The Artist is Absent: Davey Wreden and The Beginner's Guide
How does a story go about saying something? And when we say "this story is saying something", what, exactly, do we mean? and, when it happens, how do we recognize that the story is saying something? These are the questions I found myself chewing over in the weeks after I played The Beginner's Guide, a strange metatextual monster of an Indie game from the creator of The Stanley Parable. It's a project that doesn't so much break the fourth wall as to be seemingly constructed without one. I'll show you what I mean. >>
Davey: Hi there. My name is Davey Wreden. I wrote The Stanley Parable. Thank you very much for playing The Beginner's Guide. We're going to look at the games made by a friend of mine named Coda. >> Innuendo Studios: So our narrator, Davey, flat-out tells us how the game is meant to be interpreted, which is to say - it isn't. This is a walking tour of a number of small art games by his friend Coda, and Davey is going to tell us as we play what he thinks they mean. The only interpretation that needs doing is to be done by Davey. and what he means to say, he means to say plainly. >>
Davey: I want us to see past the games themselves. I want to get to know who this human being really is. And that's exactly what we're going to do here. >> Innuendo Studios: Now, core to Davey's conceit is that to fully understand Coda's games you need Davey. These games were made by Coda for his own enjoyment, not for public consumption, so to really "get" them you need both a player's perspective and a designer's perspective. During play, Davey makes walls transparent to reveal architecture that is built but the player would normally never see, and he lets the player into rooms they normally wouldn't have access to.
Other times Davey skips you to the end of a labyrinth or opens a door that's not supposed to open for an hour, because, to his mind, you can get the idea of "I'm supposed to wait" or "there is a labyrinth" without actually experiencing the tedium of those things. These skips and elisions are things Coda himself might do as he play tests the games. What the player comes to understand by the end is that Davey has in fact been making far deeper alterations. He's not just making the games playable or more understandable, but, from his perspective, he's making them more coherent and those alterations he didn't admit to us.
For instance. HE's been putting these optimistic lamp posts at the end of levels because he feels they SHOULD be there. His thinking is that he understands what Coda meant to do, and he is making the games "more themselves". But that means making a lot of assumptions about what Coda meant and what Coda wants. When Coda discovers that Davey has been sharing altered versions of his games with other people, he makes one final game just for Davey and then quits game design entirely. And that last game is unplayable without Davey's meddling; it has an invisible labyrinth, a combination you have to brute-force, and a door that never opens unless you alter the game's code.
And after all that, Davey, having utterly failed Coda's test, is confronted with exactly what he's been searching for; a message from the game's creator. >> Davey: I am the reason that you stopped making games aren't I? It's because of what I did. I poisoned it for you. >> Innuendo Studios: What Davey has done is he's turned Coda into a symbol of a brilliant but tortured
artist, and Coda is no longer interested in being a symbol. Davey has been treating the occasional darker themes in Coda's games as a "problem" he needs to "fix" and Davey is not really analyzing these games to understand Coda better, but for his own gratification.
Analyzing Coda's games and explaining them to other people makes Davey feel creative in a way his own work doesn't; in a way that he imagines Coda feels all the time. >> Davey: Even though I was showing your work. It was... I felt GOOD about myself. Finally, for a moment, while I had that, I liked myself. >> Innuendo Studios: Now, I'm not just here to describe The Beginner's Guide to you, I have a bit more purpose than that, but The Beginner's Guide is core to what we are here to discuss, and to proceed, let's clarify a few things.
This video, this thing you're watching right now, is built on two assumptions: Assumption One is that all the things I just told you about The Beginner's Guide aren't real. There isn't actually a game designer named Coda, and Davey didn't actually steal his games and sell them on Steam. The narrator Davey is a fictional character created by the real-life Davey Wreden, and you know what, for the sake of convenience. we're going to delineate between them. We'll call the fictional narrator Davey The Narrator and the flesh-and-blood game designer Davey Prime. Assumption Two is that by the end of the game the player is supposed to realize that none of it is true.
That understanding is part of the text; there is still a fourth wall. So just in case you thought a game couldn't possibly be more meta than The Stanley Parable, this is SUPER META. In much of the critical discussion around The Beginner's Guide, Coda is a sticking point, because even if people agree that he's not real (and not everyone does) they often start asking: "Okay, but how not real is he?" People start to wonder whether it's a fictional account of something that actually happened. in the wake of the unexpected success of The Stanley Parable, Davey Prime released a rather eloquent blog about depression and self-doubt, sentiments very directly echoed in Davey The Narrator's dialogue.
