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.