Sin, Apocalypse, Cash: The Beginner’s Guide - part 2
Remember how the narrator implores you to make sure you have audio enabled? I certainly just double checked my headphones and moved on the first time through.
After all of the bellowing and moaning and self-flagellating of the last third of the game, it is interesting how I now notice that, restarting the game, the game really takes some seriously awkward time up-front to insist that the player has the audio enabled.
If your annoyance and distrust of the narrator’s emo tomfoolery was anywhere near the amount of mine, by the end of the game you would basically go out of your way to do the opposite of what he says. Even if your reaction wasn’t so visceral (indeed, I’m dramatizing what was simply exasperation and distaste), the narrator, and even the game itself, has been shown to be highly and multitudinously suspect. So why would a player listen to even the most rudimentary commands?
Or to put it more directly: a savvy audience member would leverage that distrust and read that as a cue ignore the [highly unreliable] narrator, which would mean muting the audio. And leave it that way…
…for the whole game.
Just walk around most of the spaces and explore. A player probably can’t easily finish the whole game without the narrator on the first play through, since there are a few button sequences that are verbally cued, but it would be quite easy enough to remember or to write them down for a second play through. All said, simply by muting the audio, it would be easily enough to have a long pleasant meander around some well-realized, oft-romantic, and subtly surreal spaces in the game.
Viewed in this light, perhaps The Beginner’s Guide’s blustering surface is hiding a much more interesting conversation about aesthetics and tactile understanding, and our assumptions about the broadness of choice we’re given in any art work or game.
But if we were to indulge in a reading about authority and choice, we would need some clues, since simply noticing that muting a game makes the game different is true for many video games. But in The Beginner’s Guide, there is a highly distinctive split. The audio is ironic, fragmented, and contemporary. The visual imagery is romantic, symbolic, and rooted in the past. With the audio on, there is a tension between the rambling disordered dialog, and an impulse to see some poetic reflection of existential crisis in these fragmentary digital landscapes, which is also a direct topic that narrator character addresses repeatedly.
Lest you think I’m being facetious, the reason I think playing without audio is a totally valid option, not a gimmick, is that as I mentioned above, the narrator is very specifically set up as an unreliable narrator. But this is only half true. One of the most intriguing innovations in the game is that more than an unreliable narrator, the Wreden-narrator-character is specifically an unreliable programmer.
For example, we know the narrator has ostensibly added lampposts (a rather overly literal symbol) and will happily modify another programmer’s level at will. He has re-developed these games he was supposedly promised to never show, or that were designed to be unplayable. So in the paradigm of unreliable programmer, having a narrator bluntly ask a player to do something rudimentary like turn on the audio would be qualified as really bad design in traditional video game development. It is clear that not only is this creator-character unreliable and whiney (oh so whiney) but they are also set up as a “bad” designer. Indeed, within the most rudimentary chronological narrative logic of the game, the audio, even more than the lampposts, must have been added well after the fact.
Touching again on the player’s impression that the game is a trap, part of what makes the game suspicious is that the imagery seems set up as a more sophisticated and self-aware foil for the verbose hyper-earnest narrator. All of the space the player explores becomes an even more potent counter-argument to itself if players actually treat options that are traditionally non-choices, such as audio, as choices.
To use a crass phrase, at its most fundamental the “core mechanic” of The Beginner’s Guide might actually be all tied to that decision to leave on or mute the audio. It might be the most significantly impactful choice a player can make aside from not playing the game.
What if, upon playing through the game once and being belligerently verbally grandstanded at, then having chosen on the second time through to play with no audio, there is now a third play-through that combines both insights. The Beginner’s Guide, at its core might be best understood as an art work that is designed to specifically train people to free themselves from the sanctity of narrator-cum-artist-cum-critic-cum-curator.
Rather than, say, jumping harder jumps, or shooting faster enemies, The Beginner’s Guide could be seen as teaching players to ignore ever more emotionally charged personal information about "creators.” About learning to ignore the “intention” of the creator, no matter how ferocious or facetious, and to have our own opinions. From this perspective the game could seems to be a full embrace of critical independence and a celebration of the death of the author. Which would be basically the exact opposite of what we perceive to be the trap on the first play through.
While it is fun to propose playing The Beginner’s Guide without audio, and may well have been an intended way to experience the game on a second or third play-though, it is hard to avoid growing suspicious again puzzling through the results further imagined future playthroughs. Whether it is narrative martyrdom to show the audience the purity of the creator, or the meta-martyrdom of training the audience to forget the creator, the core function of the game is still rooted a vision of the universe with art as an act of martyrdom, and the viewer as sinfully complicit. This is a world founded on binary opposites.
Even when the game is at the most self-referential and meta-critical it has a very conservative, pre-modern way of understanding and interacting with the world by putting things in opposed categories. In a basic way, it is very akin to the Protestant dualistic universe: creator/audience; critic/artist; naive/savvy; internal/external; known/unknown; happiness/angst; healthy/sick; creation/destruction; success/failure; public/private; and most fundamentally, perfection/sinfulness, a fundamental formulation of right and wrong that forces judgment on thoughts, intentions, and preponderances alongside actions.
This oscillation between physiological states might simply be brushed aside as the game dealing with a conflicted subject, which can help to give a world depth. But the game shows an understanding of conflict in a far more literal-ist way. The Beginner’s Guide seems to propose that these dualisms are very real and indeed are in a vast celestial war with each other. Whether we-the-crass-audience are choosing by fiat, or the game is a divine oracle, only one can survive; only one is right.
But what is it trying to win? What is this battlefield? What is this apocalyptic war it seems to envision itself as being the ultimate weapon in? Treating art as akin to war is an explanation for so many of the problematic aspects of what the game does: It lays claim to ownership of a wide swath of radical thinking, but then tries to “win” at art by any means possible; wallowing in defensiveness, irony, reductiveness, shell games, contrarian spats, and a cryptic outmoded vision of art based on sin/perfection dualities. Someone has to win, and that brutality leaves no place for the civilian: no place for society nor for conversation; no place for art nor culture.
The initial impression of The Beginner’s Guide as being some meta-criticism of art in the age of smart phones, VR, micro-transaction, and DIY gene sequencing always gets bogged back down in its Puritanical militant world view. The Beginner’s Guide’s vision of art, even if it really is trying to train its audience to engage in new and drastic ways with authorship, is at the end no different than a Call of Duty mission in a museum: a binary mindset that vastly limits the experience of the player to a series of survival choices tied to predefined categories.
But this world of cleanly defined combatants is the inverse of the open-ended mode that characterizes deep artistic experiences which is an acknowledgment of more than simply the unknown, but of polyvalent grandeur and the vast, wondrous, and often painful, unknowability that is other human beings. Swathed in static dualisms and a defensive wartime mentality, The Beginner’s Guide is deeply un-radical because at its core, it seems most concerned with erecting a monument to honor itself for protecting itself, and by egotistical proxy all art, from the messiness of other people.