It’s all but impossible to talk about the Beginner’s Guide without spoiling it extensively. Suffice to say, at first, that it is worth playing. But this really is the kind of experience that is best taken in blind; as such, if you haven’t played yet, I do recommend you go and do so – it’s a really smart examination of the relationship between audiences and authors framed as the story of a relationship between two people. It’s a mechanics-light story told using a mix of voiceover, level design, and a little bit of gameplay. The US price point is $8 on Steam.
Davey Wreden, best known for his work on last year’s the Stanley Parable, plays a fictionalized version of himself in the Beginner’s Guide. The game is presented as a stitched-together collection of short Source engine art games by a reclusive designer referred to only as Coda. Wreden connects the games together, and adds in his own voiceover – which supplies context, but also interpretations and a personal history of Wreden’s own relationship to Coda. Sometimes he intercedes in the games themselves, supplying modifications to the games which streamline the experience of playing through Coda’s games. For the sake of brevity, I’ll be referring to this fictionalised Wreden as “Davey”, while the actual person remains “Wreden”.
Wreden puts himself in the position of creator, critic, and audience. So the real Wreden is writing a fictional exegesis, delivered by the fictionalized Davey, about the real games that Wreden made, which in the fiction were made by Coda, a fictional character that Wreden created and Davey was friends with. This isn’t quite the same thing as Wreden making games for himself to critique and then packaging up the content and critique together as a game for the world to critique in turn, but it’s close.
The obvious comparisons here are to metafictional exercises in other media. To Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, a film about the writing of its own screenplay. Or Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, a novel that begins: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller” – and follows on in second-person perspective as “you” realize you have the wrong book entirely.
But the Beginner’s Guide isn’t interested in exactly this kind of representational game. It’s a much more personal story, a walk through Davey’s relationship to Coda, presented in turn as a walk through Coda’s dreamlike game designs, constantly interrupted by Davey’s own impressions and recollections.
It’s a much more emotional story than the premise suggests – it’s not overly concerned with the direct issues of game design, or criticism, or how we construe meaning in games. Instead, it’s concerned with the limits of empathy; with how well we can understand someone through their work; with how much our attempts at helping others stem from a narcissistic need for validation; with how healthy it actually is to be a content creator; with how much of a claim an audience has on a creator.
It’s also a bit of a complicated sleight of hand trick. All of Coda’s games express something, they all add up to a work that is open to interpretations beyond those supplied by Davey.
Davey – the audience – begins his relationship with Coda by being overeager, and quickly moves on to overbearing and then outright unhealthy. Davey’s entire line of analysis is, from the start, tainted by his feelings towards Coda. If Davey can peel back the walls of Coda’s boxy worlds, maybe he can peel back the skin of the man himself, too, and understand. At the root of this need to understand is a fundamental envy about how much more complete, how much more fulfilled Coda seems than Davey. This is a story about Davey’s spiral, told through the framing device of Davey telling the story of the spiral he imagined Coda to be in. It’s telling that when Coda makes a cheerful, warmly domestic game, Davey’s immediate reaction is to mod it so that the happy moment Coda created can end.
Because Davey can only be satisfied by figuring it out, by getting to understand someone else. By taking another person’s subjectivity and swallowing it up to fill the gaps in himself. Coda was content to spend forever in the space between spaces, tidying up that warm home. Not Davey. Davey had to knock down the walls, and stop the music, and plant a big bright lamppost that he could point to and say: “I got it.”
If Davey is a proxy for the whole audience, then Wreden takes a dim view indeed of the audience. But I don’t think that’s the case at all; Wreden clearly empathizes with both ends of it. He clearly knows the position of being where Davey is – of feeling hollowed out, unable to experience happiness from a source that isn’t external validation, that isn’t feeling clever – worse, being told that one is clever, good, important. Or maybe I’m just projecting.
This is, after all, a game about how slippery criticism really is; about how facile statements like “he clearly knows the position of being where Davey is” are, about how easily we slip into a sort of pathological exercise in armchair diagnosis. But Davey is more than a critic; he’s a fan. And of course from the right angle, fandom is a process of stealing someone else’s wholeness, of hammering their work into narratives about ourselves. The Beginner’s Guide is a story about fandom curdling into a sort of illusion of proximity; the fan as an overimaginative foodie who tastes a steak and claims they can tell you what the cow’s life was like.
