When played with an attention to detail, games provide an opportunity for discovery and exploration that takes a player outside the parameters that define his or her world. It’s a considerable benefit unique to the arts, and the ability of games to provide experience the way they do, puts them in the company of literature and film as mediums that prosper in the presence of good old fashion discourse and critique.
For me, it wasn’t until I played Shadow of the Colossus that I realized the strange phenomenon; you can actually get more out of a game if you put more into it.I spent some time exploring the game, trying to figure out the intricacies of what I had just played. Why had Wander, the protagonist, done the things he had done? What would those things mean to the world of the game? Was his mission a success? To arrive at an answer, I would have to analyze the game critically.
Critical analysis is designed to investigate and reveal the complexities of a work, and is a skill set available to absolutely anyone. Typically a device used in literature, it’s not hard to see how its merits extend to video games. When a narrative is framed in a fictitious world, value can be garnered through an understanding of the contextual elements of said world. Reaching this understanding is simple.
If you don’t already, consider thinking about games as a form of expression. The design of a game is a culmination of a hundred thousand unique choices. Often, these paradigmatic choices were made to match a theme or atmosphere. As a player, it is helpful to note these choices. It can be interesting to wonder what those choices meant to those who made them, but it is often more important to ponder their meaning on a personal level. What is their effect? How do they relate back to the game? Why do they elicit a certain response from you? The answers to these questions come together to help discern the meaning of a piece.
When I say meaning, I am referring directly to the significance, personally and culturally of an individual piece of work, both in regards to its entirety and its ingredients. The meaning of a particular word choice, character location, or mechanic will bring more depth to a player’s gaming experience and likely increase their enjoyment of a game as a result.Understanding a piece more fully brings you closer to it and creates a unique and intimate bond between the individual and the piece of work that far exceeds the value of a surface relationship with a game.
Of course, there are an extensive amount of philosophies regarding the analysis of art. Some of those philosophies separate the creator from the art while others insist that the relationship is important to the interpretation. That’s a personal decision for you to make for yourself. If you have the time and the interest, I recommend reading what people like T.S. Eliot or Roland Barthes have to say on the subject. But, since you’re already here, reading what I have to say, I’ll offer some more food for thought.
Countless blogs and forums are dedicated to the interpretation and critical analysis of Shadow of the Colossus’ various themes, secrets, and ambiguity. This exploration is often something we attempt in school systems through classic literature. The primary difference here is that with video games, the developer is usually still around to question about their original intent.
But when Fumito Ueda, the director of Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, is approached with questions about the meaning behind his games, he is coy. If he offers any interpretations, he frames it as his own, individual interpretation of the piece and insists that he wanted to create a game where players could make it their own —have their own versions of the story.
In a very real way, both the developer and the player are responsible for the end impression of a given piece of work. The developer may arrange the elements of the craft —things like plot, themes, mechanics, and cinematography— but it is up to the player to figure out what that means to them.
This parallels a famous quote, by Samuel Johnson who said, “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”
So, in many ways, creators embrace ambiguity in their work knowing that interpretation and analysis is a part of the appeal. Perhaps this is why movie versions of books are often bemoaned for tainting or contradicting the personal world that readers have already conjured for themselves.
This isn’t to say that there can’t be foolish interpretations. A careless play through will result in an impression rife with inconsistency and contradiction. To be able to fairly interpret a game, the player must approach it with the same level of tact and diligence that the creative minds responsible for it exercised themselves.
A creator knows they can’t control the way people respond to their work, much like how I know I have little say over how you, the reader, will respond to this article. Maybe it’ll come off as too obvious, or pretentious. Maybe my intent will be misconstrued. Am I trying to make myself look intelligent? Am I trying to substantiate games as an art? Am I just trying to get hits? Even in nonfiction, there is room for interpretation.
If I were creating fiction, though, I’d be excited at the prospect of giving you something to play around with and rework. I’d want to create something flexible. There is a limit to the developer’s influence, and that’s important because it allows games to grow with the player.
How we react to a game is influenced by values and expectations that we derive from not just games, but life experiences. Braid, for example, benefits from a yearly replay and has the capability of meaning something new to the player every time. Play it after a breakup. Play it after starting a new job. Play it after quitting an old one. Play it in good times, and play it in bad. You’ll start to see what I mean.
For this reason, critical analysis can reveal as much about ourselves as it does about the art we’re analyzing. That’s an incredible benefit to glean from what is typically viewed as mere entertainment.
There’s also an incredible sense of community when you interpret and critique with others. In fact, the widely accepted lore of Dark Souls has been a community effort. Having a very skeletal structure, the story of Dark Souls isn’t one to be forced on the player. It is merely present in sliversthat exist regardless of the player character’s efforts. For this reason, the game feels like it’s living around you instead of for you.
One needs only peruse a Dark Souls wiki to see the kind of archaeology the players have been up to. While ultimately subjective, the various interpretations of Dark Souls are based on various pieces of evidence from within the game. Anything from equipment types to NPC locations are fodder for a thesis, and the best argued pieces go on to inspire the storytelling of other players. Because of these critical efforts, the game is enhanced for the entire community.
In the end, games are largely about entertainment. You can, and should, play them however you please. If you prefer a more passive, relaxed take on the medium, that’s your prerogative and I support you all the way.But a more critical evaluation of the medium, which we largely insist is art, will not only open up a world of exploration, pleasure and reflection. Games can teach empathy, or encourage a more supple kind of thinking, and doing so will move us one step further towards substantiating the art as something of value in the humanities.