Narrative Meaning Under External Influence

I was at Continuum Convention all weekend, so I’ve been talking to people about all sorts of things literary and interpretation-related. And then I got home, had my traditional bout of con flu, and therefore played games for a couple of days. So hold onto your hats, kids, this is an esoteric one.

So I ploughed my way through Inside and Oxenfree this week. I’ve got Opinions about both of them, but I’ll express them elsewhere. Mainly I wanted to talk about how these games have made me think about interpreting things, particularly Inside, which I think has some interesting stuff going on. No spoilers for Inside. I’m only going to be talking about things on a very surface level and using that to springboard into other ideas.

I’ve talked before about how I think that “it’s just a game/book/movie/tv show” and “it’s just entertainment/for fun” mentality is a bit of a cop out. Not that things shouldn’t be able to be enjoyed just on the merits of their entertainment value – entertainment value is … well, valuable … and not everyone needs to be interpreting things all the time. But even things created mainly for that entertainment value can usually be analysed as well. I really think it’s more about whether you prefer to analyse things rather than whether things can or should be analysed.

Inside, though is clearly a game that is intended to be analysed. Its story is told mostly in either metaphor or through glimpses. At no point are you told what is happening in the world, you just get to see parts of it, and you get to make your own judgements on who the main character is, what they are doing, and what all the buildings and equipment you see in the game is for. The ending is very symbolic, and is supposed to be interpreted as much for the comments it makes on the world as on what it says about what is actually happening to the main character “in the end” or after the game has ended.

Switching gears for a second, one of the criticisms I’ve heard a lot about Bioshock Infinite (a game I adored, which should surprise nobody, but also I agree fully with this criticism) is that the Vigors fail where Plasmids succeeded because Plasmids were integrated into the world of Rapture, whereas Vigors were available for free at markets, but other than the main character, seemed not to be in use at all. Basically: the gameplay and world were at odds – because the first game had weapons and Plasmids, the team put in Vigors to keep that gameplay style, but wanted a totally different world to work in, and didn’t integrate Vigors seamlessly into it, so it ended up reducing suspension of disbelief.

I’m generally a proponent of the Death of the Author theory – where you ignore the author’s ‘intention’ when you’re analysing a work because what the author says does not always necessarily gel with what is actually present in the book, and interpretation (provided it’s backed up) is just as important – if not more so – than trying to guess what an author ‘wanted’ to accomplish. But I guess you’d consider me a proponent of the ‘soft’ Death of the Author theory, because I also think that the author’s background, intent and ideas provide context for understanding the story. This is just as important. Think about how the references to Greek mythology in Shakespeare and how these mythologies were seen in England in that period provide us the context for how an audience at the time would have interpreted a character who makes those references. That won’t tell us how the character “should” be interpreted, or the whole picture of interpretation, but it will give us important information anyway.

Back to Inside.

Inside is a game by Playdead studios, who also made LIMBO, in a similar vein. You are a small child, your goal is to traverse a dark and spooky world through physics puzzles. The world in LIMBO is implied to be … well, Limbo. Technically the story is that you are a boy who is looking for his dead sister in the afterlife, but that’s really never explained or anything in the game. In Inside, the story is dystopian, and you play a small boy who is trying to escape environments like prisons, research centres, factories and mines. It’s not made clear what the facilities are for or why, or what exactly the purpose of all the experiments are.

But here’s the thing. I’ve watched a lot of things that were intended to be analysed, but they did it in such a way that it was … counterproductive. Things that threw in references to mythology, philosophy, ideas of religion, that sort of thing … but threw them in without regard for what the final meaning would be. Things that ended up less a symbolic, meaningful text and more a sort of reference soup. And there’s the fact that when people create texts (including all narratives, not just text-texts), they are also constrained by genre and medium, and to some extent by the expectations placed on them. In an ideal world creators would always be able to work within those constraints to make something that was meaningful anyway. We’d always have cases like the famous Silent Hill using mist to obscure its short draw distance, or Durarara!! following Baccano! using quite similar structures to iterate on a similar theme with different characters and settings. But we do end up with Bioshock Infinites, where the sequel is constrained by the original, and instances where the underlying ideas are obscured by something the creator thought they ‘had’ to use or put in.

The question is then: when do you make the distinction between “this contributes to the ideas” and “this is put in for a totally different reason”. I think, often in video games it’s a bit easier to tell because there is more of a tendency to separate the experience (gameplay) elements from the narrative elements. But you can see it in other things as well, for example, a story where the narrative dropped the ball on a character arc for a poorly-executed subplot with another character (romance subplots often get a bad rep for this, but honestly it can happen with any characters).

The problem then is, when discussing how a story is created, there are stories that just scream “Everything here is deliberate – discuss me!” But then there are decisions that are made within that framework and outside it, sometimes without the creators realising. Bioshock Infinite asked us to deeply consider how it was put together, and then presented us with the Vigors problem. Inside seems unsure as to how its main character fits into the world, whether the child’s presence is entirely coincidental or whether there is something particular about them that makes the plot play out the way it does. If a viewer should feel free to disregard some elements of the plot as “unrelated” to their theory (and I think that they should, provided there is a good reason. Obviously the colour of every shirt the protagonist wears may be safely considered unrelated to their character arc in many texts, and in some texts you can even discard entire scenes because they were clearly put in to be “fun” or to advance the plot, so they have nothing to offer the theory. Some things are clearly there only for a pop culture reference the creator thought would be cool, and thus  are unrelated to the analysis of the story, even if the story itself supports a deep analysis.

I suppose what I’m saying is that I’m currently working through where to draw the line. At what point am I falling prey to confirmation bias, ignoring elements that are actually important because my theory doesn’t support them, and at what point am I acknowledging that external factors also play a part in how things are presented? Or, to really, properly take into account the Death of the Author and get the full picture, do I have to take into account all factors, including the ones I know or suspect are due to concerns that have nothing to do with how the narrative is told?

Honestly I’ve been thinking about this one for a while and I still haven’t gotten a good answer for how I figure it out. As always, drop thoughts in the comments ! I’m happy to discuss, and would love some other perspectives on this one.

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