(Originally published 15 September 2014. Thanks to Catcher in the Reel for permission to repost.)
By Aaron Hunter
This article is part of an ongoing project on the topic of web series that will discuss a few key examples over the course of the summer. May include mild spoilers.
The Guild is a web comedy about six online gamers who slowly become friends “in real life.” It premiered in July of 2007 and ran for six seasons. Created by Felicia Day, The Guild has come to serve as a multi-faceted model for how web series can be produced, promoted, and exhibited. Its low-budget, do-it-yourself spirit and aesthetic, and its depiction of a marginalized community have had an incredible influence on later series ranging from Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blogto The Lizzie Bennet Diaries to My Gimpy Life. In laying the foundation for Geek & Sundry, Day’s YouTube Channel/web production company, it has given rise to several new web series. A fair amount has been written about The Guild– popular journalism has tended to cover the story of the series’ creation and Felicia Day’s rise as an Internet personality or star (here and here, for example); while academia has concentrated on Day’s interaction with her fan base and her use of social media to promote both The Guild and Geek & Sundry (here, subscription required ). For this series, however, as with lonelygirl15, I am a bit more interested in The Guild’s style and narrative, and especially the way it uses its paratextual material to enhance – deepen, even – its narrative. On its surface, The Guild is a series about a gaming community targeted at viewers who game, but its audience appeal ended up becoming much broader.
On its launch in 2007, creator, writer and lead performer Felicia Day was a somewhat successful jobbing actor. Her biggest role had been an eight-episode run on the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In addition to having acted in a few television movies and straight-to-video films and making one-off appearances on various television series, she was also an avid gamer. But she was hardly a star. The Guild’s success (including its support by Microsoft for seasons 2-5) changed that and it can no longer be considered a stretch to describe Day as a star, if not in the global sense, most definitely in the on-line world and in the continually growing sphere of geek culture. Much of this has to do with Day’s formidable abilities to use social media to promote her projects and interact with her fan base. However, much of it also has to do with the way The Guild and its paratexts frame Day and the character she plays as being both of the series and also outside of it.
About Gamers for Gamers
On The Guild, Day plays Cyd Sherman, a young resident of Los Angeles whose life seems to be collapsing around her. Like Bree in lonelygirl15 and many other web series protagonists, Cyd often addresses the audience directly via her web camera, as if she were creating a video blog. Every episode of the series opens with such a sequence. In the opening seconds of the first episode, Cyd describes the current state of her life:
In addition to the way its replication of a vlog establishes a personal immediacy with its audience, two other things are noteworthy about these opening moments. The first is the final line about the “gnome warlock” sleeping on her couch. This turns out to be Zaboo, a member of Cyd’s online guild, The Knights of Good – the group of players she games with. As her life has become a shambles, Cyd’s only solace has been in her online gaming habit – playing a multi-player fantasy game similar to World of Warcraft. Prior to the series start, she has only known her fellow guild members via their online avatars. It is Zaboo’s unannounced arrival at Cyd’s home – to profess his real-world love for her – that instigates one of the series’ major arcs: how do Cyd and her on-line “guildies” respond to meeting and getting to know each other in real life.
Another key element of the show’s opening segment is the way it introduces and replicates aspects of Felicia Day’s own life. Between 2003 and 2007 Day’s daily World of Warcraft playing developed into an 8-hour-a-day addiction. It was during the process of trying to wean herself off the game that she developed the idea for a series about online gamers. As the series progresses, various other aspects of Day’s personality and life manifest themselves in Cyd’s experiences. Like Day, Cyd is an accomplished violin player, she’s currently out of work, she describes herself as socially awkward, she frequently makes self-deprecating remarks about her physical appearance, and she has mild issues with depression and obsessive personality traits. Day has been fairly open about these aspects of her own personality (many of which she admits are heavily exaggerated for the series). So, when combined with the confessional elements of The Guild’s opening segments, it is not difficult to discern a clear overlap between the personalities of Felicia Day and Cyd Sherman.
This overlap becomes a subtle but central conceit of the series. Cyd occasionally voices confusion about where she ends and her in-game avatar – known as Codex – begins. She fears she spends too much time online and wonders whether her virtual relationships are actually “real.” The series reinforces this duality by having all the characters refer to themselves and each other by their in-game names – their avatars – throughout the entire series. Felicia Day is Cyd and Cyd is Codex, and the viewer is watching all three at the same time.
Paratexts: Extensions and Inquiries
This is where some of the show’s paratexts become informative. Throughout the show’s run, the series proper was supplemented by online material. In the earliest days, this mainly included advertisements for mock products and some comical Christmas songs. As the show progressed, Day and her colleagues became slightly more ambitious and created three music videos based around the show. Day wrote the lyrics to all the songs, and also performs lead vocals on all of them. Each would be worth exploring in more detail for the ways in which it expands on the meaning of The Guild; however, for the sake of brevity, I’ll stick to the first video, “(Do You Wanna Date My) Avatar.” “Avatar” was released in August of 2009 to promote the upcoming third season of The Guild. The video and song found a somewhat surprising success – with the help of very savvy promotion, including by high-profile friends like Joss Whedon, the video reached a million views on YouTube in less than two days; the song itself became a number one download on itunes and a number two download on Amazon, and it also became a playable track for Rock Band 2. The video currently has nearly 25 million views on YouTube, which is more than three times the number of views for any episode of The Guild itself. In other words, for many viewers, “Avatar” is a Felicia Day video, not a Guild video.
“Avatar” depicts all six members of the guild as their in-game avatars. This is the first time in the series’ run that any of the actors are seen as their avatars, which, before this, had only been represented as simple animations during the show’s opening credit sequences.
A pastiche of late ‘80s dance music videos, “Avatar” features the main cast and backup dancers acting sexy and silly against a white backdrop. The lyrics are laden with insider references to online gaming, many of which double as sexual innuendo. On the surface, the song seems to imply that on-line romantic relationships are somehow better – sexier, more adventurous – than real-world relationships. But as the video and lyrics are highly ironic, the song can also be read as a mockery of such a viewpoint:
The video presents all of the characters from The Guild, but in a way viewers had not yet seen them. Because it doesn’t name them explicitly, one can ask who is actually being depicted – the actors in costume? the characters of the series? the characters’ avatars? Felicia Day, Cyd, or Codex? The question is further complicated by the way the lyrics are presented – Felicia Day, dressed as Codex, sings the line “do you want to date MY avatar,” although she is in fact performing the avatar, not the character of Cyd. Again, this raises some questions about identity that deepen the series’ own explorations of who these guildies – particularly Cyd – actually are. It is also worth mentioning that the song and video raise questions about self-esteem, sexuality, online trolling, and misogyny, all of which are addressed in various ways both throughout the series and by Day herself in interviews and in her own vlogs.
The exploration of identity is extended in the final episode of season 3. This season concerns a rival guild – The Axis of Anarchy – who harass The Knights of Good both on- and off-line throughout the season. By the end of the season, the two guilds decide to settle their differences in a LAN-party battle – all sitting in the same room, they have an in-game fight “to the death.” The penultimate episode ends with a cliffhanger – all of the Knights of Good have been polished off and only Cyd/Codex is left to fight, while her guildies cheer her on. The season finale marks the first appearance of Felicia Day as Codex in the series itself, and it shows how complicated the layers of identity can become on this show:
This sequence reinforces the idea that Cyd and Codex are actually the same and different characters simultaneously. Building on the already existing elision between Day’s and Cyd’s personalities – which is carried over from Day’s performance in the “Avatar” video – Day’s own presence is added to the mix: again, Day is Cyd, Cyd is Codex, and they are all having a conversation with each other and themselves at the same time about who it is that they actually are and what kind of person they want to be. This sort of conversation drastically personalizes The Guild. As a thread which runs throughout the series, it must be considered a key draw to the series’ many viewers. One of the web series strengths as a medium is the way it invites viewers to feel a part of any particular series’ community. Exploring its creator and protagonist’s identity in such personal fashion is one of the ways The Guild extends such an invitation.
Codex – or Cyd as Codex – only appears two more times in the series, during an in-game wedding ceremony at the end of season 4, and while testing out a beta version of a Game expansion as part of her new job working for the Game’s creator in season 6. In both cases, however, we see Cyd-as-Codex. She looks like her avatar, but talks and acts like Cyd, unlike in the previous clip, indicating that Cyd and Codex may be integrating.
Perhaps more telling of the show’s explorations of identity comes on Cyd’s first day at this new job. It’s a very brief moment: Cyd arrives at Game headquarters and is delightfully awed by the headquarters’ collection of various game paraphernalia. As she wanders through the cavernous reception area, she’s momentarily shocked by something she sees there: Codex’s in-game outfit on display.
This is the only “real-world” appearance of anything resembling Codex, and it’s significant that it appears on Cyd’s first day at her new job. It is through her work for The Game – specifically in solving many of the problems that arise as her work-life and personal-life collide – that Cyd finally comes to a sense of closure regarding the events from Season 1 that first led her to questioning her own identity. While retaining many of her quirks of personality, she has become more confident and responsible, her friendship with her guildies out of game has strengthened into something deep and meaningful to all of them, and she’s done this all with the help of her online community, but neither because of them nor in spite of them, thus becoming a celebration of community. The series’ final scene is a direct reference to its opening scene, as Cyd makes one final video blog recording – the only one in the series’ run that doesn’t begin an episode.
It’s quite easy to see both Cyd and Day performing here – for Cyd, “the guild” is her group of friends that she made while playing online, for Day “the guild” is the series itself. Creating and producing The Guild not only helped Day overcome her World of Warcraft obsession, it actually changed her life, transforming her into one of the most high-profile and powerful creators of independent online narrative-based content active today. Thus, while much of the narrative world of The Guild concerns Cyd reconciling herself with Codex, it could be argued that much of the extra-narrative of The Guild is about Day and Cyd’s similar reconciling. Such a reading shows that, as entertaining as a comedy about gaming can be in its own right, the series can also be read as an intriguing investigation of identity and personal exploration, which is likely part of why it has developed a fan base far broader than its initial target audience.
NEXT UP: A special guest walks us through The Lizzie Bennet Diaries