Something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is how games and other works ask us to engage with them. Each work of art exists within a greater context, and how we parse the messages those works engender is affected by this context: In fact, one could go a step further, and declare that any work devoid of context is also devoid of meaning.
This seemingly bold declaration actually emerges quite naturally when one considers how meaning is generally created in art– that is, by portraying a set of objects or events which are somehow analogous to objects or events in our world and then demonstrating, by posited developments to those objects or events, a hypothetical relationship between them. This method is no longer available when one discards the option of drawing parallels to real world objects and events– though, as it’s essentially impossible to create a narrative work of art under those constraints, that’s a rather hypothetical argument.
I like hypothetical arguments!
All of that is just to say, though, that no one comes to a piece of art as a stranger. We’ve all seen movies and played games– or, even if we haven’t, we’ve talked to people and observed their body language– or, even if we haven’t, we’ve heard birdsong and moved about our world, or otherwise had some experience which we can, however vaguely, compare this thing we are encountering right now with. And, this is the important point, the make-up of those prior experiences strongly affects how we’ll engage with this new experience. This is one of the most important parts of creating a work of art, yet is seemingly one that people seldom think about, at least in these terms.
One could create the most beautiful and elegant piece the world has ever seen and have it fall completely flat if no one understands what you’re trying to achieve with it or knows how to engage with it in a way that makes sense to them. These kinds of misengagements are incredibly common: It’s dangerous to make something too similar to the things everyone else is making because it’s boring, and it’s dangerous to make something too avant-garde because no one will get it, but the middle ground is also dangerous– people may try to enjoy your work the way they would enjoy a trite-but-enjoyable trifle with the end result that your bold variations on a trite theme come off as merely tone-deaf and stuttering. This often tends to be the way cult classics get started, when a work overlooked by misengagement is lucky enough to have a small but vocal group understand and champion its merits.
The inverse happens as well. Some works come out and do relatively well, if unremarkably: However, due to the behavior of the creator afterwards, a particularly incisive parody, or a late critical takedown, they are retroactively downgraded to laughingstock in the minds of the audience. Even if that audience enjoyed it unironically the first time, they will engage with the work again on the basis that it is, colloquially, a big steaming pile of crap, and will be far less likely to genuinely enjoy it on this basis.
Because of all this, reputation can become incredibly important: If you’ve heard of something before, this can provide invaluable clues as to how you should approach it. For instance, before the series became well known, many people tried and immediately discarded Demon’s Souls, the precursor to Dark Souls. Because it was superficially similar to an existing genre of hack and slash games, a number of very conscious decisions made for its design were regarded as flaws by an audience looking for a different experience. However, now that it’s common knowledge that the series provides a slow-paced, deliberate, and brutally challenging experience rather than a God Of War-style murder-roller-coaster or abstract WoW-style number-crunch, people who are interested in that kind of experience know to seek it out and are unsurprised and perhaps strangely pleased to find their faces quickly stomped in by its unrelenting wall of challenge. The fact that the publishers decided to name the PC port the ‘Prepare to Die’ edition may indicate they took this lesson to heart.
Another example which I find interesting is the somewhat recent Pixar film Brave. Now, I believe this was a very good film, but it underperformed, both critically and financially, by Pixar’s admittedly high standards. I think it’s worthwhile to explore why– particularly as it relates to engagement and misengagement. There are two trends to pay attention to here: First, Pixar’s track record of strange and wonderful animated films. From Toy Story to Up, the high concepts behind these movies were consistently imaginative and off the wall. This forced audiences to engage with their work in a very open way because of lack of precedent, and they were rewarded with stories of surprising emotional depth and complexity. The second trend to pay attention to in general is that of 3d animated children’s films in general: At the time Brave came out, many other studios were producing fun but shallow adventure films with different historical or semi-historical settings. Now: Brave comes out, and it has a far less outlandish premise and setting than previous Pixar films, a relatively prosaic medieval Scotland, not too dissimilar from the settings of other competing films. Because it didn’t have the cues of the bizarre premises or settings of earlier Pixar films, and because it had a world most readily similar to that of the other competing 3d children’s films, most audiences tended to engage with it in the same way they engaged with those other adventure films, and to judge it on those merits, rather than to judge it as a Pixar film and engage with the depth and complexity of character, in Merida and Elinor, that we have come to expect from their work.
Now, it’s easy to believe that you’re the exception– that you’re the free spirit who sees through the hype, that if you like something it’s because it’s good and if you hate it it’s because it’s bad and that the context, the reputation, the advertisement, the critical consensus, all of that around a work won’t affect you one way or the other: Well, sorry, you’re super fucking wrong. This is why the intellectually masturbatory tangent at the beginning is actually an important point and I guess I’m actually real smart for leaving it in instead of self-indulgent for not cutting it out: it’s all context. You can never, never, never separate your love or hatred of a work of art from the context around that work of art, because that context forms the basis on which you engage with it. Of course, you can claim that your experiences make you a better critic, that for whatever reason you have more insight, or that your experience might at least be a common one, but that’s pretty difficult to prove, wouldn’t you say?
Next time someone says they want an objective critic, rather than call them dumb, just link them here so that they can benefit from my patient explanation of why they’re dumb.
Oh, were you linked here? I may have some bad news.