I Wrote This So You'd Know I'm Smart: Games Criticism and The Beginner's Guide

The Beginner's Guide

Spoiler warning for The Beginner’s Guide.

The Beginner’s Guide is a short (ninety minutes or so) narrative game by The Stanley Parable creator Davey Wreden. I like it a lot and recommend it to folks interested in how we create and talk about games. If you’re intrigued by the game but haven’t played it yet, you might want to do so before reading further. The game has generated a lot of analysis and discussion - my personal favorite being Ian Danskin’s video essay The Artist is Absent: Davey Wreden and The Beginner’s Guide - but there’s a trend among some critics that I find troubling and want to dig into.

In short - I think The Beginner’s Guide has spooked some reviewers. A number of people seem to think that just discussing the game means you’re falling into its trap. I don’t think that’s true, but to explain why we need to talk about how the game earned that reaction in the first place.

A quick note before we dig in - the game’s main character is named “Davey Wreden” and is voiced by the actual Davey Wreden, but by the end of the game it’s clear that the story it tells is not literally true. The game blurs the line between fiction and reality - Davey identifies himself to the player in the game’s opening and even gives out his email address - but to discuss the game productively it’s useful for them to be clearly separated. So for clarity, I’m going to refer to the character that exists within the world of the game as Game!Davey.

The Beginner’s Guide is structured as a guided tour of several games created by an amateur developer named Coda. Coda has stopped making games, so Game!Davey wants to share Coda’s work to encourage him to get back into game development. Game!Davey guides the player through each of Coda’s games, ruminating on design choices and what they say about Coda as a person, until it’s revealed that he’s been misleading the player the whole time. He’s made changes to Coda’s games so that they would better fit his narrative and used this manufactured evidence to share false insights into Coda. And Coda has specifically asked Game!Davey not to share or alter his games. But Game!Davey hasn’t been able to stop himself, because he craves the validation that he’s only been able to find by sharing Coda’s work and lying about it to make it more interesting. He makes this clear in some late-game narration where he stops addressing the player and addresses Coda instead:

“I don’t think I ever told you this, but when I took your work and I was showing it to people, it actually felt… It felt as though I were responsible for something important and valuable.

And the people who played them, they treated me like I was important! They really listened and cared about what I had to say. 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. . . .

If I apologize to you truly and deeply, will you start making games again? Please, I need to feel okay with myself again, and I always felt okay as long as I had your work to see myself in. . . . Please start making games again, please help me, please give me some of whatever it is that makes you complete, I want whatever that wholeness that you just summoned out of nothing and put into your work, you were complete in some way that I never was.”
—Game!Davey, The Beginner’s Guide (as transcribed in the fan wiki)

Game!Davey is a deeply flawed person whose insecurities lead him to act in dishonest, hurtful, boundary-violating ways - all in the guise of telling people about some interesting games. While most of us would never do what Game!Davey does, it’s easy to read the game as an attack on certain kinds of criticism and discussion of games.

The Beginner’s Guide is a game that does game criticism work, and it actively questions the role of the critical player as someone who can lay out the meaning of a work for the larger field of players. The top Reddit comment that tells you the “real” story of a game? Implicated. Ideology-uncovering critical pieces? Implicated. Explainer videos that elide details to make a larger point about an entire franchise? The worse kinds of readers. And Wreden-the-narrator/-the-creator is suggesting that we might need to let works speak for themselves. Sometimes objects are not conduits into a rich inner life of a creator. Sometimes a game is not a barometer, or at least not as much of an on-the-surface one as many readings and readers would suggest.”
—Cameron Kunzelman, The Beginner’s Guide Review: Good Evening

The Beginner’s Guide is a game that likes to make you question not just what it means, but whether you’ve been looking for meaning in games in the wrong way altogether. . . . Maybe we’re supposed to conclude that it doesn’t matter, that by digging for the “truth” about Wreden and Coda as either players or critics, we transform ourselves into the same sort of point-missing voyeur “Wreden” reveals himself to be by the end. Or maybe we’re supposed to conclude that saying too much about a game is a way of pinning down the butterfly of art with the needle of analysis, and that something is inevitably violated, or diminished, or lost when we do it. Maybe I’m doing exactly what the game is criticizing simply by asking the question.”
—Laura Hudson, The Beginner’s Guide is a game that doesn’t want to be written about

“For a critic to discuss The Beginner’s Guide, he must describe his experience of the game. To do this, however, he must pick a side in its central debate: describing a reaction to a game necessarily centers the player (or a player) in the discussion. It’s a clever trap. If you like the game, you can just tell people to buy it. If you don’t, well, then you have to talk about your experience, and then aren’t you emulating the game’s villain?

I have read a few reviews where critics try to bail out of the dilemma by discussing their own personal stories rather than touch on the game directly, but that’s just a variant of the same mistake. They’re taking The Beginner’s Guide and making it all about them.”
—Sparky Clarkson, The Beginner’s Guide Review

It’s easy enough to avoid Game!Davey’s most blatant crimes, and I suspect most critics know this. All you have to do is recognize what you do know (the content of a game, the nature of your experience playing it) and what you do not know (the thoughts and feelings of its creator, the nature of their experience creating it) and not misrepresent anything. This is the core of most analysis I’ve seen about the game. Yet even knowing that they would never stoop to Game!Davey’s level, some critics find the idea of discussing the game at all to be fraught. I believe this is because there’s another layer here beneath Game!Davey’s avoidable trespasses which may be harder to see the shape of and thus harder to be confident you can avoid. That layer isn’t what Game!Davey did, but why he did it.

