Tuesday, October 13, 2015

24 Theses on The Beginner's Guide

A suggestion: aside from the obvious way of reading, these theses may be read as three separate essays. The top of each section as one, the middle as another, and the bottom as the third (so, e.g., thesis seven follows from thesis four follows from thesis one; nine follows from six follows from three). This is not mimetic.

  1. Everything worth attending to in The Beginner's Guide is handled better in Problem Attic.

  2. Complicity is a hollow eggshell. A thin protective layer around a pocket of air.

  3. My Let's Play.

  4. * * * * *

  5. Cara Ellison names Return of the Sunfish and How Do You Do It? and Twine and Kojima; Brendan Keogh names Papers, Please and This War of Mine and Alien Isolation; Kris Ligman names Braid; Jed Pressgrove names Off-Peak; Emily Short names The Magic Circle and Anna Anthropy and Stephen Lavelle (Increpare) and Michael Brough and Pippin Barr and Robert Yang and Porpentine and Tale of Tales; Austin Walker names Counter-Strike and Mario Maker; Carolyn Michelle names Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Inquisition; Tyler Wilde names Her Story; Hayden Dingman names Ken Levine and Sid Meier and Tim Schafer and Cliff Bleszinski; Bob Mackey names Sunset and Undertale; Christopher Byrd names The Old City: Leviathan; Cameron Kunzelman names Kitty Horrorshow and Brendon Chung; Jeffrey Matulef names Journey and Rez and El-Shaddai. In no sense is this exhaustive.

  6. The pocket of air the eggshell protects is the flimsy, worthless theorization that bubbles up words like "immersion" and "interactivity."

  7. I call (3) a critical Let's Play because I made it in conversation with criticism surrounding The Beginner's Guide, and because it owes its existence to the work being done in the field by folks like Lana Polansky, Heather Alexandra, Liz Ryerson, and Zolani Stewart. The main difference being that the bulk of critical Let's Play work is done by adding the creator's voice to provide context and interpretation, whereas my own is an attempt of removing a voice or two to provide the same.

  8. * * * * *

  9. 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.

  10. I am using "complicity" in this context as an affect, a reaction to primarily narrative elements that is written onto the body. That the narrative elements are primary does not mean they are foundational, however; the fundamental experience of complicity in this sense is tied to an understanding of the medium of videogames as one that privileges interactivity.

  11. The initial point is, ultimately, so obvious as to be dubiously useful. The first video begins with my own navigation of the start menu. I set up the gamepad that I will use for the bulk of the play; I then go into the Audio submenu, and use the given option to turn off the Narration. This element, which is absolutely central to every single interpretation of the game so far, also happens to be an optional element.

  12. * * * * *

  13. Kris Ligman's reading of The Beginner's Guide's similarities to Braid evokes Ryerson's postmortem of Problem Attic, "The Other Side of Braid." Ryerson writes (in the third person): "If Braid was from the perspective of a white man with a lot of power and resources, her game, Problem Attic, was supposed to be from the perspective of a protagonist with no power, with very little ability to escape or make sense of their situation."

  14. The privileging of interactivity is productive of affects other than complicity, of course. Frustration, triumph and boredom stand at the center. Reflection and disassociation. Complicity is unique only insofar as it is the affect that is just as tied to formal properties, but requires that it be narrativized to be explicitly enacted.

  15. Playing The Beginner's Guide without narration brings about few surprises. The curation frame is more limited, but still obviously present in the intertitle cards/loading screens; any time the narrator would offer to do something, it no longer happens, but other 'changes' remain intact. You must crawl up the stairs and wait in the prison, but the lampposts are still where they were and the housekeeping still ends when it did.

  16. * * * * *

  17. Criticism of The Beginner's Guide occasionally takes an aside to note that certain aspects of the game, and specifically its reception, benefit from material privileges in both broad and narrow social senses. This is not an aside.

  18. Interactivity is already a constellation of ideas and practices. Quoting Brendan Keogh quoting Espen Aarseth: "[Aarseth] notes that 'interactive' is a weasel word that 'connotes various vague ideas of computer screens, user freedom, and personalized media, while denoting nothing… To declare a system interactive is to endorse it with a magic power.'"

    In a more generous reading, interactivity is shorthand for these things, alongside manual dexterity and skill, granted and stolen powers of expression and obedience, a certain influence over the universal temporality of a text, and a(n ideological) real material influence that is mostly seen in cultural reflections like mod scenes. In short, complicity.

  19. The one real surprise, though, was that the narrator's ending of Whisper was excised entirely; the player does not experience the "death" animation in the beam; only the floating.

  20. * * * * *

  21. Problem Attic feels, at times, uncomfortably mimetic of precisely the privileging of interactivity. There is a constant sliding back towards a reading of the game that centers its ludothematic harmony; how its punishing mechanics are extensions of or reflections on its difficult themes. This isn't untrue of the game, but it also largely does not matter, except insofar as that argument might be a rhetorical tool to bring the game into conversations that require their interactive shibboleth for entry.

  22. Despite its synthetic qualities – what one might decide is its unique polyvocality, if one were being incredibly generous – interactivity is largely a useless rubric in thinking about, playing, or otherwise doing anything with videogames. It erases approaches to them as texts, per Keogh, and as situated within history equally.

  23. The implication of this lacking animation is fairly obvious: by turning the narrator off, the experience of playing The Beginner's Guide is significantly closer, if not totally identical, to the "original" games created.

  24. * * * * *

  25. Jed Pressgrove castigates The Beginner's Guide as being "a sob-story expansion of [Mattie] Brice's 'Death of the Player' essay," while a number of other critics reach for their Barthes. Strangely, none bring up Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation," which seems particularly appropriate. According to Sontag, "[t]he interpreter says, Look, don’t you see that X is really - or, really means - A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C?" The Beginner's Guide's narrator is a masterclass in this particular style. Didn't you know that prisons mean depression? That machines mean depression? That questions mean depression? The game's dramatic irony is that it is flipped onto his character, of course, in the end; the interpreter forgot to know thyself, and in doing so committed some reprehensible acts. The historical conditions that Sontag identified have finally been personified, in a nicely metatextual videogame.

  26. Interactivity distills all potential affect down to the feeling that an argument has been lost.

  27. Which itself does little more than to shuffle the narrative pieces. Perhaps Coda's accusation that the narrator kept inserting lampposts wasn't literal, but was in accordance with the reading the narrator had given of them to begin with. Coda, in other words, might not have been referring to the in-game objects, but to interpretation as such, per (19).

  28. * * * * *

  29. The impulse that drives (16) is interpretive. Which is to say: despite interactivity's erasures, it is no more against interpretation than the conspiracist. The validity of (1) rests not within metaphor, but execution.

  30. The Bioshocks and the Spec Ops' didn't suck out the yolk; they simply pointed to the shell.

  31. "The only way to win is to stop playing" is only because interactivity is feeling complicit.

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