The Undead Author: Artistic Ownership of Games

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?

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?





90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.


Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.