If you have gotten anything from the writing on this website thus far, it should be that I enjoy games that strike out from more traditional ways of doing things. I appreciate the little innovations to the fabric of video game development, like tinkering with existing dichotomies of player control, or changing how the story is delivered to the player, or even rending the game nigh on inaccessible to those unafraid of the difficulty and challenge. Video games are a young medium, and as a young medium it is in our best interests as the players of these games to be open-minded about the games that we play and vocal and thoughtful in our discussions of them.
Davey Wreden is a developer that is prompting that exact discussion. His first outing was the ever-impossible to describe The Stanley Parable: a fantastic game critiquing the illusion of choice in video games brilliantly narrated by Kevan Brighting, whose voice I would take to a nice seafood dinner before going home to slip into some sexy lingerie. Or out of. The point is that the game made a statement: specifically, how much control does a player in one of these games actually have? Are there elements of gameplay that defy the intended use of the game? At what point do the limitations of a player become damaging to their psyche as a recipient of this medium? These are questions that were asked of that game, and are questions that can help foster what we want as a community from our video game experiences.
Wreden’s follow-up to Brighting’s Victoria Secret catalogue-esque showing is the also totally impossible to describe The Beginner’s Guide. Steam’s description of the game is eye-squintingly brief: “It lasts about an hour and a half and has no traditional mechanics, no goals or objectives. Instead, it tells the story of a person struggling to deal with something they do not understand.” Simple enough. But it’s just slightly too honest – and made by the person that made us sit through some serious -mindscrews – to take at face value, which of course is the whole point. The best way to play this game is to go in blind, like I did, but to talk about the game, there are going to be spoilers. Now, I highly urge you to play the game for yourself – or at least watch an LP of it, for you will get arguably the same outcome – because past the picture below of my future voice boyfriend Mr. Brighting, there will be no pulling punches and I will talk about the game as if you have played or seen it yourself.
Back? Excellent. Let us press on.
What Wreden does very well in his games is pick a central point about video game design and unpack it as far as he can go. With The Stanley Parable, it was all about player choice. In The Beginner’s Guide, however, it is a critique on player interpretation and the process of deconstruction. The story is framed to allow Davey’s deconstruction of Coda’s work, and in doing so he seeks to understand the developer on an emotional level, hoping that the obscurity and nuance of his work will give him insight into this enigmatic person. It begins as a relatively inconsequential or even benign process. This is a person with a story to tell and he wants to share it. As the story progresses, however, the unreliability of Davey becomes more and more apparent, until the entire process is revealed to be a self-indulgent exercise to dispense opinion to a willing participant. Gee, I can’t imagine why that would strike a chord.
Many people have taken the interpretation that The Beginner’s Guide draws heavy inspiration from a concept from literary criticism called the Death of the Author. Simply put, the intended meaning of a text as supposed by the writer and the meaning that is derived from a text by the reader are equivocal: neither has any theoretical or “word of God” validity over the other. Davey’s insistence that there are multiple interpretations of the events that unfold in the game work to set this game up to fulfill this purpose. Of course, with Davey being an unreliable narrator and with his own input in the levels becoming more and more apparent, this could be another act of pandering on Davey’s part: it isn’t really about what you think, it’s about deriving the evidence from the work and constructing the meaning that author has left in the work and that is gospel. Interpretation, then, becomes moot: despite the signposts leading you to different places are there, the writing on the signposts themselves are concrete and static.
It is an interesting concept, and one I do not wholly agree with, particularly in a video game context. With any video game is the inherent issue of dealing with interactivity: namely, how much control a game is willing to give a player to fulfill the objectives the game sets out for it. Environmental narrative games – the wanky name for the not-even-close-to-facetious moniker for the subgenre of walking simulators – are the logical extreme of taking control out of the player’s hands. The game has a narrative it wants you to experience, and provides a roughly linear progression of flags and events for you to stumble upon that pieces that narrative together into an experience. In that sense, authorial intent must be considered in the genre of environmental narrative because it would defy the genre if it were to be ignored. It is certainly not the be-all end-all of narrative interpretation, but unpacking what the author meant in creating the game needs to be considered, because, simply put, video games do not simply emerge from the ether. They are made by people exposed to experience and for a particular audience of players. These factors flavor or taint a game in particular ways and leave their marks on their players accordingly.
