The Beginner’s Guide (Davey Wreden) and Intimacy Inside Games

beginnersheaderThe 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?

*

Entitlement

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.

*

False intimacy

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.

30 thoughts on “The Beginner’s Guide (Davey Wreden) and Intimacy Inside Games

  1. 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.

    Very true. I’m reminded of the bit in Batman: Beyond where Bruce Wayne reveals he thinks of himself as Batman in his mind. In a way, the internet has made these kind of constructed-yet-true identities pretty mainstream, to the point where we can have these conversations.

  2. It was very interesting to read what Emily Short thinks about this game.

    I’ve like how Davey’s voice contradicted what I’ve felt were obvious interpretations of what’s happening. Also how game modifying for the sake of convenience quickly led to death of author thinking. I wonder if the “seemingly” main theme of those games according to Davey – it’s hard to create but we feel the need to do it – was even supposed to be inspected by players.

  3. It’s kind of fascinating that you would review this, because (as I’m sure it doesn’t escape you), you’re in a relatively rare position to empathise with Coda; with having people instantly feel like they know you in that way, through your work. It seems like it would be exhausting to experience a lot of that.

    Playing the Beginner’s Guide has given me kind of a realisation, though – one reason for writing overtly political stuff is that, while the personal is obviously political, the converse of that is also true: the political is personal. Politics supplies about as good a smokescreen as genre for talking about deeply personal experiences, but in a withdrawing way that feels safer than actually baring one’s feelings in an explicit, referential way — not that it stops one being typecast in other ways.

    • At one point years ago on my old website I had a page that was a warning about this, asking people please not to assume that they knew me really well because they’d played a couple of my games. Of course it did nothing to deter the kinds of people who send intense personal email to strangers, and it looked strange and off-putting to everyone else, so I got rid of it again.

      That said, a lot of Coda’s stuff, at least as interpreted by character-Davey, is actually about getting to know Coda and how hard or easy that is. (It’s another question whether character-Coda thought that was what he was writing about.) Whereas a lot of my stuff is more about trying to share things that I enjoy or that mattered to me in some fashion. What you say about politics is true, I think, but also not limited to politics.

  4. “Coda has written a game about a designer being punished for ceasing to design, for letting down his public.”

    Not having played this game, I may obviously wrong, but I don’t see anything unrealistic about this. If the fiction is that Coda has written games for a small group of people (as opposed to for Davey personally), a small group of fans can still feel demanding for an indie creator.

      • rot13: V guvax gung frtzrag bs gur tnzr znxrf zber frafr vs lbh guvax bs vg nf Pbqn jevgvat nobhg jung ur guvaxf punenpgre Qnirl guvaxf nobhg uvf jbex. Pbqn zvtug guvax gung Qnirl guvaxf bs Pbqn nf n znpuvar gung’f fgbccrq jbexvat, naq gur cerff bhgfvqr zvtug ercerfrag Pbqn’f srne gung Qnirl jvyy oyno nobhg uvf tnzrf jvgubhg uvf crezvffvba.

        Juvyr V’z ulcbgurfvmvat urer, V guvax punenpgre Qnirl pna or frra va zbfg bs Pbqn’f tnzrf sebz gur ubhfr-pyrnavat tnzr ba. V’q rira tb fb sne gb fnl gung cneg bs gur gentrql bs gur tnzr vf punenpgre Qnirl’f vanovyvgl gb frr uvzfrys* va Pbqn’f tnzrf (juvpu vf cerggl vebavp sbe n thl jub cebwrpgf fb zhpu bs uvzfrys bagb gurz).

        *Be, jryy, Pbqn’f pbafgehpgvba bs Qnirl, naljnl.

      • Lrnu, va gur ubhfrpyrnavat tnzr V qrsvavgryl vagrecergrq gur dhrfg-tvire nf ercerfragvat Qnirl, tvivat Pbqn naablvat raqyrff cbyvfu gnfxf gung ur gubhtug jrer havzcbegnag. Fb gung znxrf frafr. (Vf Qnirl nyjnlf ercerfragrq ol gur obk-urnqrq ACPf? V’z yrff fher nobhg gung. V qvq svaq gurz cerggl nzhfvat, gubhtu, naq gubhtug gurl jrer bar bs gur pbbyre guvatf nobhg Pbqn’f fglry.

  5. I really like your explanation of the pseudonym. I was surprised when I found out it was a pseudonym short time ago, mostly because the idea hadn’t occurred to me in an Internet context. As a female creator, I’ve found myself struggling a lot recently with whether I should use my real name (invitation to harassment), or one of my Internet nicknames (gender-neutral, further obscure contributions by women to programming and game creation). This may present a good compromise.

