[Warning: Spoilers for The Beginner’s Guide may be found below]
It seems we have entered into a golden age of deconstuctive, postmodern, indie games within the last three or four years. In 2013 we were given The Stanley Parable and the first act of Kentucky Route Zero, each eschewing traditional gameplay for quirky narrative exploration and experimentation. In 2015 we got Undertale, and, well, I’ve already talked enough about that, and in 2016 we got the slightly less serious, but still impressive Pony Island. This is, of course, only a taste of what we’ve been given, and completely overlooks the abundance of experimental online games and demos that are made available for free.
There’s plenty that can be said about any of these games, but for this post I’m going to be focusing on two games that came out in 2015: Davey Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide and Question’s The Magic Circle. At the heart of both these games are questions about creativity, audience-creator/designer-player relationships, and what games do for us personally. They both go about it in ways that are similar, but also entirely different, with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Before I begin talking about these games in relation to each other I’m going to be talking about them individually. I’ll start with Beginner’s Guide because I played it first and because playing it led me to play Magic Circle.
What I enjoy the most about The Beginner’s Guide is its use of aesthetic. Or, to borrow a term from my college drama class, it’s “formal qualities.” Formal qualities, put simply, are the choices that build aesthetic. In a script there might be a line that says “[character] sits down in a chair onstage.” Simple enough. But there are a multitude of choices present in this simple instruction that drastically change what we see and understand about the world this action is taking place in. What kind of chair is it? Rocking chair, stool, armchair, deck? How is the character sitting? Legs crossed, hunched over, straight? Does it take effort for them to sit? Are they relieved? Do they say anything before, during, or after this action? Where is the action taking place in relation to the audience? Does everyone sit this way, or is this character unusual? With one simple instruction we find a multitude of worlds. The Beginner’s Guide revels in its formal qualities. It builds levels and scenes that are absorbing, powerful, puzzling, and disturbing. It brings together disparate elements into a whole. As theatermaker Robert Wilson once said: “If you place a baroque candelabra on a baroque table, both get lost. If you place the candelabra on a rock in the ocean, you begin to see what it is.” There’s a vision to The Beginner’s Guide, a beautiful one, but also a problematic one.
The Beginner’s Guide is narrated by it’s creator, Davey Wreden, as himself. The game is supposedly a collection of short levels and games created by Wreden’s friend Coda, who Wreden fell out of contact with years ago. Wreden says that he collected these games into The Beginner’s Guide to show Coda’s work to the world, show how much people could appreciate his work, and hopefully reconnect with Coda, or at least inspire Coda to start making games again. As we explore these games, Wreden explains how he met Coda, his relationship with his friend, his interpretation of Coda’s games, and how the two fell out. Eventually (Here come the spoilers) it is revealed that Wreden had tampered with Coda’s games, changing their makeup to provide a sort of metaphorical quality, superimposing meaning that wasn’t there. Wreden also released several of Coda’s games without Coda’s permission.
Coda stops making games, not because he is depressed (as Wreden assumed), but because of Wreden’s interference with his work.
There’s a fair amount of debate online about whether or not Coda is, in fact, a real person. Outside of the game itself Wreden has stated that Coda is real, but I personally don’t think that this means that Coda is a singular, flesh-and-blood person that is living their life who-knows-where. I think Coda is real, as real as any metaphor can be when it is personal.
After the massive success of The Stanley Parable Wreden wrote a blog post about how he was struggling with his newfound fame and struggling to not set up his ego with expectations of acclaim and success. In many ways, this blog post is a precursor to the themes of The Beginner’s Guide, and it seems to me it may be a little too simpatico with Coda’s story for the latter to be truly “real.” Perhaps there was a real person like Coda, and perhaps these games are inspired by this person’s work, but I doubt that the story delivered by Wreden is the gospel truth.
