Media Non-Fiction PC Games

The Beginner’s Guide (PC Game)

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:

Film and TV Graphic Novels and Comics Media

Alias and Marvel’s Jessica Jones

51FcV46opWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Alias Omnibus, by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos is the collected comics which follow a minor superhero in the Marvel universe named Jessica Jones. Many people will have heard of the recent Netflix show, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, which is based on these comics. After watching the Netflix show, I ordered the omnibus expecting some good action. I was surprised by the level of character development and the smart humor. While the first season of the Netflix show focuses solely on the main villain from Jessica’s past, who is referred to as The Purple Man in the comics, and Killgrave in the Netflix series, only a small section of the Jessica Jones comics deals with this villain directly. The main focus of the comic series is on Jessica Jones PI jobs, her reluctant interactions with the Avengers, her alcoholism and her contradictory feelings about being a hero. The comics have a very noir feel, and are surprisingly deep. Don’t get me wrong: don’t come here for a literary treatise on the American condition. But if you ever wonder, can a superhero comic ever achieve the depth of character development and world building that a novel can, then Alias is for you (and if you already like superhero comics or graphic novels, then Alias is definitely also for you).



Netflix series Marvel's Jessica Jones stars Krysten Ritter and David Tenant.The Netflix adaptation of Alias, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, centers around the abusive relationship between Killgrave, who has the power of mind control, and Jessica, who has super strength and super speed, as well as limited flying abilities. Jessica suffers from PTSD and believes Killgrave to be dead. His return forces Jessica to decide whether to run or to play the hero. While addressing many of the same topics that Alias does, I found that Alias did a better job with presenting Jessica as a complex character whose toughness is consistently softened by loneliness. Nonetheless, Marvel’s Jessica Jones is the best thing to come out of the Marvel cinematic universe to date. While some have criticized the show for its pacing, and its decision to focus on the storylines of more minor characters in seemingly pivotal moments, I found it provided a much needed opportunity for world building. While both Alias and Marvel’s Jessica Jones have a lot of action, the story of Jessica Jones is really a thrillingly fucked up coming of age story- it is the story of how Jessica learns to be unrelentingly Jessica despite a world that wants her to be so many other things (and now and then, nothing at all).


Media PC Games

Her Story (PC Game)

Her Story is game for people who love database querying. Hilariously, that includes yours truly. The premise of the game is that you have just been given access to some old, disorganized footage of a series of interviews done with a suspect in a murder. You call up footage through querying this database and try to determine what happened (the story is complicated and there’s a lot more to learn than just Who Committed The Murder). There’s even a tagging system, so you can add your own keywords to call up videos later. The game’s pros include an amazing interface (with a couple of Easter eggs), easy game-play (no hand-eye coordination or video game literacy necessary), and compelling content. The only downside is that the endgame dialog (which doesn’t actually end your access to the game or the database) comes after you have accessed a certain number of the videos. Depending on how you design your searches, you can learn the majority of the story long before you see most of the videos and then you just have to make your way through the videos until you reach something like 80%. The game end also enables new admin features, so it’s not simply completionist anxiety. But overall, this game is quite interesting and entertaining and worth a play. $3.59 for the digital download through Jan 4th on Steam ($5.99 after Jan 4th).

Dear Diary

Hectic is Not Full and Calm is Not Empty

I think a normal blog would be all, “here are my resolutions for 2016!” One thing I find most irritating about the holiday season is how everything comes to a halt. Nothing is open, nothing is moving, not even – as the story goes – the mouse. But if there is a theme for this blog, it would be: musing on waiting. I am, in fact, full of ambitions for 2016 – I want to pitch my completed novel to small presses; I want to try to find a crafting hobby; I want to date*; I’d like to finally get certified as an ethical hacker; I am absolutely desperate to read.

I finished my last final of my first semester at NYU Monday night, and I am leaning towards never looking at my grades for the duration of my degree. Since this is (hopefully) the last time I will ever be in graduate school, my GPA is less relevant  than the journey, right? Right? We’ll find out, I guess. I’m talking about working really hard and progressing while acknowledging the difference between useful and stressful feedback.

Now these ambitions are real and in my opinion, eminently achievable, but there remains something that I think is more important than all that – one single thing I will call my 2016 resolution. It is far too easy to rush, to overplan, to fill up one’s life with logistics. I will be spending New Years at the Concert for Peace, followed by meditation with Dharma Punx. I have in mind some kind of smushy opening of the soul, guided only by the vague sense that I have experienced it before. But 2016 is going to be all about slow and calm and open.  Like a Jack Gilbert poem.

Here’s a 2016 wish: calm, thoughtful friends who show up.

*I am the sort of person who would have been better off having a very good childhood friend that I later married, but alas, I failed to think that far in advance. The prospect of online dating is tedious and depressing, and so I am pulling a Charlotte and counting on someone I know to do the matchmaking for me.  (I have no idea when I decided this blog was going to consistently make references to Sex and the City, I swear I never intended to be that sort of person, but here were are.) I may be the first millennial in the U.S.  divesting from algorithmic love while still generally leading a tech riddled life. My totally unoriginal theory is that OKCupid is the rationalizer of chemistry, and that we live in a time where we need to move away from rationalizing because so many people are losing access to intuitive measurement and emotional awareness. My totally unoriginal feeling is that outside of online dating, I have absolutely no idea how to meet men. Therefore! The human matchmaker. We will call her L, and I will keep you updated.