Sin, Apocalypse, Cash: The Beginner’s Guide - part 3
First let’s take stock of what the game has going for it: Well, this video game-cum-art project certainly manages to come across on the surface as too clever for the “norms”, and frightens them because they think it is (probably) a trap. What underground fan doesn’t like a little bit of projected danger? By almost all critical accounts the game has a few striking visual images worth scrutinizing. The Beginner’s Guide also seems to have a nice air of rebellion about it, since it seems to be designed to sow doubt on the critical establishment. On top of that, like any good horror film, it possibly has one big conceptual flip if we're willing to say that that first screen about audio is worth considering. It also foregrounds the avantgarde ideas of unreliable narrator and updates them a bit for the digital era.
I, at 35, shrug and go “Whatever, man. I know all this shit already. Get your head out of your ass.” But maybe I’m not its audience. Maybe after play-through number three The Beginner’s Guide should make me feel bored and annoyed. Maybe it is so defensive because it needs the freedom to discover these ideas for itself, for its generation.
And maybe, more than a trap, more than conceptual art, more than a cheap trick, more than a failure, maybe, just maybe, The Beginner’s Guide’s is just a really naive and flawed attempt to build room for generations below mine; a true Guidebook for Beginners, a Beginner’s Bible, in the sense that it is trying to Begin Again with a new generation of gamers. This mindset is on clear display when you start to tally the incredible frequency with which the narrator asserts large parts of the game are not made for you-the-audience.
To frame this new perspective on The Beginner’s Guide more specifically, maybe I’m just too old. After all, the creator is about 10 years younger than me, and I certainly went through a world of problems in my mid 20s. Maybe his angst is real. Mine was (even if it seems misguided now). Maybe his fans, younger again than the creator, give him conciliatory blow jobs in convention hotel rooms hoping to cheer him up. Maybe they think he’s smart and serious and deep-as-fuck. I mean, that’s certainly a narrative that is par for the course with most of the other arts from music to theater to painting to poetry.
Maybe, everything else aside, this game is aimed at people who think Sephiroth is a really relatable #edgelord. Specifically, the narratively reimagined hand-writing of the Wreden-narrator aside, Wreden’s real-life company is no Tale of Tales, who infamously quit the video game world to enter the broader art world. In fact, despite framing itself as a misunderstood outsider, The Beginner’s Guide won great critical acclaim, and made a number of best-of-the-year lists. It is a very successful game by most criteria. This is a game that can be seen as speaking to, or at least at, the video gaming community.
All bullshit hyperbole aside, if I played The Beginner’s Guide when I was 16 I probably would have thought it was the coolest thing ever. I was always wobbling along, being depressed, making art about being depressed, wrapped in deriving meaning from what I saw to be a masochistic emotional landscape existing simply to pile on pain and misunderstanding. I had all those same fatalistic Romantic notions of art and life and suffering and sex and mental illness that young male artists of the avantgarde tend to get told combine to form a properly serious artistic worldview.
If we were to step back a bit and disabuse ourselves of the assumption that The Beginner’s Guide’s audience is a mature art audience, despite its constant engagement with quaintly naive avantgarde tropes. But what audience would be so egotistical as to be able to completely ignore all of the unending protests and tirades about being “not for you” and still internalize that, yes, it is all about them? Which is to say, any precociously artsy nerd teenager.
Even more, maybe we can see something much grander from the simple observation that this video game, made by a 24 year old, seems so defensive because it was designed to challenge and then annihilate all comers spectacularly. What if The Beginner’s Guide is explicitly a giant “fuck you” to your (my) Marios, to your Lego Star Wars, to your Sonics, to your Final Fantasies, to your Dooms, and to the whole of the festering, constipated bowels that has become the game “industry” and “fandom”?
The Beginner’s Guide might just be a move straight out of Phillip K. Dick at his worst: an apocalypse happens and everyone’s body and spirit are destroyed but are reformed in some virtual space and has to go on living with new rules. With a whole new group of gamers who start, begin, a new lineage of games rediscovering these (to me rudimentary and juvenile) meta-art understandings. The whole game is the trigger for an honest but painful mushroom cloud-swirling-formation, the remnants of suns forming into new suns.
I’m not saying that it is a particularly new or even a particularly useful thing to do, but what generation doesn’t have a dream of inserting itself as the new zero A.D. of the cultural calendar? God knows, if I was that age or younger I would be seriously disappointed in what my and the generation older than me has handed them in video games. I would see all the bullshit hyperbole-cum-advertising that passes as game journalism, the viciously entitled core fandom, the cliche pandering of the industry, and want to burn it to the ground too. I certainly felt that way about most mainstream music and comics in the 90s.
But before we bask in the glow of the new-video-game-earth, no matter your age, imagining that any indie-game apocalypse would solve the problems of video games is ahistorical thinking at its most dogged. Perhaps the plan goes off without a hitch, laying the video game landscape as a sheet of blasted glass. Perhaps the feral children will survive and build their Voxel tree forts. But like The Onion headline “Man Thinking About Just Packing Up And Making Exact Same Mistakes Someplace Far Away,” thinking that knocking apart the community around an art would fix all of the [perceived] problems does nothing to prevent those outside of the blast zone from rushing in to implement their ideologies.
The old neo-con dogma of "crisis capitalism" outline by the Rand Corporation - which led to the endless American Middle East wars after 9/11 - specifically states that any apocalyptic moment can be leveraged for profit by the people with the most power.
If The Beginner’s Guide is a trap-cum-trigger that starts the apocalypse for game history, starting with a specially tailored neurotoxin for critics, then creeping to fans who want to talk about the game, then people who play the game, then people who have only heard of the game, and onward like the oh-so-cliche-but-fan-beloved-zombie-apocalypse, then its vision for the next world is a utopia without games critics, without fans, without communities of thinkers, without intentioned makers. What is left in this new world are but the vast shibboleths of Nintendo, Sony, Apple, and Walmart as the only game in town. They will assuredly survive any small art apocalypse.
The other parts of this essay can be found here