On Authorial Intent and Space Giraffes

Last year I became interested in a notion of literary theory known as authorial intent. In a nutshell, it states that if there's a conflict between an author and their audience about the interpretation of a work, the audience wins. Put another way, an author's own statements about their work, when stated outside of the work itself, carry no more or less weight than those of any other well-informed reader. This I learned about after the controversy that arose after Ray Bradbury stated that his 1953 masterpiece Fahrenheit 451 was not at all about censorship, but was rather a critique of television's social effects. I found myself feeling so strongly about it that I became involved in a Wikipedia edit-skirmish over it, after certain individuals quickly marked up the book's article to indicate that decades of academic study regarding the work had become invalid overnight due to Bradbury's new words.

1183407644_08a53177d2.jpgThis came to mind again recently as I stumbled across the curious story of Space Giraffe while researching the market of XBox Live Arcade. To be honest, I'm not sure how correct it is to call this particular case another instance of an author's intent running contrary to that of the audience - in this case, the game's players - but it's close enough to warrant a comparison anyway.

You'll forgive me if I now give far more words to the background of my eventual point than to the point itself, since it's actually a rather interesting story. Jeff Minter, the founder and core personality of the tiny Welsh game-development house Llamasoft for the past 25 years, is at least as much a Grand Old Man of digital gaming as Bradbury is of fiction. He established his reputation early on with the international hit Gridrunner, and throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s he produced a great variety of rather strange commercial and shareware games with names like Llamatron and Revenge of the Mutant Camels. These were far better known in the UK than in the US - in the days before the web, the Atlantic Ocean still presented a significant barrier against fast information flow, even where video games were concerned.

His second great work, Tempest 2000, a rethinking of the classic arcade shooter by David Theurer, appeared for the all-but-forgotten Atari Jaguar console in 1994. (Arguably, if anyone today remembers the Jaguar at all, it's likely as not that they're remembering only Tempest 2000.) He and Llamasoft then spent several years in the background until they re-emerged just last year with Space Giraffe, a five-dollar game for the XBox console, distributed through Microsoft's Live Arcade downloadable-game service.

But the world had changed, and for a producer of video games the difference between 1994 and 2007 was far vaster than the difference between 1982 and 1994. The web had grown from its infancy to its current adolescence over these years, and "blog" had become a meaningful word. The digital game marketplace had also grown tremendously. At the start of Minter's career, he was primarily selling to fellow hobbyists and enthusiasts. Now, his medium was in the very core of the mainstream culture.

The collision between the Llamasoft's eccentric design aesthetic and the expectations of entire modern internet did not fall in Minter's favor. In fact, my own introduction to Space Giraffe, and from there my learning about Llamasoft's fascinating history, came about through my discovering references to Minter's own reactions to the game's reception. At least a couple of online discussions link to a post on Minter's personal blog where he expresses muted optimism at the game's tepid sales after its launch last summer, and another on the game's official development blog where he angrily rebuffs players (and reviewers) who find the game too difficult or unfriendly to "man up and grow a pair", ranting that the expectation of the modern gamer to encounter some easy tutorial levels followed by a steady-but-gentle difficulty curve is more pandering to the masses than a time-tested refinement in game design philosophy.

This alone paints an interesting portrait of a truly old-school game designer discovering the sort of controversy that would arise only as a result of the almost anachronistic insertion into the XBox Live Arcade catalog that Space Giraffe represents - a brand-new, high-definition, surround-sound game that still somehow feels like it's from 1985. What brings it all around to my thoughts on authorial intent are articles like this one, where Minter insists that Space Giraffe is not a followup to Tempest. Except... it totally is. I put forth that not a single person who has played the original Tempest, and who has had no contact with Minter's own thoughts on Space Giraffe's design, will fail to immediately think "Aha! Tempest!" upon seeing the newer game. Furthermore, even if they like the game enough to stick with it and discover all the ways that it's different - and there are indeed many - they will still consider it a Tempest offshoot.

Again, this particular case may not be the best fit for a real discussion of authorial intent - it smells more like a case of the author not quite succeeding in branding a particular work as non-derivative, despite their own insistence, and further despite games being a medium where derivate works are usually quite welcome, so long as they manage to bring something new to the table. But the comparison nonetheless comes to mind, and makes me more attuned to the ways that digital games continue to insinuate themselves from mere pastime to validated artform. I look forward to encountering an increasing number of games that invite gobbets of literary theory called down upon themselves with more confidence from hacks like myself.

As for my feelings about the actual game, I encourage our XBox-owning readers to download its free trial version and judge it for themselves. If you are as immediately charmed by its utterly lunatic audiovisual sensibility as I was, and also find yourself unable to resist its particular band of infectious joy, and you're willing to invest some effort into learning how to play it (chiefly from out-of-channel sources like Minter's own Space Giraffe gameplay exegesis), then it's certainly worth your 400 MS points. Otherwise, I'd pass on it. At any rate, Minter's hinted elsewhere that Llamasoft intends to continue producing further XBLA titles in the vein of Space Giraffe, and having learned all about their history just now, I can't wait to see what they do next.

