I spent roughly two hours of this weekend doing something somewhat unusual for me: I played a video game.* Those were two hours very well spent, because the game — called “The Beginner’s Guide” and created by Davey Wreden — was not only aesthetically pleasing but pretty weird and thought-provoking. “The Beginner’s Guide” is a small narrative indie game which, according to the Steam website, has no “traditional mechanics, no goals or objectives. Instead, it tells the story of a person struggling to deal with something they do not understand.” Sounds perfect.
A random example of weird (and weirdly charming) footwear serving as an illustration of the general claim that weird equals good.
Now, I don’t want to spoil the game, as I believe it is best played with as few expectations as possible. So I won’t write about its content. Rather, I’d like to write about some of the thoughts the game prompted — even though, this time, I don’t have any bookmarks to go with my writing.
Interpretation as violation. Do you remember the time you were first expected to not only experience a work of art but to produce a written interpretation of it? For me this happened somewhere around sixth grade. We would read a poem, say, or a play or a short novella, and the teacher would introduce us to the idea that there are layers of meaning to uncover in a literary work, to concepts such as personification, symbolism, and so on. In order to prepare for tests in German or English many of my classmates regularly turned to secondary literature — guides to interpretation like sparknotes (or their German equivalents). Those were understood to shed light upon the work’s more obscure aspects, to hold the key to unlock its secrets, as if the author — or, in general, the artist — had provided a puzzle for us to solve, and as if the commentator — the author of the study guide — had solved it. Of course, the better study guides — and teachers, for that matter — offered more than one interpretation and the caveat that no interpretation has a claim to being the correct one.
But what if by interpreting a work of art we always wrongfully impose something on it? I think it’s possible to conceive of an interpretation, any interpretation, as a violation both of a work of art and of its creator. Or at least that’s what the game made me think. So if this doesn’t make sense: blame the game.
A perceived inability to decipher some thing’s meaning triggers anxiety. In order to get a feeling for just how frustrated people get by anything that “resists” interpretation, read the user reviews on IMDB for movies that have open endings. Our drive to interpret works of art might be viewed as compulsive, as resulting from a deep uneasiness with anything we don’t readily understand, a feeling of lostness in the face of ambiguity or openness we’re unable to tolerate. We are so compelled to see patterns, meaning, that we cannot help but demand answers. There has to be one, right? There has to be a right one?
Maybe our attempts at interpretation say more about ourselves than about the works in question. The right question to ask when faced with some work of art might not be “what does it mean,” but rather “how does it make me feel; which specific meaning-making attempts does it evoke in myself and why; why do some interpretations appeal more to me than others?” The primary goal, then, would not so much be to understand the piece of art, but to understand ourselves. The artist hasn’t left us a puzzle to solve. We are the puzzle. (And if this sounds puzzling: I’m sorry. It’s late and I have spent too much time playing video games.)
A maze. Puzzling.
Creativity and validation. The game also made me think about how validation, or any other kind of “external reward”, interacts with our creative impulses, or with motivation more generally. I vaguely remember having read somewhere that external rewards such as money have a negative effect on creativity. Be that as it may, the idea of external validation as somewhat of a two-edged sword intuitively makes sense to me. On the one hand, even though the process of creating something is often experienced as intrinsically worthwile — a flow state — we usually don’t create stuff for ourselves only. We want others to take note of what we created, to enjoy our work and reassure us. (A notable exception (maybe): Erwin Hapke, who folded all kinds of amazing stuff.) Being validated feels good.
On the other hand, validation can feel stifling, I suppose. Because even if it is not meant to do so, it can feel laden with expectation. Just imagine you had published a great first novel, or movie, or whatever, and suddenly found yourself to be hailed as “the next big thing” — how absolutely terrifying. Now you’d have to prove yourself to your audience, to show them that (to quote from one of my favorite TV series again) you’re anything but a one trick pony. It amazes me that people manage to produce decent, let alone equally great or even greater, follow-up work under circumstances like these.
But the effects of external rewards or incentives on more mundane activities or under more mundane circumstances might be problematic as well. Not only because of the expectations they might have in tow, but also because they can lead us to question our own motivation and sincerity.
*Update: Actually, I spent roughly four hours of this weekend playing video games. Because after finishing “The Beginner’s Guide” on Saturday I decided to download another game by the same author, “The Stanley Parable”. This latter game was released in 2013, two years earlier than “The Beginner’s Guide”. It’s pretty mind-boggling as well.