So in that time did Davey Prime develop an unhealthy relationship with another game designer, whose creativity he was envious of? Did he betray their trust? And did he funnel that experience into his next game? And, if so, who were they? But at the end of the day the only thing really at stake in that line of inquiry is "what kind of asshole is or isn't Davey Prime?" The other prevailing theory is that "Coda" is just Davey Prime talking to his younger self and these "debates" about authenticity tend to cloud any discussion of, if we simply accept that the game is a fiction and move on from there, what the game has to say.
And that may be because what The Beginner's Guide is trying to say is reeeeally fucking slippery. Because the game is just so meta, it's SUPER META! Which made me wonder whenever I tried to engage with it just how meta my engagement should be. For example, Davey The Narrator clearly suffers from imposter syndrome. The game is from his perspective, so my reflex is to identify with that anxiety. But by the end of the game, it's not only clear that he's done something really shitty, but that he's a fictional character. So my next question is, "does Davey Prime want me to question the fact that I reflexively identify with a shitty person provided they have a pain I recognize and they control my point of view?" and then, OR: "does Davey Prime want me to question the fact that I asked myself that question and then projected that intention on to him?" and then OR: "does Davey Prime want me to question the fact that I asked myself THAT question and then projected THAT intention onto him?" and on and on like this.
We knew Davey The Narrator's intentions, But we don't know Davey Prime's. Anything the game might be saying might also be a meditation on the fact that you think the game is saying that. So is this a story where conversations about how real are not real the contents are have largely overtaken any meaningful discussion of what it actually has to say? Or is it one with so many layers of metatextuality and ironic distancing that it's arguably not about anything other than itself? Well I happen to think that, at the end of it all, the game has at least one thing concretely to say, but before we can talk about it we need a framework for talking about it and to build that framework (and maybe you saw this coming) We're gonna have to go meta.
WAY meta. We're going to talk about the fundamental nature of storytelling. But before that we're going to talk about the fundamental nature of authorship, and before that we're gonna talk about the fundamental nature of language. Also, we're going to spoil the ending of the Sopranos for some reason, so don't say I didn't warn you SUPER META. Let's get started. Let's start with a word. Like "tree". Chances are if I say the word tree, you know what I'm talking about. Say I want to tell you about a specific tree, like, say, the one in the front yard of the house I grew up in.
What can I tell you about it? Well, I can tell you that it was big. As a kid, the span of my arms could only go about a quarter of the way around the trunk, and the county required us at least once to prune it because the branches were touching the power lines. I can tell you how the bark felt to touch; it had this kind of grooved pattern, almost like tire treads? But rougher and it felt almost crumbly, like if I ran my palm across it I'd almost expect the bark to slough off in clods like dirt I can tell you about the leaves, how they were a darker green than most of the other trees in the area, almost round but with a sharp point at the end; how they were smooth and waxy on the top but the underside collected dust which I'd compulsively wipe off with my thumb.
What I can't do is take my experience of this tree and beam it telepathically into your brain, so I'm using language. I'm breaking down that experience into its constituent elements (colors, textures, images, sensations) translating those into words and giving the words to you, so you can translate them into your own set of sensations, and try to reconstruct the thing that's in my head. Now for this to work it requires a certain commonality between us. Not just that you, ya know, speak English and your vocabulary is such that you understand most of the words I'm using, but also commonality of experience; that you know what a dark green looks like, how tire treads feel, how far off the ground power lines are.
And since the lived experience you associate with those words will never be identical to mine, the math won't entirely add up the same for you as it does for me. The reality is that the tree in your head is going to be different from mine, and since you also can't telepathically beam your tree into my head so I can compare it with mine, we may know /that/ they're different, but we don't really know /how/. Now imagine instead of talking about my experience of a tree, I'm talking about far more subjective experiences, like pain, or doubt, or love, and you'll see what I'm getting at.
