Before you read this, go and buyÂ The Beginnerâ€™s Guide. Itâ€™s ÂŁ7 and worth your time.
Done? Now read some really interesting, significant things that people have written about itÂ here.
Done? Welcome back to this nonsense.
Destructoid publishedÂ a listÂ of the â€śBest New IPâ€™s of 2015â€ť. The entry for The Beginnerâ€™s Guide read as follows:
A bit of a backlash to the final paragraph then ensued, largely because people believed it was a comment on the gameâ€™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:
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 Beginnerâ€™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 â€śambiguity existsâ€ť, you need to shut up.
However, this isnâ€™t an appropriate reaction to the state of contemporary culture. Iâ€™m also a lot more polite now and perhapsâ€¦4% less of an idiot myself.
Letâ€™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 â€ślegitimate reasons to want to return this game after purchaseâ€ť 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 youâ€™d be right, but it still makes the discussion of â€ślegitimate reasonsâ€ť somewhat futileÂ purely in the context of a consumer decision.
With that out of the way, follow a train of thought with me:
This is a somewhat overly literal portrayal of Laura Kateâ€™s argument. Iâ€™d suggest that this should be modulated slightly by including suspicion as an element as well: â€śif you believe there is a chance youÂ could beÂ complicit in a crimeâ€ť 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 Beginnerâ€™s Guide is, initially at least, slightly plausible as a work of non-fictionâ€Šâ€”â€Šinterdimensional wardrobes are probably harder to swallowâ€Šâ€”â€Šbut as more detail is provided I would suggest this possibility is reduced to almost nothing.
But hereâ€™s the rub. It doesnâ€™tÂ matter to us here that people who believe the Beginnerâ€™s Guide to be non-fiction may well be factually incorrect: because they are interpreting a work of art andÂ all interpretations are equally valid. If Davey Wreden found some incontrovertible way of demonstrating that Coda is a fabrication; this wouldnâ€™t change anything. You can say itâ€™s ambiguousâ€Šâ€”â€Šlike all works Iâ€™m sure it has some autobiographical component or influence, but also I believe itâ€™s largely fictionalâ€Šâ€”â€Šbut that has as much weight as someoneâ€™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.
Iâ€™ve argued before that equal validity is an absurd and potentially dangerous positionÂ to take when it comes to interpretation. Iâ€™veÂ discussedÂ Brendan Keoghâ€™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 doesnâ€™t matter that the â€śnon-fiction campâ€ť is overwhelmingly likely to be factually wrong, given the entire history of fiction, authorial insertion and so on. It doesnâ€™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 doesnâ€™t matter that the game itself discusses these themes and weâ€™re all playing into its hands continually with this kind of discussion.Â This does not matter. All interpretations are equally valid.
Weâ€™ve conflated everyoneâ€™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 â€śstolen workâ€ť.
So, itâ€™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 peopleâ€™s annoyance and ridicule over this. She is merely reflecting the reality that weâ€™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 haveÂ more value in describing the full nature and composition of that workÂ than one which does not? Is this a problem with the word â€śvalidityâ€ť?
I donâ€™t think thatâ€™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. â€śLiterallyâ€ť means â€śfigurativelyâ€ť; every opinion must be prefaced with a statement of identity to highlight and define its subjective nature: â€śAs a [role], I believe xâ€ť. 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 canâ€™t be won: this is where we are. Shooting the messenger doesnâ€™t achieve anything.
Weâ€™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 everyoneâ€™s opinions on this matter. Sheâ€™s gone beyond the call of duty in engaging with peopleâ€™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.