Michael Pementel

Graduated from Columbia College Chicago's Creative Writing Program, as well as a published essayist whose work focuses on the impact of pop culture, as well as mental illness awareness. He currently writes at For the Love of Punk, and as part of the marketing team for CIMMFest. In his spare time he works little by little on his book about the history of black metal.

What is a Video Game?

Video games often follow simple storylines. Rescue the princess! Defeat the enemy. Find the treasure. These are the objectives, within these digital stories, that require skill and knowledge to complete. Games are objective-based narratives one engages to reach a certain goal. But what if a game had absolutely no objective? What if it didn’t require any challenge or skill from you, but just your time? Is it still a game?

The Beginner’s Guide is such a game. Released last October, The Beginner’s Guide was created by Davey Wreden. Wreden is a game designer who has received high acclaim for his previous game The Stanley Parable—another first person interactive game with loads of absurdism (a philosophy which argues the search for meaning is pointless, and we should embrace life as is). The only controls available to the player in The Beginner’s Guide are the W, A, S, and D keys for movement, and the mouse.

The player follows Wreden as he shares a series of events from 2008 to 2011 involving his friend Coda, a game designer that he met at a gaming get-together. Coda has created games of varying design and complexity, and through these games Wreden shares his thoughts on Coda, game development, and his philosophical beliefs. Similar to The Stanley Parable, The Beginner’s Guide is deeply absurdist. Many of the levels are abstract, left with bugs, goals that are impossible to meet, or even “unfinished.” In many of these cases, Wreden “comes into” the game to help the player by altering the coding and allowing them to progress. In one level the player walks into a jail cell and has the door shut behind them. The only way to leave is to wait for an hour in real time. At another point, the player is in a room that leads to an underground passage. The player follows the passage, only to see that it leads nowhere. There is an outside, but you just can’t reach it.

As it progresses and you learn more about Coda and Wreden, the game becomes an existential nightmare about their relationship as artists and friends. Beyond the exploration of each game, and learning about this friendship, there is no other objective. There is nothing in the game that tells you what you are supposed to discover or who you are to defeat. There are no points or skill-dependent achievements; the game is about listening. In light of this, what makes The Beginner’s Guide’s a video game?

Mainstream video games—such as Call of Duty, Super Mario, Halo, and The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim—involve higher levels of interactivity, whether that means fighting an enemy, solving a problem, or exploring a map to reach an objective. There is competition, the option to fail, and players can learn from mistakes to find new solutions to problems. In other words, video games allow us to make decisions to reach our goals. Even considering games that don’t always follow a narrative, like Tetris, there is still a goal that the player is pursuing: improving their score.

The Beginner’s Guide plays off these traditional aspects, but puts a unique spin on how they work. Other than to listen to Wreden’s story, there is no clear goal to the game. While there are small decisions to be made, they in no way alter the pace or change or even lose the game; your decisions can’t stop the story. As long as you move forward, the game’s story is told. Yet how this story is told, Wreden’s dialogue, makes for a meta-game, as he explains the functions of a typical video game and how they are created and run. For example: when the player may be trying to complete an impossible level Wreden will speak up, comment on the level, and while altering the game’s coding he discusses how levels are brought together with a gaming engine, and how games function. The Beginner’s Guide is a video game about Coda and Wreden’s relationship, and it is a video game about video games.

The Beginner’s Guide is not the first video game to ask what makes a video game a video game. The game Mountain was released in 2014, and simply invites players to watch over a mountain. No context is given for this task, but slowly over time the mountain begins to change. Text will sometimes appear, and you can tap the screen on mobile platforms to make sounds and spin the mountain, but that’s the only interactivity allowed. There are no points, there are no goals, your only purpose is to watch the mountain.

Meta-video games lead us to ask questions about what exactly is a game. Since you interact with it, type and share content with other “players”, can we consider Facebook a video game? Since it has functions and we use it for certain objectives, can we consider the simple usage of our computers as gaming? Consider how we use our smartphones, the design so similar to how the classic Gameboy functioned. We open our smartphone apps with purpose, to fulfill some sort of goal; this is similar in a sense to popping in a game and going about a mission in hopes to achieve a certain success. Is life a game?

A post at Gamesutra on The Beginner’s Guide states:

“The Beginner’s Guide is a video game about video games, then, but not in a cloying you-are-the-monster way or a hey-remember-Mario way. It’s a video game about the act of engaging with a video game, both through creation and consumption…The Beginner’s Guide is a self-reflective exercise for Wreden, almost definitely. But it is also a self-reflective exercise for the player to think about their relationship with virtual spaces, and with the human beings who craft them.

