I recently engaged in an argument on a car ride home about the meaning of the game, Journey, that got me thinking about what it is that defines artistic purpose, particularly in video games. While this analysis primarily focuses on games, its intention is to help critics better understand what components together create both the contrived and inherent value of any given work of art. For long and forever, the argument of subjective versus objective meaning in art analysis has raged on and will continue to rage on. I’m writing today, not to deny either one’s credibility, but to comment on the fact that neither objective nor subjective understanding of a piece of art is necessarily the truth of meaning in that work of art.
Truth. That is a heavy word. As soon as you pull out the truth card, people get heated. Truth, by definition, is that which is true, or in accordance with fact or reality. The reason that I define this so early on is to separate it from the word “belief”. In this essay, at least, a belief can be the truth, but the truth is not a held belief. When I use “truth” throughout the rest of this writing, I am using it to define things that are separate from individual beliefs and are factual and logically sound. It is important to make this distinction while engaging in debate or literary criticism in that it separates the writer of a piece of critique from the piece that she is critiquing.
Subjective arguments on the meaning of a piece usually go as such: a belief about the intrinsic meaning of a work of art is stated, the second party rebuts with her individual belief about the meaning, and the debate (hopefully) continues with one party or the other giving evidence about why her view is justified, and where the other’s view is flawed, usually on the basis of another subjective understanding. It is important to understand that while these arguments use a logical system to support themselves, the evidence supporting them are subjective as well, and therefore cannot be held as fact—that is the definition of “subjective” argument—however, these arguments are healthy in order to build a better understanding between the two parties of what other critics’ subjective understandings might be. The product of arguing the subjective value of a work of art, I will refer to as, the “omni-subjective understanding”, where over time, enough of these arguments are held and the majority of viewers come to a common middle ground as to what a piece of art means.
Objective arguments on the other hand, hopefully ensue in this manner: the first party states his stance, the second states hers, the first provides logical and factual evidence that supports his argument, the second does the same, both are called out on logical errors that they make in their claims, until the ultimate objective truth is obtained. This is the basis for practical decision making. However, the meaning of a work of art is where this gets obfuscated. Can one actually logically support the intrinsic value of a work of art? Usually the objective argument will cite the author’s intent in a work of art, because the creator of a work knows what he meant to convey. But what if the perception of a piece of art is different than the author’s intent? Because people perceive an intangible something, does that mean that that something exists?
In short, yes and no. At this point, I am going to provide a list of truths about the meaning of a work of art, then, through example, I will explain how this list is useful in identifying intrinsic meaning.
An artist meant to convey a message.
The viewer perceived a message.
In the piece of art’s universe, the artist’s intended message is the truth.
The viewer’s perception of a message will be obfuscated by the conditions under which he perceives it.
The intrinsic message of a work of art is not necessarily either the author’s intended message, or the viewer’s interpretation of the message, nor is it unable to be both.
A work of art has a will, separate of both the creator’s will and the will of the body of individuals who interpret it.
I will start by providing a very simplified example, one with no ambiguous moral lesson, to help bring to light the utility of these truths above; the ages old example of Pac-Man. Numeric footnote flags will refer to the list of truths above.
In the Pac-Man world, if there is such a thing, there is a legend that the creators conceived Pac-Man as a pizza with a slice missing. For the sake of simplicity, we are going to assume that that is true. So the artist meant to convey the avatar of Pac-Man as something vaguely resembling a pizza.(1) The viewer, because of seeing the art on the side of the American cabinet, which represents Pac-Man as a sphere with Pac-Man shaped eyes(4), has a different understanding of Pac-Man as an avatar.(2) If the creator, in the fiction of his game’s universe, intended for Pac-Man to actually be a pizza, then Pac-Man is in fact, a pizza.(3) However, Pac-Man is neither a pizza, nor a sphere with legs, he is a little yellow circle who eats dots.(5) Just because both parties assigned a different value to what Pac-Man is supposed to represent, doesn’t change the fact about what Pac-Man is.(6)
As you see, there are several truths about Pac-Man. The artists had an image they wanted to convey, the viewers perceived it differently because of the situation under which they were perceiving it, both views were had, therefore it is true that both parties perceived something. In the fiction of the game world, if the creator of the universe says that Pac-Man is a pizza, however much we disagree, that is the truth—but only in the game’s universe. Aside from that, the truth about what Pac-Man really is, has nothing to do with either what the creator wanted him to resemble, nor what the omni-subjective perception of him is. Pac-Man as a work of art, has a will to convey to you a little yellow circle on a black background, and that will, mostly due to technical restrictions, is in place to allow both objective and subjective debate over what Pac-Man is, despite that the argument is not about what Pac-Man is, but what he represents. That, is the truth.
Back to the Journey debate I was having in the car. We were talking about the point of Journey. I said that I had watched a particularly sad Let’s Play of the game, where the player never even ran into another player, despite being online, and would never get to experience what the game was truly about. One of the people in the car responded with, “Well I’ve played the game several times, and I enjoy it just as much single player.” The debate escalated to trying to understand what the message of Journey was. Their stance was that Journey was enjoyable single player because it represented the “hero’s journey” trope in literature. My stance was that the game, in its design, was to convey the joy and wonder that was sharing your journey with other people. Both are subjectively true. We both understood Journey through different contexts, and both assigned meaning because of that.
But then, I was told that I couldn’t possibly know what the meaning of the game was because I didn’t create it and that I was speaking as if I had personally created it. It became a fight. Instead of arguing my subjective understanding of the game, I began to argue the correct way to critique a piece of art. I was told I was defending myself, but the reason I stood my ground for the hour long car ride was that I was defending the integrity of art as a whole.
It is okay to argue your subjective understanding of a piece of art. You want people to feel the things you feel, relate to the things you relate to, speak on a more spiritual level. You want life to be Journey. Everybody perceives a message, therefore that a message was perceived is fact. When the argument spills over into trying to compare subjective delight about a work of art, to what the creator meant by it, the logical integrity of the argument is decimated. Even worse than that is assuming that the objective, creator’s vision, of a work of art is what the art represents. But the most destructive thing that anyone can do to the idea of art as a whole, is deny the fact that aside from the way that we all perceive it, aside from what the artist meant to say, and aside from the situations under which it was created and played, a video game has life breathed into it, and because of that, it has its own meaning that is neither objective nor subjective, nor is it both.
A work of art—a video game—operates under the assumption that people will assign values and beliefs to it that it personally does not deliver. Despite that, because it exists, it delivers something; something that neither the artist nor the viewer meant for it to convey. It has a factual, intrinsic value, that people make more complex than it is.
Pac-Man is a game about a little yellow circle dodging ghosts and eating pellets, Zelda is a game about about exploration and acquiring the things you need to defeat evil, and Journey is a game about accidentally either communicating with other people, or not, during an isolated pilgrimage. These are the intrinsic facts about these games, intentional or not, perceived or perceived differently, and that is the truth.