All this would not be so disturbing if not for Davey’s willingness to take his diagnoses of Coda’s mental state and run with them. Davey bemoans the idea of Coda “not giving [him] any way to fix the problem.” Throughout, his relationship to Coda’s work is increasingly predicated on “fixing” things. On modding or altering games to become something they’re not. The Beginner’s Guide has a particular interest in games with hidden, inaccessible content like that. What does it mean for someone to deliberately insert unused content into something? Or can mean anything at all?
If something in a game is only visible by modifying the game, is it even part of the text? Games – including my own – often ship with unreleased content, assets and levels that are still in the files but were at some point amputated from the experience, or simply never hooked up to it at all.
Is all of the unused text in my games – shut off from normal gameplay by being disconnected from the pipes but still quietly present in the source due to my own laziness – a part of the text of the work? And therefore passible of criticism and analysis, “fair game” for the thoughts and impressions of others? God, I hope not. In many ways, pursuing this content seems like almost as much of a breach of trust as Davey’s redistribution of Coda’s games.
At some point, Davey is going beyond his stated role as a curator, fan, and critic. At one point he starts using Coda’s games as a material for his own assemblage, appropriating Coda’s voice in the process. In the end, in the only moment where Coda is allowed to speak explicitly with his own voice, he specifically calls out this behaviour; it’s clear that his grievances with Davey go well beyond just what Davey himself is saying.
But whereas Davey is all about lacking something and being desperate to get it, Coda is all about having something and being overprotective of it. He’s withdrawing to the point of making us question why he makes games at all. In many ways, Coda is the most absurd subject for Davey’s exercise – a designer so impersonal that reading his work as a deeply personal expression of his feelings is ridiculous.
But Davey’s obsession stems from that very withdrawing nature in Coda’s work. From a sense that, not only is all art autobiographical, we can access that autobiography by reading the work. From the right angle, the exercise of creating this kind of deeply personal content – be it “empathy games” or personal essays – appears as a morbid exercise in commoditizing one’s trauma. Coda seems to explicitly flee from this; for the most part, he builds chilly dreams and nightmares that seem to resist a direct emotional interpretation. The people in his games are stationary mannequins with glowing boxes proclaiming their function to the world; the spaces are vast and empty. If Coda’s designs are about himself at all, he’s using dreams and allegory as a smokescreen, as a way of distancing himself as a person from the authorial voice.
This smokescreen is, in many ways, a necessary piece of safety equipment for creators, especially for creators who struggle with something other than mere jitters. Producing content often depends on some form of vulnerability, on exposure. This observation has become so trite it’s filtered down to the most pedestrian writing manual: show off your vulnerabilities. People whose livelihood is content creation, indeed, are in the oft-uncomfortable position of having to expose themselves like that. Allegory and genre are popular ways of revealing without revealing, of exposing something without exposing oneself. Walking through Coda’s cold and distant halls made me realize how much I use politics as a way of doing exactly that, of writing personal stories while my person stands kilometres away from the story – though I will defend myself by claiming that in this case, the smokescreen is as true and important as the feelings it’s supposed to conceal.
The way the story is framed suggests complicity between Davey and the audience; the player is an unwitting participant in his plot to regain Coda’s attention – and then a horrified witness to Davey’s final cathartic epiphany. Laura Hudson played through the game once without realising it was all fictional, and was outright upset at what she had experienced. Davey makes you an accessory to his crimes: note how he rarely breaks Coda’s games outright – instead he requires you to press a key to break them. In that, too, you’re his unwitting accomplice; “would you kindly expose this person’s subjectivity for me?”
The Beginner’s Guide is many things – a critique of our complicity in usurping and appropriating the interior life of writers and artists we care about; a powerful (accidental?) argument for death-of-the-author criticism; a questioning look at the limits of criticism in general. In many ways, Davey and Coda’s back-and-forth through games are just a medium for a deeper human problem about how much our empathy can be predicated on a need for validation – on needing to feel like we matter, like we can “fix” something. It rests on the idea that art, technology, and its criticism are not found outside the fraught landscape of human relationships. That Davey is no safer (from his own narcissism, from his fears, from his incompleteness) when approaching Coda through his work than Coda’s own character is when approaching a woman he admires at a party.
And, of course: Coda, in spite of what he believed, in spite of what he tried to do, was no safer exposing himself through his games than he would have been doing it face-to-face.