Inside every brain are thoughts in a mother tongue spoken by only one person, and to speak and be heard is to go from one private language into a shared code and then into another private language The translation is always imperfect. The fact that human beings can communicate at all is sort of amazing. I mean, depending on how evocative I am with language I can get you pretty close but ultimately, communication is always settling for "good enough". A big takeaway here is that the thing in your head is yours--or, it's kind of ours? I supplied the blueprint, you supplied the materials, so in a sense we made it together, but since we built it in your head, and I'll never get to see it, you're the one who gets to keep it.
The point here is, all communication is collaborative. Even when I'm the only one speaking, we make meaning together. In his book "About Writing", author and essayist Samuel R Delany describes the act of reading a story like this: "However much, as readers, we lose ourselves in a novel or a story, fiction itself is an experience on the order of memory--not on the order of actual occurrence. It /looks/ like the writer is telling you a story. what the writer is actually doing, however, is using words to evoke a series of micro memories from your own experience that inmix, join, and connect in your mind in an order the writer controls, so that, in effect, you have a sustained memory of something that never happened to you.
That false memory is what a story is. When our conversation is a fantastical story read from the page, or the screen of your Kindle, rather than an anecdote shared casually with a friend, there are several major differences; among them that A: you and I usually both know that what I'm saying isn't actually true, and B: that I'm no longer in the room. We're not two normal people having a conversation, I'm an author and you're...the public. This shift changes our responsibilities regarding one another. All meaning is (still) collaborative, but when the author is not physically present, or when they are present But they can't "drop character" as in, like, theatre, performance art, or public readings, then the creation of that meaning has a different "division of labor".
If a dialogue is one part Interpretation one part conversation, a book is all interpretation. You can't ask me what I mean. All the information you're going to get is in the book, or in the occasional supplementary material. So your role is a bit more like that of a detective; you take what you know from the text, or what you think you know, and essentially construct a theory of meaning: if this means this, and this means this, then this... proooobably means this? The text may strike you as clear or confused or at odds with itself, but in any case you draw what meaning you can from it and... that's that.
That's as true as anything you're going to get. What goes on in your head always belongs to you, but doubly so in the case of fiction. Like, if someone says "I think Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy" and someone else says "I think he didn't", there is an objective truth to the matter. One of these people is necessarily wrong. But if someone says "I think Tony dies at the end of The Sopranos" and someone else says "I think he lives", there is no objective truth. What the ending of The Sopranos means to you isn't up to anyone else because Tony Soprano isn't real.
Whatever doesn't happen explicitly within the text cannot be proven, only theorized. I mean, okay, if someone says "I think Tony reveals his true nature and assumes the role of the new Dalai Lama", that is... an... unsound theory, but the fact that some theories are crap doesn't mean that any one theory is correct. There's just differing subjective degrees to which they are meaningful. So if so much of the "work" of creating meaning falls on you as an audience member, how much does the author even matter? Like, if David Chase (and he would never actually do this) comes out and says "Tony totally dies at the end of The Sopranos", what are you even supposed to do with that information?
Did he just solve the case of Tony Soprano? On the one hand, knowing the writer's intentions is certainly a big piece of information for your theory, and maybe that solves some of the confusing parts, but on the other hand, fuck this guy! He wasn't even there! if he didn't want you to theorize, he would have put what happened to Tony up on the screen. He doesn't get to swoop in now and decide what it all means. Besides, people go back and add things to stories that were finished all the time. If David Chase starts thinking tomorrow "oh, hmm, what if Tony didn't die and he moved to a different city and got a different name?" or "what if I started writing a new fleshed-out backstory for him?
Oh that's interesting." then he gets to do that. He gets to change his ending. It's fiction, it's malleable. That's why we get to debate "is Tony dead?" "Is Deckard a replicant?" "Is Jar-Jar a Sith Lord?" The point is that, when we say "what it means to you isn't up to anyone else", in a lot of ways, that includes the author. Reading a book is not a dialogue. With rare exception, the author doesn't even know you exist. By design, you have to do your interpretation without them.
But! But... we can't quite say an author is wholly irrelevant, either Like, if someone handed you a page of Hamlet written out of pure chance by a chimp at a typewriter, would you try to Interpret it the same way you would the same page as written by Shakespeare? If you knew it was an animal bashing randomly at keys, would you wonder what it means other than to ponder its sheer statistical improbability? See, we try to make meaning out of something when we know there was meaning put into it. The meaning of Hamlet may no longer belong to Shakespeare, but it's the existence of Shakespeare that provokes the effort of interpretation.
