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The game dev letters: A series on The Beginner's Guide

The game dev letters: A series on  The Beginner's Guide
November 4, 2015 | By Liz England, Samantha Kalman

November 4, 2015 | By Liz England, Samantha Kalman
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More: Design



Sentris developer Samantha Kalman and Insomniac Games designer Liz England exchange fascinating insights on Davey Wreden and Everything Unlimited's thought-provoking game The Beginner's Guide, and what it means to be a creator who happens to makes games.

To: Samantha Kalman
From: Liz England
Subject: The Beginner's Guide

Hey Samantha,

I'm dying to talk about The Beginner's Guide but honestly I have no clue where to even start. I have nothing to compare it to.

Like, I'm tempted to compare it (obviously) to The Stanley Parable but it has none of that humorous wink-wink nudge-nudge affectation. I've been scraping my brain but I can't think of a game that breaks the fourth wall so consistently without also being dredged in humor. The Beginner's Guide doesn't play it as a gag. It’s so sincere. Even as a work of fiction I feel like the message is terribly honest.

I think the reason I have trouble figuring out how to even start discussing The Beginner’s Guide is that the game is just a bottomless well of stuff to talk about. You can approach it as a series of art games, as a master class in level design, as a metaphor for the creative process, as a work blurring the line between fiction and reality, as a discussion of the relationship between a creator and its audience and who really owns creative work once you released it in the wild - all wrapped up into one short, two hour game. I could easily spend ten times that length just talking about it.

"It's weird to watch creative control over a work get lost once it's in the player's hands."

And even though I want to talk about it, I had to think pretty hard about whether I wanted to actually write about the game, you know? The game kind of resists interpretation - by digging for meaning, we’re perilously close to committing its cardinal sin.  I don’t want to be a "Davey" (the character, not developer) confusing familiarity with a creative work with intimacy and friendship with its creator, a "Coda". I’ve seen that kind of troubled one-sided relationship in celebrity fandom, but (luckily) never experienced it myself. I definitely know what it’s like to have my work in the hands of players and critics as they assume all kinds of intent behind even the most innocuous choices.  It’s weird to watch creative control over a work get lost once it’s in the player’s hands. I think this is the first time I’ve seen the topic actually addressed in a game - though obviously it's not the only topic in there.

Anyway, I totally intended on just talking about some of my initial thoughts but it’s so hard to keep to a surface level discussion of the game. I spent a good amount of time after I finished it reading what other people had to say about it - mostly gamers, critics, and journalists, but pretty much nothing from developers. I’m super curious what a fellow dev has to say about it (and not just because there’s some awesome craftsmanship going on behind the scenes).

-Liz

To: Liz England
From: Samantha Kalman
Subject: The Beginner's Guide

Hi Liz! I'm also so glad to for this chance to dig into Beginner's Guide with another developer. It's a work that contains many layers to sift through, and I kind of want to remark on all of them. You bring up some great points to start with~~

There are certainly similarities between BG and Stanley. Its mechanics, narrator, the weight of its detailed static environments all seem deliberately evocative of Stanley. It brings to mind the chapter where Coda was making many similar prison games in succession. That seems like a funny parallel to me. Like the game is in some incredibly recursive way, commenting on itself. Or, maybe I'm reading too much into it and that relationship wasn't intentional. Have you ever experienced any kind of pressure to follow up a project with something very similar?

"Is it difficult or delightful when you see players misinterpret your games?"

I suspect even by drawing this parallel I've already committed the game's cardinal sin; how could I possibly draw any real conclusions about what the creator intended? I can only interpret the work through the lens of my own experiences. "Davey" does this over and over again while talking about Coda's work. He appears as the voice of authority, forcing his own opinion about each piece onto the player. It's almost rude how he, in the game, doesn't allow the player to interpret Coda's pieces without biasing us with his own perspectives. He's influencing the way we experience the games before we can see each in their entirety. I wonder if this is commentary on the tendency for players to seek out authorial intent rather than find satisfaction with their own interpretations? I'd like to think it is, but that's because I'm actively committing this sin right now.

