On 'Authorial Intent,' Game Designers, and Gamers

Illustration for article titled On 'Authorial Intent,' Game Designers, and Gamers

It's been a while since the Space Giraffe kerfluffle where Yak Minter threw a hissy fit in his blog regarding poor scores given to the XBLA psychedelic shooter (and the point where it was compared to Joyce's Ulysses, but I came across an interesting piece recently that talked about Space Giraffe in reference to (wait for it) a piece of literary theory known as 'authorial intent.' The post-structuralist conception is (at least in part) that the critic's will and opinion always supercedes that of the author. What does this have to do with Space Giraffe? Well, it's one way to look at why there was such heated discussion over Space Giraffe:

The collision between the Llamasoft's eccentric design aesthetic and the expectations of entire modern internet did not fall in Minter's favor .... At least a couple of online discussions link to a post on Minter's personal blog where he expresses muted optimism at the game's tepid sales after its launch last summer, and another on the game's official development blog where he angrily rebuffs players (and reviewers) who find the game too difficult or unfriendly to "man up and grow a pair", ranting that the expectation of the modern gamer to encounter some easy tutorial levels followed by a steady-but-gentle difficulty curve is more pandering to the masses than a time-tested refinement in game design philosophy.

This alone paints an interesting portrait of a truly old-school game designer discovering the sort of controversy that would arise only as a result of the almost anachronistic insertion into the XBox Live Arcade catalog that Space Giraffe represents - a brand-new, high-definition, surround-sound game that still somehow feels like it's from 1985. What brings it all around to my thoughts on authorial intent are articles like this one, where Minter insists that Space Giraffe is not a followup to Tempest. Except... it totally is. I put forth that not a single person who has played the original Tempest, and who has had no contact with Minter's own thoughts on Space Giraffe's design, will fail to immediately think "Aha! Tempest!" upon seeing the newer game. Furthermore, even if they like the game enough to stick with it and discover all the ways that it's different - and there are indeed many - they will still consider it a Tempest offshoot.


It's not a particularly long piece, and many may cringe at the collision of literary theory and, uh, gaming, but it's not that often we see such a visceral response from an auteur to critics that stretches out over a period of time.

On Authorial Intent and Space Giraffes [The Gameshelf]



While interesting, I think we're adding pretty words to the mistakes made by an overly self-indulgent game designer so as not to hurt his feelings:

I do think it's flat-out Minter's "fault" that the game was received in the fashion it was. It seems to me that he was so afraid of having his game be dismissed as a Tempest clone that he continued to add layer upon layer of what was essentially artifice on top of the core, familiar gameplay. In doing so, he chose to ostracize all but those gamers who dabble in the fringes of the medium. By refusing to contextualize his aesthetic departures within the boundaries of the game's core gameplay, he purposefully made his own game as obtuse and inaccessible as possible.

For what purpose?

At some point, Minter ceased to concern himself with his audience's experience of the game and supplanted that fundamental design necessity with the vanity of being perceived as an artist. In essence, he as the author made the work more about him defying critical and consumer expectations than about actually delivering a piece of work that was interesting to anyone but himself and those with a passing interest in the long established conventions of game design.

Sorry, but if you want people to buy your game, you need to figure out how to be an artist while offering users some level of accessibility to your work. We as the end user cannot properly understand your work if all you've done to "innovate" is intentionally restrict us from understanding it. You can thumb your nose at the institutions of core gameplay design, claiming up and down that rules are made to be broken; but in the end all you've done with Space Giraffe is demonstrate why certain conventions within the medium exist and are still necessary... like a propertutorial.

Pursuing you own design whimsy without concern for any audience beyond the artist doesn't make your game a misunderstood masterpiece, it makes it an exercise in masturbatory design and a cautionary tale for the game design academics of tomorrow. Just remember next time: requiring the player to fail over and over so as to figure out how a game is played is never very much fun.

One would think that lesson was learned back when they had to bury thousands of copies of E.T in the desert. Presumably not.