  6. I’ve been dwelling on this game a lot as of late, too, and this piece touched on some great points. Before I played “The Beginner’s Guide,” it was hard for me to understand where Anna Anthropy was coming from with her indictment of “empathy gamers,” but now – and I do see the irony in this – having had time to sit with the game, and being a creative type myself, I think I have a better grasp on it. I feel like I’ve contradicted myself in the past in the same way character-Davey does after he claims he wants us to appreciate Coda’s games for “what they are, rather than what they’re not,” followed by unrelenting readings into the meaning of the pieces. I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to dig deep into a work of art, poring over it like some kind of isolated object, rather than the product of a human being’s work and passion.

    I wonder how much of The Beginner’s Guide I’ll never understand. I wonder if that’s the point; that some things just aren’t meant for me to understand. It made me uncomfortable, mingling that close to such an intimate work of Davey’s like this, but I believe great art should make you uncomfortable. Even now, there are parts of me that just want to know what drove him to create this, what I can find out about this man through his game. But then, as those parts wonder, I have to ask myself, “Am I becoming (character) Davey?” It’s meta-commentary on a much more visceral level than The Stanley Parable, and I think that makes it all the more bold, all the more interesting.

    • It might not be that there’s anything much there to understand, Ethan. Davey’s use of his paper thin Freudian-Id proxy ‘Coda’ feels somewhat creepy and manipulative. There’s a false intimacy at play here. An all-too coy, knowing wink.

      Emily – ‘being open to multiple interpretations’ seems information content zero for a game so bare bones as this. Despite being well made, it seems the (actually interesting and far more fully Developed) ongoing cultural discussion over the meanings of T.B.G is itself the truer, better Game – an community attempt to provide adequate meaning and context for a bizarrely overwrought, philosophically undernourished, conceptually underwhelming software product that has next to none.

  7. I’m sort of horrified with The Beginner’s Guide. For me, as someone who teeters on being codependent like character-Davey, this game played out very realistically. It was very much like my own fears and memories. For a while, I sunk into the dysfunctional morality that the game provided for me, built of all the mixed messages from Coda and the various theories of character-Davey.

    This game’s themes are rather abusive in structure. As long as I kept telling myself that I shouldn’t share a game through the distorting lens of my own commentary (i.e. what character-Davey does), it felt like I should not discuss my guilt over this game with anyone else, which had the effect of keeping me pressure-cooking. And this game comes with plenty of guilt to fill that container: Every nonfictional thing the player does in relation to the game — hearing about the game, comprehending the rules of the system they’re interacting with, seeking progress through the story, and discussing their findings with others — is the subject of Coda’s vicious condemnation. It’s like the game was built around the goal of putting the player through possessive emotional abuse, and in that way it’s a fascinating and remarkable achievement, but it means I’m hesitant to recommend it to people.

    Finally, I realized I don’t really need to avoid commenting about this game after all. It’s popular enough that it’s not someone’s recycle bin secret, and it won’t be out of the ordinary if some people see opinions like mine before they play. So, if anyone gets lost in The Beginner’s Guide guilt like I did, maybe this escape hatch will let them out too.

    • Interesting. I didn’t have this reaction to the work, but I can see how one might — I’m sorry it was distressing.

      Perhaps I’m just so deeply invested in critiquing interactive stories that the game wasn’t able to shake me on that front; but I don’t think “what character-Davey did with Coda’s work was wrong” implies “it is wrong to discuss and analyze games” or even “it is wrong to discuss THIS game” at all. There is so much else going on in that relationship — Davey’s persistent boundary-crossing; his meddling in Coda’s work to make it more suited to his own interpretations (including removing obstacles Coda put there to make a point); the way he is propping up his own identity on the fact that he is the curator of these “genius” pieces.

