After the success of The Stanley Parable, Davy Wreden began work on a followup game. Much like the previous title, his next project would be a wandering game grounded by an omniscient narrator. Only this time, the narrator would be played by Wreden himself, as himself, tracing the work of another developer from their early days as a Counter-Strike mapper to their bolder experiments and up through their latest stuff, trying to find meaning and unifying elements across all games as he goes. And if you’ve seen my episode on Brendan Chung’s Blendo Games you may get why this really sort of freaked me out my first time through Beginner’s Guide. So it was sort of hard for me to not immediately compare myself to Davey. But we’re not here to talk about my insecurities – we’re here to talk about Davey Wreden’s. Or, not-Davey Wreden’s, as the case may be.
Look, before we’re going to be able to have any meaningful conversations about The Beginner’s Guide I think we have to make sure the whole misreading-the-text-as-literal thing is dead and buried. Like, I really can’t believe I have to explain this, but: The Beginner’s Guide is a work of fiction. It is not real. That doesn’t necessarily mean that experiences in Davey Wreden’s life didn’t inspire it or that flecks of truth aren’t in there, but the idea that Coda is a literal developer who exists in the real world and whose levels and small games are being sold by Wreden on Steam without his permission is not a real thing that has happened. I mean, think about it for one second: There’s no evidence that Coda exists – we don’t get a name or an e-mail address or a website or a twitter handle or anything. Ignoring that: who would, after a hugely successful indie game, package someone else’s work up without licensing it and sell it as their own for money on the biggest gaming platform in the world? Ignoring that: Who would possibly edit a series of levels to trigger audio files of themselves having a breakdown, and then release that onto the internet? Frank Lantz said it was embarrassing that we couldn’t cover this game more properly, and I have to agree. I can’t fathom how we’ve entertained that this highly edited, thematically and visually cohesive series of short levels are all made by a single amateur anonymous developer and are being sold in violation of copyright against the author’s wishes as stated in the work itself? Or maybe – Occam’s razor, here – Davey Wreden simply made another in a line of wandering games that is interested in metanarratives and how games work.
Anyways, Davey – that is, Video Game Character Davey, not human being Davey – believes that by looking at Coda’s games he’s getting a window into who Coda is. That’s different than, say, looking for recurring themes in Coda’s works or watching Coda develop their own particular aesthetic style over time. No, what’s posited here is that Davey feels he can absolutely sense who Coda is by playing their games. And that’s not subtextual, it’s stated outright in the opening of the game.
But it turns out that he can’t. He can’t at all. He utterly fails to discern meaning from Coda’s games, or to get a sense of who Coda is and how he thinks. So to give them meaning, Davey changes the games (unbeknownst to the player). One of my favorite subtle moments – one of the earliest moments that villainizes Davey, though you don’t really recognize it as such at the time – is when he offers to skip the maze for you in the Whisper Machine level. Note the phrasing there – there’s no reason for it that I was ever able to discern, so let’s skip it. It’s a maze that has a real solution and takes maybe 60 seconds to solve, but Davey doesn’t want us to experience the game as it was built – he wants to skip straight to the end, to the big payoff that lets him show off his insights. And he does these selective edits constantly, sometimes without our knowledge. And all of this is in service of Davey showing us just how well the games express who Coda is and what their mental state is.
But the depressing thing is that once you’ve beaten the game it’s clear Davey’s reads show so much more about Davey than Coda. Davey’s desperate to not feel so alone, so he senses that he’s getting into Coda’s headspace just by playing these games. Davey needs things to make sense and have a meaningful structure, so he adds the lighthouse to all of Coda’s games as a sort of thematic anchor that didn’t exist before. Davey can’t imagine being motivated by anything other than an extrinsic reward, so he adds winstates or at least conclusions to several of Coda’s games. These are all things that Davey brings to the table; things that were not there in the original titles. His reads are all invalid, not just because they’re wrong but because they misrepresent the text by changing it and editing it. But above all, Davey needs validation from others; he needs to be told what he’s doing is right and that he’s smart smart and special – so he shows off the modified, bastardized games to the public and explains how deep they are for being windows to the soul, against the wishes of Coda. And more than anything, that’s what makes Davey a villain. A tragic, sympathetic villain, sure, but a villain all the same.
