Sin, Apocalypse, Cash: The Beginner’s Guide - part 1
Amongst video game fans and critics alike there seems to be great trepidation about voicing an opinion about The Beginner’s Guide. The impulse seems to be to treat the jolly fun of Davy Wreden’s unexpected smash hit first game The Stanley Parable as a safe vista from which to view the thorny and problematic The Beginner’s Guide. Given the very public torrent of ennui that Wreden expressed at the success of his first game, and how the standard narrative is that his internal struggle with fame led to the creation of The Beginner’s Guide, it is probably expected that most fans look beyond the gates of The Stanley Parable and see the path beyond grow narrow and haunted. After all, as it is told, they should be suspicious, since it is their fandom and love that drove the creator to his future darkness.
While perhaps The Stanley Parable was a bit of good smart fun that skewered the tropes of first person shooter video games with devious Monty Python-like aplomb, players and critics seem to suspect that Beginner’s Guide is akin to one of the many chess openings your overly-clever friend in junior high learned from a musty book and then used to beat you over and over until you found some other friends to play Dungeons & Dragons with. An opening planned from the beginning of Stanley Parable, to trap… beginners.
Aside from the reviews by the video game press which pen the game as, “neurotoxin for critics,” or, “the only way to win is not to play,” the building suspicion that the game is a trap is foregrounded right in the overly ironic name. I mean, why would you trust any sort of “Beginner’s Guide” from the person who made The Stanley Parable, a game that took vast glee in undermining as many of the player’s fundamental expectations as possible?
Based on the conversations I’ve had and articles I’ve read, the assumption seems to be that The Beginner’s Guide is a trap laid with the bait of the broad success of The Stanley Parable. I mean, the date demarcated for the final fictional game presented in Beginner’s Guide is the same date The Stanley Parable was released. How nice and neat is that for any critic or any player?
Like a trap.
But while The Beginner’s Guide certainly feels like a trap there are many other social models we have that we should also use to see if they fit the bluster of The Beginner’s Guide: For instance, magicians who do a card trick with too much setup. Or maybe it’s more like a band that talks too much during their set breaks. Or someone that explains their own joke before telling it. These are all mannerisms designed to hide insecurity and manage expectations.
In the Internet Age, there is a deep tendency to overuse these artistic buffers under aegis of kitsch and irony, but with a misunderstanding of the radical potential of those terms seemingly born of Alanis Morrisette’s classic song and an un-ironic love of Family Guy’s comedy-as-oneupmanship. When you are worried that the audience might not be into your magic/music/art/game, why not adopt an ironic, but ultimately highly defensive tactical shift that effectively moves the conversational point away from the work with a wink-and-a-nudge?
So what is actually going on here with The Beginner’s Guide? Do we have any clues as to if the game is a trap or not; if it is an earnest or ironic trap; if it is a naive or sophisticated trap; if it is intentional or not? How would we determine these parameters; and most critically why does it seem like most of us are predisposed to make a very narrow set of assumptions about these parameters once we have experienced our first playthrough of the game?
If the game is a trap, or even some sort of milder prank, there would have to be some sort of reasonable harm threatened, and at least an outside chance of something foul happening. What kind of trap, if any, are we dealing with here?
The most obvious case for a meta and ironic video game like this would be that we would be tricked into expressing an opinion that would embarrass us with our friends. One similar tactic I’ve seen throughout my life as a music fan is in the guise of the overly-ironic friend that makes up band names and asks people if they have heard of them, pontificating “they’re so great!” with a wink. Nothing like a little emotional shell game to negate some anxiously imagined onslaught of criticism that would come with actually engaging with other people.
But given the overly literal linkage between The Stanley Parable’s release date, the deluge of high-school macho-ist Fight Club versions of suffering artist, and all of the banal slurry of metaphors of creation unleashed at us, it seems like that trap never springs. After all, as I noted earlier, the first question everyone seems to ask in a conversation about The Beginner’s Guide is nicely historically rooted, “So did you play The Stanley Parable?”
Maybe the trap is to waste our time with something meaningless? But that two-ish hours I spent with The Beginner’s Guide doesn’t bother me nearly enough to feel deliberate when I’m yet again suckered into playing what must be my 1,000th game of League of Legends. Not even within a couple orders of magnitude of wasted time. Besides, most folks, including myself, seem to have found a few interesting moments in the game. So the stakes are too low for this to really matter, especially given the vast scope to which Wreden and his team were willing to play with the “Art Ending” in The Stanley Parable, which is achieved by pushing a single button for four hours straight.