    • I politely disagree. This game is not abusive so much as it is trying to convey several lessons. A few of these lessons are painful, but that doesn`t make them less valid or truthful. Character-Davey`s actions are not the fault of the player, however, if you relate to his actions, then there is plenty for you to consider. The pair of friends involved in the story have their own faults. Coda is not necessarily 100% right to react in the way that he did. He severed his friendship with Davey not because Davey was a bad person, but because he felt overwhelmed with dealing with Davey`s own problems in addition to his own, which he was barely able to deal with in the first place. Making games was his therapy. It was like writing in a diary for him. He let Davey in, let him see his work because he wanted validation too that his feelings were real. But he didn`t want someone telling him what his problems were. He wanted to tackle that on his own terms. This is not a story told with the goal of emotional abuse, but a story that is telling an all too real thing. I feel that calling the actions of someone who is clearly not entirely well “abuse“ is wrong. Davey was not malicious in his actions. He never meant to cause Coda distress. He wanted to be a good friend, but like Coda, he didn`t know how to do that either. He had his own problems, but unlike Coda, he did not have his own outlet for them, so he tried to use Coda`s games as his outlet too. Then, the games became personal to him too.

      What would have been the solution is for Davey to have been honest with Coda. The theme of honesty is something present in the Beginner`s Guide, so it isn`t a stretch to pick up on that. If he had told Coda everything that he tells the player, and admitted that he was wrong to put so much pressure on Coda, the outcome would have been different. The sincerity of Davey`s message, if Coda was a real person, I believe would be enough to initiate a healing of their friendship.

      If you feel guilt about this, then consider what parts of you the story rang true with. In this way, once you name the problems you are facing, you will be able to begin to confront them head-on. If you too crave validation, then I want you to know as much as I want Character-Davey to know– It is perfectly okay to want to be validated. It is okay, honestly. There is nothing wrong with you. Nobody exists in isolation. If you negate outside feedback, then it becomes harder to see a clear, well-rounded image of yourself. The mistake that Davey made was assuming that Coda was asking for validation through his work because Davey himself felt that way internally. Of course Coda also wanted to feel validated, but the reason why he kept his games to himself initially, is because he wanted to feel in control, like he could handle it on his on. Like he could use the medium of game design to work things out without feeling judged. At least, that is what I sense. The Beginner`s Guide is trying to illustrate the disparity here, between what Coda wants and what Davey wants.

      In the end, I think The Beginner`s Guide is a valuable game to play. It is not your fault if you cannot pick up on the subtleties. Not everyone can do that. What I think is really beautiful is the note that the game ends on, that we are part of something bigger than us. That our work has meaning, whether you decide to keep it to yourself, or to share it, that there is something human that connects us all. I am not trying to change your opinion. I just wanted to offer a little more insight, because this game really made me feel inspired. Mostly because I knew the answers to what Davey was trying to find out immediately. The reason to keep working is to, like the mythologist Joseph Campbell said, follow your bliss. This means to do something because it makes you feel fulfilled, inspired, challenged, etc. I`m not sure how to end this comment, so I`m just going to stop here. I hope I gave you something to mull over.

      • Emily and Rowan, thanks for reading, and thanks to you both for caring enough to offer counterarguments. I guess my “finally, I realized” paragraph didn’t quite convey it, but I already saw many of the intricacies of meaning you’re both talking about. :)

        I have a new understanding of the game ending now, too. Obviously someone was lying about the lampposts….

        If character-Davey is lying, the ending is very unsatisfying to me; literally any part of the narration or any part of Coda’s games could be artificial. That’s the interpretation I had until now, and I was perplexed at how anyone found the game satisfying; my best guess was that they were people who took Coda’s side and didn’t think about it too much. At the same time, I thought maybe the ending was unsatisfying because it was *supposed* to tear away the logic of the framing device, becoming nothing but some context-free words of apology that we weren’t supposed to understand or analyze. When I found myself raising my hackles at Emily’s review — a fair and uninvasive analysis that I could tell I had no conscious reason to be bristling at — I doubled down on my theory that the game itself was objectively tormenting me in some way. Sorry if any remaining bristling came through in my comment, Emily. I think it was in there.

        The way I see it now, if *Coda* is lying, then it’s not even a deceptive sort of lie. It’s simply an emotional burst from Coda, taking something Coda did for character-Davey and throwing it in his face, casting the blame on character-Davey using a minimal number of words. Coda’s games up until then had featured some emotional bursts, but not all of them had a clear recipient, nor a clear number of layers of sarcasm, so most of those messages went right over character-Davey’s head. Now that I see this final message from Coda as something that sacrifices truth for emotion, I find it easier to believe that Coda actually wrote it; it’s not some new Coda who believes they can unironically diagnose character-Davey’s problems from their soapbox of absolute truth. So the ending of the story turns out to be more grounded and satisfying than I thought.

        (I guess it’s taken quite some effort for me to work this all out. Among all the discarded rough drafts of this comment, I’ve written at least 7,324 words. This comment is only 433 words long!)

