ED5863 – Digital Games and Learning: Katherine Cross’ Press “F” to Revolt in Comic Form!

I made a comic version of Katherine Cross’ excellent article on Gamergate and gamified activism “Press ‘F’ To Revolt.” I decided to make it in the style of a 1950s EC horror comic. You can read it by clicking the link below the cover preview.

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press-f-to-revolt-comic (Click the link)

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Five perspectives on The Beginner’s Guide

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A lot has already been written about The Beginner’s Guide, the new game by Davey Wreden, writer and co-creator of 2013’s The Stanley Parable. Most critiques have tried unpacking what the game is actually about, with a couple of very persuasive write-ups by Laura Hudson and Carolyn Petit, arguing The Beginner’s Guide is a game that resists being written about at all. Like any multi-faceted work, there can be no single “definitive” interpretation (and the game can construed, as we will see later, as a critique of definitive interpretations) that will be satisfactory. Instead, I’ll offer a few different perspectives on The Beginner’s Guide, and what it might be (or might not be) about. I’m still processing much of the experience and I feel this will only be a merely adequate survey of what it was like for me to play it. 

(This post contains major spoilers for The Beginner’s Guide so I recommend playing it first before you read this)

The Beginner’s Guide is a game about game design

The simplest way of looking at the Beginner’s Guide is to say that it’s a metagame about game design. In the same way The Stanley Parable parodied and burlesqued narrative choice in games, The Beginner’s Guide explores in a much more personal and profound way that actual process of game design. The Beginner’s Guide begins with Davey Wreden — this time taking the role of narrator — introducing himself and explaining that we’re about to play a collection of games by “Coda” a reclusive friend of his that he first met in 2009. From 2008 and 2011, Coda made a series of small, idiosyncratic games, and then stopped. Wreden acts as your guide through Coda’s body of work, providing commentary on what Coda’s intentions may or may not have been in each game.

The games themselves are imperfect worlds that seem to show a creator learning the language of game design. Each game takes on a different direction or is built around a certain theme. In several of them, the same door puzzle and lamppost appear, signalling Wreden tells us, the close of a level or a game project. There’s a whole series of levels built around a prison theme. Eventually, the games seem to be about Coda’s frustration with game creation, and the toll it may be taking on him. Some of the games are unfinished or have strange design decisions (such as being slowed down on a tall staircase or having to wait in a prison cell for an hour) and Wreden gives the you the option to skip through them or reveal what might be hidden in what otherwise appears on the surface to be a small, broken level. In playing The Beginner’s Guide, we possibly bear witness to the work and stress that comes with game design.

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The Beginner’s Guide is game about game criticism

Looking at The Beginner’s Guide as simply being about game design is not enough, especially since Wreden may not actually be a reliable narrator. Wreden provides the player with a seemingly “authoritative” take on each level, telling the player what it’s about and how he or she should see it. As mentioned earlier, Wreden gives the player the ability to skip over Coda’s design decisions. But is this actually appropriate? Wreden seems to be giving a “definitive” take on each of Coda’s levels. Eventually we find out that this might not be the case. Near the end of the game, we find out Wreden modified and showed Coda’s levels without his permission. This, Wreden suspects, is why Coda broke off contact, and is also the reason he stopped making games. This revelation is disturbing but it’s important to put everything in context within the game’s world.

Coda is clearly narrative conceit and not an actual person. Although Wreden says that he’s put together The Beginner’s Guide in order to get his friend to creating again, there’s no way that Wreden could, in actuality, compile and sell work that belongs to someone else. Coda is likely an amalgamation of game designers Wreden knew, and even Wreden himself.

This makes The Beginner’s Guide an interesting critique of the act of criticism: in-game Wreden projects himself onto someone else’s work, offering interpretations that don’t actually gel with what was intended yet it is always presented as the “right” way of looking at Coda’s games. Maybe the House level isn’t actually about clearing out one’s feelings after a difficult period in one’s life is just his attempt at a house simulator? Maybe Coda was parodying self-destructive creators rather than feeling bad about his own creations? Maybe Coda wasn’t actually lonely when he made the Notes level but was actually a sly interpreter of the Internet’s atomized individuality? We never hear Coda’s voice or receive his perspective, and we feel uncomfortable with in-game Wreden’s possessiveness over his friend’s work.

