I don’t have a whole lot to write today–I had some big hang-outs with a friend that started at 9am, which hasn’t left me a whole lot of time to do internetting and the kind of hard-hitting journalism/complaining that you all know and love.
Luckily, Pat Holleman has a post over at The Game Design Forum that I can direct you to. The post is about authorial intent and what kind of role it should play in games studies. If you remember, or are in the know, Holleman is responsible for the “reverse designing” of Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger, which means that he spent a whole of time working through those games and figuring out what makes them work on a technical and narrative level.
Side note: I think that kind of work is incredibly valuable.
In any case, Holleman’s post addresses some concerns that have recently popped up about games and authorial intent. These criticisms are the generic “BUT THE AUTHOR IS DEADDDDDD!” criticisms, which claim we should ignore the intent and history that surrounds a work and instead focus on how we interact with it. Blergh.
Anyway, Holleman writes this:
Firstly, most games don’t have an author; they have a team. That team is held together by design documents, meetings, master plans, producers, publisher demands, and many other factors. There are many industry-wide practices used to ensure that the intent of the designers is carried out everywhere in the finished product. And, of course, there is playtesting. As far as I know, no book, movie, or piece of music has ever endured the kind of scrutiny and revision that comes from hundreds of hours of metrically-driven playtesting, watched by dozens of people, analyzed by all kinds of computing and math. It’s likely, therefore, that the intent which binds a team together might tell us something meaningful and enduring about certain games.
This does not mean that authorial intent is king, and that other interpretive strategies are wrong. Rather, I think it points to a legitimate tack in the subfield of game design writing: the study of intentional design vs. emergent gameplay. If you look at the math that supports the gameplay of a title, certain intentions become very clear. For example, when we looked at the stat system of Final Fantasy 6, we saw that the way the magic power stat and the damage forumula for spells were disproportionately more powerful than anything else in the game. Magic is the only damaging ability that’s basically the same for every character. (The “Fight” command, although shared by all, is drastically different from character to character because of the weapons they equip.) It stood to reason, then, that this was an intentional way of making all the characters mostly equal, so that there were not two or three characters who were grossly more powerful than the rest. It didn’t work perfectly, but it did work adequately, and the math bears it out.
He continues from there. Holleman is doing some really interesting stuff, and it is games criticism that I think is really valuable–it is a material, literary, and theoretical analysis of game objects. More than that, Holleman isn’t locking us into a particular ideological stance on reading and the way games work.