What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.
The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art…more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.
—Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation
In her 1966 essay “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag diagnoses art appreciation and art criticism with a sickness: interpretation. She claims that cinema (in her time) is free from interpretation because of a few preventative qualities of the medium: cinema’s youth, it being mass culture instead of high art, and its formal vocabulary. Films today, of course, are regularly interpreted by the public and academics alike. Those allegedly preventative qualities proved too meek to defend against interpretation. Games are in a similar position. They share the qualities that cinema had in Sontag’s day, and have even more safeguards against interpretation. Despite that, interpretation has crept into gaming and it is growing. Interpretation is more contagious and stubborn than Sontag thought. I will explain why Sontag describes interpretation as a sickness, and why video games need to be cured of it.
First, what is interpretation? Sontag defines it here:
Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work. The task of interpretation is virtually one of translation. The interpreter says, Look, don’t you see that X is really – or, really means – A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C?
You can also find interpretation whenever someone starts talking about the “meaning” or “message” of a work of art. The search for deeper meaning is a sure sign of interpretation, if not its primary defining feature. Aside from clues in the methodology, interpretation can also be found under famous names like psychoanalysis, deconstruction, post-colonialism, feminist theory, queer theory, and so on. To spot interpretation, you can either notice the translation process that Sontag describes, notice the search for a message or deep meaning, or recognize one of those famous analytic rubrics.
Before I get to the problems of interpreting games specifically, what is wrong with interpretation generally? Why not interpret art? Interpretation reveals a dissatisfaction with the artwork as it is. Instead of savoring the beauty of art, interpretation translates its elements into meaning.¹ Interpretation is built to eat beauty and shit meaning, not to appreciate art. Let me be more specific, and break down just how badly interpretation treats art.
Before interpretation proper begins, the unruly artwork must be made comfortable to approach. To accomplish this, interpreters have a massive critical apparatus made up of questions: “Might this work of art reveal the artists’s repressed sexuality? Might this work of art symbolize the suffering of the so-and-so people during the so-and-so conflict? What did the artist mean by this work? What does this painting say about the society in which it was made?” For interpreters, all of these questions and thousands more attend every encounter with art. Instead of approaching a work of art openly and with vulnerability, interpretation comes with safety gloves. In donning gloves to handle art, interpreters protect themselves not only from the discomfort art can cause, but from its electrifying and revitalizing effects. The interpretative approach anesthetizes the work of art. Once it is knocked out cold on the operating table, they can begin their work.
Those questions not only act as safety gloves, but as a scalpel for the interpretative operation. They not only protect interpreters from the power of art to disturb, but constitute aggression against the art. To interpret is to probe and cut art with this scalpel. Interpreters look for the art’s “point” or the way in which it plays into an interpretive paradigm. A work of art is valuable to an interpreter insofar as it can be translated into one of these paradigms, insofar as it can be cut up and translated into a meaning.
Interpreters claim this grim operation is the intellectual way to approach art. They say that to interpret is to plumb the depths of a work, past mere appearances, and resurface with the true art—the art behind the art—the meaning. In fact, interpretation does not care for art. Interpretation tears the artwork apart in a search for meaning, which is supposed without question to be the value in art. Interpretation is invasive, unnecessary surgery. Interpretation neuters and mutilates art, makes each encounter with art sterile, and hurts the interpreter by cutting off invaluable spiritual sustenance.
Here is a small example: one writer for The Guardian said of Barnett Newman‘s body of work that it “embodies the immense ambition of the US, its fault lines and tragedies. Yet it is more than American. It expresses the universal human impulse to find meaning in the void.” For the writer, the paintings of Barnett Newman are not enough, and they are too much. Their power is too great (you must see one in person), and their beauty does not satisfy his desire for meaning. His interpretation serves to contain the energy of the art while also building meaning atop the art. Rather than draw us closer to a painting and make it more alive, this interpreter translates elements into a meaning and situates the work in a time and place. The interpretation turns a beautiful and lively object into a dead and dusty statement.
To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.”
Interpretation is even more problematic when applied to video games specifically. Whereas interpretation of a text must at least refer to parts of the text, interpretation in games manages to mostly float free of the games themselves. For example, a psychoanalytic critic of King Lear who claims that Cordelia represents death must still at least analyze specific scenes and relate them to his claim of Cordelia’s meaning. This practice of extraction and translation is as harmful as I described in the previous paragraphs, but it at least has the decency to gesture at respecting the text. Interpretation of video games, though, can avoid examining the game at all. David Bowman’s essay in First Person Scholar called “Fallout 4 and the End of History” exemplifies the problems of interpreting video games.
There are a few details about Fallout 4 that are required to understand Bowman’s essay. The game has a brief prologue which takes place in Boston before a nuclear war. The player-character (called the Sole Survivor) spends some time with her family, and is then ushered into a massive vault right before the bombs begin to fall. The Sole Survivor’s vault was built by the corporation Vault-Tec in order to house citizens in the case of a nuclear war. In addition to acting as safe-houses for citizens, the vaults are used by Vault-Tec to conduct secret and unethical experiments on the vault-dwellers. In the Sole Survivor’s vault, Vault-Tec cryogenically freezes everyone and they are thawed out many years later. The bulk of Fallout 4 takes place in the post-war Boston area after the Sole Survivor has thawed out and left the vault.