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The Beginner’s Guide is a game about people who play games

Sometimes, game players and fans can demand too much. Game design is a process of constant frustration with a few moments given here and there where one feels like they’re creating something special. It’s easy to forget how much people put on the line for a medium that is often seen as only being “for fun.” Obviously, fun and recreation are goals for a lot of games! But I think it’s important to remember the diversity that come with games, and we should be cognizant of the sacrifices many designers make to realize a particular vision.

There’s an uncomfortable part near the end of The Beginner’s Guide where you’re confronted by members of the “Press” asking probing questions about games and creativity. This is all part of an extensive confrontation with “The Machine” representing the creative energy and drive one that Coda (though this might be Wreden) feels like he’s lost. Wreden’s relationship with the Coda character also seems like a fan relationship throughout the game, one that becomes toxic, and ends with Coda feeling that Wreden has betrayed him.

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There’s also a definite thread of anxiety over audience reception that runs throughout the game as we see Coda (at least we think) worrying about whether or not he has the creative energy to continue making games, and then eventually confronting Wreden for taking his work, and making it serve his own ends.

The Beginner’s Guide is a game about personal games

In the last few years, we’ve seen an increased focus on “personal games.” Due to a combination of accessible game-making tools, better digital distribution, and push for more personal expression for marginalized voices, there are now games that speak more to people’s experiences or offer something more emotionally generous and insightful to the player. Much of Coda’s games appear (at least on the surface) to be deeply meaningful to him or her and could fall under the personal games banner.

However, The Beginner’s Guide points to some of the problems that can come with assuming a personal game necessarily gives access to an individual’s personality. At one point, Wreden expresses joy at the prospect of learning about someone through the games they make. Unfortunately, artistic expression isn’t a 1:1 relationship and there’s no way that you can know everything about a creator just by experiencing their work. Wreden makes the point in The Beginner’s Guide that trying to know someone totally through their games is a fruitless and potentially dangerous entreprise. What can start as simple adoration can in turn become possessiveness, and that’s what we witness in the game’s final act.

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The Beginner’s Guide is a game about a game maker trying to find himself

Four years ago, not many people knew who Davey Wreden was. Then he made the Half-Life 2 mod, The Stanley Parable which eventually became the wildly successful commercial game, The Stanley Parable. Wreden’s first game has been lauded for its intriguing game design. Clearly, there’s some self-consciousness on Wreden’s part about how to follow up The Stanley Parable when there’s so much attention and scrutiny on him.

Though The Beginner’s Guide warns us about the problems inherent in trying to read the creator in the work, I think there’s a mild autobiographical thread within it. The dates of Coda’s creative activity are interesting. He made idiosyncratic games until June 2011 and then stopped. Wreden released his mod version of The Stanley Parable in 2011. Furthermore, Coda made all of his games in Valve’s Source Engine, the same engine that Wreden has used for The Stanley Parable, and now The Beginner’s Guide.

Wreden comments in a deep way on the Source Engine’s capabilities and what they add to Coda’s games, something he would know having worked with it so extensively himself. There are even some ways in which Coda’s use of narrative and interesting first person game experiments mirror Wreden’s own (especially in a series of prison levels). Wreden talks about the sense of validation he felt showing off Coda’s levels, and how that made him feel good, but then Coda disappears. In way, some aspect of The Beginner’s Guide could be Wreden looking at his early experiments with game-making and wondering if he has the same vitality.

In this blog post Wreden put up on The Galactic Café website a few months after The Stanley Parable’s release, he talks about the stress of being put in the public spotlight after previously being an obscure creator, and how the critical and financial success of his game left him feeling a little depressed. He writes:

“The point of the comic [author’s note: this is included in the post itself] was purely just to clarify that financial and critical success does not simply make your insecurities go away. If you were insecure about other peoples’ opinions of you and addicted to praise in order to feel good about yourself, the dirty truth is that there is no amount of praise you can receive that will make that insecurity goes away. What fire dies when you feed it?”

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There is definitely a confessional aspect to The Beginner’s Guide and in-game Davey Wreden is probably referencing feelings real Wreden had at the time. In a way, the game directly addresses the insecurities that come with creative work: the need for validation and praise, the terror of facing criticism and backlash, and the worry that you’ll never be able to produce anything worthwhile again. In one sense, The Beginner’s Guide could be about Wreden trying to find himself again.

