Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Saturday, September 28, 2013

James the Philistine

Game design is a tricky thing.  One aspect of game design is whether to allow players to perform tedious actions that improve their chances of winning the game (or improve other aspects of the game).  So for instance, in Baldur's Gate, you start by rolling dice to determine how many points you can allocate across different attributes (strength, intelligence, charisma, etc.).  The higher the number you roll, the better your character's attributes will be for the entire game, so it is a fairly important element of the game.  The result is that some players sit there clicking re-roll for hours, hoping for an extremely high number.

In general it might be seen as poor design for a game to reward tedious, joyless actions.  At least, it is something game designers should bear in mind.  So it occurs to me that artists and writers are in the same situation.  There are elements that you can include in a work of art, or a book, that will make it tedious or obscure or simply difficult.  Obviously that's called for sometimes, but it's something that bears some consideration.

In particular I think it's tricky when it comes to allegories and allusions.  I'm generally not a fan of allegory in books and movies, and I think it is really unpleasant to listen to someone "connect the dots."  ("See, the white horse represents Death, and the apple represents his dreams, and so when...")  It's almost as annoying to have to connect the dots yourself.  I think it's okay for there to be puzzles for the audience to solve, but I've almost never seen someone successfully use puzzles of the "decrypt the symbols" variety.

Allusions are trickier, if they are done right they can bring a lot of rich associations to the work, and other times they are merely little rewards for people who get the reference.  But if the work doesn't stand on its own, then it is going to be tough for readers/viewers who aren't steeped in whatever culture your references come from.

Of course the audience should have to do some work—I don't think there are any great books that aren't at least a little difficult.  But it can be overdone.  (Be  honest, how many of the allusions did you catch in this passage from Teju Cole's Open City?  I don't mean to criticize Cole—actually, I'm planning to write a post on how much I like the book—but this is just an insane amount of allusion.  Admittedly it seems mostly harmless in this case.)  It's an aspect of art/literature that requires very careful artistic choices, and it's one reason I favor moody, realistic movies over more stylized approaches.  The point is not necessarily being thrust in your face, but it isn't hiding behind layers of reference and symbolism.  (I really hope I'm not missing a bunch of allegory/allusion in Sang-soo Hong's movies.)

Maybe this is barbaric of me, maybe the pleasure of recognizing symbols/references is important.  What matters is the journey, not the destination.  Wordplay.  Mental agility.  This is what makes great art, and the meaning that is being conveyed is usually trite anyway.

In this connection, I think a lot of what passes for humor really amounts to difficult recognition.  (Aha!  A reference to Brideshead Revisited.  I will laugh to indicate my intelligence and sophistication.)  But while this can be annoying, I do it all the time.  In fact, I sometimes find these kind of references subjectively funny, so I'm not just laughing to show off.  (Or at least I'm not consciously laughing to show off.  It could be that I am programmed to laugh, that the showing off is going on at a subconscious level.)

So anyway it's a tricky area, but despite my reservations, I am a philistine on this point.  I like directness and emotional bareness, not artifice and intricacy and ironic distance.  Or maybe the way to put it is, I think those are more suited for amusement (like Archer) than for great art.  Great art should touch your soul.


Anonymous Ban Drown said...

Dan Brown?? Hello??

1:40 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

One of many possible objections to this is that directness of _effect_ is basically uncorrelated with earnestness of tone. Ironic distancing isn't antithetical to "soul-touching" but is in fact a potentially valuable means to that end; you need to be able to lower your voice in order to be able to raise it; switching between registers or perspectives is precisely how a lot of the effects in Shakespeare work. To my mind you are saying something like "I prefer close-ups to wide-angle shots," which is obviously not a sensible thing to say about film.

3:35 PM  
Blogger James said...

Yeah, I guess I need to stop using the terms earnest and ironic to describe what I mean, since they don't seem to get the idea across. I have no problem with irony in the sense of difference between literal and actual meaning, or in the sense of dramatic irony. After all, as I pointed out, I'm a big fan of Open City.

The thing that I am really concerned with is obscurity. If I write a book entirely in Klingon, I guess you could call that a wide-angle shot, but it would also make the book's message inaccessible to all but the most devoted readers (or Star Trek fans).

4:16 PM  

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