelevant -- but our perception of the author's intent (the intent as it comes across in the game) is relevant. And that gets back to what the game *is*, not what it was intended to be.

Having said all that, I'll acknowledge that there's nothing inherently wrong with someone reading developer interviews and then playing the game, and enjoying/despising based on how it lived up to intent. That's a way to enjoy the game. (So is putting the game in the toaster, if that's your bag.) But I don't think that kind of "experiencing the game" is something that should be part of a game review.

Dave said...

Ciryon, I would never have guessed that English isn't your first language. Your gramattical signal-to-noise ratio is far better than most internet commenters!

Mitch Krpata said...

Dave, good point. I think it comes down to the depth of the criticism. That is, it's one thing to say "This movie was supposed to be funny and it wasn't," and another -- arguably better -- thing to say, "Here's why this isn't funny." The first one relies only on authorial intent, the second less so. But clearly this issue isn't so black and white as I thought at first. 9 times out of 10, if you say, "Here's what I thought the developers were going for," you're probably going to be right, and it's immaterial to the quality of the review. It's that 1 other time you have to watch out for.

The biggest thing I'm afraid of is that if you review a game based on what it was supposed to be, you will do a worse job of reviewing what it is.

Dave said...

Even when you say "Here's why this wasn't funny", you're implicitly saying "It should have been funny." (As in: "This cupcake is too small! This dog doesn't meow!" I love that comic.)

I think the distinction for me is this. If the game feels like it was going for something, and failed, I'm bothered. But if the game feels like it wasn't going for something, it doesn't bother me. A game that "almost" achieves something is irritating -- it makes me notice the deficiency -- in a way that a game that "doesn't try" isn't.

Brainy Gamer has recently cited an example of this when comparing Fallout 3 vs Fable 2. The former attempts verisimilitude and falls short; the latter achieves the fantasy realm it attempts. (I've played neither game yet.)

But to be clear, I totally don't care what the developer intended. I only care about the "impression of intent" I get from the finished product.

Mitch Krpata said...

Definitely agree there. It's almost worse when a game should be good than when it outright sucks.

I should also point out that I think I devoted a good portion of my posts about No More Heroes to talking about Suda 51 and what I assumed he was doing. So, you know.