Liz, what's your opinion on the importance of authorial intent? Is it difficult or delightful when you see players misinterpret your games?

The other question on my mind at this point in the conversation relates to an early narration in the game. Davey said Coda never intended to release these games anywhere...that perhaps the act of making them was more important than the act of playing them. This sits tumultuously on my mind. What's the value of making a game that isn't intended to be played by anyone? What purpose does that serve? I'd offer my own opinion but I'm still not quite sure yet.

-s

To: Samantha Kalman
From: Liz England
Subject: The Beginner's Guide

Hey Samantha-

I haven't played anything else by Davey Wreden except for Stanley Parable and The Beginner's Guide so it's hard for me to judge how much is one imitating the other, and how much it is just his style. I tend to side with style, to be honest. I hadn't actually put together the idea that Stanley Parable is a big prison for the player. I feel a little sheepish admitting that now. It's so obvious in retrospect.

I loved that you asked about authorial intent. Once upon a time I was a literature student and all the authors I studied were long since dead, so no one was around to really care about "intent."  I learned to study works for what they had to say about themselves, regardless of what the author might have intended. I still think that's totally fine, that a book - or a game - can be evaluated on its own merits and doesn't need a creator to tell you how to interpret it. But… once I became a developer myself I started to realize where the line stood, and how so many people would mix up "what the work means" and "what the creator means." I wouldn't say it's difficult so much as frustrating to read, especially since it's everywhere once you start to notice it. A lot of times it's players ascribing deep meaning to something that was, I don't know, a band-aid used to hide asset streaming. At that point the things players say about why a developer did 'X' just sound completely absurd, you know?

"I've tried my own hand at making 'unplayable' games but my inner game designer just won't let me go there."

So there's one question I have for you that I wanted to bring up: Who is Davey and who is Coda? (The characters I mean). Maybe it's just me, but when I first played it I immediately assumed Davey and Coda were the same person and it was completely metaphorical. I mean, we have the developer inserting himself into his own game, and then telling you the game just HAPPENS to be made by some fictional character who can't talk to you. This really primed me to think of the game as about a relationship between an artist's outward side and their inner side, a kind of tug-of-war between the ego and the id. I latched onto the idea that Coda was the muse that could only ever speak through art, and Davey was the logical part of the brain trying to make sense of it, explain it to the press, and edit it to be more commercial (accessible, usable, player-friendly, etc.). My first time through I totally missed the more literal interpretation that this was about a relationship between a player and a developer. What about you? Same/different? I have a tendency to miss the forest for the trees sometimes...

I totally want to grapple with your last point though - whether games can have value without being played. Maybe in a follow-up email, since I've written a ton already. Have you read Robert Yang's commentary to this?

"It's more important to witness a game than to play it." I really liked his approach to this, with the idea that games can be experienced without being played (whether we like it or not) and those experiences might be totally different than the real thing (and we should learn to be okay with that). I'd be curious what your thoughts are on it - it's a complex subject, for sure.

I've tried my own hand at making 'unplayable' games but my inner game designer just won't let me go there. I can't not put lamp posts in my levels.

-Liz

To: Liz England
From: Samantha Kalman
Subject: The Beginner's Guide

Hi Liz!

I never really thought about Stanley as a prison, either. Maybe it's a strange hybrid of a prison and a funhouse. It's the only other game of Davey's I played too, but I feel okay about picking up the similarities and calling it "Davey's style." Part of me hopes he rebels and breaks his style in future work. Another part finds comfort in the idea that he continues to strengthen his established style without deviating much from it.

