More Canon, Less Canonical (Part I)

Two visions of Hamlet‘s mousetrap: Daniel Maclise’s painting The Play Scene in ‘Hamlet’ (exhibited 1842) and a 2014 student production which reimagined the “play within a play” as an avant garde performance art piece with live video projection
(Sources: The Tate Museum, daggermoor.com)

In the realm of video game fandom, the word “canon” gets used (and misspelled) with some frequency. Often it is in the context of fan speculation over whether a story told in another medium (e.g. the Dragon Age comics), or a crossover event with another game (e.g. the NieR raids in Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers), is “canon” or not. On message boards or in fanfic, players might discuss their own personal “headcanon”: a story they came up with to fill in a blank in the story, or to explain an inconsistency within a game or between games in a series, but which doesn’t violate official canon.

In both of these examples the word “canon” is being used in the sense of canonical: official, authoritative, and approved. But I would like to discuss the slightly different way in which the idea of “the canon” is used in theater and opera (and other live performance art forms), and how that approach to the idea of a canon of past works might be applied to video games and video game IPs.

The Canon and the Archive

The fine arts can be thought of as either utilizing the canon or the archive. The archive contains works which are complete unto themselves. They can be sealed up and stored away, then pulled out to be enjoyed in their same, never-changing state. Our own perspective on those works may change (in fact, always does change) but the work itself can be said to be in the same state as when the artist declared it finished.

In contrast, the canon holds works that need to be reinterpreted or re-presented in order to be viewed or experienced fully.1 For this reason the canon-based art forms can be said to exist in a “perpetual now”: regardless of when they were originally created, they must always be re-created for the time and place in which they are being viewed. The choices made in presenting for the here-and-now help us see how we are positioned relative to the time and place of original composition.

Sol LeWitt, Proposal for Wall Drawing, Information Show (MoMA, 1970)
Source: IMAGE OBJECT TEXT

Theater, opera, dance, even some standup comedy all belong to the canon, as do most other art forms that use “liveness” and audience interactions to complete the work. Novels and film and television belong to the archive, as do most paintings, drawings, and sculpture.

Museums and libraries are the traditional institutions of the archive; performance venues, those of the canon. But there have always been exceptions: a fresco cartoon by Tiepolo clearly exists in the archive, while a wall drawing by Sol LeWitt arguably actually belongs to the canon (since it primarily exists as a set of instructions for its own creation2).

These institutional boundaries have been blurring and blending even further: for the last 50 years museums have increasingly played host to live, interactive work—not just performance art (which is generally canon-based) but also experimental theater and dance. Just this past year, access to increasingly sophisticated video documentation for live performances, coupled with COVID-era restrictions on public gathering, led to an explosion of theater, dance, and music performances that have to be considered archival, as they were often prerecorded, asynchronous, and perfectly replicable.

Enter the Canon

I should be clear that a play or opera does not get “canonized” in the same manner as a saint. There is no established process of petition, no set of tests providing proof of merit, and no Devil’s Advocate appointed to argue against inclusion3. Rather, entering the theatrical canon is a mushy, fungible thing. As with defining “What is pornography?”, when pressed as to “What qualifies a work as being in the canon?” the only consensus amongst theater artists and scholars is that “they know it when they see it.”

I also want to mention that, in all canon-based art forms I can think of, reimagined presentations of works from the canon coexist alongside completely new pieces of theater, dance, and yes even opera. There is something particularly exciting about this juxtaposition of new and old—or rather, new and new-take-on-old. I think it makes everyone be more honest about what they are doing and why: What does my new play bring to the cultural conversation that couldn’t be accomplished by revisiting and reimagining a classic text? Or: Why am I radically reworking this dance piece from 40 years ago instead of choreographing a whole new work? What am I hoping to accomplish by engaging in this way with the canon?

When I look back over the many plays that premiered during my working lifetime in the theater (~1996 onwards) I would guess there are just a handful of plays which are likely to “enter the canon”—and even then I’m not sure I would put my money on any of them. The musical Rent seems like a good candidate.4 I think Tony Kushner’s magnum opus Angels in America is an even better contender, but it predates my entry into the theater workforce by several years.

I think that, for theater, 25 years may be too short a time to determine whether a dramatic work has crossed that line into the canon. Video games, however, are a different beast.

Video games as a canon-based artform

Video games exist in the “eternal now” just as theater does, for almost all the same reasons: video games are a form of live performance, are therefore ephemeral and must be re-presented and re-performed each time they are experienced. A person who played Final Fantasy VII on their PlayStation in 1997, at the age of 12, will never be able to recreate that experience. But why is this the case? And how is the experience with FFVII different from, say, watching Luc Besson’s film The Fifth Element when originally released (also in 1997) and then seeing it again 23 years later during COVID-19 quarantine?