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6 Responses to On Authorial Intent and Space Giraffes

  1. Great post, Jason. Some part of my soul always dies a little when my students act as if once you've cited the author's opinion, then there's nothing else worth discussing.

    I think you might be confusing "author intent" with the "intentional fallacy." Both refer to the same concept, but from slightly different sides. The statement "author intent" is neutral -- it simply means "what the author intended."

    A group of literary scholars in the mid 20th century called the New Critics came up with the weighted term "intentional fallacy" to mean "if you act as if the proper way to interpret a literary work is to measure it against what the author intended, that's a fallacious comparison." The argument is that the author's statement of intent about a work is just as open to critique and multiple interpretations as the work itself.

    One example -- the Jewish character Shylock in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice was initially played as a comic villain, but without changing any of the words (well, other than a few judicious cuts) it's quite common for modern productions to play the same character as a tragic hero. Did Shakespeare initially "intend" for Shylock to be a villain? Whether he did or not, he infused the character with so much humanity that it's possible, four hundred years an a lot of social changes later, for modern actors and audiences to see in that character a nobility that the original Elizabethan audiences missed.

    Further, an author as an angry young outsider may have one set of intentions, but an established author revisiting the works that established his or her reputation may have a different intention decades later. (Consider George "Greedo Shot First" Lucas.)

    The professor who taught me literary criticism, E.D. Hirsch, says that authorial intent is only useful when the text supports two completely coherent, equally probable, and mutually exclusive interpretations; looking at the author's body of work, life experiences, and historical documents can aid the researcher who is otherwise stuck.

    I'm a little more open to authorial intent when I teach lit crit, but it's only one of many possible ways to find meaning in art.

  2. Bystander says:

    I don't recall what I said at the time on authorial intent, but the way you've put it here makes clear the epistemological error on both sides. In my view as an epistemological pragmatist there is no "one right way" to categorize any part of reality: there are more-or-less useful ways depending on the objective reality being categorized and the knowing subject doing the categorizing. Newtonian mechanics (forces cause motion) is as valid as classical mechanics (some energy principle like least action causes motion), even though the two are utterly at odds conceptually, completely incompatible despite a certain kind of formal equivalence.

    So think of it as a problem of conceptual schemes: Minter, from his perspective of a game designer, may well be using a categorization system which is completely different from game players. Within that conceptual scheme Space Giraffe may belong on quite a different branch from Tempest. This is neither "right" nor "wrong" in the conventional way: it is either useful, or not, to someone.

    Again, whether a particular categorization of a given bit of objective reality is useful or not is constrained by the objective reality as much as on the conceptual scheme and the purposes of the knowing subject, which means that some categorizations really are useless to everyone. But without knowing a good deal about purposes and intents, it is difficult to identify those cases.

    In some ways discussing this kind of issue in the context of games is easier than for literature precisely because the field is so new: it has far less baggage than literature, and the issues may be concomitantly clearer.

  3. Andrew Plotkin says:

    You say there's less baggage, and yet the entire screaming public argument about Grand Theft Auto (3, 4, whatever) can be (plausibly, to me) boiled down to whether the authors intended the sex-and-violence ironically.

    I see more terminological gear-clashing in this Space Giraffe thing than deep conceptual or epistemological issues. In one of the Minter posts that Jmac linked to, the author says: "I always intended [Space Giraffe] to be a sequel to my own stuff in the old T2K/T3K games..." He is not vociferously denying that SG is a *follow-up* to Tempest, but that it is a *remake* of Tempest. Lot of wiggle room there; he may agree in substance with Jmac's post.

    As for authorial intent, there's one case where I always put it on top: in discussing what the author is going to do next. If I hear that Shakespeare is coming out with "Merchant of Venice 2: Merch Harder", I need to know what Shakespeare thought of Shylock in order to imagine how the character will be portrayed.

    This angle is, of course, a lot more common in videogame criticism than in Shakespeare criticism.

  4. I've had the sequel question raised at me before, the last time I waved the intentionality flag on my own blog (I believe after the Dumbledore-is-gay thing, tut tut). Its being a very good question, combined with my own intellectual laziness, has prevented me from pressing the issue much further.

    I'm all the more likely to ask any of my actually-do-this-for-a-living friends about it next time the topic comes up, though.

  5. Andrew, I love the "Merch Harder" bit.

    Shakespeare actually wrote several historical sequels -- two sets of tetralogies, which have in modern times been put on as an eight-part cycle.

    In his own Elizabethan "Galactica 1980" moment Shakespeare brought Falstaff and some other of the supporting characters from history plays into a comedy -- the only Shakespeare play set in contemporary London. That suggests Falstaff's resonance with his audience.

  6. Tom says:

    I reckon Minter's "this is not Tempest" is not meant to distance Space Giraffe from the gameplay of Tempest as much as it is to make people aware, that if they are expecting to pick up Space Giraffe and play it as Tempest, they will be disappointed.

    There's a much more risk-and-reward based gameplay in Space Giraffe and you have to rely on audio cues as well as what you are able to see. This does make Space Giraffe "not Tempest" while in other ways it's clearly an offspring due to some of the similar game mechanics.

    To keep this in line with the discussion you can say that the syntax is clearly Tempest while the semantics are very much brand new.

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