Why The Beginner’s Guide left me unsettled and why it is a good thing

(this is kind of a review. I don’t know where I  am going with this myself but there may be spoilers so I recommend you to play the game before reading on. If you don’t want to read on, I strongly suggest you play the game anyway).

Yesterday I had a great gaming sunday. It started off in the morning with Journey, a heartwarming spiritual adventure that left me a sense of fulfillment and a lot of love for all the random human beings I met in my path – which is a rather unusual feeling for me, particularly on a sunday morning. Love for strangers.

In the late afternoon my husband tempted me with another short adventure (the game itself does not last more than an hour and a half) which he just played and was incredibly eager to comment and share with someone real, from his life. He specifically seemed very interested in my opinion so I sensed the game had maybe something which appealed to me and him. And it does.

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The Beginner’s Guide is as a collection of games – made in a period of five years by a fictional game designer named Coda –  presented chronologically by his old friend and colleague Davey Wreden.  Davey tells us he is very anxious – as my husband, apparently – to share the work of his good friend who is going through a difficult time and stopped his creative flow. Davey’s hope is to convince Coda to, maybe, start from where he left off by showing his work, which he is very passionate about, to other people.

What I immediately thought of Coda’s games is that they’re clearly not designed to be played by others. They are incomplete, there’s no narrative or interaction of any kind. They’re ideas developed in a form which make sense to their creative mind but little sense to others. If you have in your life,  like myself, created bits and pieces of art which are not destined to consumption you can maybe understand the sense of uneasiness I felt going through Coda’s germinal games. As if someone went through my drawings and my bits of lyrics and music without my knowledge. Yet, I tried to follow Davey’s interpretation of shapes, symbols and settings as the genuine opinion of a person with a deeper knowledge of the art with which I was presented, despite my apparent lack of insight.

If not a deep understanding of the art, Coda’s games left me progressively an impression of what kind of person he might have been at the moment he designed those game. As someone familiar with depression I recognised the need for isolation and the utter loneliness, particularly painful in the depiction of social interactions and dark, claustrophobic spaces. That’s where I started to see a lot of my husband in Coda.

My husband is depressed, and also going through a progressive isolation from the external world, which sadly coincides with his abandonment of every form of creative expression. This is particularly painful to me, considering I am one of the few who now knows how talented and witty he is. There’s a particular game in which Coda represents his refusal to comply with social expectations as a series of gates suddenly closing and dragging him – or the player – further away from a performing stage. Each gate closing was a blow to my heart.

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It also strikes me how much Coda’s frustration reminds me of my personal struggle with art: how I feel my creativity must be free from any external influence, and yet I am not able to conceive it without thinking it must be shared with some other human being, even if I have little desire to, with the hope of being understood at a very deep level. Maybe that’s why Coda keeps creating and sharing his work with Davey, despite the fact that it is draining his energy and he has no desire to create anymore.

So, when I was starting to think of The Beginner’s Guide as a moral tale of how I should drag my special one – and / or myself – out of our hole, I realised how maybe Davey Wreden – the real Davey Wreden, the game designer behind The Beginner’s Guide – was maybe trying to tell me something different.

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We are consumers of art, sometimes to the extent of becoming fans (which is, and always will be, short for fanatics), when we feel a deep connection with the creator himself / herself. I think there is the same need, in the audience and the artist both, to be recognized by the other, in order to feel less lonely or to share something common. The fictional Davey Wreden is, first and mostly, a fan of Coda. As I started sensing from the beginning he is projecting a great deal of his own opinions and visions into Coda’s work. But isn’t it what I was doing myself? I have used Coda’s games as a mean to a deeper reflection on my personal life; I’ve seen, in his frustration, mine; in his depression, my husband’s. I am with Carolyn Petit when she says that we’re allowed, as gamers (or readers, viewers), to live the artistic experience in a personal way. But where is the limit?

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Discovering that Davey was the one who placed lampposts in Coda’s games made me incredibly uncomfortable. It made me question my relationship with the game, my relationship with art, my specific role as the audience, the reader, the player. Am I being honest? Or am I trying to find meaning in someone else’s work because, like Davey, I don’t like myself?

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In retrospect, I don’t know how to answer to this questions. I was endowed with an external point of view to understand what was wrong with Davey’s fixations over Coda’s work. The game is an incredibly humbling experience, that left me naked, powerless and full of questions. That’s what art usually does.

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