Three likely candidates to explain the inability to recreate our initial playthrough of a game:

  1. The second viewing or playthrough will always be different from the first because we will have the memory of our first experience of the work influencing our second viewing.
  2. There is a big difference between being 12 years old and being 35; as we age we become different people whose cumulative life experiences will have shaped how we take in, process, and respond to the work in question
  3. The time period of the experiences is another possible factor: 1997 creates one context around that initial encounter, and 2020 creates a very different one

All three of these are certainly factors at play in the uniqueness of each playthrough of a game; but the same would be true when experiencing any work of art or entertainment. Our memories of our initial encounter with a work; being of a different age with different cumulative life experiences; and shifts in the overarching context of the time and place of viewing will affect a second viewing whether it’s a video game, film, book, or play.

Many gamers (especially those of us who have seen a huge amount of technological change in video games over our lifetimes) might argue that different gaming platforms and technologies are to blame for the inability to replicate our original experiences. To be sure, there is a huge difference between playing the original FFVII on a PS1 versus playing it years later on a PS4 or Switch. The size of the screen (in 1997 the average TV screen size was 20″; in 2020 it’s 49″), the game’s graphical resolution (latter-day remasters often upscale the graphics and texture for modern screens), the physical relationship we have to both controller and screen (20″ CRT vs. 50″ wall-mounted flatscreen vs. handheld with hi-resolution screen), and how the game relates to a player’s expectations based on the norms of the time would all be significant factors affecting our experience both then and now.

But once again we can see all of those things happening in archive-based mediums like film and music as well. We may have originally watched Besson’s film in the movie theater (which in 1997 that would have been non-digital projection) while in 2020 we could be seeing it on our 50″ flatscreen (perhaps after having just replayed FFVII) or on a laptop, tablet, or phone. Regardless, that digital 2020 version has almost certainly had its video and audio remastered just like a reissued video game. And each of those viewing situations creates a very different physical relationship to the screen and the entertainment/artistic experience displayed on it.

The difference between the film and the video game is the interactivity, the way in which our decisions as the player help to create the story and shape our own overall experience. That interactivity means that all of the things we discussed before—our memories of the game, our life experience, the context of time and place, our physical relationship to and interactions with the platform—create for the player tangibly different versions of the game itself with each playthrough. This isn’t just about catching new details and seeing the foreshadowing we missed on the first time through. Yes, that happens in video games too, of course; but our prior knowledge and changed contexts actually affect the playing experience and outcome of the game, as well.

We are able to do things on a second or third playthrough that would be nigh impossible to execute the first time—and perhaps can only be fully appreciated after multiple playthroughs, anyway. A slightly different decision can cause you to experience the story in a different sequence, or acquire  information which changes your perspective on a friend or foe. A seemingly innocuous dialogue choice might cause you to simply not experience a whole swathes of the tale, or acquire background story and lore that would otherwise be missed. (Bioware is a master at creating these kinds of choice-driven multiple narratives.) As familiarity with the game’s story and mechanics grows, the player gains more and more power to author their own experience of the game5. You can’t do that with The Fifth Element streamed on Netflix to your iPad while soaking in the tub!

Interactivity is not categorically a “good” thing; it isn’t categorically “bad” either. It’s just a tool; an aspect of the medium which can be a help or a hindrance depending on the situation and how it is used. The ability to affect gameplay and narrative on a replay allows developers to create layers of content that can only be peeled back and revealed on second, third, or more viewings. 

Our ability to tailor a playthrough to their interests can enrich the experience of a game, but it can also lead players—intentionally or not—to skip over content they don’t think will interest them, creating an experiential echo chamber. Players have the option of curtailing the potential breadth and variety of a game by obstinately re-experiencing it in exactly the same way, with no exploration of alternative behavior, solutions, or endings. Interactivity is a double-edged sword, but it is one that is central to the medium of video games—and a large part of why we love it!

In Part II I’ll look at 2020’s Final Fantasy VII Remake as an exemplar of video games as a canon-based art form, and a model for how video game creators might revisit the classics of the medium by creating new interpretations for the “perpetual now” of the future.


1 It is important to make a distinction between experiencing a work “fully”or “as intended” versus other kinds of experience of the work which may still have validity. A playscript can be treated as just a text and then read as literature; a recording of an opera can be enjoyed simply as music.

2 If you are ever in northwestern Massachusetts please consider visiting the Massachusetts Museum of Modern Art (MASS MoCA) to experience their building-sized installation of Sol LeWitt wall drawings.

3 Actually, maybe there is an equivalence to that last one: theater critics.

4 Rent, interestingly, occupies that great space in-between “canon” and “new work”, being a surprisingly faithful rendition of the story of Puccini’s opera La Bohème (hard to think of anything more canonical) but with almost every word and note made anew. I say “almost” because of the many easter eggs and callouts to the original opera which Larson put in his book and score: the title “Rent” is itself the first word uttered by landlord Benoit (“Benny” in Rent) in Act I. The guitar riff Roger (Rodolfo) is haunted by in none other than the chorus of “Muzetta’s Waltz” from the end of Act II—a fact that Mark (Marcello) call him out on, in a winking fit of metatheatrical sarcasm.

5 Think of those YouTube speed runs, where a player uses their in-depth knowledge—not just of a game’s plot, maps, and mechanics but also its bugs and glitches—to finish a game like Morrowind in 3 minutes 2 seconds (average playtime, all-styles: 127 hours)

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