Final Thoughts

I’m not sure if this write-up has truly clarified anything for me or has left me more confused about how I feel about The Beginner’s Guide. I’m not even sure if I should be writing about it in the first place. In this act of reflection I feel like I’m subtly contributing to what the game was critiquing in the first place. Or perhaps it wasn’t critiquing it. Or perhaps The Beginner’s Guide is simply meant to reflect and reveal a player’s own insecurities. Or perhaps it’s about helping you build up your strength when you’ve thought you’ve lost all of it. I don’t know anymore. All I know is that I like The Beginner’s Guide; I like the world it created for me, and that I simply want to experience it again before I spoil it with too much analysis.

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The uses of nostalgia

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Recently, I wrote about ‘90s revivalism in video games. It was found to result from the confluence of nostalgia and the poor curation of games history (and the vested interest the games industry has in not preserving it). However, what I didn’t explore was the positive uses of nostalgia, especially when its seamlessly woven within narrative and gameplay. Games are most effective at conveying a story when narrative either when incorporated within the mechanics of play, or when communicated through the game’s play environment. When gameplay and story are fused together in this way, even nostalgic reflection becomes vital and artistic rather than merely reflexive or referential. I’ll be looking at two games — Her Story and Gone Home — whose grounding in ‘90s technology and culture is powerful and necessary for the player’s experience of the story.

(Warning: spoilers for Her Story and Gone Home below)

Her Story

Sam Barlow’s video archive mystery Her Story made quite the impression when it came out in June. It was lauded for its intriguing approach to interactive fiction, and opinions differed as to whether its updating of Gothic tropes for the age of video was effective or problematic. In the end, Her Story gives the player a unique experience of narrative, and that’s largely due to the game effectively exploits its ’90s retro-aesthetics.

The game’s story is told through a series of interviews conducted with a woman named Hannah over a two month period in 1994. Her husband Simon has disappeared, and of course, not all is at it appears to be. The gameplay itself is novel — the only interaction you have is with a police archive that looks as if it’s housed on a Windows 95/98 computer—and you must type in keywords to watch videos. The big challenge is that each keyword limits you to watching only five videos, and as of result of searching for keywords, it means everything you watch is out of sequence.

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The disordered nature of Her Story adds rather than detracts to the overall experience of the game. The old user interface is necessary historically — the disappearance took place in 1994 — and aesthetically, since the simulation of old technology enhances the player’s experience of the mystery. Although there have been the inevitable comparisons of Her Story to FMV games of the past, the use of video is incredibly important, and solves a number of story issues or questions that arise. Why can’t we hear the police officer’s questions or see his parts in the interview? Those videos were damaged in a flood in 1997, and so those parts are gone forever. Why are the videos so scattered? They were starting to archive them in 1999, and then forgot about the project during the Y2K panic. Furthermore, you’re initially limited to only five videos per keyword, a result of only having guest access to this archaic computer system.

For the game’s designer, Sam Barlow, using video was necessary for telling the story. It removed the challenges that would have been presented by having to render everything in 3D and use motion capture — a system he found costly and clumsy when it came to telling a story. (Look no further than L.A. Noire to see how overreliance on motion capture and 3D can hinder rather than help a detective narrative). The decision to set it in the ‘90s is grounded in practical design and story considerations that makes Her Story a memorable experience.

Gone Home

2013’s Gone Home is a fantastic first-person exploration game that draws on environmental storytelling and interactivity that forces the player — who is Kaitlin, the eldest daughter of the Greenbriar family—to piece together why her parents, and younger sister Sam, are completely absent when coming home after a long trip to Europe. The story is set in 1995 and includes specific cultural references to the X-Files, early video game consoles, zine culture, riot grrl, and Pulp Fiction. The game begins like a haunted house narrative but then evolves into a poignant family drama revolving around your sister’s coming of age as a gay teen.

Once again, the ‘90s setting is used to anchor the game’s story. 1995 was chosen as the year because this places it before widespread use of the World Wide Web. This was important for the game’s designers because this made Gone Home take place before digital communications technology became a dominant force in people’s lives. The game’s story is mostly communicated by interacting with discrete physical objects and diary entries, something that would not be as effective if you could access everything in a few emails. As a result, there’s a wide berth to include other important cultural moments — Nintendo, Bratmobile, and cool zines fighting the patriarchy among them. Gone Home does a deft job of communicating how different the world was even just two decades ago to craft an emotionally engaging story.

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One final thought…

In the right hands, the past can become a powerful way to convey a story. Gameplay and story are occasionally in an uneasy alliance with one another, with one too often diminishing or interfering with the other. Both Her Story and Gone Home offer powerful narratives whose past settings add rather than subtract from the experience. They give use new perspectives on ourselves, and perhaps, the times we lived in.