The internet has an odd diction, in that words that are perfectly accepted and valuable tools of communication in real world speak, are very difficult to use online without starting a flame war. Chief among these is “feminism” but a little lower down the list is “objectivity” which, the internet tells me, is sorta like Valhalla in that it’s theoretically nice but if you believe you can achieve it then you’re delusional.
I’m thinking of “objectivity” particularly in the context of critique, review, or analysis; more particularly video game reviews. And with it its sister word, subjectivity. The distinction seems to be that, since objectivity is unrealistic when examining art, it’s ultimately the subjective experience that matters. This is a notion that I myself do get and see the interpretive value in. I mean, I’m pretty damn postmodern when it comes to artistic interpretation.
However, I think in rejecting objectivity as a standard, we run the opposite way too far, and end up at something that, for the purpose of explanation of the value we each, and thus others, should place on a work of art, miss the point of communication, relation, and shared or at least concurrent emotional experiences.
Enough of the pretentiousness. This thought came about, for me, after playing some Life is Strange, specifically, when first entering Chloe’s room. When I looked around the room, I felt the same things I think most people would; Chloe was cool but sad, she simultaneously represented a type of independent maturity and rebellious childishness, and her previous friendship with Max was nostalgic but in that way that makes you feel a little fucked up for how things went to shit. I’m pretty sure is safe to say this is what the creators intended.
But I also felt something different. All at once, I realized Chloe was basically my high school crush; the type of girl who, up until a few years ago, I would have fallen hard for. And that elicited some dormant feelings. This made me think about what’s changed, and what kind of girl I would fall for these days. Probably a much more stable one, but is that a product of what I really want romantically, or just an admission that I have aspirations beyond getting laid by a cute punk chick now, and that other things are more important than dealing with a complicated person? Have I truly grown up, or have I just compromised? Who am I now compared to back then, and would I like the person I’ve become? Do I like myself?
That’s some really deep stuff. Also really damn subjective. It’s also not the kind of thing I would put in a professional game review, because I’m pretty sure the vast majority of people wouldn’t get that experience out of the scene.
That’s the thing about art. It affects us on the surface, but its most potent impacts are where it roots down into us, is shaped by our personal psyches and emotional self in personally unique ways, and finds its home somewhere inside where it will contribute to our foundation, such that it in turn comes around to shape us. Often times we won’t even recognize the influence of the art in the part of us it changed the most.
But because that’s so personal, pure subjectivity is not a good basis for review. Instead, I posit that what we really use is universality.
The best critics aren’t the ones who’ve seen every film, played every game, and majored in English literature. They are the ones who seem to understand people in the broadest and most inclusive way. The ones who understand how something is going to make the average person, or average person of a particular demographic, feel.
Good artists are sort of the same, which is why postmodernism isn’t the only way to view art. Sure you can say the artist’s intentions aren’t in themselves what matters, but generally speaking the art’s intended impact, and the impact on the standard audience, will be pretty similar.
At some level we can understand what other people feel. Maybe not perfectly, the way the Shinji Ikari’s of the world wish we did. But we are not so different as to have no comprehension of other people’s emotional lives. Our subjectivity isn’t all unique. We can talk to each other about happiness, or sadness, or nostalgia, because there’s a universality to those concepts; we all understand them to a fairly similar degree. And when art is able to say something detailed or complex about them, and we all get it, that just shows how deep this shared, universal understanding runs.
So sure, reviews are subjective, but they’re not neurotically subjective. What we’re really doing when talking with others about what we got out of a work of art is testing how universal certain aspects of it are. And reviews provide information about the universal features of the art.
Don’t Lose Your Way