Let’s establish some groundwork. The Beginner’s Guide is a short art game by Davey Wreden that was named as a hot new IP for the year in a list at Destructoid. The author of the list, Laura Kate Dale, made a very weird move of first, recommending the game, then, recommending the reader complete the game quickly in order to get a refund:
The Beginner’s Guide is a weird game, in that it caused a huge splash upon launch, with many reviewers hesitant to say anything at all about it. People were affected by it, not always positively, and it clearly had a strong impact on many players.
A few months on, it’s still unclear how genuine the narrative told is, or how much we can rely on the narrator of the experience. But if you have around and hour and a half and want to be floored by an unexpected narrative, you’ll be hard pressed to do better than The Beginner’s Guide.
Just make sure to complete it within your Steam refund window, as there are legitimate reasons to want to return this game after purchase.
The reason for this, it turns out, is that the game is metafictional and presents a scenario in which an unreliable narrator (portrayed by and named as Davey Wreden himself) is supposedly showing you some unfinished products made by another game creator who has since disappeared. The story takes on some dark aspects as it becomes clearer and clearer that Wreden’s fixation on this other artist is undeservedly intimate, and the end result is a meditation on how we feel about and approach authors through their work. Dale explained her position in a later clarification:
To clarify the above statement regarding refunds, while I view this game as a work of fiction, and recommend people play it as such, many players view the narrative as an accurate work of non-fiction.
If you fall into the camp that view this as non fiction, an aspect of the narrative implies that the content is stolen wholesale from another developer. While I paid for the game and believe doing so is a morally acceptable action, what I wish to make clear is that if players disagree with my reading of the narrative and feel I recommended them an experience they didn’t morally agree with, there is a financial way to back out of that purchase.
This is not an encouragement to back out of payment due to length, but simply me pointing out that if you finish the game and believe the narrative to be non fiction, and if you believe that you purchased stolen goods, there is a way to avoid your money remaining with that developer in this very specific case.
My initial vague comment was an attempt to avoid a major spoiler for the narrative, but has unfortunately left the reasons for my recommendations open to wider interpretation.
To parse this out, then: the game is a fictional narrative that presents itself as, essentially, stolen content from an obsessed fan who has cobbled together his idol’s half-finished projects. If you believe, however, that this game is somehow nonfiction, then you should request a refund. What is bizarre here is Dale’s admission that the game is fiction and then the capitulation to a camp that reads it otherwise, as if fiction and nonfiction were a matter of interpretation.
But we’re not here to talk about Dale’s response so much as we are to talk about another response, from Paul Kilduff-Taylor, “The Beginner’s Guide of Interpretation,” which summarizes the above drama in more detail. As Kildof-Taylor goes on to explain, he understands perfectly that the game is fiction, and he sees why so many of us are eyerolling at this peculiar turn:
A few years ago, I would have just joined in with sneering at this idea. I would have said that anyone who believes The Beginner’s Guide to be a comprehensive work of non-fiction is a total idiot, and thus has no right to any kind of opinion on it whatsoever, let alone a refund.
But, aha, Kilduff-Taylor explains, he knows why things have gone so awry. The problem is what he calls “the equal validity of all interpretations,” and the following train of thought:
All interpretations of a work of art are equally valid
Truth is a component of validity
Some interpretations of a work may lead people to believe they are complicit in a crime perpetrated by the creator of the work
Therefore, such people are complicit in such a crime
Therefore they are morally obliged to ask for a refund
Thus, as Kilduff-Taylor says, if you see The Blair Witch Project and think it’s real, of course you’re morally obliged to demand the police investigate the crime. Now here’s where Kilduff-Taylor does his own strange two-step: while admitting that this is a problem, he then laments that it cannot be solved, that interpretation itself has broken:
I now think that this may be a hopeless situation which cannot be escaped. It doesn’t matter that the “non-fiction camp” is overwhelmingly likely to be factually wrong, given the entire history of fiction, authorial insertion and so on. It doesn’t matter that, I believe, a superior interpretation of this game takes into account its ambiguity and allows space for other secondary readings to explore various facets of that ambiguity. It doesn’t matter that the game itself discusses these themes and we’re all playing into its hands continually with this kind of discussion. This does not matter. All interpretations are equally valid.
It doesn’t matter who is right or wrong, facts are useless. “We’ve conflated everyone’s right to an opinion,” he says, “with the idea that all opinions are equally correct. That has happened now, and as a culture we can never go back.”