I suppose a variant of this trap is that we would be suckered in to giving him money for something we assumed would be meaningful because of our preconceptions and then it wasn’t worth the money. This seems the most likely trap so far, but making the game took a whole lot of time and money, so it would have to be a really long con which, as noted above, goes against the game’s overall scale and sales model. Besides, making worthless art is pretty much impossible in the age of Youtube and Tumblr, since any random bit of detritus we find drifting around the world can be reworked, remixed, and reused in interesting ways.
Maybe the trap is being exposed to an opinion we normally don’t hear. But the various models of art and games in The Beginner’s Guide are pretty much the dominant pop-cultural stories about struggle, the creative process, and the moral perils of success and fame that we’d read about on The Huffington Post: A young dude, now wealthy, struggles with the way a vastly larger audience than intended responds to his work, has to deal with the emotional fallout, and makes an observation that fans tend to assume they know him. That’s not really a trap, that’s just self-insertion fan fiction.
Maybe the trap is more naively literary, where we’re supposed to really, earnestly, trust the narrator. But while the highly amateur performance of the voice-over might lead us to think this is a possibility at first initially, the game repeatedly shows us how unreliable and unknowable the narrator and his curated world is. It is clear within a few minutes that we’re not meant to trust this person, nor his opinions, nor to envision that anything within the game is as what it claims to be, which gives the audience almost unlimited license for interpretation and criticism. Yes, that means doing and thinking the opposite of what the fictionalized pseudo-Wreden instructs us, but from within the story, that seems like a perfectly reasonable, and in fact probably the most common, response to such a character.
Upon exploring all of these possibilities, it seems clear that whatever is happening, our perception that the game is a trap has nothing to do with its ability to do us harm. We aren’t Futurama robots whose heads will explode after hearing a paradox. We can always quit playing. It’s not a virus that deletes our hard drive if we quit. It is clear, and if anything a bit too naive, about its reference points in art and culture.
Our initial predilection to view The Beginner’s Guide as a trap is because so many of elements of the game seems to be behaving in a selfish, defensive, ahistorical, and antisocial way. Which denies our personal experiences, denies conversation, and as such denies our role as viewers/players.
I know that might seem like a bit of a jump, so let me use an analogy: We don’t perceive arguing with someone about the moon landing being faked as a trap because it might trick us into suddenly believing the conspiracy. We perceive it to be a trap because the conspiracy theorist isn’t willing to engage with any reality outside of themselves. It is not a trap because we waste our time arguing (after all, we often argue about the same old shit with our long-time friends) but because we quickly realize that the mental and conversational model of the moon-landing-denier is built exclusively and selfishly around themselves as a god-king arbiter of reality. It is a trap because if we chose to engage with their phony logic systems, we are necessarily devaluing ourselves and placing ourselves in a subservient relationship to an egoist.
Specifically, the phony logic systems of the The Beginner’s Guide are its models of art and creation. Whether stated or implied, whether ironic or earnest, all of its versions of “the artist” and “criticism” and “creativity” and “the individual” are pretty much tethered to a pre-modernist sensibility couched in dramatized art-cliches stolen from Hollywood movies, urban fantasy novels, video games, and anime. Any mention of other ideas, models, or approaches, academic or personal, artistic or social, are dismissed as being part of the conspiracy.
The Beginner’s Guide is so suspicious because while it blusters naively about complexity and unknowability, it at the same time demonstrates only the most rudimentary and rigid vision of the relationship between art and life. The game seems to be built on the premise that the audience will never be able to grasp the deep arcane secret that the David Bowie we see in Labyrinth both is and isn’t himself. He is both his stage persona and acting as the Goblin King at the same time.
In this way, the trap we intuit is not aimed at us-the-audience, but it is the inevitability of the game getting caught in its own logic trap, convinced to the heavens that it is the first to notice and run through the wringer these curious tensions between art, artists, celebrity, society, money, and audience. Without any desire to engage with anything outside of itself the game is left with but one option - to position art production as a form of martyrdom.
This is a game that has become trapped through making a virtue of its artistic isolationism. Not only does the The Beginner’s Guide seem to flaunt its dismissal of the audience’s savviness, it frames this break from isolation as a wearily needed excursion to explain to us our [art] sins and to take up the mantle of [creative] martyrdom for our sake. It is nothing less than a form of art colonialism. In fact, the internal logic of the game seems to naively imply that knowing or exploring ideas developed by other people, whether players or artists, whether audiences or critics, is a honied trap that lures an artist away from a life lived in true purity. Like sex to a saint, this predictably leaves us-the-audience as the ultimate sinful trap for a creator. Art, in The Beginner’s Guide, is framed as inherently pathological.