The Beginner’s Guide, created by Davey Wreden (who also famously made The Stanley Parable), gets immediate brownie points from pretty much every reviewer for daring to try something new.  In a nutshell, the game approaches the topics of consumption-as-identity, authorship, depression, and what it means to know a person in the form of a “narrative video game,” a game that eschews normal game mechanics in favor of what feels like a narrated tour. The compelling part is the tour guide is telling a deeply personal story, and the player gradually realizes that he is grappling with the narrative even as he tells the story.

Some will argue (and have argued) that therefore, The Beginner’s Guide is not a game, so much as an interactive story, or a visual novel. Over at PC World, Hayden Dingman even gets into Death of the Author, Barthes’  literary theory about authorial present, intent and control in a given work. Indeed, as a text, there are many ways to discuss The Beginner’s Guide and what it says about various themes common to the lived experience in the first world.  But all of that happens to be less interesting to me at the moment than the (also often addressed) question of what constitutes a game.  More specifically, if we take it as a given that Wreden’s latest work is in fact a visual novel,  does that necessarily mean it is not a game? Or, to put it in the most controversial way possible, can a novel (you know, a normal book) be a game?
Here are some experiences/thoughts I had while I was playing The Beginner’s Guide:

This narrator’s voice is comforting, can Davey narrate all the games I play?
Man this is some deep psychological shit.
Dude, who builds whole levels that aren’t even accessible?
Oh my God, Coda isn’t even REAL.
Wait. Is Coda real?
Wait, what if Davey is Coda, and I am Davey? That would just be some whiney shit.
Why does EVERY character have a block head except the one girl who is crying?
House cleaning and lamp posts: domesticity in the wild, got it.
adding lamp posts! is this what the player does? add lamp posts? projection + making the foreign more familiar. OR – beacon, I am here in your world, come find me.
What is the difference between Davey’s need for validation and loneliness?
Is it really true that we can’t know anything about the author by looking at his work?

OK.  So this is what I think of as definitely necessary in a game:
1) participatory
2) puzzle – so traditionally, we use this in the game world to denote logic puzzles in adventure games, or even just puzzle games – games  that are basically leveled puzzles. But I am expanding “puzzle” here to mean  “interactive challenge that it is necessary to overcome in order to progress.” So that could be combat, or a platformer level, or a more traditional puzzle.
3) progress – true for most media, but also games.  unlike most forms of media,  games aren’t necessarily linear but there are end conditions.

In What Videogames Have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy, James Paul Gee asserts, “two things that, at first sight, look to be ‘mental’ achievements, namely literacy and thinking, are, in reality, also and primarily social achievements.”[1] He goes on to defend this argument by explaining that the reader cannot “privately” or “asocially” read a text. What determines how a person reads, according to Gee, is who she associates herself  with. He stresses that the reader is free to read however she likes, insofar as she can align herself with whatever group or people she chooses, but what she cannot do is read outside the framework of a social narrative altogether. There must be a social narrative. The reader,  then, is constantly interacting with her text, by bringing her social narrative to bear on what she is reading.  Moreover, she is constantly deciding who is in relation to the text, as she reads. In this way, all media is participatory.  Arguably, videogames capitalize on this participation where other forms of media capitalize on other universal traits. A different discussion for another day is why we take the participatory trait of media (i.e. “play”) to be less serious or important than other traits.

In SuperBetter, Jane McGonigal argues that anything can be a game, you simply label your allies, and your bosses, and you get to work.[2]  She believes that gamifying one’s life will increase the amount of time one spends in a  “flow” state, and therefore reduce suffering.
However, the puzzle task seems to me to be forced in McGonigal’s treatment, it involves the literal reorganization of worldview in order to explicitly label something a “puzzle.”  And Fred Rogers, you know – Mr. Rogers – argues that play is work (although he only argues it in regard to children – there is no reason not to extend this argument).[3]

Perhaps the reason why our everyday interactions are not “puzzles” to be “played” is because they don’t cohere neatly into a gamic model. (did I make the word “gamic” up? I don’t think so..) But – as the visual novel type of game, such as The Beginner’s Guide might suggest – could it be that the “gamic model” is simply a progressive narrative structure that has cohered into a specific space? That is, if the novel is the space, and if reading it requires the application of the reader’s experience in the world and her conception of self, as Gee suggests, then could it not be argued that reading is a form of playing, because of the reader-text interaction?

Of course there still remains the challenge of the puzzle, which is a particular sub-narrative, with a more defined interaction.  I think, though counter-intuitive, it is possible to break up a novel into a series of puzzles, using both the novel structure as a general construct and/or the individual structure of an individual novel. I think we might go so far as to say that avid readers are people who enjoy the kind of interactive puzzles that are inherent to the medium of the novel.  These puzzles involve way finding, evaluation of information, even strategy: the application of already-gained knowledge to the construct of the larger narrative in the reader’s mind.

Yet, this very wide reading of the game (that it might involve anything with a structured narrative with which the player/reader/viewer interacts) does a disservice to the traditional medium of the game in exactly one important way: agency. In The Beginner’s Guide, the player has very little agency, and in a novel, the reader has no agency except insofar as she consistently negotiates her own relationship with the text. In a more traditional video game,  she both negotiates this relationship and also substantially affects the environment of the game itself. She cannot affect the environment of the book in the same way, it is static.

Indeed, the player might find The Beginner’s Guide frustrating in the lack of agency it gives you, especially since you are complicit in the narrator’s mistreatment of “Coda,” a possibly fictional game designer.  Likewise, a book that does not allow for satisfying relationship negotiation will go unfinished by the reader. And a traditional video game which feigns more agency that it actually gives often reaps criticism.

That isn’t to say there’s no place within the gaming sphere for games that limit player agency – I do think that you could legitimately argue that all media experiences fall on the game spectrum somewhere, but there is an important question here, and it has not only to do with games but also, say, paranormal romance, and 50 shades of grey and user experience and, like, capitalism and democracy. The question is — and I think it is the most important one that The Beginner’s Guide asks — what does it mean to have agency?

[1] Gee, James Paul. What video games have to teach us about literacy and learning. New York: Palgraw Macmillan (2003).
[2] McGonigal, Jane. SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient — Powered by the Science of Games. Penguin Press First Edition (2015).
[3] Fred Rogers. (n.d.). Retrieved December 31, 2015, from Web site: