The Undead Author: Artistic Ownership of Games

In the weeks after the release of Mass Effect 3, the drama around its unsatisfying ending went to some interesting places. After some discussion over whether or not the ending ought to change, the conversation muted into whether or not it should be “allowed” to change. And ultimately, the question became, who makes that decision? Essentially, if games are art, who is the artist?

That’s a question that hasn’t seemed relevant to games until the last decade. After all, who “makes” a video game? There are only a handful of important developers that have individually stood out enough to be recognized by name. Authorship is granted to the conglomeration that distributes the work. When discussing a work or a body of works, our language centers on the development company instead of a single person. We say that Bungie changed the FPS with Halo, we complain that Squaresoft/Square-Enix’s material was much better before the turn of the century, we tap our feet impatiently while we wait for Valve’s next opus. We don’t talk about a individual creators as independent minds that produce a work.

For the lion’s share of the time creative credit is given to the company that prepared a game for mass distribution. As capitalist as that may be, it’s made it remarkably difficult to keep track of who has creative authority. Studios shut down, change hands, overhaul their staff, barter intellectual properties and update old titles through a rerelease. This is not how high art is supposed to work. We can read the name of an author at the back of a book and awe at his philosophy and life history. We can recognize and revere an excellent director or an actor’s terrific performance. Great art doesn’t isn’t traditionally made by teamwork in ways like games are made. Great art is supposed to come from a genius with a name.

But games don’t work that way. Tracing who has narrative control of a video game from initial idea into its final iteration takes considerable legwork, to say nothing of long running series, spinoffs and remakes. What’s perhaps ironic is that games—often seen as a low form of art, if considered art at all—embody what most critics after the 1940’s deemed an ideal state of criticism: one where the work, not the artist, deserves recognition.

The structuralist approach to art, for instance, aims to eliminate the artist. Artists limit the interpretability of art. Artists come from a time and place, they have personalities, personal histories, biases. Focusing on art through an artist means focusing on a fragment of time and space outside of which a work can only have narrow applicability. Conversely, by focussing on the work and interpreting it through a reader’s lens, the work is limited only by all its readers across all time, in any cultural environment, in the constraints of any political or philosophical framework.

An infinitely interpretable text focuses on the play of language and the meanings that can be derived from a systematic code. We don’t look to Percy Shelley’s biography, culture, psychology or genius, we look at the words he left and think about the author as it pleases us. We look at To a Skylark and make meaning from it, and if it hints at biography, culture, psychology or genius than we dig deeper, continuing ad infinitum. Or we don’t. We’ re the readers and it’s our choice.

If a reader picks up something like Twilight and sees the main character as a vapid stereotype without an identity than the reader is free to make that case without having to consult the author on what he was “supposed” to get from the character. If he sees the relationship between the two central characters as backward, borderline abusive, self-flagellation with a tone of belaboured righteousness than he can make that argument regardless of what the author “intended” him to see.

The point is that the second an author is imposed on a text, than interpretation centers on the author. It becomes limited to a time, place and person. Because games haven’t traditionally come with authors—or a game’s author is quickly made irrelevant as the game grows—interpretive authority has been in the hands of the reader (or rather, the player). In the years before Nintendo released the official timeline for The Legend of Zelda there were already dozens of compelling timelines drawn out and argued. Likewise the indoctrination theory concluding Mass Effect is another fascinating result of ignoring what the author “intended” to say and instead just looking at what’s there and making sense of the structure that the player is given.

At some point after pong paddles and tetris blocks, games have enough substance for some very rich and sophisticated stories to emerge. They emerged, I believe, because of the players, not the designers. Players were never forced to interpret one meaning from a work, they were given a world and left alone to see what was there.

What’s interesting to now though, is that as players assert themselves more, designers are starting to reshape the work according to popular demand. DLC is released to fill a need that the original overlooked, remakes take the original work and alter the locations, music, graphics and aesthetics, sometimes inserting whole new scenes and locations. Mass Effect may even get a brand new ending that could (but probably won’t) placate unhappy players at the cost of undercutting some of the great interpretation that has already gone into it (such as the indoctrination theory).

A lot of players seem to like to think of games as a cooperative creation between designers that make a world and the players that experience them. But the meaning that comes out of games, how they interact with and what they say about the real world and the people living in it has always, like with any art, been argued by the audience engaging with them. More and more game developers are able to change that, they’re able to take back their work and change what it means. Rather than engaging with it, there’s a growing knee jerk reaction to “return message to sender” and wait for the developers to come up with something more palatable. And this may hurt the interpretive authority that players have taken for granted for so many years already. If, as Roland Barthes writes, “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author,” than what happens when the author can return to life?