See, the meaning of a work is an answer to the question, "why does this exist?" If someone made it they had to have a reason; anything from "I wanted to change the world" to "I wanted to make money" to "I was bored". Those aren't all great answers, but they're answers. An interpretation isn't so much about learning the "right" answers as pondering which answers /could/ be right. When people congregate around a campfire to tell scary stories, but before the story begins, everyone is just a person.
But once the story starts one person becomes a narrator and everyone else becomes an audience, and if the narrator is any good, then being an audience is easy. You may be familiar with the term "suspension of disbelief"? When the narrator tells the story, they pretend that it's true, and while the audience listens, they pretend to believe it; and we often (though by no means always) consider a story to be well told if we can effectively suspend our disbelief: if it's told in such a way that it's easy to pretend it's real.
Of course you never actually believe the story, the roles of narrator and audience are just functions of the text. On the sort of unacknowledged metatextual layer, they are characters in the story: the people who believe. Which makes all of us, sitting around the campfire, in a sense, actors. The point I'm getting at here is that that conversation we've been talking about? The one that gets super complicated when it's a story rather than just an anecdote told face-to-face? Stories are actually even more complicated because they're not conversations between two real people, they're conversations between two fictional people that serve as proxies for real people.
A story may be the product of one person or many individuals, but we as readers hear the story told in one authorial "voice". We could say that voice is the narrator's voice (and when I say narrator I'm not talking about the voice-over narration in the theatrical cut of Blade Runner or anything, I mean the mode of expression that has been deemed by the author to be the "right way" to tell this story). And that voice doesn't just tell the story, it tells you how to listen. This is easiest to spot when it's done poorly.
Like, think about a horror film where something happens that you can tell was /supposed/ to make you jump-- --but it doesn't. Or, a comedy where you can tell a joke was /supposed/ to make you laugh-- >> Woman in clip: Oh my God is that a hang nail? >> Innuendo Studios: --but it doesn't; where you can tell a plot point isn't supposed to come off as contrived-- >> man in clip: I think I know what's causing this >> Foreground man: You do? >> first man again: It's the plants! >> innuendo Studios: --but it reeeeally does.
A bum narrator is an actor flubbing their lines, or, if you prefer, a good narrator is a dancer who knows how to lead. "So, wait," I hear you ask, "I thought you said a minute ago that a story is a conversation between one person and a text. Now you're saying it's between these two fake people? Which is it?" Well... kinda both. When we say the reader has to construct the meaning on their own, that is actually all of the meaning: the imagery, the themes, the symbolism, the sights, sounds, smells, and also the narrator and the audience.
Person A may have put it all in there but Person B still has to build it and no two readers will build it the same way. They may hear similar authorial voices, but they won't be exactly the same because the people hearing them are different people. Surely you and a friend have both read the same book and come away thinking profoundly different things about the author. People have different experiences and different tastes, so they construct different meanings, which means they assume different narrators as the voice behind the story, and take on the roles of different audiences.
Comparing your read on the material with friends or critics is often a game of asking "so... who did this turn you into?" Okay, so, piecing it all together, here's how a story gets told: A person (we'll call them the author) has something in their head they want to express. They break that something down into its constituent elements that then can be communicated, and they translate those elements into a language. Maybe it's the language of pictures or game mechanics or camera angles; we'll use the example of a book and go with words.
The words then go into the book and the book gets disseminated. Someone else (we'll call them the reader") reads the book and converts the words into their own set of feelings, images and sensations, and tries to put it all back together. In so doing (and to make sense of it) they imagine why the author would have put these words in this order, what they would have meant with this story. That imagined author, we're calling "the narrator". The reader then wonders how the author would want them to react. That imagined reactor we're calling "the audience".
And the reader deduces the meaning of the work from the imagined conversation between these two people. With skill, and with luck, the narrator is at least close to the voice the author meant to assume and the audience is someone the reader is comfortable becoming for a while. That's our completed conversation. It's lovely, isn't it? This is all done so reflexively that we are not often aware we're even doing it. Any discrepancies between the intended meaning and the interpretation are simply the unavoidable and often (let's be clear) beautifully enriching side effects of such a complex mode of communication.
