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The BeginnerÂ’s Guide to Interpretation

by Paul Kilduff-Taylor on 12/21/15 01:58:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Before you read this, go and buy The Beginner’s Guide. It’s £7 and worth your time.

Done? Now read some really interesting, significant things that people have written about it here.

Done? Welcome back to this nonsense.

Destructoid published a list of the “Best New IP’s of 2015”. The entry for The Beginner’s Guide read as follows:

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.

A bit of a backlash to the final paragraph then ensued, largely because people believed it was a comment on the game’s length. Aptly, this happened entirely because of projection: there was no textual justification for this whatsoever. Writer Laura Kate Dale then published the following 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.

As usually happens in a case of misinterpretation, the same ire which was directed at Destructoid for this apparent condemnation of short-form games was redirected rather than dissipated. Some people ridiculed the idea that one particular interpretation of a game could justify asking for a refund.

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. Do you really believe that the character Paul Auster in City of Glass is describing events which literally happened to the author? Then you should have all of your books taken away forever. If your opinion can be countered with “ambiguity exists”, you need to shut up.

However, this isn’t an appropriate reaction to the state of contemporary culture. I’m also a lot more polite now and perhaps…4% less of an idiot myself.

Let’s quickly dismiss the consumer situation here: you are allowed to request a refund on Steam for any reason up until the cut-off point. Therefore “legitimate reasons to want to return this game after purchase” can be literally anything, from seeing a black cat outside to the game causing your monitor to catch on fire (note: this has never happened). You might say that renders the entire sentence redundant, and you’d be right, but it still makes the discussion of “legitimate reasons” somewhat futile purely in the context of a consumer decision.

With that out of the way, follow a train of thought with me:

  • 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

This is a somewhat overly literal portrayal of Laura Kate’s argument. I’d suggest that this should be modulated slightly by including suspicion as an element as well: “if you believe there is a chance you could be complicit in a crime” etc. The outcome is functionally the same, however.

The problem here is that, once you accept the equal validity of all interpretations, complicity in a potential crime follows straightforwardly. If you believe the Blair Witch Project is a documentary, you absolutely have the right to demand that the police investigate what happened, perhaps calling the film makers in for questioning. You should be taken seriously.

You can believe Dracula is a real person, or that any given wardrobe can take you to Narnia, or that Godot should have bloody turned up. All interpretations are equally valid.

These are extreme examples. The Beginner’s Guide is, initially at least, slightly plausible as a work of non-fiction — interdimensional wardrobes are probably harder to swallow — but as more detail is provided I would suggest this possibility is reduced to almost nothing.

But here’s the rub. It doesn’t matter to us here that people who believe the Beginner’s Guide to be non-fiction may well be factually incorrect: because they are interpreting a work of art and all interpretations are equally valid. If Davey Wreden found some incontrovertible way of demonstrating that Coda is a fabrication; this wouldn’t change anything. You can say it’s ambiguous — like all works I’m sure it has some autobiographical component or influence, but also I believe it’s largely fictional — but that has as much weight as someone’s opinion that the game is about the process of collecting magical hats on the planet Quaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarb which is a planet I just made up right now.

I’ve argued before that equal validity is an absurd and potentially dangerous position to take when it comes to interpretation. I’ve discussed Brendan Keogh’s ideas (following Susan Sontag) that intepretation itself is, in fact, the problem and we need to be looking elsewhere for a method of dealing with meaning.

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.

We’ve conflated everyone’s right to an opinion with the idea that all opinions are equally correct. That has happened now, and as a culture we can never go back. This is reality, and it explains why Laura Kate received so many complaints from people when she recommended the game initially: she was slammed for promoting “stolen work”.

So, it’s now ludicrous to me that Laura Kate, who is a very thoughtful journalist and tries to account precisely for the state of response to her work, is the target of people’s annoyance and ridicule over this. She is merely reflecting the reality that we’ve created: if you believe anything about a fictional work, it just becomes instantly true and you immediately have the right to act morally on that premise.

Could we work on some kind of solution? Perhaps we can say everyone is entitled to hold and express an interpretation of a work without personal repercussions? Perhaps we can say that, in ambiguous works, an interpretation which accounts for this might potentially have more value in describing the full nature and composition of that work than one which does not? Is this a problem with the word “validity”?

I don’t think that’s possible now. 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: “As a [role], I believe x”. Respected games developers are arguing for full subjectivity, as if this is the only possible conclusion of inclusiveness. The fact that I have reached Peak Grumpy Old Man in this paragraph proves that this is a battle which can’t be won: this is where we are. Shooting the messenger doesn’t achieve anything.

We’ve already had the death of the author: time to party at the wake of meaning.


Addendum: people have been very offensive towards Laura Kate today, who is an excellent journalist working hard to represent everyone’s opinions on this matter. She’s gone beyond the call of duty in engaging with people’s responses. This entire issues arose from her desire to be even-handed and look out for the needs of those who might take her recommendations. Personal attacks have absolutely no place in discussing fiddly issues about art and culture.

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