      • Just following up to disagree with myself. I tried another run through the game, with narration turned off until the tower, and now I have a different impression of what’s going on. (rot13: Vg’f yvxr gur tnzrf ner ebhtuyl nobhg n tnzr jbeyq juvpu gevrf gb pncgher naq rafynir vgf perngbe.)

        There are several possible ways I can interpret the narration’s role in relation to the story now, and the ambiguity is interesting to me rather than unsatisfying. I don’t even have any strong claim to make about the lampposts. Peace to you both.

      • Heh, okay. I’m glad you’ve come to a place you’re comfortable with — more for your sake than for the sake of any investment I have in the game, really.

      • I really have to disagree with you (uh, kind of at length, sorry) that someone who is not well can’t be abusive. They can be. Davey-character’s problems with self-esteem and self-image actively hurt Coda and that is valid; the fact that Davey-character struggles with those problems and decided to use Coda’s games for his own emotional support is not Coda’s problem and Coda was right to withdraw from Davey as a result. If you want to absolve someone of responsibility for their actions because they’re not well, that doesn’t help them to make meaningful connections, the way Davey so clearly needs.

        Davey-character’s treatment of Coda expresses a great deal of entitlement and self-absorption. For instance he’s put his name on Coda’s work just for starters, which would be illegal if this were a true story. Also pay attention to how much Davey talks about himself; how Coda’s alleged depression hurts Davey, how terrible it is for Davey to have to see Coda this way, how Coda’s distance hurts Davey, how Davey feels so responsible for fixing things and how frustrating it is for Davey that Coda’s not being available to him to let him fix it. Did he ever ask Coda if that’s what Coda wanted from him? If Coda needed his help at all? How much regard does Davey have for Coda, really?

        The things that made Coda separate from Davey in the first place were a) Davey altering his games (directly or through pressure), b) Davey showing people Coda’s games, c) Davey insisting to everyone that Coda was depressed, and d) Davey getting validation through Coda’s work and demanding more of it. This is also clearly something that took place over YEARS, with Coda trying desperately to express to Davey what Davey was doing him, as his games took longer and longer to produce and his subject matter became more and more relevant to Davey’s pushiness and demand for content that suited Davey’s specifications.

        Soooo Davey elected to handle this by releasing a collection of Coda’s work that a) was significantly altered and presented at Davey’s total whim, b) was widespread to a huge audience, c) contained downright offensive and clearly biased and manipulative psychoanalysis of Coda (note that Davey fights to justify showing people Coda’s games before he ever expresses contrition over it), and d) was completely plastered with Davey’s name (and helpfully included his email for anyone who wanted to discuss it with him). Finally, the beseeching apology at the end of the game was not only totally undone by this gross abuse of Coda’s boundaries in every conceivable fashion, but followed up with another demand for more material, this time baldly including the admission that Davey needed the validation and putting forward a request purely backed by pity, again all to a wide audience who has just been led through Davey’s narration of events.

        How would you feel in Coda’s position? If this person who was pushy and possessive about your work, who totally transformed it until you didn’t feel like working on it anymore (and continued to put pressure on you by expressing “concern” to your friends over your “depression” when you withdrew–not from the world, but from THEM), reacted to you cutting yourself off from them by putting this kind of intense pressure on you to take them back, in front of the ENTIRE WORLD? Davey made this public on purpose. It provides Coda no escape; it means (in the world of TBG) that someone may be able to find Coda if Coda is still making games or has shown them to other people he’s still in contact with and expose his personal information to Davey again. When you’re painting yourself as a sympathetic figure, the way Davey deliberately lied in order to do, then the public can be terrifyingly effective at rooting out the source of your pain.

        And Davey’s clearly not telling us the truth about Coda’s disappearance, either. Coda didn’t just mysteriously vanish off the Internet, he was in contact with Davey in real life and online. Davey would have had online ways of contacting Coda, maybe a phone number, maybe even an address. But the fact that Coda sends him the Tower through a burner email tells us that Coda didn’t just vanish; Coda BLOCKED Davey from contacting him, and sent him this final message, which says in plain terms DO NOT CONTACT ME. Don’t fall for Davey’s whining that he has no other way to reach Coda; he has no RIGHT to reach Coda. Coda’s already said no, and now Davey’s not just trying to reach out, he’s literally trying to give Coda no choice but to be in contact with him again. Every single behavior on Davey’s part proves that he hasn’t learned a thing from Coda cutting him off. Instead he’s spread his emotional manipulation to include the public, and to weaponize them against Coda personally for rejecting him, all under the guise of his friendly concern and helpless neediness.

