The Beginner’s Guide to Theory

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In a games industry where most titles get months or even years of screenshots, alphas, betas, teasers, and trailers leading up to their launch, The Beginner’s Guide was announced just one day before it released. Pretty much no info was given other than that it was by one of the co-creators of The Stanley Parable and that it would be a narrative game reflecting on the nature of game design.

Before reading this article, I highly – HIGHLY – recommend that you go and give the game a playthrough yourself. I purposefully avoided any and all inklings of what this game was before I played it myself and I think the experience was much better for it.

Okay, so now you’ve gone and played it or watched a playthrough without commentary, right? Good. I’m sure you’re feeling a lot of emotions right now, I know I was after I finished. I didn’t think I’d actually be able to write anything at first because it just felt like a big ball of confusing and conflicting emotions whirling inside. I can say one thing is for sure – I have never felt such strong emotions from a game before the Beginner’s Guide.

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To make this a nice, neat, self-contained article I’ll give a brief recap of the game. Or maybe you’re a monster who wants to spoil the game for yourself or something, I don’t know. The premise is that Davey Wreden, co-creator of The Stanley Parable, wants to show off a fellow game developer’s creations to the world in the hopes that the developer, Coda, will start making games again. These little, short, esoteric games were made between 2008 and 2011.

It starts off simple enough – Wreden walks us through some of these games explaining the mechanics and what he sees as the meaning behind those mechanics. If you’re not already interested in game criticism and literary analysis, this part of the game can seem boring or even obnoxious and frustrating. If you’re a nerdy English Lit major like me who gets off on reading interpretations of texts (or in this case, games) through specific lenses while providing proof from the text itself, then this might even be really interesting. I certainly was getting really excited through the first few games. “Awwww yes! This is textual analysis in game form! Usually you have to read articles or watch videos but it makes so much more sense to analyze and interpret a game within its own medium!” I thought to myself.

And then things started to get real.

As time progresses and you continue through Coda’s games, Wreden explains how much more time passes between games. His interpretation of the games gets darker and more dire with each passing game. For me Chapter ##, the game in which there are blue bubbles everywhere that are supposedly left by random strangers who have also played the game but are actually all written by Coda himself, was particularly heartbreaking. Wreden uses textual evidence very well and was able to fully convince me of Coda’s depressed state through these chapters. I began to get a sinking, sick feeling in my stomach. I could tell something terrible was coming. At the start of the game Wreden says he is making The Beginner’s Guide to try and convince Coda to start making games again but with the way Wreden’s commentary was progressing I began to suspect that maybe Coda had committed suicide. When I passed through the door in Chapter ##, The Tower, and saw the note telling Wreden not to contact Coda again I nearly cried.

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I was right though – something terrible did happen. But it wasn’t what I expected. Coda didn’t commit suicide. Instead, as I progressed through the art gallery-type rooms with notes to Wreden the sinking feeling in my stomach changed in nature. No longer was I worried about Coda’s mental well-being. It slowly dawned on me that I had been taken on a twisted journey by an unreliable narrator and being made to partake in creative works not meant to be seen. I felt dirty. Coda didn’t want anyone to see these games. And maybe the reason wasn’t because he was insecure and felt isolated from the world but… because he just liked the idea of making prison games. Maybe the multitude of prison iterations were nothing more than Coda flexing his game making abilities rather than an existential cry for help.

And the ultimate question: does Coda even exist? … Does it matter?

After finishing the game I had to just sit and think for a bit. The whole experience was more overwhelming than I had ever expected it to be, especially with so many ups and downs of emotions. One concept that I kept coming back to is the idea of Death of the Author.

If you’ve read anything about critical theory of media or taken a course on something of that nature, you’ve probably heard the term. In 1967, French critical theorist Roland Barthes penned an essay titled “La mort de l’auteur”, or “The Death of the Author.” In it, Barthes argues that the traditional way of looking at literature – taking the author’s experiences, history, and time period into consideration while analyzing and critiquing a work – was wrong and instead that a text must stand on its own apart from its creator.

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Okay, I promise this article isn’t going to just be me reciting stuff from my literary criticism and theory class from six years ago. But it is relevant! The Beginner’s Guide is an essay on critical theory but in game format. We frequently hear that people want games to be perceived as art (I include myself in that) so it makes sense to have works on critical theory regarding the medium the same way we see works on critical theory regarding literature, film, art, and music.

But what argument is The Beginner’s Guide making? The conclusion that I’ve arrived at is that the Beginner’s Guide argues for a separation between the creator and the creation, much like Barthes does in “The Death of the Author.” Interpretation of a work is all very well and good until it goes too far, evidenced by Wreden going too far in his interpretation of Coda’s work and showing it off to others against Coda’s wishes. One particularly poignant line from Barthes really hits to the core of how Wreden feels about Coda’s games:

“The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us.”

Here, Barthes, is describing the traditional literary interpretation that Wreden deploys. He believes that Coda is ‘confiding’ in him through his games and that in this way, Wreden can better know Coda. The negative consequences this interpretation results in for Wreden seems to be a warning against such interpretations. It implies that assuming you know and understand the creator well enough to make decisions for them based simply on their creative works is wrong.

With all that said, I do also have to be a bit self-aware. I am writing an interpretation of this game in which I argue that the game’s message is to be careful about interpreting games. It doesn’t get much more meta than this, I suppose. But what really strikes me isn’t the (potential) argument for the “Death of the Game Developer” as it were, but that the game made me feel so profoundly while it was arguing that point. Critical theory is usually a mental slog through the mud. It’s difficult to parse and think through. That is part of the appeal for some! And that holds true for the Beginner’s Guide. It wouldn’t be such an intense game that left you reeling and turning it over and over in your mind for hours later if it weren’t an emotionally difficult experience to get through.

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