As for Coda, well, he’s harder to discern. All we know of him comes from an unreliable narrator, and if we try to make any guesses about who Coda is from the games he left us we’d be making the same mistake as Davey. We can probably safely assume that he made games and that he lived in or around Sacramento around 2010. Really, though, Coda is more of an idea than a character; he’s a concept that acts as an ideal for Davey to fail to achieve. And more than anything, “Who is Coda?” is left unanswered in part because Davey’s the only person in the game who’s met him and, as it turned out, Davey never really got to know Coda as well as he thought. It turns out you can’t really know someone just by consuming their works. I…uh… no comment.
The only other personality hint we get about Coda is the way the game kinda uses women to codify the nature of Coda and Davey’s relationship. It’s kind of a flimsy motif to make any strong statements about, but once you pick up on it’s also hard to entirely deny that there’s something going on there – gender is often kept ambiguous throughout the game, but the player character is a woman in the Killing Machine and the game where you can only move backwards – both of which feel somewhat autobiographical, as one’s a short meditation on knowing where to go next in life and the other is dealing with a creative lull. And the stage game has the player going to a woman who has the player’s dream job of animal photography and hoping to gleam some advice about how she does it but failing due to social awkwardness – which resonates with the game overall. There’s a sobbing woman abandoned in one of the cells from the jail game (who, interestingly, is the only character without a block for a head). That could be read as Coda’s muse during this frustrating time of creative stagnation, but after finishing the game it’s obvious it could have been placed there by Davey to sell us on the idea that this was more of the window to Coda’s soul; that the depression was real. Then there’s the tone of Davey’s discussion of Coda, which is seeped in a sort of clingy-guy-who-wouldn’t-get-the-picture tone. Coda states that Davey has “infected his personal space” and that Coda can’t give Davey what he wants, but that Davey isn’t Coda’s problem to solve. Again, this is how you would talk about a Facebook stalker, and the result of all of these little touches is to make the relationship feel coded as such. None of this is to suggest that Coda is literally a woman (though given the unreliable nature of the narrator that’s not impossible) but it does present an interesting way to further frame the game’s main relationship as poisonous – Davey as a creeper who violates privacy and trust after placing someone else on a pedestal and is obsessed with seeing them again. Just a thought – I mean, it’s not not there.
Anyways, in making videogame Davey the villain for attempting to read way too much personal stuff into games that actually had very little personal stuff in them, I do think The Beginner’s Guide has set itself up as something of a trap for critics. See, Beginner’s Guide came out nearly two years after Davey Wreden – the real, flesh and blood human being Davey Wreden – wrote a blog post about suffering anxiety and depression after the success of The Stanley Parable; how he felt like he lost control over what the game meant to his audience and how he searched desperately for external validation only to find that hunger ever-growing. And it’s really tempting to draw parallels, to argue that this game is a direct result of those emotions and those anxieties, that Coda and videogame Davey are really two parts of the same person – the creative, impossible to know muse making things for their own sake and the post-Stanley developer desperate for validation. But to say that definitively is to make the same mistake videogame Davey did; to claim that I see the person in the work, to bring in my own lampposts from outside of the game and say they’re signifiers of meaning. “Look everyone, this machine you have to shoot is symbolic of Davey Wreden being frustrated with his own creative process!” “Retreating from the stage symbolizes Davey Wreden’s fear of the limelight!” Well, I’m not gonna fall for that, and I’m gonna keep this video wholly within the text!
This is, I suspect, the reason Wreden is fine with people confusing Coda for a real person and hasn’t done much of anything to clamp down on those debates. It highlights his point – if we can’t distinguish between easily verifiable fiction and hard fact, how can we possibly glean any meaningful insight about an author’s mental state from their work? How many people really thought real world Davey was having an actual emotional breakdown right there on their computer at the end? And how different from that would I be if I said this game was the real world Davey Wreden processing his experiences after The Stanley Parable? We’d both be making broad proclaimations about the mind of an author we never met. We have to be careful about projecting onto the game’s creator a mental state that he or she might not have; we have to recognize that this work may fulfill a completely different role for the real Davey than it does for the audience.
So if we avoid the temptation to extrapolate to the real Davey Wreden, now there’s all this metafiction surrounding the game in addition to the literal text, and it’s all about how much meaning we as players can pull from a game about its creators. If The Stanley Parable was about the relationship between players and games and the conflict between them, it’s pretty apparent that The Beginner’s Guide is about the relationship between players and developers and the tension that exists there.