Bowman says that Vault-Tec is implicated as an example of the evils of capitalism. Yet capitalism immediately, thoughtlessly arises again after the war. He points out that the Sole Survivor never questions the larger structure of capitalism, but only recognizes the woe that Vault-Tec in particular and the Great War have brought. The story is explicitly anti-capitalist in condemning Vault-Tec for profiting off the apocalypse, but there is no serious question that the post-war world will be any different. Bowman says that this juxtaposition between the evils of capitalism pre-war and the near-spontaneous reconstruction of the same order is ironic. He quotes Slavoj Žižek, saying that this irony “is one way to blind ourselves to the structural power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them.” For Bowman, Fallout 4 is a critique of late capitalism that fails to imagine a world free of it.
The problem with interpreting video games, as exemplified by Bowman’s essay, is that you still have no idea what it is like to play Fallout 4. The only information I needed to give you about the game in order to understand the essay was plot summary and information about the setting. Interpretation rarely interacts with the games themselves, but only with subsidiary sections of the total software package—usually the plot and virtual world. Interpretation is not concerned with finding beauty in the game, but finding meaning in the story.
Bowman’s article is comparable to analyzing Beethoven’s 9th symphony based solely on the lyrics, which are taken from Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy.” An interpretation of Beethoven’s symphony based only on the lyrics would be indistinguishable from an interpretation of Schiller’s poem, since the words are the same. Yet we recognize the artistic worth of the symphony and the poem are totally different because the importance of a symphony is not in the lyrics. The artistically significant parts of a symphony are the musical parts—the melody, the rhythm, the harmonies, the dynamics, and so on. Similarly, the artistic significance of a video game is not in the story. It is in the game elements—the mechanics, the balance, the feedback, and so on.
Sometimes, interpretations of video games do mention those important parts of games. Bowman’s article mentions the Radiant quest mechanic in Fallout 4, so let’s look at what he does with it. First, though, what is that mechanic? The Radiant quest mechanic allows the player to receive instructions for his next quest after he completed the last one. This allows for infinite quests, usually changing only in some minor way such as the location of the end of the quest. Fallout 4 uses this mechanic to encourage players who stay in one area too long (the location of the quest-giver) to explore the rest of the virtual world (the locations of the objections of the quests). If these quests are completed enough, they can repeat. A quest-giver will tell you to kill all the Ghouls at a location, those ghouls will respawn, and you will be told to clear the location again.
Here’s what Bowman has to say about the mechanic: “The result of this is a fundamental alienation from any narrative drive. The aim of the quest is to clear an area of undesirables, but they are in fact repopulated each time you are sent back, so there is no change enacted upon the world, only payment made for services rendered.” In the sole instance of engaging with a mechanic of the game, Bowman makes it subordinate to narrative. Even in the rare instances where interpretations engage with mechanics, they are always translated to have relevance to the supposed meaning of the work. Instead of appreciating and examining mechanics as a part of a game’s beauty, interpretations instrumentalize mechanics for meaning.
Interpretation cannot be redeemed by trying to focus on the important aspects of video games, either. Bowman is not just a bad example of interpretation. Interpretation, by its nature, cannot give games the focus they deserve because game elements just do not make sense to interpret. What is the meaning of Mario’s jump in Super Mario Bros.? There is none. Once graphics and story are added, though, you can make a meaning out of those. For example, a feminist interpretation might say that the contrast between Mario’s mobility and Peach’s immobility represents the gender divide—men can more easily move through society, while woman are held back by minor setbacks at every turn. In extreme cases, they are completely immobile and reliant on men for help, as in the case in Super Mario Bros. This could be a good explanatory tool for feminist rhetoric, but it is not good games analysis. This is an example of an interpreter translating incidental elements of a game into an interpretative paradigm. It does not show, explain, criticize, or even use the beauty (or lack of beauty) in the game. It performs a translation that deadens the sensuous power of the game and obscures its beauty.² It ignores the game itself and focuses on story elements, all while claiming to be games analysis.
Interpretation corrupts play and ignores the beauty of games. Just as no one asks what a well-prepared cupcake means or what a pair of Rick Owens Geobaskets means, no one should ask what a game means. The response to great art, including games, should be reverent silence followed by an investigation. As for what that investigation should look like, that is a topic for an upcoming post on this blog. This quote should suffice in the meantime:
In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.
—Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation
¹ I would like to distinguish my use of the words “beauty” and “meaning” from ordinary use. By beauty, I do not mean that the work is immediately visually pleasant, like a rose or a sunset. I’m using “beauty” in a broader sense to describe aesthetic excellence. My use of beauty does not exclude great works like Picasso’s Guernica or David Lynch’s Eraserhead which may be excluded by narrower definitions of beautiful which are synonymous with “pretty.”
Analysis of beauty in the field of games is formalist and focuses on mechanical depth, balance, challenge, virtual sensation, precise descriptions of play (including obscure mechanics), and examining the highest levels of play as opposed to only focusing on one’s own experience with a game. A challenging game with mechanical depth, balance, and satisfying sensation is beautiful.
When I talk about meaning, I’m referring to a certain group of concerns that some critics focus on, usually to the exclusion of beauty. Examples are concerns about the underlying truth of a work, the cultural implications of a work, or the “message” of a work. These are all different types of meaning that can supposedly be extracted from a work of art. Critic and consumers who interpret games tend to prioritize concerns like depth and variety of theme, richness of plot and character, ludo-narrative harmony, and moral virtue.
² Interpretation, useless as it is for appreciating art and exciting the soul, might be tolerable as a field in itself, away from art. It might be tolerable if it proudly said “we instrumentalize art—we use art as metaphor, as fodder for rhetoric. We care not for the beauty of art, but only how useful its meaning is.” That’s not how it is, though. Interpretation has infected art appreciation and criticism itself. “Fallout 4 is an example of the evil persistence of capitalism” is not proper games analysis. It is interpretation.