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Civilization on the run

The elusiveness of meaning

Ico_6 My favorite course in grad school combined the Directing students with the Playwriting students to produce short, original 10-minute plays each week. To inspire us, our teacher would often show us a single evocative image - usually a photograph or a painting - and say "Write a play about this." The micro-theater that emerged from these exercises - and the wide range of responses to the same image - were nearly always interesting...and occasionally extraordinary.

I was reminded of this exercise when I heard about a rare appearance by Fumito Ueda (lead designer of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus) at the recent Nordic Game conference. Prior to his presentation, Ueda also spoke to writers from Edge Magazine. His remarks shed light on the vagaries of the creative process and his own intentions as an artist. Regarding the origins of his two most famous games:

Both Ico and SOTC originated as single images in Ueda’s mind. For Ico it was a boy leading a girl by the hand; for SOTC it was a tiny figure challenging a giant. The game and narrative are separate extrapolations from this kernel.[1]

Ueda's process begins with an image and grows from that place, informing the way the game plays, how it feels, and what it means. Clearly, Ueda's response to the image of a boy leading a helpless girl by the hand found its way into Ico's themes of selfless devotion and love. The artist communicates his intentions by channeling them through a powerful image. The meaning of the image is conveyed through a beautiful weave of gameplay and narrative.

We always knew Ico was artistic. Now we know why.

But hold the phone:

"I always want my games to be something that would inspire. But you picked up on devotion and love? I did not have a specific message for it.”

Ueda also claims to be surprised by the reception of his characters. The emotional connection that players made with the few allies that populate the bleak, lonely worlds of Ico and something he did not expect, particularly not outside of Japan.

“I am aware of the artistic sense of the product I’m producing, but that is not the goal throughout,” says Ueda. “That’s just part of the game’s contents..."[2]

Huh? How can this be? Is Ueda simply being coy about his work? Is he playing "disingenuous artist" with an interviewer, or could there be more to it than that? And what about my neat and tidy analysis of Ueda's process? "I did not have a specific message" really messes me up.

I would suggest that Ueda's apparent unwillingness to assign his work a single "meaning" - or even admit to an intention beyond making a good game - is indicative of an artist who understands the distance between conception and reception. It may also explain why he so rarely talks about his work.

Every word he utters as "creator" will only serve to limit the game to his fixed conception of it. If this were the final word, then my grad school pals and I would all have written the same 10-minute play about the Georgia O'Keeffe lily, the Dorothea Lange photograph, and The Pietà. Artists don't own their work, nor do they control its meaning.

My friend Chris over at the Artful Gamer explored this phenomenon recently in an essay called "The Medium is Not a Message." He argues persuasively for understanding games in a holistic way. I quote him liberally because I can't summarize his words without diminishing them:

The artist has no hidden message for us. Even when an artist deeply desires to communicate, moralize, educate, challenge, or amuse the audience - their artistic creation will always frustrate, deny, and exceed their intentions. Trying to interpret or understand an artistic work by guessing at the artist’s intentions is a blind, endless, alley.

The expressive qualities of a work of art, or video game, come from many different sources. Some of those sources of meaning are bound up with the artistic medium - the fact that a game must proceed in a logical, rule-based, manner. The artistic methods and techniques of the artist also bring a particular personal expression to the work. The cultural and historical context that an artist works in, responds to, lives, contributes to the meanings we find in the work. The emotional and intellectual depth, imaginative capacities, intensity and breadth of feelings, and sensitivity of the reader/viewer/player/audience bring meaning to the art piece.

All of these things, bound up together, give us a “sense” of what an artistic work means. Segregating any of these elements (culture, language, artistic method, the artist, the audience, the piece itself) and trying to pin down the source of meaning onto just one thing is a plain mistake. However, contextualizing and interrelating these elements, one to another, gives us the chance to understand what art is about.

You can read all of Chris's essay here. Edge Magazine's article on Fumito Ueda, "The Curiosities of the Colossus," can be found here.

Image courtesy of Kitanai-Neko at DeviantArt.