Analyzing art without bias is impossible. A surface level observation, no doubt, but one that remains true across all media. This is especially valid within interactive art, as one’s input directly affects how it is experienced. Unlike a painting or a movie, which are viewed the same way each time, video games require interaction. Does this make games better than films or paintings? Not at all, but it does make the conversation a little different, especially when we consider artist intention.
While the interpretation of most art forms will vary, the type of consumption will not. Regardless of what you watch a movie on, it’s presented in the same way. A painting is the same painting no matter where you place it. However, a game, thanks to its input, is different every time, for every person.
Someone can easily miss an important story point, a gameplay feature, an upgrade, and so on that will drastically alter their experience. There are a million different things that can happen, but because of the way we experience art, none of these playstyles are “right” or “wrong,” they’re just ways to play the game. However, things change a little bit when someone physically cannot engage with interactive art for whatever reason.
Take Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Sekiro is an incredibly challenging game. There are multiple ways to beat it, including unique skill trees, items, and different pathways. Every approach to get through is valid, as long as you make it to the end. But, due to the challenging nature of the game, players who can’t traditionally hold a controller are unable to play. The debate is if Sekiro developer FromSoftware should include accessibility options for those who need it.
For some reason, some gamers are against that notion. They believe that Sekiro should be played in its “purest” form, that because games are art, the developer’s intention should go untouched. This poses the question: if games require input, and that input is the very thing that makes them differ from other art forms, how does one gauge artist intention? Well, you really can’t.
An artist’s intention may be their reasoning for creating a piece, but once it is out into the world, that intent is assuredly lost. Someone will experience a craft in a different way than “intended.” This isn’t the fault of the creator nor the audience, that’s just how we as humans engage with things. Everything we experience is altered by what has happened to us. One person may absolutely adore snakes, while another is frightened of them due to childhood traumatization. This doesn’t make either one wrong, it is merely two different interpretations.
This notion is doubled when it comes to commercial art, AKA video games. Not only is it impossible for gamers to experience a title precisely the way it was “intended,” but video games aren’t created for that reason. They’re built to be consumed. To be enjoyed by as many as possible. To produce a profit for the company. And to profit, a game must cater to audience taste. To cater, the creator must sacrifice some of their vision, whatever it may be.
Profit is the reason so many games are open-world nowadays, or why every other new title is a battle royale. Developers have a vision. They have something they want to say and to present to the world, but they have to do so in a way that will make them money. Stardew Valley was born because creator ConcernedApe (Eric Barone) was sick of some issues in Harvest Moon and other farming sims, so he made his own that fixed them.
Hell, in the first week after Stardew Valley’s release, the game received four updates from Barone himself. All of these initial tweaks and changes were asked for by the community, and so have the constant content updates since then.
If games are purely “art,” and entirely the vision of the developer, then we wouldn’t get bug fixes or balance changes based on community input. Everything would be exactly as the developer left it, which as we’ve learned from games like Anthem isn’t always a good thing.
There’s also the case of difficulty levels. The very existence of easy, medium, and hard mean that developers alter their vision to cater to a wider audience. Each level will make one players playthrough even more different than another's. This is all to say that there isn’t one “real” experience in commercial art.
Of course, there are some games out there that wholly exist to be art like Journey or Gris. They aren’t made to be sold, they are made purely out of the developer’s desires. However, even then, the audience will form their own interpretations regardless of what the creator “wants them to feel.”
But, in the world of commercial art, the idea that games should be experienced only “as intended” makes zero sense. It’s a defense mechanism, where players who overcome difficult challenges don’t want that effort to be mitigated by someone else who used assistance. Well, guess what? You can still be proud of the way you challenged yourself. Just as someone who played the game differently, with boosts or cheats or accessibility options, can be proud of the way they did it. Developers release their interactive art so others can experience it in their own way. Let’s let them do so, shall we?