Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Beginner's Guide and Videogame Criticism's Awkward Baby Steps

(obvious spoiler warning)

i didn't want to write about The Beginner's Guide, at least not publicly. while i don't know its creator Davey Wreden extremely well, i have talked to him a bit over the past several years about various life things and generally appreciate his openness with the struggles of being thrust into the realm of indie game celebrity from the success of his previous game The Stanley Parable when he was not at all psychologically prepared for it. in a scene which often privileges social currency above all else, and is filled with many friendships based mostly on utility, it was refreshing to see someone who's in the center of all of this open up about it, at least to some degree. i intended to email him my thoughts on this game because i talked to him about it at GDC last year and i thought that might be better to show my appreciation privately than posting something which may or may not be interpreted as scoring points off him or his work (like pretty much all criticism in the game world these days is or could be misinterpreted by people out there as doing). but then i also think about how i'm maybe affording him a lot of empathy i'm not affording myself enough of, especially now that the game is out there and launched much critical discussion.

while observing the game criticism sphere blow up with thinkpieces on the game a few months ago, i was pretty content to not join, even to respond to Ben Gabriel's piece which referenced many of those pieces while bringing up a parallel between Problem Attic and The Beginner's Guide i hadn't considered while playing it. Gabriel says:

The most obvious connection between Problem Attic and The Beginner's Guide is that the former is "a game about prisons, both real and imaginary" (the creator's description) while The Beginner's Guide is a game about a designer who makes games about prisons (at least some of the time) that are aggressively interpreted at the player as both real and imaginary.

i'm not interested in simply parroting an argument which states my game (Problem Attic) did a better job of conveying certain ideas than Davey's did, but i have to admit this parallel was amusing to me. when our fictionalized narrator version of Davey in The Beginner's Guide says he completely lost track of his fictionalized game-developer friend coda, in coda's very last game Davey presents to us towards the end of Beginner's Guide - an impenetrable, cold, dark, gigantic geometric structure - i thought for the first time that this was something that i might actually want to make. while the Davey of the narration said he felt more alienated than ever, i started to feel for the first time like i got a sense of who coda actually was. for me it hinted at a deeper truth not really observed in the game itself, acknowledging something that Davey was very afraid of. while Davey said he never understood why coda liked to make games about prisons, that topic is something i'm very fascinated with. this allowed me to easily put myself into coda's place.

but it's important here to note that both characters in The Beginner's Guide are easy to project yourself onto (as many out there have done). i also saw myself as much in Davey at times as i did in coda. i have both felt largely misunderstood by a lot of well-meaning but ultimately self-serving people as i have tried so hard to advocate for others' work that i've made it so much more about myself than anything they ever might have wanted me to do for them. both coda and Davey are archetypes -  Davey might be seen to embody a privileged white cis male who is used to seeing his perspective echoed in everything and coda a person without much of this privilege who is trying to challenge the notions Davey builds his foundations on - just as much as they might represent actual people. and so many out there seem to have missed this very basic point.

The Beginner's Guide is a deeply personal game, and the kind of personal distress it captures makes it also seem disinterested in having easy conclusions be made about it. Laura Hudson calls it "a game that doesn't want to be written about". Both Heather Alexandra and Chris Franklin talk in their videos about their difficulty plunging into the nuances of The Beginner's Guide's narrative. carrying on nuanced conversations about a piece of work has been a thorn in the paw of game criticism for years and its extremely rare for something so multi-faceted to have the visibility The Beginner's Guide has had. perhaps this might also explain why one prominent game writer sincerely suggested coda was literally a real person Davey was stealing work from and selling - this writer is part of a larger group of games writers who have not ever been forced to read or consider art beyond its stated intentions before. The Beginner's Guide forces this process on its audience, many of whom are dealing with it for the first time, and for that i appreciate it.