        Davey-character is an extremely disturbed individual who does NOT see Coda as a friend, but as a source of personal validation. His actions are abusive, and his personal suffering and malformed self-image are not valid excuses for putting another person through this. At the very least if Davey were truly trying to atone, then he would have found the messages in The Tower and left well enough alone, trusting that if Coda ever felt comfortable enough to reach out to him again then Coda would do so.

        (But then we wouldn’t have this magnificent and thought-provoking story.)

  8. I actually bought and played through The Beginners Guide specifically so I could appreciate this piece, since the introductory couple of paragraphs hinted to me that it would be a really good one. While I felt the game was touching and worthwhile on its own merits, speaking purely of the benefit of reading of this post, *wow* am I glad I did. As someone who is a bit peculiar about their own pseudonym and who has achieved a moderate degree of internet famousness in some circles, I *REALLY* identified with the “What are you even looking for?”

    I haven’t had to deal with obsessed, gross strangers (“sexually manipulative”? what the _hell_), but I could not _possibly_ identify more with this:

    > 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 … 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 …

    When someone does this to me, it is a remarkably consistent experience, and after experiencing it several times, it sets off instant alarm-bells. For one thing, they always get the exact same smug look on their face; like they’ve discovered a secret they can blackmail me with. In the grand scheme of things this has only ever been a minor annoyance for me, but it quickly points out to me that these people *like to push boundaries of all kinds*. Inevitably these people will be just awful to queer people (especially trans people, obviously), make teetotalers incredibly uncomfortable in bars, make people with dietary restrictions uncomfortable around food. And of course, every single person who has ever done this to me has been a man, and they all revel in making women uncomfortable with what could be charitably be described as “unsolicited flirtation”.

    (Lest some of my friends come across this comment, I should say that this is not to say that everyone who has ever used my real name without my permission has been so awful. There is a gradual softening of boundaries as you become closer with people, and at the level of closeness where good-natured ribbing or a practical joke might be appropriate, I have certainly had friends annoy me intentionally by using it, but we both know they are razzing me and it’s fine. The reaction I’m describing is when awful people do this immediately upon meeting me, or soon thereafter.)

    As it happens, I feel exactly the same way about my pseudonym as Emily feels about hers; it is in many ways more “real” than my wallet name. But when others have obliquely accused me of being “fake” with them by refusing to share my “real” name, my reaction has been: so what? Why would I be obliged to be “real” with someone I have only just met? If I want to be fake, that is my business: take it or leave it.

    A pseudonym is a lovely canary in the coal mine for social interaction. Anyone who can’t manage the most basic respect of calling someone what they want to be called is someone you should never turn your back on.

    • Yeah. I hear you.

      A bit tangentially to the main point, but this strikes a nerve with me: “make teetotalers incredibly uncomfortable in bars”: wow, no kidding. There are so many reasons why a person might not be drinking (in general, or on this specific occasion), and not all of them are reasons they might want to be forced to explain to an acquaintance. And if the person is a recovering alcoholic or just someone who has decided that they need to cut back right now, it does not help at all to make them feel like they’re socially uncool as a result. I feel like this happens more in the UK than in the US, at least in the circles of people I run into.

      Thanks for commenting, and I’m glad this was useful to you.

  9. Nice piece of criticism here. I ultimately felt cheated by the game, as much as I did by the movie Signs, which presents a genuinely anguishing philosophical question about faith and meaning and provides the most facile answer possible — an answer that could not possibly be helpful to anyone actually struggling with those questions. It trivialized the Search for Meaning for the sake of a cheap plot twist.

    Similarly, I think that The Beginner’s Guide is too easy, too over-the-top. It hints at the deep rifts that always lie in the way of human interaction and empathy, but then pretends that shouting over the top of that deeply unsettling realization is anything like a useful examination of it. There’s nothing here to grab on to. I’m also annoyed when authors seem to try to preclude criticism of their work by either pre-empting it (“You can see how the Source engine is best used for blocky shapes.”) or by presenting it an act of exposure that makes them vulnerable to criticism. I mean, that’s the whole goddamn point, but now he’s reaching meta-levels of pre-emption by pre-empting the criticism of pre-empting.