He admits to sounding like a grumpy old man, and I’m glad he does so, because what is happening here is that Kilduff-Taylor is rehearsing a bizarre version of the conservative reaction to the rise of postructuralism in literary studies: the center cannot hold! His closing statement that “We’ve already had the death of the author” and it is now “time to party at the wake of meaning” is a double lamentation for the linchpins that held discourse in place that have, apparently, been totally destroyed by some nebulous development in our culture:
This is a combination of huge social factors, like the existence of the internet and the intensely tribal backlash culture that has emerged. “Literally” means “figuratively”; every opinion must be prefaced with a statement of identity to highlight and define its subjective nature.
Nested in here and masked are complaints about social media, “callout culture,” indeed, it critically anticipates even the very fact that I’m writing this response only six hours after Kilduff-Taylor posted his article. I’m not thinking, it alleges: we’re not thinking. We’re reactionary. We have a feeling, and we act upon it. As the weird condescension suggests, we’re devolving into infantile subjectivism.
Stanley Fish, a pioneer of reader response criticism, developed the idea of the “interpretive community” to fight against the assertion that the “death of the author” rendered literary interpretation into pure subjectivism. The anecdote that most often circulates here is Fish’s story of teaching a list of names left on chalkboard to his class as if it were a poem; what happened was that, if the class decided to treat the list of names as a poem, they could produces an analysis of the text as if it indeed was poetic, despite that not being the author’s original intent.
The point to be made, then, is that meaning arises as part of a relationship between not simply the reader and the text, but a variety of readers, a text, and a variety of cultural protocols that inform the production of meaning. Fish’s “interpretive communities” are the people who have decided, okay, we’re going to treat such-and-such type of language as poetic, and other types as not. Meanings are “true” only insofar as they correspond to the parameters outlined by the interpretive community: whether it’s our classroom and our chalkboard, or the portion of the world that has decided green means go and red means stop when you’re driving. We can interpret all we like, but our interpretations are informed by outside, communal resources and circumstances, and in the end, validity of our interpretations is based on how well the community sustains them.
Let’s say something extreme and silly: I think Shakespeare’s Hamlet is about space aliens. Specifically, Old Hamlet’s ghost is not a ghost, but an alien. My evidence for this is that the ghost has otherworldly powers and is scary. The evidence I discount is, well, the text’s referral to the creature as a ghost, and the cultural history of ghosts and ghost stories Shakespeare had access to. I can believe that the ghost is an alien as much as I want, but that will never make this interpretation valid, because there is no interpretive community to support it. To put it another way: an interpretation can be “valid” insofar as a person interprets (no one can deny you that) but an interpretation’s connection to truth is a result of a community’s willingness to acknowledge and sustain its truth value.
In Kilduff-Taylor’s thinking, it seems, a multiplicity of potential meanings completely explodes, in the popular mind, any ability to distinguish between truth claims. We now, suddenly, live in a world where Hamlet is filled with aliens and also I can run down to the police station and tell them to investigate these Blair Witch murders, and even if they show me the IMDb pages of the actors involved and various making-of featurettes, because I am still entitled to my opinion. Even if there is a “superior” interpretation that takes into account facts, my interpretation is still valid. Hyperbole aside, this is flagrantly wrong.
Now, let’s say we have two interpretive communities, people who believe The Beginner’s Guide is fictional and people who believe it is nonfiction. The people who believe it is nonfiction agree in their interpretation of the text, more or less. Their evidence derives from the game itself, where the game’s creator Davey Wreden address you and tells you a story about how he took some of the stuff you’re seeing from another artist and then sold it to you. Seems pretty airtight, right?
But in doing so they fetishize the game as an object extricable from its circumstances of production and reception, namely, that we live in a culture and a market where it would be pretty universally regarded as bad form for Wreden to actually carry out the conceit of the game, let alone admit it to us, and metafiction as a longstanding tradition wherein you never trust a narrator named after the author. Yet for this camp, meaning inheres not in interpretation, but in the most glaring parts of the object itself. In the end, the author is not dead, he’s just been swapped for his persona.
The interpretive community which acknowledges the game as fiction takes not only the game’s narrative irony into account, but the extensive writing and criticism about the game and its metafiction. This community’s interpretation is more sustainable (“superior” in Kilduff-Taylor’s terms) because it enlists the game in addition to a history of and protocol for critical reception, as well as the presumed protocols for the production and sale of the weird objects we call videogames.
Kilduff-Taylor’s tired handwashing here is not so much an indictment of the problem of two interpretive communities — whose existence and cross-reference is facilitated by the internet as a mode of critical reception — as it is an attempt to escape the problem entirely. At some undesignated time before now, people just would have read the game correctly, no problem! Meaning would have been obvious, and interpretation would have been a pleasant exercise in riffing upon its verities from that point on. We’ve thus already lost, and all we can do is take solace in our own knowledge and interpretation as things fall apart.
This is disingenuous because the fact that anyone is even taking issue with the implication that Wreden should not be paid for his work is a sign that, indeed, people are not willing to let the patently worse interpretation of the game stand.