July 18, 2012

Great Expectations and the Enigma of Intent

Let us begin with a question.

What role do our expectations and our perception of the creator’s intent play in our interpretation, enjoyment, and critique of a creative work?

This question can of course apply to all forms of media, but in terms of boardgames I’m trying to be more conscious and aware of my expectations as well as give more consideration to what I think the game’s “intent” is. By intent, I mean the kind of experience the game was designed to achieve.

A tendril I see swirling about a number of the critical discussions here on BGG and elsewhere is that “can’t we all just enjoy the games, who cares if it is bad/wrong/under-developed, if you had fun that’s all that matters!”

An analogy might be helpful to explain my position. I like a wide variety of movies. I think B-movies can be great fun and I can derive a high level of enjoyment out of a B-movie. Why is this? My expectations of any given B-movie are generally not very high as I sit down to watch. Given the low level of initial expectations, it is quite easy to be entertained and as the curtain drops, say “whow, that was great fun!”

But what forms my initially low expectations? On one hand it can be the blathering of my friends saying “Oooo, you’ve got to watch this ‘terrible’ movie, ZOMG!” Since I know my friends quite well, I can interpret their message, which is more accurately saying “This movie is a crappy B-movie, but if you grab a few cold-ones and do the mystery science theatre 3000-thing you should have a good time.”

In the absence of a known voice helping to frame my expectations, there is also the “intent” that the movie projects about itself directly. This intent is conveyed through all the marketing materials fumigating around the movie; the posters, the previews, the box, the Bruce Campbell cutouts, and so on. And from this milieu of marketing material our brain forms some understanding about what the movie is trying to do. It’s about Bruce Campbell chain-sawing skeletons in the dark ages. Yeah!

But here is why I think intent is important. Intent helps frame a game and define the barometer (so to speak) of how it ought to be evaluated. By understanding intent, we can make meaningful and insightful comparisons between games (or movies) that are trying to achieve a similar experience. Army of Darkness and Doctor Zhivago have very different intentions, and one can’t really compare the same movies “fairly” using the same rubric. I can compare the merits of Lake Placid 2 and Frankenfish a lot easier however, as they both are intending to provide the same off-the-wall experience about giant water-creatures eating people. I happen to like Frankenfish more as it were.

When we have an adverse reaction to something, movie, game or otherwise, I find it is often because:

#1 our expectations were misaligned, or;

#2 the game did not deliver on its intent as interpreted by the user

#1 is reasonable enough. Things get built up by hype or an outpouring of recommendations from other sources (that may or may not share your same preferences). You eagerly sit down to play the game and it fails, not because anything is wrong with the game, but because it doesn’t meet your inflated expectations. The reverse can happen too, with a game you didn’t think you’d enjoy or like soliciting a much more favorable reaction.

#2 is more complicated. Here is where we think the game is all about X, which we really like. But when we sit down to play it, it in fact does Y; which is outside of our preference zone OR different from the intent. It could be that there was simply a communication error in our comprehension of the intent and we expected one thing and got something else. Or it could be that the intent was clear enough but the game simply failed to deliver on its intentions (is there "Uber-Strategy" in Quarriors?).

"Give us examples!" you demand...

I recently watched Prometheus (the new Ridley Scott Alien prequel). Given the director’s prior movies (which I generally quite like for their blending of intelligence and explosions) and what I saw in the previews, I was reasonably excited to see the movie (moderately high expectations). My impression was that the movie was intending to explore the backstory in the Alien’s mythos, and obviously present a case for the origin of man (agree with it or not), while providing a well-thought out and suspenseful movie.

Unfortunately it was a double-whammy of failure of for me. I didn’t find the movie enjoyable from an expectations standpoint (I blame the hype and the fact that I “didn’t” listen to my friends about it). It simply didn’t grab me the way nearly every other Alien movie has. And I also thought it failed from a intent standpoint. It answered/resolved very few questions in the mythos, did not deliver either the slapstick, kick-butt style of Aliens (different director I know) nor the carefully tempo’d intelligent suspense of the original Alien. Was this movie out of my preference zone? No, it should have been right it in. I think it was a case of the movie trying to do too much (too many intentions!) and ending up not really doing anything well. Not to mention the characters' behaviors were absurdly stupid for anything other than a B-movie, which I do not think this movie was intending to be. (This concluded my mini Prometheus review).

As a gaming example, bought Stone Age last Christmas, and have played it a few times. My understanding of the game’s intent was that it is a medium/light weight euro game with a variety of strategies to explore, quick playtime, and it all hinged on die-rolling and worker placement. It all sounded great. My expectations were pretty neutral on this one (frankly I didn’t quite know what to expect!).

After playing a few games now, I think Stone Age did an admirable job delivering on its intent. Almost too well. In fact there were almost no moments of surprise or delight to be found, because the game delivered so well on its intentions. But Stone Age is increasingly looking like a failure for me. Why? Not because it is a bad game; it is a great game measured against what it sets out to do. Rather, it is because I’ve realized that I don’t really like games that are intending to do the kinds of things Stone Age is trying to do (low conflict, worker placement, low/medium complexity, etc.). As a reviewer, I’d have no hesitation about suggesting the game to someone looking for this kind of experience, but for me personally, it isn’t a good fit.

To answer the original question, I think our expectations and perception of intent play a pivotal role in our enjoyment and critique of games. However, these are distinct dimensions and a good critic/reviewer/commentator/analyst/etc. will do a dilligent job of separating out the role these factors play in forming their opinions.

“Enjoyment” is a personal thing, based upon an individual’s preferences and tolerances for the things that give them pleasure/fun. Enjoyment has to do with the alignment of preference given a sucessful delivery of intent. The vast majority of review consumers would do well to find those with shared preferences and follow those reviews more closely.

For the critique of games, one should be able to put their own personal enjoyments aside, and assess whether the game lives up to its intent or not. It requires scrutinizing the game’s intent (maybe doing some homework!) and diligently exploring how the gameplay met, exceeded, or failed in light of those intentions.

Such a critique may not tell you if you are going to like the game, but it will probably provide deeper insight into the game’s successes and failures in relation to other games with comparable intentions.

What about you? How do your expectations or perception of intent frame the reactions you have to the games you like or dislike? Does this separation of expectation and intent make matters clearer or further muddy the water? The phones are open!

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