Now, what is that one thing I feel The Beginner's Guide has concretely to say? "Don't mistake the narrator for the author." Taking it from the top: The Beginners Guide opens with a literal narrator telling us what, if we didn't know it going in, is easy enough to verify the game is the product of an Indie developer named Davey Wreden, who made The Stanley Parable. The voice we hear is also a Davey Wreden who made The Stanley Parable, he even gives us a legitimate email address. >> Davey: You can email me at
Innuendo Studios: This invites us to proceed assuming author and narrator are one in the same. There is not yet any reason to assume otherwise. Davey The Narrator, early on, makes it clear that he too accepts this premise, that author and narrator are the same person. This is the basis of his analysis. >> Davey: This is what I like about all of Coda's games. I mean, not that they're all fascinating as games, but that they are all going to give us access to their creator. >> Innuendo Studios: And for the first several games, even if he is using his readings to write a narrative of Coda, they are fairly defensible readings.
But as he goes on it seems more and more that his narrative is starting to impose itself on the readings, rather than the other way around. Coda has a number of games about prisons, which Davey The Narrator reads as evidence that Coda feels stuck in a creative rut. To Davey The Narrator, a prison can only be a trap that halts progress, because that squares with his budding narrative about Coda's restless need to move forward and seek validation. That's what he sees. He doesn't think that, maybe, to Coda, a prison is a quiet contemplative space to be alone with your thoughts; something that might have occurred to him if he hadn't skipped the hour he was supposed to spend in one previously Similarly, there's a game where players duck out of a dark night into a warmly lit house to happily busy themselves with menial tasks.
The sequence then ends abruptly and players have no choice but to move toward the exit, because as Davey The Narrator tells us, >> Davey: You can't stay in the dark space for too long, you just can't, you have to keep moving. It's how you stay alive. >> Innuendo Studios: But, it turns out, this is another one of Davey's alterations. As far as Coda is concerned, you damn well could have just cleaned a nice house forever. So the games become as Davey sees them. The way that some readers will Ignore parts of the text in order to fit it to one of their pet theories about the author is here literalized by changes to the game's code.
Anything that doesn't fit is ignored. Most players will encounter this repeated three dot pattern which goes unremarked upon until the very end, because Davey The Narrator cannot figure out why it's there. His narrative about a need to be understood does not allow for an element that isn't meant to be understood, or maybe doesn't mean anything at all. To an extent his assumption that Coda's games can tell us who Coda is, is right. Coda's games cannot help reveal something about the person who made them. the saying goes, "every painting is a self-portrait", and by the same token, every story is a memoir.
But what Davey The Narrator does not and cannot know for sure is WHAT the games reveal. He believes Coda is unhappy, and that showing his games to other people will fix the problem. >> Davey: I brought them to people that I knew and trusted, I asked their opinion, and the great part is that they really loved his games. Can you see why I felt like this was the right thing to do? Because it's the thing that I always feel like I need: to be told that my work is good! That I am good. When- when someone really connects with a thing that I've made, when they see themselves purely in my work, there's nothing that feels better.
And I got to give that very same feeling to my friend! >> Innuendo Studios: If, for Davey The Narrator, the games are about a restless need to move forward clashing with a desire for validation, fair enough. But is it just a coincidence that this narrative perfectly mirrors his own insecurities? The final game is where that narrative becomes untenable. This game could not be made by the Coda Davey The Narrator has imagined. >> Davey: I remember. It's June of 2011. I'm playing this for the very first time, and as I'm playing, I'm thinking to myself, "I don't know this person.
I have no idea who this person is." >> Innuendo Studios: For players of The Beginner's Guide, this moment, where WE realize the voice we've been hearing through the entire game is not real, is more nebulous. For some it happens near the end or shortly after finishing the game. Others go in assuming the story might prove to be fictional, and others still are unconvinced to this day that they aren't the same person, the irony of which I hope does not escape you. The game leaves it to us to realize what Davey The Narrator realizes: that the narrator is not a person, just a concept.
The translation of thought to work to thought is, once again, always imperfect. We have a hand in the construction of meaning, so we never really know how much of what we see in the game comes from the author, and how much comes from us. I could hazard a guess that, after the success of The Stanley Parable, Davey Prime had a lot of thoughts and feelings about the desire for validation through one's work, and those ideas may have fed into his creation of The Beginner's Guide, but I've got to stop with that word "may".
