Difficulties

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I think it’s interesting that, even as I consider myself someone who enjoys thinking about art, I find myself growing increasingly distrustful and annoyed by art debates. Even civil debates are often incredibly tedious, since the nature of a debate is that it has sides and each side is advocating a position. Consider: What makes art interesting and meaningful is that every decision is a trade-off, a subtle one with deep implications as to what the work is and means. With that understanding, I find myself consistently annoyed by any discussion format that attempts to argue for or against those decisions absent the context that defines that trade-off.

I’ve been feeling this disinterest growing for a while, but what really brought it to my attention a while ago was a debate that sprung up over whether Dark Souls games should have a difficulty setting. Even though I love Dark Souls and am constantly intrigued by the delicate balances of challenge and accessibility that go into art, I found myself immediately tuning out simply due to the way the question was framed. There are two positions that get advocated from that question: Either touting the importance of accessibility, or the importance of allowing artists to follow their own visions. Both these positions are, in the abstract, completely correct and, in the particular, completely irrelevant.

Obviously accessibility is important if you want an audience, but just as obvious you can’t make anything enjoyable for everybody. In some cases it will be physically difficult for someone to play a game, in some cases intellectually overwhelming, and in many simply impossible to appreciate for anyone who hasn’t learned the conventions of that particular genre. None of that is an argument against inclusion or accessibility, just an acknowledgment that you can’t often make a game more accessible without changing the core of the experience – which, itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes (often!) you can greatly improve a work by changing some core assumption about how it works to make it more enjoyable for more people. But, still, these concessions and adaptations are hardly something we should expect artists to make without careful consideration about how it will impact the final piece. Conversely, we have people arguing that we should respect the artist’s vision – an argument which, while agreeable in principle, would if taken to its logical extreme rule out all criticism of any sort.

So yeah, we should respect the artist’s vision, we should make the game accessible; on their own these aren’t interesting statements or significant arguments. And yet people will spend hours ‘debating’ them, debating which takes primacy, accessibility or artistic intent, without acknowledging that these things depend on context, that these are decisions to be made carefully with constant attention as to their impact one way or the other; that these directives aren’t just moral, but also aesthetic, that the artist must be free to change their work or not, and that the result should be evaluated on its own merits rather than how it measures up to some ethereal ideal.

I’m allergic to all forms of prescriptivism, so spare me your impassioned debates about what games (or any other art form) should look like. I’m sorry, but in all honesty people arguing about how other people should create art, rather than discussing the benefits and trade-offs of different approaches, shows a childish understanding of what art is and can be. If these questions could be answered by debates we wouldn’t need artists in the first place. These aren’t questions that have just one answer, but are resplendent with a spectrum of answers, each shifting meaning, showing different faces, like gems in a flickering light.

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2 comments
  1. Jōchō said:

    One of my favorite moments in The Beginner’s Guide is when you walk into the jail cell and the narrator talks about how they wondered if you should or shouldn’t have to wait around for whatever long amount of time the cell called for. As a game developer, I thought about how simple it could be to program and how impactful it could be, in theory. As a player, I’m glad they let me skip it, but it did make me think a lot. People would probably follow the rules in GTA a lot more if going to jail meant you couldn’t leave your cell for however long the crime was worth. Or, that you get shot and killed and have to start over. Would people dislike the game? Probably. But I still think it’s fun to think about.

    Anyways, with that drivel aside, I definitely agree that a lot of these debates can be a waste, especially when there has to be a “winner”. On the other hand, many people out there could still use the counterpoint to inform their views. I think it’s probably fair to say that you’re beyond that, but there are people who certainly aren’t.

    • I think the thrust of the jail game scene, though, was about how not everything we create needs to be for an audience: Coda was creating his games for his own benefit, essentially being his own audience, and since his method of ‘play’ wasn’t to be in the player’s place directly considerations such as convenience and time didn’t factor in. However, ‘Davey’ was obsessed with having an audience, and to him it was unthinkable that a game could have any other purpose, which is why he sabotaged Coda’s work to make it a ‘proper’ game.

      And yeah, the substance of the debates can be interesting and worthwhile in many ways, but we can still make these substantive arguments without the premise that one of them is the correct or necessary path, with full awareness that it’s a tradeoff that shifts contextually. Not only would it result in a more productive debate re: difficulty, it would also reinforce the idea that art is always about balance and compromise, that you can never really achieve perfection and that each work has its own priorities and meaning.

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