The Beginner’s Guide is a new game by one of the creators of The Stanley Parable. The premise is that Davey had a game-developing friend called Coda who wrote a bunch of small, arty games between 2008 and 2011, and Davey wants to walk us through these, showing the progression of the games and of his own relationship with Coda. He provides a voice-over that narrates everything we encounter. In some cases the discussion focuses on the design ideas and in some cases it touches lightly on the technical work that went into making a level.
This is one of those games in which the experience really suffers from spoilers, so if you think you would like to play a roughly 90-minute, mechanics light game about creativity, the challenge of understanding other people, and the mental health of creators, you may want to check it out before reading too many reviews, including this one. While I will not be giving away all the details of how the game turns out, it is impossible to discuss its major themes without ruining some of the surprise.
(Disclosure: I played a copy of this game which I bought with my own money.)
Davey wants (or claims to want) to believe that you can get to know people by playing their games. He speculates that it might in fact be easier to know people that way than through social interaction. He tries to extract this kind of intimacy from Coda: he aggressively befriends Coda at a game jam; he obsessively plays everything Coda creates; he pesters his friend about the meanings of his work. And he also seems to be fostering such an intimacy with us. He tells us about his symbolic interpretation of everything he encounters. Offers us his email address within the first few minutes of the game. Talks a lot, maybe uncomfortably much, about his own feelings, his self-loathing, his need for external validation.
Davey-the-character emerges from this as possessive and enormously needy. (I think it’s important to distinguish him from Davey Wreden the actual person, precisely because the game does so much to obliterate that distinction.) Davey-the-character’s relationship with Coda is unhealthy, with Davey disrespecting Coda’s stated boundaries and pushing for unwanted communication. Only the absence of any overt sexual component or gender power imbalance saves it from seeming outright stalkery.
Several reviews have described this game as self-indulgent. Certainly Davey-the-character is portrayed as self-indulgent. But I think The Beginner’s Guide makes the most sense if Davey-the-author is in sympathy with both Davey-the-character and Coda-the-character, exploring the tension between wanting to know and be known, and wanting security and privacy; needing validation, and fearing exposure; wanting to productive and visible, and feeling that the creative wellspring has dried up.
Making a connection to people through games is great. It’s one of the main reasons to do anything, in my view, and some of my favorite game-making revolves around this goal.
At the same time, there are all kinds of issues here about treating an artwork as a window into its creator, or expecting that it should be one: entitlement, a false sense of intimacy and unearned understanding, even a misguided understanding of what identity even is. Why should players have the right to demand such access? Do they necessarily understand what they’re seeing? Do they do the “right” thing with what they see, once they’ve seen it?
The Magic Circle talks about the kind of player entitlement that tends to be associated with large-audience games: the expectation that the creator will serve the players’ power fantasies, cater to their desires, and provide endlessly more of the same product they liked to start with.
In The Beginner’s Guide, Coda has written a game about a designer being punished for ceasing to design, for letting down his public. In context it felt slightly odd to me — Coda hasn’t been publishing these games more broadly, so why be fixated on the kinds of responses affecting devs with a broader audience? You could argue he’s worried about how Davey is responding to or will respond to his lack of production, but these aspects rang strangely to me.
But Wreden’s game also looks at entitlement to the author’s biographical truth. Coda is constantly trying to hide himself, and Davey-the-character is constantly fighting through the barricades and even hacking Coda’s games in order to try to expose more of an elusive personality.
The idea that anyone owes you any particular confidence or secret or aspect of their inner lives is pretty toxic. Victor Gijsbers has this comment on a past post of mine:
Our entire approach to art nowadays is perhaps based around this fundamental cruelty: that we ask the creators of art to be as personal and sincere as they can be, but then as an audience reserve the right to interpret the result not as an act of person-to-person communication, but as a work, as part of an oeuvre that we can judge as an object and use as we like.
While I don’t go so far as to say that art should not be autobiographical or self-revealing, I think it only makes sense to respect the creator’s choice when it isn’t.
Anna Anthropy has written about her feelings around her autobiographical piece dys4ia:
Empathy Game is about the farce of using a game as a substitute for education, as a way to claim allyship. You could spend hours pacing in a pair of beaten-up size thirteen heels to gain a point or two – a few people did! – and still know nothing about the experience of being a trans woman, about how to be an ally to them. Being an ally takes work, it requires you to examine your own behavior, it is an ongoing process with no end point. That people are eager to use games as a shortcut to that, and way to feel like they’ve done the work and excuse themselves from further educating themselves, angers and disgusts me. You don’t know what it’s like to be me.
The way character-Davey treats character-Coda isn’t exactly equivalent, but it contains some similar mistakes. Character-Davey supposes that he can diagnose Coda’s mental states and decide what would be good for him. He overrides Coda’s choices for himself, based on a scattered handful of tiny pieces, and he decides that he knows best and that he can construct a whole framework around what Coda should do and what should happen to Coda.
The games that character-Davey shows us are short, open to multiple interpretations, and fairly personality-light as game sketches go. Especially at the beginning, they use a lot of standard tropes and standard-looking assets; compared with a Stephen Lavelle or a Michael Brough or a Pippin Barr or a Robert Yang or Porpentine or Tale of Tales or any of dozens of other indie and altgame creators, Coda is producing pretty generic stuff.
So there’s not a lot to go on, and not a lot of evidence that character-Davey is getting it right. The voice-over offers us one set of readings, but they’re not necessarily grounded in anything. He’s not only sharing things that Coda might not want shared, he’s also semi-replacing Coda’s voice with his own.
This point gets more obvious and more disturbing as the game goes on. By the end, character-Davey is treating Coda’s personal truths as though they were some sort of consumable that he could eat in order to fill himself up.
What are you even looking for?
Emily Short is a pseudonym. If you read this blog regularly, you likely already know that: it’s not a deep secret. But some people are really offended by the existence of the pseudonym. A few reviewers insist on writing about me as “the woman who goes by the name Emily Short,” like a pen name is an invention previously unknown in human society. Occasionally I meet someone who immediately asks me for my real name, or who has found out my real name and insists on using it without invitation. One guy wrote a forum rant about how he felt it was sexually manipulative to use a pseudonym, full stop. I never grasped what his supporting argument was.
When someone does this to me, I instantly trust them less, because they’ve shown they’re not willing to deal with me on my own terms, neither to accept the name I’ve given them nor to ask me how I’d like to be addressed. And what is it even accomplishing, other than a power play? Some of my dearest friends call me Emily, and rando telephone solicitors use my legal name before trying to sell me solar panels. It proves nothing.
The reason I bring this up: perhaps people who hate the pseudonym feel that I’m being fake with them. But my legal name is not somehow “more true”. If anything, I use it less often and in less self-revealing contexts. I often call myself Emily inside my own head. It may not be a legal name, but it’s a true one, the name for a real part of my identity.
Not everyone has multiple names, but we all have multiple truths about ourselves. It is not possible to know someone completely or wholly, or for anyone to know themselves that way: identities are constructed and circumstantial. One of the great things about meeting new friends or studying new subjects is discovering the parts of oneself opened up by the new perspectives.
Part of what goes alongside entitlement and delusions of intimacy is a faulty notion of what it even means to know somebody. The picture will never be complete. There are things we can never know about even the people who are closest to us.
This doesn’t mean that our relationship to other people is invalid. It just means that we don’t ever reach a point where we get to stop listening to them and start speaking over them. Character-Davey doesn’t seem to have grasped this, but I think possibly actual-Davey understands it fine. But you should check out his game rather than taking my word for it. Obviously.