Sunday, November 15, 2015

#22: The Beginner's Guide - Some post-play thoughts

I just wrapped up a play-through of The Beginner's Guide, so it seemed reasonable to resuscitate my blog and put some of my thoughts out there while the gears are still turning in my head.

The Beginner's Guide is the type of game that loses value if you know ahead of time what it is about, in a storytelling sense. It's from the creator of The Stanley Parable, but in many ways it is not, ways that become immediately apparent through the introduction of the game. I believe that the structure of TBG is flawed. Despite that, the ideas it plays with are novel to me as far as gaming themes are concerned, and should ring true to anyone doing creative work, for show or for themselves. It is a game exploring art, audience, privacy, depression, and validation from the perspective of one artist relating to another artist.

Because I cannot describe the sequence of events in TBG without reducing its value to the reader, the rest of this post will explore some of the thoughts it gave me, bubbling and churning in my mind in the hour after my play. This language is a bit more academic than I'd typically use to engage with a game, but I suppose it's not a good indie game unless it takes longer to discuss it than it does to beat it.

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Most of us assume that art is created with intent to share. No one besides the creator sees art that goes un-shared; how can one even point to an example besides one's own? This only reinforces the notion that audience and art are intrinsically related.

Where many of us go wrong, I think, is in assuming that the art is designed to illuminate something about the artist. I could point to the public-image focused society of our current moment, where flattering photos are social currency and fame is a goal in and of itself. 

A question I'm left pondering is whether an audience member for a work of art has any right to raise his or her voice above that of the work's creator, particularly if the creator elects to not use their voice. Must there be a voice? If the creator doesn't choose to ascribe a public-yet-personal meaning to the work for others to consume, is the only other option letting the audience do it instead? If that is the case, are there situations wherein the creator is better off never showing an audience at all?

The question only becomes more interesting when you consider games as an artistic medium, compared to, for example, a novel or a movie. Games are unquestionably defined by their relationship to a player. What that player does within the confines of the game are part of the art, but the key is that a player is acting within the game world. Anything beyond that, from a consistent game mechanic or even an objective of any kind, is an extension of decisions that the creator, the artist, made.

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So what happens when a game is designed with no intent to appeal to hordes of players, yet is still playable? To a creator who is unmotivated by public validation in the spheres of novel writing, filming a movie, sculpting, etc., the exchange with the reader or viewer is not coded into the definition of the medium, though it is often assumed. In fact, what with all this "unmotivated by public validation" talk, I'd say that Ayn Rand would be a great reference point for this train of thought if she didn't also have a pretty strict view of what we can even call art.

There are famous examples of writers whose work went unpublished, or artists whose paintings went undiscovered until their deaths. Do you suppose that, on their deathbeds, they did not see their work as legitimate because they did not share it? I see this as unlikely.

Do you think they did not share it because of a fear of the public's ascribed meanings and the burden of having the public misunderstand the purpose of their work? Or perhaps a fear of presenting work for public validation only to find none?

The idea of an artist creating a specifically a game entirely for themselves as a creative outlet seems to defy reasoning. We assume that games are about us, the user. Without us pressing the buttons, nothing even happens, after all.

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Let's return to that idea I started with: the notion that art is for sharing, because any artist who creates without sharing is not visible as the counterpoint. What if an artist made games only as an outlet for themselves? If these were shared against their will, is it the artist's job to justify their work's existence and give it a discernible meaning?

When J. K. Rowling uses a pseudonym to seek public validation in an honest light, that is understandable to the world. It's quite possible this would be seen differently if she stopped releasing new writing to the world altogether, or if this work were shown off without the choice to do so as part of the art.

I don't have an answer to these hypothetical questions because, as many #LiberalArtsDegree discussions end, there is no clear answer. What's more important is that I think I have a clearer understanding of the complexities between art, artist, audience, and privacy. 

An artist is not a product, nor are they, necessarily, the art.