Vintage Game Club: Chrono Trigger
Pick the keynote

On face value images


Bob Dylan got me thinking about Resident Evil 5 today. Maybe I should say he diverted my attention from the RE5 debate and directed it back onto the game itself and the meanings of images. I'm pretty sure he didn't mean to.

Next month, Dylan will release his first album of new music in almost three years, Together Through Life. In an interview on his website conducted by Bill Flanagan, Dylan likens the sound of the album to the old Chess Records vibe. "I like the mood of those records - the intensity. The sound is uncluttered. There’s power and suspense. The whole vibration feels like it could be coming from inside your mind. It’s alive. It’s right there. Kind of sticks in your head like a toothache." The man still knows how to put words together.

Dylan famously avoids discussing the meaning of his work. Like most artists I know, he gets skittish when critics or fans try to fence him in. Nobody owns the meaning of his songs. Not even himself. Dylan has spent a fair amount of time over the last forty years trying to knock us off his scent. We know Blood on the Tracks was about his first marriage breaking up. He knows it too. But one man's story won't hold all those songs, and only a fool would insist otherwise.

Nevertheless, people have always tried to assign specific meanings to Dylan's songs, and he probably asks for it. As a songwriter, his lyrics are loaded with images hanging on words that fairly demand to be unwound. We can't help it. We're hard-wired to make meaning, regardless of authorial intent or denial.

But something fascinating has happened in the autumn of Dylan's career. As he's grown older, and as his poetry has distilled and grown spare, things have begun to change. And Dylan has noticed. From the same interview:

I see that my audience now doesn’t particularly care what period the songs are from. They feel style and substance in a more visceral way and let it go at that. Images don’t hang anybody up. Like if there’s an astrologer with a criminal record in one of my songs it’s not going to make anybody wonder if the human race is doomed. Images are taken at face value and it's kind of freed me up.

Q: In what way?

Well for instance, if there are shadows and flowers and swampy ledges in a composition, that’s what they are in their essence. There’s no mystification. That’s one way I can explain it...
All those things are what they are. Or pieces of what they are. It’s the way you move them around that makes it work.

Images have power because we associate them with ideas, emotions, or other images. A single image can resonate, titillate, or infuriate all by itself, purely because of the potent history it carries with it. Joyful or painful, it all adds up to meaning.

Most visual and performing artists make peace with the ethereal nature of meaning. They know the folly of trying to deliver a pure, unadulterated message. A single universal reception is impossible. A fixed meaning cannot be foisted on anyone, partly because meaning is inherently interpretive, but mostly because art isn't viable under such conditions. So, as Dylan suggests, we can take things just as they come to us, at face value without mystical authorial control, and create our own meaning. We needn't sort through the Dylan back catalog or parse his lyrical symbolism to determine which of us got it right.

I don't know if RE5 is a racist game. I'm not even sure it's possible for a game, by itself, to be racist. What I do know is that RE5 contains historically and socially charged imagery that seems irresponsible to me and makes me feel very uncomfortable. Frankly, I doubt if anyone cares whether or not I think RE5 is a racist game, but when I look at the contextual images RE5 communicates, I see offensive cultural and racial stereotypes, and I have a difficult time thinking of that experience as fun.

But not everyone sees it that way, and I think we need to be very careful about assuming those who don't are racist or somehow perpetuating racism. It's very possible that the meaning I derive from these images is quite different from the meaning others derive, and I'm not prepared to accept the idea that this difference is proof of my enlightened social consciousness versus someone else's ignorance or self-delusion.

Willful disregard of one's own privilege or prejudice is one possible explanation for an indifferent reaction to RE5, but it is by no means the only explanation. Some people can look at RE5 and simply see a screen full of zombies. "All those things are what they are." None of us owns the meaning of these images.

And this is a two-way street. We must be respectful to those who find the game offensive. We should always be inclined to take people at their word when they say they find certain images, words, or depictions personally insulting, demeaning, or otherwise objectionable. It's disturbing to see these legitimate concerns routinely and glibly dismissed; or, worse, people's motives questioned for raising them. It's terribly harmful to dispatch a person's suffering by suggesting he or she "get over it" or "lighten up." As I've noted here before, we can engage in meaningful conversation and even explore our disagreements about these things, but only if everyone at the table feels genuinely respected.

Play the game yourself and make up your own mind. Then we'll talk.