The stakes of an idea

Published on 2024-01-24

My favourite video game of all time was, for a while, The Beginner's Guide, written by Davey Wreden--the same guy who wrote the Stanley Parable. I'm not sure if it still is for reasons I may get into if I ever start seriously doing media analysis, but it shaped a lot of the way I think about video games and it stuck with me for quite a while.

I still think it's a really good game that's worth playing so I'll try my best not to spoil it. I will say that the game is a sort of narrated anthology of games, and a big part of trying to read The Beginner's Guide involves interrogating the relationship between the anthology's narrator, the creator of the games themselves, and you, as the player.

Strangely, the narrator of the anthology is understood throughout the game to be "Davey Wreden," the person who wrote the game as a whole. The game starts by immediately breaking the fourth wall. And so, lots of media critics naturally feel inclined to interrogate the relationship between the "real" Davey Wreden, his portrayal in The Beginner's Guide, the creator of the games in the anthology, and so on.

The Artist is Absent: Davey Wreden and The Beginner's Guide by Innuendo Studios

(This is the second time I've brought up an Innuendo Studios video in a gemlog entry for those keeping count)

One thing that Ian spends a lot of time investigating in his analysis is the problem of what's at stake when we involve the intentions of the real Davey Wreden in an analysis. Did he really do all of the things the narrator did in the game? Does he share all the feelings the narrator expresses? Or is this just a device to tell an interesting story? His argument was that ultimately, nothing's at stake. Understanding Wreden's personal investment in the narrative through the narrator might tell you something about Wreden as a person, but it doesn't change the text in any meaningful way.

All that really matters to us as individuals is how we relate to the text. The author's relationship is theirs and theirs alone.

Virtual marginalia

This question of what's at stake in understanding the thoughts, intentions and desires of others is one that bugs me a lot. I might be less able to figure these things out on my own than others--they say autism does that to you. But it has always mattered to me a lot.

In some regard, I do feel like there are stakes to the way other people think.

For example, let's say someone thinks I have a real funny looking nose. What are the stakes of that person having that particular opinion?

Well, that person could attend town halls. They could garner support for the Anti Weird Nose Action Front. They could lobby the government, and ultimately they could pass laws criminalizing "obscene nose displays" that would prevent me from leaving my house without some kind of mask. There are some beliefs that are genuinely dangerous--weapons of memetic warfare. Those beliefs have stakes.

On the other hand, what does such a belief say about the individual who holds them? Maybe it makes them a fundamentally evil person. Maybe it makes them a fundamentally broken person. Maybe it makes them someone who spent a lifetime in the grips of a network of abusive relationships that lead them to hold such toxic prejudices--maybe it makes them deserving of my sympathy.

I encounter a lot of guerrilla fighters for the Anti Weird Nose Action Front in my life. This is a problem I have to grapple with quite a bit.

How you interpret such a person depends a lot on the context. If you don't know them well, then maybe it is literally easier to just write them off as an intrinsically evil person--a single pawn in the infinite hoards of Satan himself. I'm not super big on that framing myself but I can't really blame other people for thinking it; constantly having to look over your shoulder lest you be jumped with accusations about your nose is exhausting to say the least. But what if they're your parents? Your partners? Your closest friends? It's hard to write people off when you have such a deep emotional connection with them.

I suppose that the problem is that these beliefs are no longer just the stories of ourselves. When we buy into these larger narratives, like the supremacy of normal-nosed people and the inevitable triumph of the Anti Weird Nose Action Front, then we lend them our will. We become a facet of a machine much larger than any of its individual agents. We become inextricably linked. Can you separate your best friend from the amalgamated spectre of the Anti Weird Nose Action Front?

I'm not convinced you can.

I don't like it, but I worry that if you are fundamentally expendable to the people you care about, then that relationship is essentially parasocial in nature.

You've got to find a way to write them off.

That doesn't necessarily mean deciding they're evil. Maybe you think they're deserving of your sympathy. That's valid, I'm sure. But I don't know if it's truly possible to give them your empathy--to see the story as it relates to the person who lives it, rather than the story alone.

Applying the principle of the death of the author when trying to understand people feels... strange? Maybe even a little sociopathic? No movement is truly a monolith. Everyone has their own unique ideas and everyone had their own unique set of circumstances that lead them to those ideas. But when there's so much at stake, seeing the beautifully diverse ways in which people have come to believe you are fundamentally broken for having a funny looking nose, that you need to be fixed or erased from social life because of it, becomes a really big ask.

I want to, though. I don't know why, but I really do want to. And still, I don't know if it's even possible. I'm still trying to figure out how.

This post was originally called "The amalgamated spectre of the Anti-Weird Nose Action Front and its autonomous agents. I've renamed it because I think the current name better reflects the broader subject of the article. The subject of the original title might get its own gemlog entry someday.

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