Charles Rosen has provided the New York Review of Books with an appreciation of the work of the late Frank Kermode, whom he calls

[t]he most versatile and the most distinguished of English literary critics since William Empson [...]

That’s an estimation I’m not inclined to dispute, even though my familiarity with Kermode is, at present, rather slight.

I came to him by way of two recommendations by eminent peers of his, Harold Bloom and Terry Eagleton, both of whom have recommended in print his book The Genesis of Secrecy. Those still living critics shared with Kermode a fascination with the Book of Mark and cited Kermode’s lectures as the most masterful exploration of the first gospel’s handling of the theme of secrecy. Rosen writes that the book

sheds the fullest light on his critical ideals and philosophy, and was also the most ambitious and controversial [...]

In “The Revelations of Frank Kermode,” he uses The Genesis of Secrecy as the key to understanding Kermode’s entire critical perspective, focusing on the mutual necessity and disappointments inherent in the act of interpreting a text.

That assessment is worth reading on its own, but I mention it here in part because while reading it I couldn’t help thinking of a rather prickly piece of game theory I’d read earlier this week, “The Philosophical Basis of Exploration Cues in Game Design” over at The GameSaver blog.

Based on how I’ve dealt with the “games-as-art” debate in the past (specifically in “What Are Games If Games Are Art?” parts 1, 2, and 3), it might be natural to expect that I’d be largely in agreement with the GameSaver’s position. After all, even if our approaches differ, we both basically affirmed the idea that games stand apart from the arts, right? But it seems to me that “Exploration Clues” attempts to force much the same issue as those whom have challenged the game/art dichotomy.

Take, for example, the following passage:

If an artist allows other considerations above an aspect’s utility in artistic expression, even if only once, he utterly destroys the cohesion of his work. It ceases to be art because it has surrendered being art first. Uncharted 2 exemplifies this. One can play it as a game, spending his time looking compulsively in every area for extra treasure, or one can interact with it as art, going from place to place, advancing the action in an integrated way.

One cannot do both.

In some ways, this highlights the different possibilities that I tried to spell out in “What Are Games…” But the argument he leverages in support of that point functions by imposing a critical model meant to impose a particular brand of interpretation on art. That would, I think, run afoul of what Rosen calls

Kermode’s profound distrust of any system of reading that is coercive.

(Incidentally, the GameSaver basically spells out the context that gives sanction to such a coercive interpretive mode. I have yet to see an exposition of Randian Objectivism that does not seem calculated to enforce an interpretive mode, be it with reference to art or the world as a whole, as though it were part of the furniture of the universe. Like the fundamentalists referred to by Kermode in Secrecy, the article comes dangerously close to denying altogether that there’s an interpretation taking place.)

Yet, it also seems that there’s a corresponding motion among those who insist that games are art in the modal sense I spelled out back in March. In the second part of “What Are Games…” I pushed the issue along by asking what was staked on the question. One potential answer, from the perspective of the partisans, is that treating games as art allows them to insist on the applicability to those games of interpretive modes that developed as part of our encounter with the traditional arts.

I don’t think it goes too far to suggest that the desire to bring certain interpretive modes to bear on games does a great deal to motivate the entire debate. When that desire reaches a certain peak of intensity, as when Ebert’s dismissal of the artistic value of games instigated a flood of equally dismissive rebuttals, the imperative borders on coercive. At a certain point, the partisan is no longer merely suggesting ways that it’s possible to apply the tools of artistic interpretation to a game, but has lapsed into demanding that others regard that application as a priori valid.

“Exploration Cues” points to some of the problems inherent in applying those tools to games, but those are problems that could presumably be resolved through the evolutionary process of adapting traditional interpretive methods to the new context of gaming. And unless you buy into the Objectivist premises of the article, the GameSaver gives no compelling argument for why game critics shouldn’t push for just that sort of critical evolution. The gist of the argument there is that

The conflict of being encouraged simultaneously to explore and to advance the story, when these are divergent paths, creates, and is the result of, the mindset that art is subjective, and while the choice to play a title either as a game or as art is subjective, the fact that trying to do one precludes the other is not.

That’s purported conflict of interests may be encompassed by what many of in the game criticism community have taken to calling ludonarrative dissonance. Others are not so partial to the term, in part because the jargon seems to unapproachable. As such, it lends itself to the demarcation of a cultural divide, described by Kermode with reference to Marcan Christians, between those on the inside (in this case, the game criticism cognoscenti) and those on the outside (everyone else).

In essence, ludonarrative dissonance describes the tension that can sometimes arise between the apparent aims of gameplay, and the apparent aims of the story that goes along with the gameplay. The original example is Bioshock 2, which game design and criticism vet Clint Hocking offers the player two conflicting “contracts.” One is the ludic, inducing the player to play and respond. The other is narrative, enlisting the viewer in a story. “By throwing the narrative and ludic elements of the work into opposition,” Hocking argues

the game seems to openly mock the player for having believed in the fiction of the game at all.

Another way to put it might be that the tension Hocking describes as dissonant forces the issue of how the player interprets the game, or whether, in fact, they interpret it at all. That possibility is especially appealing given the way in which the Objectivist themes of Bioshock 2 echo in “Exploration Clues.”

In return, we might ask whether the act of simply playing a game is itself a form of interpretation? Or might playing take the place of interpretation?

According to depth psychologist James Hillman, the psychoanalytic schools of Freud and Jung present a similar tension when it comes to the dream-lives of its subject. In The Dream and the Underworld Hillman depicts Freud’s landmark study, The Interpretation of Dreams, as wresting dreaming from its natural context. There, interpretation becomes an act of translation, and in doing so, destroys the original integrity of the text, so to speak.

It’s beyond my competency to assess the psychological value of the approach Hillman recommends instead, but it seems likely that Frank Kermode would, at the very least, agree with Hillman’s assessment of the destructive nature of interpretation. And it may be that, like dreams, games offer an opportunity for play that grows obscure whenever we subject them to the demands of a coercive interpretation.


is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
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