Sunday, November 15, 2015

Critical Switch: Zolani's Departure and The Beginner's Guide

A Special Announcement and The Beginner's Guide

This episode of Critical Switch marks an important transition. Sadly, it is my responsibility to announce that, during his time away from the show while focusing on his personal life and other game criticism projects, Zolani Stewart has decided to leave Critical Switch.

As of yet, I don't know how Zolani's departure may impact the format of the show. What I can say with absolute certainty is that Critical Switch will continue, and will not be going anywhere anytime soon. I really don't know yet, but suffice to say that, aside from my intention to continue bringing you short form radio-report-style audio criticism once a week, the format may be mildly unstable for a time.

Zolani Stewart is, and I really mean this, one of my best friends in the entire world. Since I got to know him last year, we collaborated on IndiE3, and built up it's sequel The Alternative Digital Arts Festival from practically nothing. We slept across from each other in a bare, undecorated, brand-new apartment, with no internet, and a week to actually put on ADAF after half a year of fumbling under unsupportive leadership and with a near-total lack of funding, and within a week, thanks in no small part to Iris Bull and Solon S. Scott III, we launched, on time, successfully. It was one of the most draining things either of us have ever done in our entire lives and it stands as perhaps our greatest collaborative achievement.

I'm incredibly honored that he worked with me on the basic concept of this show, and it will remain a highlight of my career and my life that we worked together on the same critical project even once. Aside from his fantastic episodes, it will remain likely his greatest contribution to keep the show limited to audio, rather than quickly expanding into video, as was my initial plan. The impact of that decision is something I may write a whole episode on at some point. And who knows, maybe the man himself will be back for a guest episode or two in the future.

For now, I want to send him off in the only way that feels right. Since I met him, Zolani has been a huge fan of “walking simulators,” first-person narrative games, whatever you wanna call them. He is second-to-none in his understanding of the genre, and his advocacy of it, with the exception of, perhaps, the great Amy Dentata, who he and I both cite as a major influence. In his very first episode of Critical Switch, which was the very first episode of the show, he talked about the walking simulator Bernband and how it inverts some of the genre norms of walking sims, particularly their oppressive and overwhelming sense of drama, dread, and loneliness.

Having played many of the walking sims he's discussed at his recommendation, I'd report that no walking sim has ever captured those genre characteristics more strongly than Davey Wreden's new game The Beginner's Guide.

Unsurprisingly for a game made by the developer of The Stanley Parable and The Stanley Parable HD Remix (which are meaningfully separate titles in my opinion, but more on that in a different episode), The Beginner's Guide has already been a lightning rod for critical discussion, given that, like it's predecessor, it is not only a videogame about videogames, but it is also a videogame that presents itself more or less as a piece of interactive videogame criticism: Davey Wreden is showing us some small videogames made by a friend of his, Coda, who stopped making videogames 4 years ago, and he hopes that by encouraging interest in his work, Coda will feel encouraged to make games again.

This is, for the record, entirely kayfabe. Coda is not a person who exists, and surely if he did, Davey Wreden himself would be mired in controversy right now based on things that he says about his relationship with Coda and based on things he quotes Coda as having said. (Though, I have read, coincidentally, that there is a popular developer of Counter-Strike: Global Operations maps who's name is Coda.)

The story told by The Beginner's Guide is intimate in scope, simple, and, unsurprisingly for the creator of The Stanley Parable, deals with characters who feel coldness between one another and distance between themselves, and I found myself unjustifiably shocked when the game's ending revealed that these characters had nowhere near the level of comfort or intimacy with each other as I'd been lead to believe. As a narrative, it runs on one of the simplest structures that recurs throughout all storytelling media: the twist that makes the point.

What point has been a subject of fierce debate amongst game critics since the game came out, with some critics feeling personally implicated by the game's seeming distrust of Davey Wreden (the character's) tendency towards close analysis. I would suggest something simpler: that Davey's crime is less his willingness to read depth into Coda's games, but rather that he takes his interpretations of Coda's games as an opportunity to read into Coda's authorial intent.

Though Wreden is revealed over the course of The Guide to be both invasive and unintentionally abusive of Coda, portions of his analyses of Coda's games have legitimate merit: his games do project reclusiveness, depression, social anxiety, and can often be cold and unforgiving. But in attempting to assign all of those things onto Coda himself, Wreden poisons the well, because the art and the artist are no longer separate, and Wreden's evaluations of the games eventually become judgements of Coda himself. As the game goes on, it becomes much clearer that Wreden resents Coda for not letting him in more, while Coda himself tries to make his games that much more unwelcoming to Wreden until he is suddenly forced to reveal his intent at the top of The Tower, wherein he explicitly states to Davey how his attempts to engage with his work have poisoned what made making games enjoyable or expressive for him, as the games are no longer for him but for Davey.

As is the failing of many an overenthusiastic critic, Wreden fails to maintain critical distance from his subject, and becomes too personally invested in Coda as an artist to allow Coda any space to breathe, which ironically takes out the uniquely “Coda” things about Coda's games that drew Davey to them in the first place.

Quite frankly, the most we can pull away from it as critics is Wreden's reliance on his attempts to read intent rather than to read simply what is communicated. Given the particulars of the story, as Coda is a developer with an audience of one, the story does not seem to be immediately applicable as anything else than a warning about the dangers of reading authorial intent, one who's stakes are driven higher by Coda's singular audience. Perhaps there are other metaphorical or allegorical readings that would add more metaphorical depth to it, but they do not occur to me now as I write this.

Any interpretation of the narrative is put into question as well not just by the reveal at the top of The Tower, but as well the epilogue of the game, which, as Heather Alexandra pointed out in her excellent video on the game, raises a lot of “water cooler” questions. Who developed the epilogue? Was it Coda's final masterpiece he never allowed Davey to see? Was it Davey, making something he thought might give him the answers he was looking for in Coda's games? What do the particular recurring symbols we see in the ending tell us about the rest of the game?

As a narrative text, The Beginner's Guide suddenly jumps from relative simplicity to incredible complexity, and creates that incredible complexity by way of devices that make the ultimate meaning of the game unknowable unless anyone in it's audience is absolutely certain of what they know the ending to represent.

For that reason, I wish to be non-perscriptive, step back from the narrative, and just sort of interpret the spaces the game puts us through from a purely emotional perspective. Maybe, after all, that's what the game wants us to do, to simply see the games we're being shown through our own eyes. The various games we're made to play in The Beginner's Guide are emotionally imposing experiences. As is the hallmark of any good walking sim, just moving through these spaces is by itself an emotional experience. That sort of experience isn't what I as a critic feel very experienced in, so I'm simply going to stop here and recommend playing the game yourself. You can also find interesting reactions to the game by Heather Alexandra, Matt Lees, and others, I'm actually very late to the party.

Suffice to say, I think The Beginner's Guide is exceptionally beautiful. And I want to wish Zolani best of luck in his continuing efforts as a freelancer and running The Arcade Review. You can show Zolani your appreciation for his time at Critical Switch by tweeting at him, I know I've thanked him enough.

From Olympia, WA, Play is Labor, I'm Austin C. Howe.

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