This week I’ve been thinking a lot about a game by Davey Wreden (no surprise there) called The Beginner’s Guide because it challenges my position as an analyst and a viewer. It explores how viewers identify with artists through their art, what the artist’s responsibility is to the viewer (and vice versa), and how the artist’s ego relates to their art. These assertions will make more sense once you have some context.
In The Beginner’s Guide, Wreden narrates a number of short games all made by “Coda,” whom he introduces at the start as a fellow game designer he met at a game jam. Each game is experimental and concept-driven, like a game where you can only walk backwards and a series of games about prisons. Wreden’s narration highlights how Coda’s games mature in complexity as he continues to develop them and how they explore the same themes like social anxiety, the creative process, and depression. He also discusses his relationship with Coda over the years these games came out.
In the penultimate level, “The Tower,” Wreden shares with us how he felt when he showed people Coda’s games: “When I showed people your work, it felt like I was responsible for something important and valuable.... For a moment, while I had that [feeling], I liked myself.” Wreden describes the same feeling most of us have when we experience great art. When a piece makes sense, has a clear message, and we understand it, we feel complete, like we’ve solved life’s puzzle.
Film theorist Jean-Louis Baudry has described this sensation in his writing on the Apparatus Theory. In short, film’s viewers feel like they are controlling the image they are seeing through the power of their gaze, all because of how viewers experience film. Viewers immobilize themselves in a dark room so the image can more effectively immerse them. They sit in front of the projector, so they do not see the source of the image and therefore can believe their eyes are producing the image. Viewers identify themselves with protagonists, through which they can personally experience the narrative world. And the film structures its narrative with clear beginning, middle, and end to provide expected excitement and resolution, providing another sense of control. When films do these things well, Baudry tells us that viewers suspend their disbelief and ignore reality in preference for this feeling of control and wholeness.
Art is powerful, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. People will usually compare art to science or engineering and tell you art has no practical purpose. That’s malarkey, because art affects the two most important (and practical) human organs - the mind and the heart. Art makes you feel all sorts of things. It acts as a tool for empathy, allowing people to feel other people’s feelings through art. And really good art can even make you feel complete, worth something. Art is one whole product, and when you get it and it vibes with you, everything seems right with the world. All your confusion and pain and insecurity doesn't matter because you're engrossed in this art. If we could, we would capture the emotions we feel from art and keep them with us forever. But the lights come up, we walk out the theater, and the earth still exists, as much as we wish it didn't. Our imperfect lives go on, even though we wish we could stay in the dream world just a moment longer.
This, I think, describes Wreden’s feelings when he played these games. He felt he understood them, and because they made sense to him the world seemed to make sense too. So in showing other people Coda’s games, he wanted to ignore the world, feel these feelings again, and in a sense control his emotions by re-experiencing these games through other people. But this need for control drove Coda away. Wreden twisted the games’ meanings to something he could understand and by doing so inserted himself into the game.
By the end of The Beginner’s Guide, the player can assume that Coda is not a real person. Wreden made these games and created Coda as a narrative device to present these games to you. So why did he make these games? Why did Davey invent Coda?
I think that “Davey Wreden,” the narrator, represents Davey’s ego, the voice in his head that determines his worth and compares him to “Coda,” the idealized artist persona that makes Wreden’s games. Davey sees his creative aspects as separate from himself, like they’re a talented genius that makes perfect games but whom Davey can’t access all the time. People like Coda’s games, but Davey tells himself that people don’t like him, since he makes mistakes and is awkward and flawed. Coda can be compared to “the Machine,” the Muse behind all the games, which Wreden has the player interrogate and then destroy. Therefore, Davey seeks validation through his creative work, while Coda makes games just to make them. Coda doesn’t want other people playing his games, because that means they would be vulnerable to their interpretations. But that seems hypocritical, since art is meant to be viewed. Indeed, these games would mean nothing unless Davey hadn’t shown them to people, right?
In this way, The Beginner’s Guide represents the conflict between the artist’s and the ego’s drive to make art. The artist seeks self-expression, the ego seeks self-validation. The ego just wants to experience something that feels complete and rational and good, unlike the real world. The ego, then, can be compared to art’s consumers. They (and their egos) identify with art and postulate on its meaning - one that makes sense to them, one that they want to hear. And they want to control that feeling, perhaps by sharing it with other people.
That’s why I was excited to show Ellie this game, and why I’m writing about it now. Like Davey felt when he showed The Beginner’s Guide to people, I feel like I can take responsibility for sharing this game with the world. I got to relive the first time I played it through someone else. And I get to formalize my ideas about who Coda is.
However, the meaning that consumers get from art might not have been intended by the artist. Who am I to say that Coda doesn’t exist? I’m also postulating a huge amount on Davey’s personality and thoughts when I describe his relationship with Coda. I’m characterizing him as self-loathing and depressed, just like he does with Coda. I don’t actually know Davey Wreden -- I may write about him like I do and even feel like I do after hearing his voice for a few hours throughout the game. But I don’t. He and his thoughts are completely inaccessible to me. Wreden says something similar in “The Tower” about Coda. And Coda even accuses Davey of falsely representing him in the game. Near the end of “The Tower,” Coda write to him, “The fact that you think I’m broken say more about you than about me.” Davey identified so strongly with Coda that he applied his own thoughts to Coda. And I identify so strongly with Davey that I act like I understand what he’s talking about here. We read ourselves into our media. We feel what we want, we think what we want.
So, is art actually as powerful as I thought? When we experience art, do we actually engage with other people’s thoughts, or are we trapped in our own minds? Like sitting in a hot tub, set to the perfect temperature to make us feel good. We just think and feel what we want to. And when we don’t, it’s “bad art.”
Why do I write? Am I just trying to preserve the euphoria of my media experiences, bottling a shadow in hopes of proving I can be happy? Am I selfishly claiming the accomplishments of other artists to shut up the voice that tells me I can't do what they can? Or do I just want, more than anything, to feel nothing else but those feelings I felt when I experienced my favorite art?
It would be hypocritical and superficial of me to try to redeem my efforts of media criticism at this point. Ultimately you, the reader, prove whether this endeavor is valuable or not. If you don't feel anything because of this, it's pointless. And if I have made you feel something, then I guess I'm part of the problem. Regardless, I (ironically) encourage you to play this game. I hope you get as much out of it as I have.