On this end of the conversation I have some sure footing, but over here? I know that I know nothing. I have only what I think. Any of my assumptions could prove false, even my opening two. I'm extremely confident that they won't, but they could. The important questions are simply, "Are the assumptions you make plausible?" and "Do they help you make sense of the text?" What The Beginner's Guide is NOT is a condemnation of readers hypothesizing the author's intentions, but rather an analysis of the necessity and inherent limitations of doing so.
Coda's games, with their repeated motifs and their developing art style, BEG to be read in the context of each other, in the same way The Beginner's Guide BEGS to be read in the context of the real-life Davey Wreden, of The Stanley Parable and of that depressing-as-shit blog. It is perfectly legitimate (in fact sometimes absolutely critical) to use the author to read the book. But the road only goes one way. You don't use the book to read the author. To start imposing your conception of the narrator onto the flesh-and-blood human being who made the text not only takes the focus off the text itself and kneecaps your ability to fully engage with it but can, the game suggests, be painful and psychologically damaging for that human being.
That's what Davey The Narrator did to Coda, and it's framed as a betrayal. This is a common, and, I find, often frustrating mode of media criticism. I've seen people line up the works of Quentin Tarantino to "prove" he made Inglourious Basterds because he hates his own audience. I've seen people line up the works of David O. Russell to "prove" that his tastes have not shifted, but that he is consciously choosing to make Oscar bait instead of his older auteurist work. Never mind the intense fixation by critics on the "secret motivations" behind any feminist or anti-racist piece of media.
And all I can wonder in these instances is: to what end? Why so much effort put towards understanding a person the critic will never meet and whose motivations they will never truly know? If Tarantino hates his audience, loves his audience, wants to buy his audience a milkshake, is Inglourious Basterds not the same 154 minutes? Davey The Narrator plays Coda's games with the belief that constructing a narrative about the author is the primary purpose of consuming their work. The Beginner's Guide itself presents this view in order to reject it. The guy who does this turns out to be the villain.
But all that aside, truth be told, while I was playing it, The Beginner's Guide wasn't about storytelling or the nature of authorship. To me, that's what it's about now, after some time thinking about it. Meaning is malleable, after all. Laura Mandanas read the game as a feminist look at how creepy dudes violate boundaries, Liz Ryerson read it as Davey Prime attempting, and ultimately failing, to engage with his own privilege, and Robert Yang pondered what might drive a person to make a game as a message to another person, and wondered if he himself is Coda.
There is no authoritative reading, certainly mine isn't one, but even when these readings contradict each other, they can all in their own ways, be true. The question is only, "to what degree do we find them meaningful?" While I was playing it, The Beginner's Guide was, to me, about the disillusion of a relationship. See, I once had a friendship like that of Davey The Narrator and Coda, at least before the whole horrible betrayal part. That friendship was very close, and it ended very badly. While I was playing it, it was a game about how, sometimes,
artists get their creativity wrapped up in their relationships and start needing other people to be creative in a very specific way in order to be happy; about how unintentionally cruel it can be to make someone else responsible for your sense of self-worth.
This was a long time ago, and what surprised me about The Beginner's Guide was that it dredged a lot of those old feelings up. For a game with so many layers of irony, I had a very emotional reaction. A lot of people did. And I can't help but wonder, did the real-life Davey Wreden have a friendship go south the way mine did? And... honestly... who cares? At the time, that's what the game meant to me. I get to take that with me. That's mine. And in case it's not obvious, it gave me a lot to think about.
Anyway, throughout this video I've been avoiding jargon terminology like "signifier" and "enoncè" but the stuff I've been saying about "language" and "authors" and "narrators" is "semiotics," "death of the author" and "enunciation theory". Most of what I've said doesn't only apply to stories, but to any creative work that needs interpreting. My discussion of critical theory is not at all comprehensive, and maybe not all academics would agree with the way I'm mushing these schools of thought together, but if you want to read more about any of it there are some references in the down-there part, and also check out de Saussure, Barthes, Foucault and Casetti which means... hang on If I had to end with a final thought, I guess it would be this: the next time you hear someone wondering aloud "Can games ever be art?" think on the fact that I just spent half an hour making sense of this with a whole lot of this.
See ya in the funny papers.