[Let’s also not forget that there’s a team of credited people that worked on The Beginner’s Guide, including programmers, designers, artists, and composers. Not sure what all those people would have been doing if Coda had already made most of the content (which would also be illegal to reproduce and sell without Coda’s permission)]
So, is Coda real? I think yes and no. But, ultimately, I don’t think it matters much in the context of the game, nor is it what bothers me about Beginner’s Guide. In a way, the simplest question I took away from the game is this: when is the audience allowed to reinterpret an author’s work? Or, maybe, even simpler: who owns a creative work once it is shown?
I’ve written about the death of the author before and I mostly stick by my claims. If Wreden really did change Coda’s work, claimed those changes should still belong to Coda, and distributed them without Coda’s permission, that is terrible. But there’s something being left out, and that is the fault of Coda.
The thing is, everything in the game traps you. You see Coda’s creations with Wreden’s perspective as he comments on how Coda’s work gets darker and more troubling. Wreden becomes concerned for his friend. Sure, in hindsight we see that it may just have been Coda’s process, no metaphor intended at all, but realistically, in the moment, it isn’t hard to see why Wreden was concerned. These games do feature disturbing imagery and worrysome symbols. If interpretation is determined by what is in the work, why would it be unusual to assume Coda was possibly troubled?
And Coda doesn’t tell Wreden anything.
I think a lot of players want to protect Coda, or put him up on a pedestal. Wreden mentions how Coda is introverted, and quiet to the extreme, but also kind and warm when you get to know him. Coda is also extremely creative, judging by his work. In a way, Coda is the idealized projection of the average gamer: he creates interesting work on his own; he is quiet, but kind; he is misunderstood; and, in the end, he is a tragic hero who suffers from the ignorance of others.
But, when someone creates an interpretation of your work based upon what they see, and you don’t say anything, it’s hard for me to feel sympathetic when you get mad at their interpretations.
Of course, many will point out that Davey is an unreliable narrator in the game, which is fair. And I’m not saying that it’s okay that Davey changes and distributes Coda’s work, that’s not excusable. What I’m saying is that, if Davey told Coda “I’m seeing things in your games that make me worry about you,” and Coda doesn’t try to communicate with Davey, he is just as much a part of the toxic relationship as Davey is. It’s a two way street.
And, of course, if we extend this into the macro, we could say that this is a metaphor for creators and for consumers. If you make something, and give that something to people, it’s unfair to get mad when they draw conclusions and interpretations from the work if you haven’t attempted to justify your own interpretation as well. On the other hand, it seems consumers are confusing the privilege of being given art, and the privilege of interpreting said art, as a sort of creative ownership of their own. As if they, as a consumer, are themselves a creator.
There’s something important here. Something that the Beginner’s Guide is beginning to say. But I’m not sure if it really says it.
I’m sure some of you readers can tell that I’m struggling to talk about this game. This post is even more long and disjointed than my other reviews/critiques, but there’s something about this game that is simultaneously enveloping and alienating. The story seems to be about communication. Personal communication, and the communication and interpretation that takes place in art. But while the game seems to desire honest communication, the intertwining of real life and fiction blocks the game from any communication at all.
I’ve written about my disdain for work that shields itself in irony, but I don’t think that Davey’s game is ironic. In a way, it’s so sincere that it becomes almost untouchable. I legitimately have to wonder if my writing this contributes to Davey’s anxiety and pain, but, at the same time, it seems unfair to myself to withhold opinions and personal discoveries just because the creator may disagree. Beginner’s Guide is so sincere in its ambiguities that it makes me afraid to say anything about it, and even then I’m wondering “but maybe that’s the point?” But, I don’t like that. But, maybe that’s the point? To play The Beginner’s Guide is to be unsatisfied, and I can’t help but wonder if the only way to really say anything about it is to, like Coda, walk away from it. But, if that’s the case, then I can’t help but feel that the game is broken. There’s so much here that is beautiful, and there are a lot of wonderful questions being asked, but The Beginner’s Guide takes a lot from the player while disguising these demands as generous honesty. And if that’s the point, I feel like I might need to regret spending money on this game, which is not something I want to do.