The act of creation and the act of experiencing a work are two completely different things, based in different human drives and with completely different end goals. Davey wanted games to speak to him, to have a point for the player to consume. And Coda’s games didn’t… and… that’s okay. Games don’t have to be for the players. Plenty of programmers and hobbyist developers have half-finished prototypes lying around; half-explored ideas or experiments in an artstyle or just messing with an idea they fancied that they never intended to see the light of day. And some people make games socially, at jams and during Ludum Dare (Ludum Darr-ay? Ludum Dair? No one seems to be able to agree on a pronunciation). One of the best examples I can think of: at Lost Levels a few years back there was a pair of friends who had made a fashion game that pretended to be really stat heavy, but only let you win when you chose the specific clothing items the friends thought were the coolest. The game was a symbol of their friendship; a riddle only they could solve built as an in-joke only they got to share. Not every game needs to be playable to be valid. We’ll never know why Coda built prisons (not the least of which because we have an unreliable narrator and can’t count on anything we saw) but we know he did it often and, presumably, got something out of it.
All of that said, for all of the metatextual mind games and interesting thematic ground… the game does feel rather hostile to critics and pretty defensive of developers. I feel like Room 237 is a nice companion piece to The Beginner’s Guide. In that film, fans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining espouse various theories on what the film really means – that Kubrick was confessing to a faking of the moon landing or that the whole film was about the genocide of Native Americans, or that the whole thing was an attempt by Kubrick to address the holocaust. Both Room 237 and The Beginner’s Guide are about people putting forth reads of a given work, but the unspoken joke of both is that they start from textual evidence but begin making ridiculous leaps – and in the case of The Beginner’s Guide, outright falsifying the text – to support their pre-arrived-at conclusions. The idea in both is that oftentimes our attempts to figure out what a thing is says more about us than it does about the thing. But where both fail is in their choice to criticize the person rather than the mistaken logic; bad reads aren’t a jumping off point for better, more supported reads, they’re things we use to mock or criticize the person suggesting them. Room 237 presents its subjects as quirky oddballs with conspiracy theory level reads on a single film. It lets them hang themselves by making false statements, or including audio of interviewees being interrupted by their children. Beginner’s Guide suggests its subject is villainous and willing to lie and deface the work to attain attention. If fake Davey is sympathetic it’s only in his desperation – he’s got some real personal problems to work on, but he’s hurt Coda and he’s hurt the player by lying to them. If it’s a game about the relationship of the developer and the audience, it’s decidedly more pro-developer. Like, how am I (as a critic) supposed to respond to my job being described like this? Especially since moments later he’s having a breakdown because his entire ego is built on top of his ability to tell people how smart games are? What kind of sad person would that be? Hey, shut up. Except… that’s kind of a pissy position for the game to take, isn’t it? Like, if we ignore the “this is the real Davey wrestling with post-Stanley Parable feelings” angle, we’re left with a polemic about how fans and critics will take an artist’s work from them and twist it to suit their own nefarious purposes.
At the end of the day I think there’s only two ways to look at The Beginner’s Guide. There’s the straightforward story of a man who simply wanted so badly for recognition that he destroyed a friend’s work to feel better about himself before breaking down. A parable for game critics and a warning for developers about the dangers of not respecting developers’ boundaries. A game that says any analysis of games is mostly self-projection and standing on the shoulders of geniuses to make yourself feel better, a game with a decidedly anti-critic bent. The trouble with that is, I find that read super nihilistic. But the alternative read is that this really is Davey Wreden wrestling with the success of the Stanley Parable – with letting go of complete control of his work to people who will put in their own lamp posts, with the fear that he can’t keep making these games and that creative spark will run out, with the idea that he’s motivated only by the validation of others to keep him going. But if I take that read, I’m no better than fake-Davey and I’ve boiled a real, flesh and blood person down into a 45 minute game experience. So I’m either analyzing a game that says analyzing games is often done to the detriment of the work and the benefit of the analyzer (and let’s be clear, I have edited this video in a way that helps me make my point… is that any different than Davey skipping the whisper maze in the beginning?), or I’m assigning value to this game based on the mental state and personal life of a man I’ve never met (and then I am, again, just as bad as Davey).
So which is it? I… I think I know, or at least I thought I did…now I’m afraid to say it because of what it might say about me… and… I…Like, I’m either projecting myself or I’m projecting Davey onto this stupid game? …That can’t be right, that can’t be fair….Look, game criticism is more than that, right? Right?… Either I’m seeking validation for telling you all what I think about the game or I’m boiling a human being’s down to one of his projects? …Is that really what this game is suggesting? Is that what I’m doing here? ….Or am I doing this to myself by reading my own insecurities into this thing? What does it say that I see so much of myself in such an awful person? Jesus, is that what I’ve been doing for four years?…I dunno… you may need to figure this one out for yourselves…. I think I’m gonna have to go think about what I’m doing with this show.