What makes The Beginner’s Guide excellent are the questions and wonder it promotes. It’s not a “traditional” video game, but a small step into a new world of gaming, one focused on approaching narrative in a new way, and provoking thoughts beyond the end of the game itself. It does what any great piece of art should make us do: question.

The Babadook: The Horror We Must Face

Even though horror movies aren’t suffering at the box office there is something missing from the genre: the horror. Many moviegoers are looking for a quick scare, and Hollywood reflects this. Year after year we get sequels, prequels, and remakes of films that are mere gimmicks. Every once in a while mainstream cinema will have its gems, but overall the horror genre feels lost. Yet, true horror reflects our fears, addressing what we don’t want to talk about. It has been too long since horror films have attempted inventive. Then, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook came out last year.

The film centers around Amelia (played by Essie Davis), a single mother trying to raise her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), after the death of her husband. [Spoiler] It is eventually revealed that Amelia’s husband died in a car accident while she was in labor with Sam. Amelia resents her son; when he says he loves her, she can’t say “I love you” back. She wants to love her child, but the guilt, and sorrow make it difficult. Sam’s life and her husband’s death are inseparably intertwined. The difficulty of being a single, grieving mother is exacerbated by Sam’s erratic nature; he gets so bad that he has to be removed from school. His behavior and the loss of her husband all bear down upon her. The ever-present bags under her eyes, disconnected from friends, how she can’t seem to sleep anymore. As the film progresses Amelia’s sanity begins to slowly slip. She hears things, lashes out in physical violence, and both she and Sam start seeing the Babadook.

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The creature itself is terrifying, a mix of humanoid cockroach and Phantom of the Opera wearing a coat and top hat. Yet physical appearance isn’t what makes the Babadook terrifying, but what it represents. The Babadook represents Amelia’s agony, her grief, depression and loss, and this is what makes the film true story horror. It presents a taboo affliction, the lonely island of grief, and adds a supernatural spin to it. So much of mainstream horror cinema plays it safe, focusing on playing out the action quickly and loudly; The Babadook is a slow, and painful burn.

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Along with its haunting imagery The Babadook asks the viewer to look at the family, and how it functions, in an unconventional light. Watching the chemistry between Amelia and Sam is heartbreaking. When Amelia can’t say “I love you”, and becomes exponentially more hostile over the course of the film. They are family, and conventionally we are used to the loving family overcoming obstacles. Societal norms would have us believe that mothers always love their children, and will always protect them. This is not the case here; this is family torn apart by depression, unable to cope, and pushed into utter darkness.  The audience has to view something that is not just different, but a situation difficult to swallow.

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Director John Carpenter once said, “There are two different stories in horror: internal and external. In external horror films, the evil comes from the outside, the other tribe, this thing in the darkness that we don’t understand. Internal is the human heart.” Effective horror movies should scare and unsettle the viewer, and one way to accomplish this is horror that’s personal, human. The Babadook is that darkness we don’t understand, the horror that lives within us. The Babadook portrays what that life is like, to be haunted by something that is out our control, to live with heartache and burden. We witnesses a woman haunted by her own agony, cursed by her own emotions. 

Contemporary horror relies on simple tropes and tired effects to scare the audience. These can involve “jump scares” (moments when a visual or sound cue is quickly flashed or played to give the audience a jolt). These techniques were used constantly in last year’s Annabelle. There would be a sharp noise played at a random time and a ghost’s face would pop up out of nowhere. These sort of techniques can cause audience members to jump in their seats, but that isn’t horror. Strong horror is subtle, slow, and may force you to look upon a terrifying image. In one scene in The Babadook, Amelia is standing in her hallway and looking into the kitchen. The Babadook begins floating towards her, the music gets lower the closer it gets. The camera moves from her face to its approaching form. As the Babadook comes upon her, the music is cut and then the sound of blades being drawn is heard as its claws pull out. This is effective use of imagery and sound, holding the audience on the edge of its seat. This isn’t just one moment of quick shock, but a scene of creeping dread, the slow movement of fear.

Much of The Babadook is a risk in the realm of cinematic horror. But what modern horror needs is more risks, to step away from convention, to bring back the essence of horror. The genre is meant for more than just a quick shocking jolt, a close up of some monster’s face. For being a first feature debut from director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook certainly deserves to be viewed, especially for fans of horror. She was able to create a family steeped in misery, but also create a face to a creature that is far too real. Her risks paid off, for she reminds us that some of life’s horrors are within.