“The Death of the [Designer]”

What Should the Game Designer’s Role Be After a Game is Released?

I was inspired to write this blog post after remembering my first time playing Braid, designed by Jonathan Blow. I got very frustrated with a particular level and couldn’t solve it, even after a few days of trying. So I went to Google hoping for a hint and searched for “braid walkthrough”. I clicked on a very promising link from the big man himself and read through the first page.

It wasn’t for the level I was looking for, so I clicked at the link to continue to the next page and was met with this…

Am I the only one offended by this?

You don’t need to read the full thing because I can summarize it in one sentence: Jonathan Blow does not want players of his game to use walkthroughs because it defeats the purpose of the game and you will be playing it wrong if you look up spoilers.

He has some fair points, but I remember being very offended as someone who gave this a good faith effort. I felt intruded upon because suddenly the designer of this game was telling me I wasn’t playing it right and should feel bad for even trying to cheat. Who was he to tell me how to play the game I purchased with my own money and played on my own PC in my own home, especially when what I was trying to do was create a more pleasant playing experience for myself? I’m sure he would answer that question saying, “Who am I? I’m the designer for Pete’s sake!” My response to that is this:

Jonathan Blow should die.

No, no, no, wait! Sorry, let me clarify. Jonathan Blow, the designer of the game Braid, should die. Jonathan Blow, the person (who also happens to be a game designer), should absolutely live: 1) because murder is wrong and 2) because he’s a brilliant game designer and I want to play whatever it is he’s making next.

No—the death I want to see is a figurative one, much more in line with Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author.” In this 1967 essay, Barthes’ argues against the standard criticism/analysis of a text that took into consideration the author’s identity and the intent they had when writing that work. In Barthes’ mind, “to give a text an author is to impose a limit on that text.” In other words, assigning a singular interpretation to a text is limiting what we can learn from that text and what the text actually means. Instead, Barthes argued that we should separate the work from the author. He believed the whole and essential meaning of a text is determined by the audience, not the author. Basically, Barthes’ wanted the author to get the hell out of there once he/she was finished writing; their intention should have no bearing on a reader’s interpretation and enjoyment of that written work.

In much the same way, I believe this applies to game designers and the games they make. By removing themselves as the “author” of a particular game, game designers can actually allow the players to inhabit a space somewhere between author and audience. Unlike a text, games are far more interactive and can be played and read in millions of different ways. To enforce a singular way to play the game, especially at the expense of a player’s individual enjoyment, seems antithetical of the purpose of a published game. I specify published game because if a designer publishes their game, presumably they want many people to play it and therefore have to assume that most of those people are not going to play it the exact way the designer wants them to.

So which games kill their designer successfully and encourage this player participation in the game’s creation? One that quickly comes to mind for me is Codenames. It’s a fun and pretty intuitive game to play as it is, but what I love most about it is the designers’ acknowledgement that their ruleset is not the only one that can exist. And not only do they acknowledge that, but they also encourage players to come up with their own rules and make the game their own.

I also think of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). The whole point of the ARG is that the players are as much involved in the design process as the actual designers (often called “puppet masters”). Because it’s a live game, with real people, happening in real-time, it requires puppet masters to be prepared for any unpredictable action from a human player and then somehow design that action into the larger narrative and gameplay of the story. Because of this, an ARG is never fully designed. And even once it is officially “over” because the puppet masters have decided they are done creating new content, it is fully expected and encouraged for the players to take over. You’ll find many old ARGs that are still being played because the players have taken it upon themselves to design the parts they want to see.

In both Codenames and ARGs, the designers are very much dead by the time the players receive the finished, final game. And that’s good. The players feel more respected and in control of their playing experience and the whole world of games benefits from that. Imagine if The Sims team cracked down on mods that people were making because it didn’t fit their original idea for the game…it would be terrible! The mods and the modding community are as much a part of that game now as the original game itself. And I think that’s amazing.

To that point and to succinctly answer my question from above, I think the designer should die a nice metaphorical death and let the game they made speak for itself. Trust the players to understand your basic intention and allow them the freedom to find their own meaning and their own enjoyment.

So to Jonathan Blow, I’d ask him kindly to remember why he published his game in the first place and consider how he would feel if someone else told him how to play his game.

He would hate it…so why do it to his players?

Thank you to Wikipedia for jogging my memory about “Death of the Author” which I read as a 2nd year college student in my Literary Criticism class.

And thank you also to Jonathan Blow for his inspiration in writing this post and for the great games he has designed (even if he does try to change the way I play them).

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