    The other thing that’s unfair about The Beginner’s Guide is that there actually is a huge body of work created by people who are making weird, wonderful, awful, creative, shocking, surprising, unsettling, anguished, exposing games. They’re out there, and they’re real people, with all of the attendant complications that being actually human entails. This fiction created by Wreden subverts all of that to a certain extent. It’s not like his ventriloquism is very seamless (indeed it’s meant to be somewhat apparent); it feels remarkably solipsistic. And he’s asking for money for it, which most of those other creators do not. A game like this requires some degree of authenticity, and instead The Beginner’s Guide feels like manipulation.

    On the other hand, it’s been awhile since I got this angry and annoyed about a game, so there’s that.

    • That’s an interesting way of putting it, but note that manipulation is precisely the game you signed up for by clicking ‘play’. I haven’t played TBG, but a huge proportion of level and game design – and especially these sorts of experiences as authored by devs like Wreden – are very carefully set up to produce the chain of events they are looking to depict. I thought leaving the world of the Stanley Parable was a fun note, for example, but then I actually broke it rather easily and it made the whole thing feel like a cardboard cutout of a meaningful experience at a carnival midway.

      Note that here I mean manipulation as in the sense of one who constructs a labyrinth, rather than the emotional/abusive reading signalled in comments above.

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  12. I’m going to leave this here, since today has been a growing day for me. I played The Beginner’s Guide a few hours ago and have been obsessing over it. Through several reviews and blog entries helping me come to terms with the complex emotions I felt at the end of the game, I’ve discovered that there’s some sort of supreme irony to be so effected personally by the game.

    I have to admit, I just finished writing a long email to the address Davey posted at the beginning. Partly because of curiosity to see how far the meta game really goes, and partially because I needed to vent about my feelings somewhere, and why, if the creator himself didn’t give me someone to talk to at the start of the game.

    The fact that I can’t stop trying to interpret this game seems weirdly recursive. The game is about someone trying to interpret something with little information. Then I try to interpret that interpretation. Then I try to interpret why I felt that I needed to interpret that interpretation. It’s slowly turning my brain into mush.

    The two weirdest or strongest truths that came to me from this blog post, and I should mention that I got here via a google search and have not read any other entries on this blog at all, was first, while I’ve been trying to cope with not interpreting Coda himself, since that is the broad-stroke moral of the game, I’ve not stopped trying to interpret Davy-as-a-character’s actions in the game. Which really underscores how readily I fall into this trap of “trying to see beyond the veil”. And second, was the realization of “Am I the bad guy?” There was a YouTube essay that I once watched that discussed the whole Gamer-gate thing a while back and the moral outcry that in essence came from the question, “Am I the bad guy?” that everyone has to ask themselves at some point. (In that particular instance, it was talking about challenging your notions of what sexism is.) At some point, everyone realizes that their definitions for things aren’t what they really are and they’re forced to either accept the new definition, which usually includes accepting that you may have been a pretty shitty person, or to reject it and maintain your idea that you’re the “good guy”. I found, as I played the game, that I related so much to Davey-as-a-character that I felt enraged at Coda after the last level. Then I felt sad. Then scared, then angry at myself. Because I started trying to apply Davey’s constant interpretation and trying to get every detail out Coda’s game to my own, fairly analytical mind, and found many of the same behaviors in myself. And while these behaviors aren’t necessarily bad in themselves, it does make me wonder, how often have I overstepped my bounds because of the anonymity provided to me through the internet or other barriers? In fact, the email I wrote to Davey himself was me overstepping those boundaries by talking about my own personal experiences to a complete stranger and how I interpreted his actions. Then it applies here, by making a personal comment on someone else’s blog. Someone who I haven’t invested ANY time into researching and whose only connection to me is that they also played a game distributed on Steam. And yet, I hit the post button at the end of this because of the anonymity (and vaguely open invitation of a comments section) and let the world try and interpret me based on a handful of words.

    Today has been a very weird day for me….

    • I see so much of myself in this post. I immediately feel like I know things about you that I don’t. I played this game two days ago, I’ve watched 3 let’s plays of it from start to finish, I’ve tried to absorb every bit of information I can find. I’ve told everyone that I can to play it. And every time I do any of it, I know it’s wrong. I’m not perfectly sure how it’s wrong, but it’s wrong. Stanley Parable was cool, but this game is destroying me, and I’m loving it. What the fuck is going on?

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  14. I use a “Creative” name too. It also happens to be the name I give when I order food. My full name is Kohdi Luke Troy Mahboub. I go by Kohdi, in general, and Luke in my creative output. No one has ever accused me of anything nefarious for doing it. That strikes me as really weird, and definitely says more about the person getting upset than it does about Emily.

  15. Pingback: Interactive Digital Narrative: Practice | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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