Of course, The Beginner’s Guide does not shy away from a particular hypocrisy when it discusses the tackling of authorial interpretation. The plot of the game is Davey’s own interpretation of Coda’s games as a unified series of creations: something that Davey is ultimately incorrect about, and whose insistence on tampering the games to fit his theory causes the denouement of the game’s plot. This raises a fundamentally challenging question about video games as a whole: how far can we trust interpretation when interactivity and experience is at the core of the medium? Non-interactive media has the luxury of being complete upon arrival to the audience, and while the reactions will be different, the events that one sees in front of them are not different. In interactive media, not only are the reactions different, but the behaviors of players are different, the skill levels vary wildly, and everyone plays games at their own paces and their own styles. While it can be argued that my example of non-interactive media can well apply to video games, the nature of interactivity leads to infinitely more variations of how one can experience an event in a game.
In terms of video game discussion, this is a rather troubling development, and one that isn’t new. Video game critics have been picked apart of either using too much or not enough descriptive information about the game and how its played, and with the rise of stronger narrative-focused games in the current video game landscape, it is not hard to imagine a critic giving a game a low score because of wonky controls when its controls are merely the vehicle that shares what the game is actually all about. The discussion of how much control constitutes a “game”, or if these new games focused solely on narrative at the detriment to traditional game mechanics can even be considered “games” at all, are varied, and not to be discussed here because this article has to end eventually. What needs to be taken from the disjuncture is what players get from a game, and more importantly, what discussions begin surrounding a game like The Beginners Guide. After all, a game can be as linear as it wants and still draw many different interpretations from different people.
If I had to take an interpretation of the game, I would draw most connections not with the Death of the Author theory, but with something more basic: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The games that Davey plays are all that he knows of Coda’s character, and begins to describe them and use them to form foundations in his knowledge. His revelations in “The Tower”, “Epilogue” and even the ending song make reference to the ascent towards enlightenment in Plato’s work. More specifically, Plato’s work is connected to the theory of forms: that the idea or form of a thing is more perfect than its material representation. Davey’s progression through Coda’s work is the slow realization that the creations in and of themselves are not representative of the greater ideals that Coda strove towards, whatever they may have been. What mattered, in the end, was Davey’s struggle with the ideas that manifested themselves in his interpretations of the games, be they Coda’s accidental hints or Davey’s supposed modifications. I could go on: the doors made of sandstone in the epilogue, the use of ascending and descending throughout levels, the careful balance and shifting of light and dark and how they accent certain things, etc.
It is in a discussion of the ideal in which we find ourselves. Surely, The Beginner’s Guide is not perfect. Davey is prone to melodrama at times, particularly in the epilogue; and there is truly little in the way of what we would describe as “traditional” gameplay. Of course, in these problems, and the negotiation of these problems, we see the crux of the work, and it was stated at the very beginning. The creator Wreden – not to be confused with the character of Davey, as tempting as it would seem – not only prompts discussion but offers his own email address to kick-start discussion about the game and how it was interpreted. Ideas and change do not happen in a vacuum: they are prompted by moments, driven by discussion and then made realized through what is seen as ideal by the community. In The Beginner’s Guide, we not only see the importance of engaging with the game as a player, but the pitfall of a one-sided discussion. Davey is engaged in a monologue regarding the game, unassuming of things outside the frame, and he fails because of this lack of external input. One could certainly say the same for the people that seek to make, innovate, or lobby for, the overall benefit of our medium.
Certainly, The Beginner’s Guide is not the seminal text in trying to goad ideas from the player – even in its attempts, it has been seen as auteuristic and pretentious by its critics, with one critic calling the narrative presentation “on the nose”. Alas, its surface criticisms belie something deeper in the game’s meaning and how it is interpreted. For all we know, Wreden could have made this narrative solely for the purpose of seeing how people would react to someone with the same potential mindset as their player, just to mess with them. We will never know – and that’s precisely the point. Critique is not static, nor can it come from a single place. The development of our medium is a team effort, and needs everyone’s input without dismissal. The inherent unreliability of interpretation adds to that communal discussion, and adds a diversity that will, in time and with our assistance, change video games into the mechanical, artistic and idealistic überspeile that we want them to be.