This Week I Read: Intent and Interpretation

Last week I mentioned Darius Kazemi’s Fuck Videogames slideshow wherein he declaimed the contrivance of the medium as a form of expression where other forms might better suit. Link hopping, I came across this response by Elizabeth Ryerson elaborating on many of Darius’ points. It resonates with my own fatigue with the indie community (or at least the pittance experience I have with it). I love the idea of games designed for a particular narrative – it’s my primary interest in the medium – but I’ve found many ‘personal’ indie games to be barely more than ludic examples of blogging. “This is my experience; have at it, world.”

Which is fine, really. I’m not saying that people can’t or shouldn’t make games about any particular or general thing. Work away.

I’m often left wondering afterwards, however, if I derived any value in this ‘personal’ game beyond as therapy for the creator. Much like many ‘confessionals’, it can come across as somewhat lacking in earnest, as if mainly designed to boost the self-image of a small cadre. Or perhaps what gets me more is how carefully guarded the bespoken community is of the darling piece. No matter if it spouted some problematic, anti-feminist, classist opinions, as Expression/Our Art it’s beyond reproach. “How dare you tell me” etc. etc. To give them the leeway they need to be valuable they mustn’t be scrutinized, which nags at me.

Moreover, categorizing them as ‘personal’ hints that media that doesn’t follow this vibe isn’t personal. As if in order to be meaningful I can’t talk about philosophy but rather have to say “one time in philosophy class”, because the former is ‘detached’ and the latter is ‘lived experience’. I hate how ‘lived experience’ has been relegated to a niche brand of expression.

Then there was this on author intention, over on MammonMachine’s site, which I quite liked. Personally I don’t fully buy into the death of the author. Intent does count for something, somewhere between “what is this text actually saying” and “how did I interpret this text”. Disregarding author intention makes for a very weird hermeneutic, as if justifying the idea that a text’s meaning is whatever the reader wants it to be, and this interpretation is all that matters (in an introspective sense). Usually what happens then is a shouting match between people who can’t reconcile their conflicting interpretations and each refuse to believe they’re wrong. Which is existentially pleasing but kind of doesn’t help the critical sphere. I think author intention can help us find insight into a text but doesn’t overrule 1) anyone’s enjoyment/loathing of the text, 2) alternative interpretations of the text, including 3) meaning the author didn’t intend but still imparted (eg. internalized misogyny).

Case in point: Bruno Dion interprets the last leg of Journey as a reward, whereas I interpret it in the frame of the Dark Night of the Soul. Admittedly I’m probably totally projecting, but it seemed to me to relate to the Nietzschean concept of an eternal recurrence, each time cumulating in ultimate love of life. It’s an existential uplifting – the “glowing white spirit-mother” was, to me, my internal lifeforce that carried me all throughout the game, rather than an external deity. The sharing of energy between players speaks to me of community and love, not pantheism.

This doesn’t relate to the text, I just think it’s funny

Moving along, Todd Harper’s extensive write-up on Kanji from Persona 4 and gender is a fascinating read (as is Mattie Brice’s on Naoto over on The Borderhouse). I never finished Naoto’s dungeon so I can’t talk about that matter but it seemed to me Todd is right on the mark: equating Kanji’s gender tensions with sexual orientation buys into the hazardous socialized preconceptions that stimulated Kanji’s dilemma in the first place.

Incidentally, I’ve also read interpretations of Kanji’s arc where the moral is Kanji denies society’s definition of masculinity and instead chooses to define masculinity his way, yay so empowered! I don’t remember if this more closely mirrors the story (it’s been a few years). Either way I find it problematic that it’s characterized as positive and empowering to still buy into pre-existing (poisonous) social rhetoric, except gently whittling it down to fit one’s own preference. It doesn’t help to shift the definitions of binary concepts of masculinity and femininity while still glorifying the presence of a binary. In this manner, Kanji’s solution identifies the problem as within himself (“I need to alter my definition of masculinity”) rather than within society (“I’ve been socialized with a messed up concept of masculinity that I need to snap away from”).

Next up is this piece on slavery in FTL. although I’ve never played it, I loved this breakdown on the intersection of moral narrative and game systems in this specific case. My brevity does it a disservice – really, give it a read.

I’ll leave it there for now because my arms are getting tired. Going to go finish The Last Of Us so I can compare with Brendan Keogh’s spoilery notes.


Actual Games

Last thing, because I’ve been unable to share wee indie games I’ve played these past few weeks due to… lack of having played any, I’m crap, I know – here’s the four games that are getting Twitter all excited over the past month:


Papers, Please

The Swapper

Gone Home

Each of these is on my “must buy” list. Give them a look.


2 thoughts on “This Week I Read: Intent and Interpretation

  1. Re: the version where Kanji decides to reject hegemonic masculinity, interestingly his story mode in Persona 4 Arena does do this, somewhat. It implies that he has found some equilibrium between masculine-coded things he decides to embrace (like physical fighting) and not caring about what people think of the more feminine-coded things he engages in (like sewing adorable animals). Of course, the story mode also involves a mind-controlled Yosuke who attacks Kanji with homophobic comments that decidedly unsettle him, too, so… there’s that.

    I think there’s some middle ground between his adherence to the binary and his desire not to be hedged in by other people’s eyes, as it were. The fact that Kanji doesn’t want to feel shame for doing “girly” (oy) things is a good step, yet at the same time he has a strong motivation to reaffirm his masculinity, which sends it heading in the other direction… which is another reason I don’t like the “Kanji = gay” read, because it makes those moments where accusations of homosexuality make him uncomfortable AFTER his story arc resolves all the more annoying/problematic.

    Thank you for the praise, by the way. I am humbled.

  2. Is that a case of Kanji accepting the ‘masculine’ parts of himself and ignoring the ‘feminine’ parts, or just accepting himself for who he is while disregarding masculinity and femininity branding?

    If it is actually the former, grand – it’s not too different from anybody realising all the mad shite they’ve internalized and battle against. And while it’s fine to still derive worth from gendered behaviours on a personal level, I find it troublesome to extend that into being a Good Thing in a moral-of-the-story kind of way. Sure, it’s existentially important to resolve inner turmoil and accept that you like a thing which you should hate on principle, but to use this as a lever to say “masculinity and femininity are great, really, if you change your definitions!” defies feminism.

    What strikes me about the sexuality reading of Kanji is that his orientation features no discernible change from the beginning of his arc through to the resolution of his dungeon and afterwards. Not in its application nor in his consciousness of it (other than via gender). On the other hand, if you interpret it as focusing on Kanji’s relationship with his gender, the dimensions of his arc become more clearly delineated – this is where he’s overcompensating, this is where he’s confused, this is where he’s distressed by the values of others. I think it’s more interesting and worthwhile to interpret his story as related to gender but not sexuality.

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