the obvious mistake the Davey of the Beginner's Guide makes, in the game's fated twist, is to try to read a human being's life into a work when he's much better served reading what that work might be trying to communicate more abstractly. in a larger sense, it's also about his failure to see outside his own perspective and bubble of privilege. it's important to note that this doesn't make the kind of analysis he's trying to embark upon completely useless, however, just grossly misinformed in the way he's embarking upon it. Heather Alexandra, in her video, suggests that coda's mod of a Counterstrike map Davey presents to us at the very beginning of the game has no significance as a space and that narrator Davey is stretching by trying to find meaning in it when there's obviously nothing there to comment on. this, i think, is also misinformed - you can look at the space and see the subtle changes made to its Counterstrike shell as an attempt to de-familiarize one with an environment so overly familiar to its audience it's taken for granted. that is the point of public art installations, for example. art still needs interpreters - to disseminate it, to help it be recognized - but not nearly as much as the interpreters need art - often to legitimize themselves as people, their identities, their practice, and their careers. still, Davey's impulse to interpret and explain coda's work is probably a sincere one, even if it's coming from a bad place. while his obsession with the person behind the work dramatizes the grotesque elevation of the individual practiced by Western culture, as celebrity or mystical object or scapegoat - one that is especially relevant in videogames post-Indie Game: The Movie, it's still not altogether completely useless. while critics like Chris Franklin self-deprecatingly acknowledge this is something they've also done before, we can still at least see this impulse to understand the work as some kind of genuine one (even if misinformed).


this brings me back to Ben Gabriel's assertion: "Everything worth attending to in The Beginner's Guide is handled better in Problem Attic". Gabriel argues that while it's true that you can say the nature of Problem Attic's design pushes its player towards understanding its central narrative themes, it also doesn't matter to say this for anything outside conversations where that kind of approach to game design is seen as a valuable marker of quality (embodied by conversations of the past several years around various kinds of "empathy games").

i think it's a good point to ask - is an experience a game provides interesting enough, in itself, outside of it being 'about' something? videogames, more than any other media, are slippery beasts that seem to perpetually confound and subvert the wills of their interpreters. the more that we fuss on what a work is 'about', the more each nuance of the actual experience tends to slip through our fingertips. but that's also not to discount that it's not possible to talk of what a work may be 'about' or represent in some way - it certainly is. but that conversation should happen in a way that's open to a multitude of different interpretations and lenses, and different experiences and perspectives - which discussion around art so rarely is. we must allow ourselves to be open to all potentially contradictory details of an experience if we can really hope to understand the deeper truths that piece of work might represent - not to try to be the carrier of the One True Reading of a work which comes from a place and context we can never hope to know fully. this is what Susan Sontag's essay "Against Interpretation", which Gabriel invokes, rails against. the One True Realities privileged Davey might need to invent in coda's work to feel good about himself break apart to a level of subjectivity and complexity Davey's not capable of making sense of from his position.

The Beginner's Guide, then, maybe represents the discourse around videogames' first awkward baby steps into the realm of taking on complexities in art. it also could represent the more mainstream videogame culture's first foray in trying to actually make sense of their position of privilege.

while this central theme - of a piece of work confounding and subverting the will of its hapless interpreter - is explored in The Beginner's Guide, there's still something missing here that we don't see. the matter-of-fact presentation of coda's Source engine games hide unsettling realities creeping under the surface. coda's games may or may not purport to be struggling with issues of communication and loneliness, but they only do so mostly via surface signifiers. you wander around hazy islands - the islands represent scattered thoughts and lack of confidence according to Davey. you're on the stage of a crowded theater talking to someone who is too anxious to act - then the game bars you away from that theater, Davey says representing social anxiety. you're on a ship that is about to crash and you have to perform the correct series of actions to not die - representing trying to come down from a panic attack, according to Davey.

we might leave all the misunderstanding and misreading up to Davey's narration - but then if we turn off all the narration, as Gabriel suggests, we can see more clearly that these works are mostly one-dimensional and present their ideas in a fairly conventional and marketable package - through slick, professional-feeling 3D structures and textures with little bits of quirk thrown in and standard WASD first-person movement. these games definitely don't seem like the first experiments of a new game designer, but someone who's been hardened by the craft of a particular sort of design practice attempting to branch out a little bit. these works might be a bit novel but largely don't subvert their package very much, merely embody them as confused and contradictory pieces of art that can never completely escape their Source mod shell. in the end they're maybe not bad but also not terribly unique as experiments in themselves, outside of Davey's framing of them.

