Monday, November 30, 2015

Canvas 11.30.15

**Warning: Spoilers ahead for The Beginner's Guide and The Stanley Parable**

"Christian, you've already talked about video games on 'Canvas.'"

I know. I'm sorry. But you know. Thanksgiving. And Black Friday. And Sales. And my desire to find a solid narrative in a video game that doesn't exactly fit into the normal conventions of narrative in media like film and literature. And sometimes things surprise you.

Now let me tell you, The Beginner's Guide caught me completely by surprise.

I've had my eyes on this game (if you choose to call it that) since its release, two months ago. I was really interested with its predecessor, The Stanley Parable, which turned the idea of narrative in video games on its head with its use of a kinetic narrator that told a story that you don't necessarily have to subscribe to; through different playthroughs of the game you can choose to defy the narrator and he reacts accordingly, sometimes trying to trick you to fall back into his narrative or sometimes downright punishing you with the only tool a narrator has, words. The Beginner's Guide promised something similar.

Now, don't go into the game expecting The Stanley Parable, I believe that's a problem a lot of people ran into when first playing the game. The Beginner's Guide sells itself as an exploration into a person's mind through their creative works, in this case, video games; the premise is more human and more personal, and the presentation is much more surreal than the first game. The game treats itself as art and plays a lot like poetry. It's well constructed in that it's linear and very directive, effectively becoming a guided tour. Much of it isn't meant to be understood but left for the player to feel. 

You don't know why you're in a train station, but it makes you feel lonely.
We start off the game with the narrator, Davey Wreden (also the name of the creator), telling us about a friend of his, Coda. Coda makes video games for himself that Davey finds very powerful. Through playing Coda's games, Davey believes that he can deduce something about who Coda is and what goes through their mind (the trailer says this much). It's an interesting start to something that's defined by the word "game." Now, I can go into the etymology of the phrase "video game," but since that's a whole conversation in itself I'll leave that comment as it is. What's particularly great about The Beginner's Guide is that it takes this premise and hits a range of topics that include but aren't limited to: gender identity, trust, depression, fame, anxiety, and artistry. *Big spoiler depending on how you look at it* I particularly enjoyed how the whole narrative was framed as a projection of Davey onto Coda; it ends up saying a lot about the idea of interpretation and as an English major who's whole college experience has been and will be full of interpreting I put a lot of thought into that aspect after finishing the game.

It's also particularly beautiful at times.
The Beginners Guide is split up into several short "games" and since I don't want to spoil the experience completely, I'll just go into a couple of scenes that I particularly enjoyed. It's a two hour journey at most, so it's not as much of a commitment as most games are; although I do suggest playing the game in one sitting.

There is a poem that you end up walking through in the second game. 

The past was behind her
But the future could not be seen
Why does the future 
keep changing?
When she stops and looks 
it becomes clearer
But if the future is always behind her
How will she find the strength
To confront it?

In this section you can only walk backwards and that restriction is meant to physically represent what the poem has to say. You're meant to feel the cumbersome passage of time as someone who dwells on the past. The game allows you to see where you're going but only if you stop yourself completely to turn around and see the path, but even then, the room morphs and paths you didn't see coming lead you somewhere else. The past is all you can see while you're moving forward.

Another game brings you into a warm cabin where your main objective is to clean up. The context here is that you're in the middle of a snow storm and you end up finding a cabin in the middle of your path and once you walk in, a figure stands in the dining room asking you to perform all of these chore-like tasks that feel more therapeutic than menial. You're meant to feel safe in a place that would otherwise be cold and dark. 

The Beginner's Guide tries its best to emphasize that darkness is a form of comfort, at least for the characters being portrayed. It tries to ruminate on ideas in the dark, looping back and forth between states and its very apparent in this game since the chores that the figure asks you to do repeat themselves until Davey pulls you out of the loop, telling you that at some point you will always have to move on despite finding yourself in a happy place. 

You find yourself in a class room at some point, and nothing seems out of the ordinary until you're placed in the perspective of the teacher. I found this to be one of my favorite games in The Beginner's Guide; there's a lot in a scene so simple: you have the nervous dialogue tree where you're given the option to say what you're supposed to tell your students (yellow text on the right) or to say what you're thinking (grey text on the right), you have the singular student sitting in class, you have the lamp in the back, which is an overarching image throughout The Beginner's Guide as a desired destination, placed where an exit should be, and unavoidably you have a black hole that vaguely resembles an eye menacingly taking up the back wall of the class room. My favorite touch is how there are two thoughts for each dialogue branch, presenting thought as overwhelming to the point where several thoughts can occur simultaneously. It's a nervous scene and it humanizes perfection.

I like to think that this is a poem.
The last game I'll talk about is one where you yell at a machine that I'm assuming is a generator. What it is isn't important. The machine's name is Coda and by the end of the scene you're forced to repeatedly shoot it until Davey pulls you out of the game. I guess I really like this image mostly because I have a similar image in a song I wrote and it has already been an important one to me. This scene mechanizes creativity and equates inadequate performance to malfunction. The machine doesn't work anymore and the player is then forced to apologize for the machine to the press; it's a form of scapegoating.

Those are all type writers.
Video games as an art form have been heavily debated for a while now and I don't want to say that this game is art because that label has a negative connotation in the community, but to me The Beginner's Guide is constructed almost like an art exhibit. Each game within this game hold similar motifs and tie together to portray a wide array of ideas. It has a lot for both the aesthetic viewer and the contemplative viewer and it doesn't stray from the idea that it's a game. It rests on video games' form of metafiction much like its predecessor, The Stanley Parable has, but even more so. You could probably say that The Beginner's Guide is a postmodern contemporary of today's gaming scene.


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