I love what you're bringing up about how players ascribe meaning where none may have been intended. To me, this is the Yin to the Yang of the game's cardinal sin. Though we may never know the truth about what a work was intended to say, finding places to project (inject?) meaning makes the connection between us and the work more personal. I think about how many people feel ownership of the media they love -- music, television, films, games -- and how upset they get when a work does something different than those who love it and feel like they own it would have wanted it to be. Analytics-based game design practices operate under the pretense that giving the players what they want is the way to make the best games. Is that more important than carving out our creative path in the direction we feel drawn to? What does "best" even mean in this case?

"Though we may never know the truth about what a work was intended to say, finding places to project (inject?) meaning makes the connection between us and the work more personal."

Are any of Coda's games "good"? Is the answer even important in the context of the game? Why does Davey feel so compelled to spread Coda's games around, when he was supposedly content operating in isolation? It's super interesting to me that you interpreted Davey and Coda to be the same person! I took that relationship at face-value: Coda is just a guy making strange games as he likes, and Davey is another point of observation that perceives worth in the work and wants to share it on Coda's behalf, even without his permission. If Davey and Coda are the same person, then The Beginner's Guide becomes more about cowardice. The shameful feeling of wanting to create something for selfish reasons but being too embarrassed to do so. Davey had to create an alter-ego; a straw man to bear the brunt of the praise and the abuse alike. If they're different people, then the game becomes more about violation of trust. Coda asked Davey to not do a thing, Davey did that thing, and Coda had to cut all ties. I'm curious about Coda's compulsion to remain invisible. How many Codas are out in the world in 2015, coding away on personal experiments with zero desire to be seen? It's an overwhelming thought, especially right now with the number of games being made that have a strong desire to be seen.

This train of thought leads me to Schrödinger's work and quantum theory -- an atom transforms simply as a result of being observed. Maybe the game is a simple story about a person who changes as a result of his work being observed. The interesting part is how it's told -- by demonstrating the changing person through their work, filtered through the perspective of the person doing the observing. It makes my brain hurt. After reading Robert's piece that you shared, I have to think even more about the role of observation, broadly, creatively.

Speaking of the work, I'd like to ask what you think about the game's one recurring puzzle -- the dark space between two doors. I've been thinking about it so much but I want to hear your thoughts before I share my own interpretation.

Until the next lamp post,

Samantha

To: Samantha Kalman
From: Liz England
Subject: The Beginner's Guide

> Are any of Coda's games "good"?

Okay, look, I know this was a rhetorical question but I just want to say (again, I think, but you can never say it too much) that I adored every single one of those little vignettes attributed to Coda. Each one was an excellent art game in its own right and I am just really humbled by Wreden's skill that he's able to bring together not only an amazing game in The Beginner's Guide but that each part of that greater whole is so, so good.

Anyway, you asked about the dark space between the two doors. I may be completely wrong but I think it's meaningless. I think it’s a deliberate red herring.

"Somehow I just spent two paragraphs talking about how something in the game has no meaning. This is one of the things I love-hate about The Beginner's Guide."

I think that so-called space between doors is an example of Davey reading far too much into everything.  I feel like this puzzle returns each time to remind us that this is a game, and that games often have these weird incongruous gameplay elements built into them for arbitrary reasons.  I don’t think -- at least from the fictional Coda’s point of view -- that there’s any reason for it.

But it’s so interesting how Davey latches onto it and tell us how important it is. The door puzzle is easily the least meaningful thing in anything Coda makes and yet Davey is thrilled by it. Why? Do you remember the game where you clean house? It’s likewise meaningless busywork -- fun because, I guess, it’s interactive in a way that most of Coda’s work is a very passive experience for the player. It’s a repetitive grind that is oddly satisfying. Davey adores it but it’s completely meaningless. It lacks all the subtle (and not-so-subtle) art that Coda puts into the rest of his work. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the clean house game occurs entirely in the space between those two doors.

I'd love to know if you have a different impression. There's a lot of emphasis on that space in the game, but my takeaway was that it was a lie, a fake-out, a trap for us to fall into when we try to look for meaning when there is none (and that obviously manifests as a literal trap for Davey within the game).

