Today I sat in a cafe gorging on tea and eclairs while I quizzed Laura, my girlfriend, on a game I made last weekend. She’s the second person to have played it besides me, and I definitely do not count. As I was putting it together, I played over the single level countless times until I knew it like the big wonky nose on my face. I knew it so intimately, in fact, my impression of how it actually ran was worthless. So I was interested in digging into her experience and puzzling out what didn’t work and why.
In essence, it’s a spooky ghost game with a big cheap jump-scare at the end. The jump-scare worked, but she didn’t react as I had expected (nor did my tutor, Paul Conway of Bitsmith – the first person to play it). The music and sound effects played too low – I piqued my ears to make them out but the other players didn’t know to. Despite my efforts at lighting, it was too dark and she frequently got lost or couldn’t navigate for the lack of spacial signposting. Paul’s and Laura’s reports told me this was the major flaw of the game: although I could run from its start to end in pitch black, I was ignorant to the negative effects of the level’s lighting.
When I write a thing of games criticism I often ask Laura to read it over and share her impressions, especially when it’s on gender or feminism since I’m aware my privilege gives me blindspots. It’s all the same when you’re making a game, writing a thing, or really anything that involves an outpouring of yourself but doesn’t necessarily incite heavy introspection. You look at this thing you’ve made for so long, you can easily lose sight of what it actually is or what it’s really saying. As it happens, “anything that involves an outpouring of yourself but doesn’t necessarily incite heavy introspection” includes chatting, tweeting, grocery shopping, gesticulating, so on. Any time you verbalize or act without first contemplating it. If you’ve ever said something by accident, or misused a word, or blabbered on while fully assured of what you were saying but later came to realise you had not, you don’t need me to labour on that point.
This is why Tropes vs Women in Videogames has already opened so many devs’ eyes as to what their game was actually saying in the larger cultural context – a context they had internalised and failed to consider, as we all have at some point. It’s a desperate futile affair to dwell on intent as a determining factor to find out whether something is OK in a cultural context, since intent seldom takes into account all the relevant baggage that played into a thing’s creation. (Note: I’m specifying cultural readings of texts/actions etc. here. If you’re pursuing hermeneutics that’s a different story.)
We need to drop the phrase “intent of malice” from our vocabulary when rolling around in our minds the meaning of artefacts. Someone can make malicious content without intending it so. Nine times out of ten, it’s not their express intent that makes it horrid any more than it is the onus of the observer’s interpretative faculties. Otherwise we’re still locked in that silly “it’s just your opinion, man” mentality that’s stunted introspection in this medium into – what? it’s fifth decade? Rather, what leaks out from an author’s subconscious into their work, all their internalization of rancid cultural values and malpractices, this is what pains us. It secretly confirms the same unconscious beliefs of hundreds of millions of people. How bloody sad is it that studios like Rockstar still act, entirely autonomously, to protect and propagate the same underlying values that have slowly stagnated the industry since its inception.
I prize Laura’s and Paul’s criticisms because I stand to gain far greater insight from them than I do from retreading the paths I’ve worn out. Intent is rarely more than manifestations of routine.