Hello everyone. Are you having a good Sunday? I was just beginning to celebrate the cooler temperatures when suddenly my city was struck with another heat wave, so at the very least I hope you’re having a slightly more temperate weekend than me. Welcome to This Week in Videogame Blogging!
The Beginner’s Guide
Discussion on The Beginner’s Guide, from The Stanley Parable co-creator Davey Wreden, has begun to trickle in. I say ‘trickle,’ but really what I have for you here is half of a Critical Compilation already. Whatever you may think of it as a work, this game is catnip for game critics.
WARNING: heavy spoilers follow for this section, including in the selected pullquotes.
Let’s start with Offworld’s Laura Hudson, who had a strong reaction to the game, concluding that it both invites and rebuffs critique:
[I]t’s hard to look too deeply at The Beginner’s Guide for too long without feeling a little self-conscious, because it is built on the sand of semiotic contradictions, and designed to shift beneath your feet. It insists upon being read as a personal story but resists that conclusion; it is intended to provoke analysis and emotional responses, while simultaneously rebuking players for analyzing games too intensely or too personally.
Maybe we’re supposed to conclude that it doesn’t matter, that by digging for the “truth” about Wreden and Coda as either players or critics, we transform ourselves into the same sort of point-missing voyeur “Wreden” reveals himself to be by the end. Or maybe we’re supposed to conclude that saying too much about a game is a way of pinning down the butterfly of art with the needle of analysis, and that something is inevitably violated, or diminished, or lost when we do it. Maybe I’m doing exactly what the game is criticizing simply by asking the question.
Writing on Medium, Amsel von Spreckelsen picked up on this theme as well, but admits he isn’t too fussed about the implications:
I could see the accusation that was being levelled at me, but did not feel that it was any different from the accusation that I would level at myself already. […] I have for a long time now felt complicit in the violence enacted by the viewer on the creator of a work of art. I can neither be, personally, angry or sad at The Beginner’s Guide, even as I can and do love it for what it is because I cannot but see it as yet another morsel in an endless stream of creations that I will cannibalise as I have always and will always do. And this is neither a failure or a success on either of our parts, but merely what is and what is between us as we meet at this specific point on our journeys as creator, creation and consumer.
Elsewhere, Heather Alexandra contends that interpreting the game isn’t the problem — it’s in searching for an “objective” truth, attempting to pin down authorial intent as an outsider (video). Kill Screen’s Dan Solberg arrives at a similar conclusion, saying:
Narrator Wreden’s interpretations of Coda’s games are limiting and, at times, reaching, but that’s not where the game leaves us as players. Through Wreden’s subsequent unravelling, we’re clued in to the fact that if there’s any “solution” to Coda’s games, it’s that the nature of art is in constant flux, and that looking for truth in art via intent is likely to reveal more about the one looking for it than the original subject.
Cara Ellison — who first played a build of The Beginner’s Guide in 2014 — suggests that the seductiveness of the ‘lone genius’ narrative plays a large part in how we interpret idiosyncratic games like this:
It’s always about how close we are to the creator that excites us. What is the hype around auteur theory if not the singular thrilling idea that we might be witnessing a genius’ thoughts transmitted directly to us, one of the only people in the world who can truly appreciate that genius? And if that’s not the case, if in fact [Metal Gear lead designer] Hideo Kojima is backed by hundreds of talented brains and most of the brilliant design decisions were made or tempered by other humans, doesn’t it somehow mean that a sole person can be less brilliant, is our shine less bright? Is it disappointing to learn that all that amazing beauty might actually be teamwork? Some people might say yes. I don’t think so, but some people might say yes.
Some critics are less interested in the game’s fiction than its structure. Brendan Keogh, for instance, praises how the game makes the player conscious of their act of playing:
The Beginner’s Guide is a videogame about videogames, then, but not in a cloying you-are-the-monster way or a hey-remember-Mario way. It’s a videogame about the act of engaging with a videogame, both through creation and consumption. It presumes a particular literacy in its audience to recognise certain glitch aesthetics and understand certain things about the Source engine, but this feels less elitist and more assuming the audience’s intelligence. This videogame wants the player to be aware at all times they are exploring, unpacking, and ultimately ruining a videogame work as they trod all over it, and it wants the player to think about what it means to engage with a videogame (what the game engine does, what the player does, what certain mechanics and aesthetic choices do). The Beginner’s Guide is a self-reflective exercise for Wreden, almost definitely. But it is also a self-reflective exercise for the player to think about their relationship with virtual spaces, and with the human beings who craft them.
Some questions have been raised about the game’s authenticity, specifically whether Coda is a real individual whose work has been (presumably illegally) appropriated. This is a theory advanced by Laura Dale at Oh No! Videogames (podcast), who acknowledges that even if it’s not wholly nonfictional:
If it is a performance art piece that is slightly misleading in how much of it is autobiographical, then it is stunning at being that.
(Dale’s co-host Mat Jones at one point refers to her as a Beginner’s Guide “truther,” a label I personally would love to see more widely adopted.)
