I read a lovely article on the blog for Frictional Games. The argument in the article is that gameplay and narrative are detrimental to meaning in interactive experiences. The terms gameplay, narrative, and meaning are carefully defined, and the argument is important and compelling. However one element of this was troubling which is the intertwining of experience with meaning. All media produce experiences, particularly entertainment produces experiences. The majority of games, though not the games that Frictional is espousing, are entertainment.
Frictional games are interested in horror, which is visceral, so a focus on experience is natural. However, by placing experience foremost, it is easy to fall into the trap of non-interactive media, which is provide a very carefully, precisely crafted experience. In these situations, the meaning is crafted by the author, and we get criticism that hearkens back to auteur theory. This is one of Roger Ebert’s main critiques of games, that because it is interactive, the player can interfere with the author’s precise vision. This is not what is being argued in the article, however, there is something more to meaning in games than experience, which is not clearly stated.
If meaning is not authorial intent, then what is it? Games are unique in that they are systems that a player can interact with. I argue that the meaning is produced by the player’s comparison of the system in the game with the outside. The game can be about an adventure story, and the player could compare it against any other story; the game could be about failed relationships, and the player can compare it against personal experience; or the game could be about moral dilemmas, and the player could compare it against their own personal morality. With games, as in any other medium, meaning is not inherent: it is representative, and it requires interpretation and participation in order for it to work.