Why should we interpret a game?

**SPOILERS!** This article is a discussion of plot elements in games, meaning that it contains many minor **SPOILERS!**

The title of this article is a question, with good reason. It may be a question some of you ask when confronted with someone who claims to know what a game is really about. Or maybe you ask the question when discussing what the value is of adding meaning to a game, or interpreting it. In any case, the word ‘game’ can easily be replaced by ‘film’, ‘book’ or ‘painting’. Why is adding meaning to a work of art needed? Can’t we all just keep our own interpretations to ourselves?

Fact is, games do things to us. They change us as a person, or enrich our minds. You can have an altered view on the world or its inhabitants after you play some games. I’m sure you’ve all experienced these kinds of moments in games that will always remain with you. You may be touched by the tragic tale of To the Moon, shocked by the ‘No Russian’ level of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 or be intellectually stimulated by The Stanley Parable. The experiences we take from games contribute to your character, exactly like books or films are capable of doing. Game may contain universal life lessons, interesting social situations or overwhelming events.

Many manly tears were shed (by yours truly as well)

But these experiences are hard to work with when they remain isolated. Especially when you want to prove what the common significance of a game is, it’s not sufficient to only present anecdotes. A (shared) interpretation is preferable in these cases: to capture what the meaning of, common experience of and/or the reason for the game is, in a concise manner. Using this interpretation, gamers are then able to pinpoint why this game carries such an emotional/intellectual significance for them.

You may discover that the reason why you were so touched by the ending of Shadow of the Colossus, is because you recognise the fact that some action are performed out of (sub)conscious egoism, and can even lead to evil results. Or that the final scene of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag resonated this strongly with you, because you’re aware that some people do bad things to each other because of their conflicting individual convictions or ideals, even when deep down they are still friends.

Excuse me while I wipe this speck of dust from my eye (Image by Galewalion)

Murdering the author

So how do we reach an interpretation? Is anything allowed?

Well, yes and no…

It’s good to point out here that the interpretation of a work of art should be constructed by the audience. It was in the 1960s that a French scholar by the name of Roland Barthes declared “The Death of the Author”. He claimed that the author should have no say in the assignment of meaning to the artwork, but that the meaning has to be constructed by those who experience the work of art. Since the intentions of the author could not be 100% known, including all its intricacies and subtleties, it should not play a part.

This does not mean that any interpretation proposed by a random member of the audience is automatically valid. An interpretation requires an argumentation. Sure, you are free to claim that Dark Souls is ultimately about… I don’t know… How dinosaurs became extinct.

Where Gwyn depicts the fiery asteroid that caused dark ash to cover everything, of course

However, unless you can substantiate your claim by a proper argumentation – meaning that others (your peers) are able to reproduce your line of thoughts – your claim will never become an accepted interpretation.

Critics’ choice

Most valid and accepted interpretations come from critics. If the critic himself is valid (alternatively called legitimate), he has proven himself to be knowledgeable about the field of art in which he operates. Their interpretations are therefore valued among the audience. As a matter of fact, the audience traditionally depended on critics as the sole constructors of interpretations.

Nowadays, the esteem of the critic appears to be in decline, or it is at least challenged. Every layman is able to start their own website and broadcast their own opinions on art. It’s easier these days to gather a following through social media, and as long as people accept that what you say is valid, you can be considered a critic.

If this trend of democratisation of the critic’s position continues, someone might declare the Death of the (traditional) Critic soon!

Someone’s on a killing spree! (Image by Salon)

One interpretation to rule them all

I think a common misconception is that every piece of art has but one valid interpretation. But the more abstract an artwork is, the more open it is to interpretation. This means that two interpretations can co-exist. If you factor in time, then it immediately becomes apparent that the meaning and relevance of an artwork can differ greatly as times change.

When people talk about timeless pieces of art, then this means that its message can be felt throughout the ages. Most often, these artworks concern people, because people haven’t changed that much. However, when a book describes values of a society, or a painting depicts the hardships of the working class, then the interpretation can change over time. A painting of a family of labourers may have had a lukewarm reception in the time when it was made. But a few hundred years later, and people could adore it, because it offers them insight into another age, and the societal values and realities of that period are conveyed via the painting. That is what might suddenly make it valuable, too. Another example is John Williams’s Stoner, a book written in the 1940s that recently topped the literature charts.

This is why it’s perfectly fine for people to disagree on the interpretation of a game. As long as both interpretations are without flaws – and it helps if each interpretation has been legitimized – they can operate next to each other, especially when they cover different layers of meaning. Just like my interpretation on Far Cry 3 within the theme of madness, and this guy’s interpretation within the theme of manipulations might work equally well. Our validation depends on you anyway.

That being said, it’s probably better to construct the all-encompassing interpretation that can contain both co-existing interpretations. While this can not always be accomplished, linking together two interpretations can lead to new insights of why the artwork works on so many levels.

Necessity of interpretations

I think it’s safe to assume that some games may not require a proper, validated interpretation, because quite a few games are pretty straightforward. Become strong, fight the bad guy and rescue the girl… Often enough, these games don’t try to stimulate our cognitive capabilities too much.

Other games cry out for interpretation, especially in our age of the Indie Game. Quite often, these games are layered with meaning and they urge the players (and critics) to uncover what they are really about. Braid comes to mind: at first sight, it’s a puzzle platformer. But look beyond that, complete all the challenges and you discover a reference to the atomic bomb. That in itself isn’t an interpretation quite yet, but work on these thoughts and you can begin to decipher why this was done, and why it impresses us.

Maybe it’s just the bright graphics

Then there is the middle area between these two extremes: mainstream games that are possibly just regular clichéd stories, but scratch beneath the surface and you could find interesting insights. Remember that everything in a game is put there for a reason, although that reason may vary. Sometimes an object is placed in a house because it looks nice, sometimes because the developer had a texture he’d like to use somewhere, but sometimes it’s because it signifies the importance of that object in that house’s owners life or culture. Collect these snippets of information, try to link them together or pronounce the general theme, and before you know it, you may just have created an interpretation!

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