Whether the game is a complete fabrication, a real document, or something in between, interactive fiction author Emily Short advises against reading the game as taking the ‘side’ of either of its central figures:
Several reviews have described this game as self-indulgent. Certainly Davey-the-character is portrayed as self-indulgent. But I think The Beginner’s Guide makes the most sense if Davey-the-author is in sympathy with both Davey-the-character and Coda-the-character, exploring the tension between wanting to know and be known, and wanting security and privacy; needing validation, and fearing exposure; wanting to productive and visible, and feeling that the creative wellspring has dried up.
As if to encapsulate all this discussion — though he technically does this during an aside discussing his own work — Bruno Dias arrives at another salient point about interpreting the game: “The smokescreen is as true and important as the feelings it’s supposed to conceal.”
Back over at Offworld, Sidney Fussell points out that if videogames can manage to reboot Lara Croft beyond her male gaze roots, why have depictions of black men gone virtually unchanged in the past 20 years?
At Kill Screen, Will Partin takes to task Introversion Software’s Prison Architect, concluding that while it is engaging enough as a game, it utterly fails as either simulation of or commentary upon its subject matter:
Every simulation, of course, is a simplification of the real-world system it models. The issue with Prison Architect is not that it fails to represent every aspect of prisons’ complexity, but that the aspects it omits are among the most important for understanding why and how mass incarceration is the way it is. Perhaps this makes for a better game, but it’s ludicrous to pretend that it makes for a worthwhile study of the 21st century American prison, which has much more to do with decades of punishing state and federal policies on incarceration than the variety of meals inmates are offered.
In a Polygon guest piece, Laura Dale brings to readers’ attention that Oryx, from Destiny‘s The Taken King expansion, is implied to be transgender:
On the one hand you could argue that Oryx is a transgender man who isn’t defined by his gender transition. The fact he used to use different pronouns and lived under a different name is such a non-issue that it’s never used unnecessarily as a plot point. […]
On the other hand, the reason that he’s not defined by his gender and that people have not made a big fuss about it is largely because nobody knows it’s in the game. By including this as one footnote in a lengthy set of collectable lore outside of the game itself, [developer Bungie] are able to on paper state that they made a huge move for visible, high profile transgender representation, without actually having to face most of the risks associated with doing so.
While suggesting that there is merit to a character’s queerness not being a foregrounded part of their characterization, Todd Harper wonders if calling out these “subtler” representations is necessarily always useful. “What does an argument over Oryx’s ‘legitimacy’ as a trans character get us,” he asks, “other than a way for lots of non-trans folks to voice their opinions about what a ‘real’ trans person is?”
At Gamasutra, Dan Chamberlain looks back upon the homebrew community which built up around the Net Yaroze, one of the first publicly-available devkits. And at USGamer, Kat Bailey provides a feature on ex-pat developers living and working in the Japanese independent games industry.
Writing for his Game Design Advance blog, educator Frank Lantz shares some words of praise for Serpentes, a variant of the classic Snake with some notable changes to the formula:
Most action games involve a process where, over time, you internalize the behavior of the game’s objects, how they move and interact. It’s like you are learning a language, learning to associate the game’s visual iconography with the underlying properties of the objects in the world. Guns do damage, keys open doors, skeletons are weak to magic, cassette tapes contain new wave songs. Playing a game means learning this language, the game’s semiotic system, and then using it to assemble larger ideas and meanings.
In Serpentes this process is short-circuited. Instead of the solid, one-to-one relationship between symbol and meaning that we are used to, we have a chaotic system that circulates between a handful of symbols and a collection of properties that are endlessly re-assembled into new clusters. Instead of the familiar experience of repeated play in which the gameworld’s grammar is burned deeper and deeper into our neural pathways, we find ourselves perpetually occupying the beginner’s mind, thrown into a brand new world and struggling to learn its logic.
Meanwhile, fellow educator and developer Robert Yang — who has become well known for publishing extensive design articles on each of his games — contends that games exist in a cultural economy where playing is only one vector for engagement:
To “consume” a game, it is no longer necessary to play it. Rather, the most important thing about a game is that it exists, because that means you can think about it. (Or maybe, games don’t even have to exist? Consider the endless press previews and unreleased games that engross so many people. These are purely hypothetical games that are often better than playing the actual finished product.)
The concept, and your explanation of that concept, and your audience’s understanding of that concept, is your game.
A few joyful links to round out the week. First, Omar Elaasar has drawn up a cool primer on the many variations of shmups and bullet hell genres.
Next, the latest issue of Five out of Ten is out, featuring articles by Jake Muncy and Carly Smith among others. Did you know FooT has a Patreon you can support too?
And finally, if you’re in the mood for some things to watch, head on over to Hyrule Hyrulia, a new Youtube channel with developer interviews and critical Let’s Plays!
All Ashore Who’s Going Ashore
Thank you for reading! Have an article, video, podcast or other neat web thing you think would look good on these pages? Send us a link! You can reach us by email or by mentioning us on Twitter!
This week we rolled out our Resources for Writers page, a listing of games-specific and games-inclusive publications which welcome unsolicited submissions. Have a site you want to see added to this roster? Drop us a line!
There is still plenty of time to get involved in October’s Blogs of the Round Table prompt — “Leadership” — and if you missed Lindsey’s most recent This Month in Let’s Plays compilation, now’s the time to get caught up!
Critical Distance is proud to be completely funded by readers like you! If you enjoy our features, consider pledging a small monthly donation on Patreon or Recurrency!