Somehow I just spent two paragraphs talking about how something in the game has no meaning. This is one of the things I love-hate about The Beginner’s Guide. Like I said in my first email -- the game preemptively judges you for trying to interpret it and yet it dangles all this juicy metaphorical detail in front of you daring to figure it out. I feel like we’ve barely touched on the game, to be honest. When I initially finished it, I felt wonderfully satisfied by the experience but the longer I think about it (and the more I talk about it with you) the more unsatisfied I am by it, the more I want to dig into it and find out what all the different parts mean. I wonder if Wreden knew that would happen when he made the game... but I suspect I'll never know.

-Liz

To: Liz England 
From: Samantha Kalman
Subject: The Beginner's Guide

Liz,

This has been an incredible exchange that's been very thought-provoking for me. Thank you for the conversation. One of the beats I take away from The Beginner's Guide is the unstable nature of friendships between highly creative people. This is a case where two people who literally didn't know each other before are having a deep conversation that's manifested a connection which didn't exist before. Whether or not we become friends and stay in touch after this is over is yet to be seen. Like Davey in the game, I've had unexpected conflicts drive a wedge between me and people I admire. I think that aspect of relationships is revealed in the game in an incredibly honest way, even if it's a little heavy handed. Making friends with like-minded people is super important to me as someone who works (mostly) alone. When we began this exchange I looked up your games and played many of them. I almost want to ask you about your decisions and intentions with the games to find out if my assumptions were intentional decisions. But I believe at this point it would be a terrible idea to ask. So I'll just say I admire your work and I'm looking forward to your future projects. I'm glad we both did this letter series so I had a chance to learn about your perspectives.

In service of revealing truths, I'll admit that I know Davey (the person, not the character) and I was privileged to play an unfinished version of Beginner's Guide earlier this year. In the game's credits my name is in the Special Thanks section. I can't say for sure if playing that unfinished version influenced the final product, or skews my perceptions about how the game turned out in the end. I can say it strikes me as an incredibly honest story about creativity, people, vulnerability, self-worth, and self-protection. These days so many vocal people are negative, sarcastic, cynical, dismissive, and outright cruel to others who do intensely difficult and creative work. It's important to me to balance that voice with a positive outlook. I believe that all human expression is valuable, and our nature to step on each other, and claim ownership of something we like that somebody else made needs to be surfaced. It's important for us to speak with honesty about these issues, so that we may understand ourselves and others a little better. Steve Jobs never wrote a line of code that powers the iPhone, but culturally he's considered the inventor. What's up with that?

"One of the beats I take away from The Beginner's Guide is the unstable nature of friendships between highly creative people."

To finish, I want to talk about the space between the two doors. From a literal perspective, the two doors are a recurring puzzle with the same solution: pull the lever to open the front door, close in and step inside before it shuts. On the other side of the closed door is another lever which opens the other door. It's a puzzle about permanently closing a gate separating you from the place you came from; from the past. It's a metaphor for time, for being unable to look back, restricting yourself to only moving forward. And it lets you take your time to sit in the dark space as long as you want to. It's hidden, like a place shut off from the world; from people, from observation, from sensory stimulus. A place to rest, peacefully until you are ready to do the only thing you can do -- move forward.

I love how the beautiful house that is filled with mundane chores and another housekeeper is situated in the dark space between the doors. It's almost like the space between everything we strive to do is a space of necessity. A single friend to talk to and a lot of simple but tedious life tasks to perform. And it's one of the most graphically rich sequences in the game. I don't know about you, but I get so lost in my thoughts while writing code -- "does this work?" ~ "what would make this better?" ~ "how do I communicate this to players" ~ "will people find this fun?" -- it can be all-consuming of my consciousness and I forget about my chores, my cat, the time of day, how long it's been since I've eaten. The idea of just tending to my home in a simple way with a friend to talk to sounds like a kind of paradise. And I'm glad Davey took joy in knowing that Coda thought it was his finest work.

The first title of the credits is "For R." Who is R?

-Samantha



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