and then it becomes important to say - not only might coda not represent a real person, but coda might just be a reflection of Davey himself. specifically the aspect of himself that he may not understand - his own pain that he's crudely trying and failing to represent to the best of abilities. his imagining of coda's Source engine constructs seem to reflect the kind of game culture commentary on games that the real Davey addressed in The Stanley Parable, and the culture of the Source engine mods he came out of, much more than decisions made purely for artistic reasons. even the real Davey seemingly can't escape his own perspective. while all of coda's games are presented in a fairly conventionally-polished package, games like those featured in the catamites' 50 Short Games compilation are much more sketchy, hand-drawn, cartoony, abstract, hard to pin down explicit meaning or intent in. the catamites's games, or increpare's games (which i find the most similar to the kinds of games coda is making) challenge players not just with novel approaches to narrative but also in their presentations and framing. the fact that they work on more dimensions makes them harder to talk about than the works in The Beginner's Guide - they often problematize the centering of the mainstream white cis male voice in games much more explicitly, for example - which just adds to the feeling that we're only seeing a more one-dimensional, neutered, still fundamentally unenlightened presentation of those kind of games here.

a friend suggested to me that is possibly why the game is called The Beginner's Guide - it's a more palatable window into taking on the more difficult (but ultimately more rewarding work) of game designers like increpare. but, if so, the game actively contradicts itself by calling into question its own method of analysis by the end, leaving the player to question how effective any of this really was.

The Beginner's Guide says - i tried to make this thing for you and instead i just used it as an excuse to hurt myself. the Davey in the game recognizes this is all really about him in the end and panics, in much the same way real Davey might have upon receiving the criticism that the fictional works of coda seem to have a lot more to do with him than anyone else he might be advocating for. it shows a level of self-awareness that is unusual and maybe admirable, at least for this sort of game - but still leaves us behind feeling unsatisfied, like we don't really know where we've ended up after all of this. while narrator Davey's analysis is self-serving and one-dimensional, his self-destructive freak out at the end of the game is equally as self-serving and one-dimensional. he's still centering himself in coda's story, assuming coda has come to hate him in a way that may or may not be true but probably doesn't represent the full reality of what's really going on behind the surface. so we're left feeling like there's a story there that's never really told, and we're only ever seeing Davey's side. he freaks out when it comes time to acknowledge his position of privilege and lack of perspective without ever taking us away from his world. his freak out feels like just that - a freak out, one that we're left to do the work pick up the pieces from. it's like we still have to comfort Davey, in a way. the wordless ending after all of this is over maybe suggests a possible escape or transcendence outside the bounds of the level - and Davey's own perspective, perhaps into the realms explored in games like Problem Attic or Corrypt, but it's left only as a fleeting thought for those games to address. Davey is not capable of doing that work himself.

i admire The Beginner's Guide in some ways for existing in the context it does - for inspiring the discussion it has - for implicating (at least in some ways) one-dimensional, self-centered criticism of videogames and art in general - and for being a deeply personal work which honestly exposes the anxieties of its creator. but i have to feel like in the end, Davey's freak out leaves him no closer to understanding what's truly wrong about his perspective - or truth of his privilege - or that real answers Davey seeks are contained much more in the other, more radical works i've mentioned - the increpares, catamites, Nathalie Lawheads, the altgames - the ones the ending perhaps points to, the ones that challenge game culture in the way this game fundamentally doesn't. the ones that most game critics are afraid of taking on and trying to make sense of because in the end they might just dismiss the authors, as Davey does so often with coda, as being "depressed". The Beginner's Guide, like most critics, needs those kinds of games much more than it will ever acknowledge - and far more than those kind of games will ever need it.

(as always, this post was made possible by your support on my Patreon. thank you!)