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.