I debated on whether to post this or not. But here it is.
The Beginner’s Guide is the follow-up to The Stanley Parable, a brilliant game by Davey Wreden that I just adored. It was a hilarious walk through a nonsense narrative, which was laid over a wickedly clever examination and commentary on video game design and plot structure.
Before I go any further I want to make a request: go play The Beginner’s Guide, then come back. You don’t have to, I’m not going to explicitly spoil it either way. But I’m going to talk about what it made me think about and how it made me feel, and I wouldn’t want my impressions to affect yours. You should have your own experience.
The Beginner’s Guide did the same thing to me that The Stanley Parable did, at least at first. It made me think about game design. Intentional or not, it encouraged me to think about how games are made and what we’ve come to expect from them. It especially made me reflect on how games made by smaller teams and individuals tend to break these conventions and rules.
But there was also this little undercurrent to these thoughts, a feeling of regret. See, I have a degree in video games, I also went to college for it. As a teenager I used to make games for fun, I’ve never shown anyone any games I’ve made.
The Beginner’s Guide is essentially a collection of small games from the same person. The more I played the more the thoughts of my own little games danced in the back of my mind. What would my games say about me? Not just games, but all the things I’ve made that I never intended to show anyone. My animations and 3D models, the stories I’ve written, videos I’ve made, even the podcasts I’ve recorded but will never be listened to. If you put them all together in a package what would it say when played together?
Would people get a snapshot of how I felt at the time? What I was dealing with? What I was hiding? Would any of it trickle through at all?
Would people be able to tell that I fear failure? The real reason I don’t release the majority of my stuff online, even just writing intended for this blog, is because I feel pressure to make them worthy of consumption. A standard I often think I fail to reach. Maybe that’s a simple, common and obvious enough worry that it would come across in a hypothetical toybox of my little creations.
Or… perhaps people would fill that collection with their own meaning. Would they pull from their own experiences, anxieties and history to invent what they think they know about me? I think we like to distil people down to simple ideas and concepts, ignoring that we’re all… well, kind of a mess. We’re all filled with fears, worries, anxieties and secrets. It’s what makes us human. But we don’t project these things. Instead it’s encouraged to project an image of flippancy. Being blasé is “cool” and desirable. But art is different, we expect someone’s art to be personal and have a level of truth to it. Whether that art be a comic, a piece of music, a poem or even a video game. It’s an insight into someone’s mind, something deeply personal… but is it really? Perhaps we just want it to be…
I’m reminded of a quote I used in my dissertation last year, something that has stuck with me since:
‘The poem is not the critic’s own and not the author’s (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The poem belongs to the public’ – Wimsatt and Beardsley (1982)
Intentional or not, I like what my initial interpretation of the quote was: that the intention of art is irrelevant to the consumer, the creator can’t, and shouldn’t, control the meaning of their work*. Each fan will create their own meanings and interpretations from their chosen fan text. We can see this from people discussing how special a certain song is to them, which may have reflected a time in their life, to fans simply arguing about which characters should be romantically involved in a particular piece of fiction. If the author emerges and decrees that a particular fan pairing is untrue, does it matter if a certain set of fans read the text that way? What does it say about the relationship between the art, the consumer and the creator? I see no harm in innocently interpreting a text in ways the creator didn’t intend. Or at least, I didn’t until I played The Beginner’s Guide, now I’m a little more wary.
What if fans use the art to draw conclusions about the creator? I’ve seen this in lots of media, even music. For instance, Virtual XI is a grim album by Iron Maiden standards. I’ve spoken to fans who have interpreted this as being a reflection of songwriter Steve Harris’ emotional state at the time. True or not, is this fair for us as consumers to ponder on? I don’t know. I don’t know Steve Harris at all and I’ve never read if he has or has not elaborated about the tone of the album, therefore if I draw the conclusion based purely on the music and a small piece of information is that really right of me to do? Am I just projecting an expectation and idea onto him in an effort to create a false sense of connection and understanding? Perhaps I just want to read the album this way because it makes him seem more human, it gives me access to a vulnerable part of him that allows me to feel some sort of relation to him.
Turner (1996) writes that media consumers interpret texts in a personal manner, regardless of intention, that consumers will draw parallels to their own life. This could be extended to include interpretations of the creator. For instance, someone struggling with their sexuality may recognise signs of it in someone’s work, even if those “signs” are coincidental and intended to mean something else entirely, or simply mean nothing at all. On the surface this may seem like an innocent and harmless mistake to make.
However, I’m reminded of the Lord of the Rings fans who passionately believed that certain actors were actually in a relationship together, by piecing together “clues” which in reality meant nothing (Romano, 2012). This may seem silly and even amusing but there’s certainly a darker underside to this. The fans in this instance are essentially telling the person that they unequivocally know something very personal and secret about that actor’s life… but it’s not true. Which conjures a more sinister situation where one person is claiming to have a connection to them via secret information, when in actuality they do not know them at all, not only do they lack an actual connection to them, they are claiming one based on a fallacy.
Returning to my previous example, what if someone consumed the hypothetical collection of my creations, enjoyed them and then came up with wildly incorrect assumptions about me, seeing themes and ideas that were not intended and did not reflect any actual truth about me. They may now think they understand me and have been given a personal and touching look at my personal thoughts. But in actuality they would know nothing about me. Like the Lord of the Rings fans, what if they took this further and began to pressure me to reveal these “truths” which do not exist, seeing my refusal as a coverup or lies to hide the personal truth they had apparently uncovered. All of a sudden the idea of a fan interpretation seems potentially perverse and invasive.
*The irony isn’t lost on me that I may be interpreting this quote differently than the creator intended.
Why the hell am I talking about all this? Because these are the types of themes that The Beginner’s Guide deals with. By creating an experience where you wander around as a tourist in someone else’s art, the game introduces a lot of themes, some subtle and some obvious, and it’s impossible not to reflect on them.
The more I sit here and think about the game, the more things click. Explanations from the very start of the game, that seemed interesting or insightful, suddenly have their meaning flipped into something darker and more complex. Even the first level has an entirely different meaning once you’ve seen the full experience.
The game is not an explicit one in terms of how it handles its subject matter. What seems solid and simple at first becomes more vague and questionable as time progresses. I’m sure in the days to come people will offer up different interpretations to my own. Whether Davey Wreden himself will step in and elaborate or leave things ambiguous (which I would prefer, truth be told) we’ll have to see.
I’m reminded of how when playing the game I couldn’t silence the critic in me, the part of me that wanted a definitive answer, to have a conclusion to draw my opinion from. I was mentally making notes, wanting to catalogue my ideas and feelings for the eventual written review. In doing so I noticed certain patterns and began linking them together, thinking I might have stumbled across certain revelations that were coming later. Instead upon finishing the game I found myself wondering what those things say about me. Perhaps I only noticed those things and drew those conclusions because I wanted to, because I wanted the truth to reflect something familiar to me. Just like Turner (1996) suggests, I felt like I had been drawling links to my own experiences, wanting to see things in relation to my own life. Reflecting on that makes me further question why I was perhaps fishing for that answer and whether that was a dangerous and selfish thing of me to do, even though I wasn’t even consciously doing it.
Am I overthinking things? Maybe. But this is the state the game has put me in. I’m writing this at 2AM, intent on finishing this draft before I go to sleep and risk losing these lingering thoughts and ideas. If you’re looking for an endorsement and a clear indication that you should get the game, then that was it.
This isn’t a game you play to have fun. It’s a game you play to think and to feel.
Go play The Beginner’s Guide.