Game!Davey’s motivations are an exaggeration of what many real people actually feel. Even if you know you’d never alter someone’s games and share them without permission, it’s easy to find yourself questioning whether the reason you discuss the work of others is because you are an insecure person seeking validation by association. And in that case, it may be tempting to keep your mouth shut entirely.

”…the game does feel rather hostile to critics and pretty defensive of developers. . . . Like, how am I as a critic supposed to respond to my job being described like this? Especially since moments later [Game!Davey]’s having a breakdown because his entire ego is built on top of his ability to tell people how smart games are?”
—Chris Franklin, Errant Signal - The Beginner’s Guide (Spoilers)

So how should you respond? How do you figure out what to say to an accusation like this?

Whether you’re a professional critic or just somebody who likes to talk about games, the first step is understanding just what it is you’re being accused of. It’s a universal behavior I’ve talked about a few times - it’s called signaling and I’m guilty of it too. In short - we engage in many actions not for their intrinsic value (or at least not only for that value) but because of what signals they allow us to send about ourselves, though we usually claim otherwise. (For more on this concept, see The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson.)

One common signaling tactic is to identify someone high-status (at least within the subculture that you care about) and associate yourself with them. There are a lot of ways to do this, but recommendations are one of them. If I show you a game you haven’t heard of, you’ll associate it with me. If you like the game and find yourself respecting the creator, some of that respect will rub off on me, and you’ll think of me as someone with refined taste who is worth listening to. It doesn’t even matter whether I actually like the game or the creator - if I correctly predict that you will, I win points by sharing it with you.

“We all want to affiliate with high status people, but since status is about common distant perceptions of quality, we often care more about what distant observers would think about our associates than about how we privately evaluate them.”
—Robin Hanson, Why Signals Are Shallow

This is what Game!Davey is guilty of. His favorite thing about Coda’s games is that he can feel important by showing them to people - and from this perspective, it doesn’t even matter that he’s showing them dishonestly.

“I just felt so strongly that if I could have connected with [Coda], that if I could have somehow made his work my own, that I would finally be once-and-for-all happy. I needed to see myself in someone else. I needed to be someone other than me. . . .

And then [Coda] stopped, and I didn’t have anything left to show people. And I just had to be with myself. And as soon as that happened there was no feeling at all. Nothing. Less than nothing. What does that mean?”
—Game!Davey, The Beginner’s Guide (as transcribed in the fan wiki)

And of course, I’m guilty of it too. We all do it, whether we realize it or not. I’m writing about The Beginner’s Guide because it’s a thoughtful and intelligent game and I want you to think of me as being thoughtful and intelligent. The fact that I admit that doesn’t change it - if anything, it makes it worse! Now I’m just countersignaling - showing off by pointedly not showing off. But if I know I’m signaling in my writing, does that mean I should stop?

A police officer signaling for a stop

It's a stop signal. Get it?

If we stopped doing things just because they were signaling methods, we’d quickly find ourselves unable to interact with other humans at all. And what’s more, we’d be depriving each other of value. As long as my signals aren’t outright dishonest like Game!Davey’s, they only help me if they help you too. If I legitimately am thoughtful and intelligent and able to bring you content you enjoy, it’s good for both of us for me to signal that, because then you’ll pay attention to me and keep getting content you enjoy.

“Critics and reviewers [are now] active guides and tastemakers to an entire ecosystem of games big and small, with each critic cultivating their own audience with their own tastes.”
—Chris Franklin, SWT: Criticism and Curation

The problem with Game!Davey is not that he gains validation by showing someone else’s work. It’s that he is so desperate for that validation that he crosses several other lines along the way. He mangles Coda’s games so that he can lie about Coda’s thoughts and emotions and repeatedly violates Coda’s boundaries by publicly sharing games that were intended to remain private. If you aren’t crossing these lines, then there’s nothing wrong with talking about games. And if you’re reliant on the validation that you can gain this way, that’s its own separate problem.

“People who rely on external validation are compensating for a lack, a hole in their own lives. They have to consistently seek the approval of others because with out it… well, they don’t really have anything. There’s no sense of self to maintain them, no inner core of worth. . . . Relying on external validation is, ultimately, a recipe for misery. Without an internal source of worth, you are ultimately ensuring your own unhappiness; no matter how much you may achieve it simply won’t ever be enough.”
—Harris O’Malley, Where Do You Get Your Validation?

Game!Davey serves as a stark warning of how external validation-seeking can go wrong, through the lens of games criticism. It’s not surprising this has spooked some critics. But we must be careful not to overreact. There’s no need to panic and stop talking about games to each other. There’s real value here we don’t want to destroy. That includes the criticism and curation, but also the validation itself!

“It’s important to remember that external validation is not a bad thing by definition. Caring about what others think is a part of social intelligence and part of how we operate in society after all. . . . Someone who is solely internally validated isn’t an inherently better person, they’re a narcissist.”
—Harris O’Malley, Where Do You Get Your Validation?

The solution here, as it so often is, is to find the right balance - and to do that, you need to know where you stand. It’s okay to share some awesome art with your friend, even if it’s likely to increase their opinion of you. It’s okay to write about the work of others, even if this raises your status. And it’s okay to try to make things people will like, even if this means you make decisions based on the opinions of others. But you should be honest with yourself about your reasons. That’s the only way to understand why you do what you do.

For my part - I wrote this post in order to sort through why I was so frustrated by some critics reacting to The Beginner’s Guide as though it somehow had different rules for what you could say about it than every other piece of art. I wrote it to reassure people that it’s still okay to analyze and discuss games. But I also wrote it so you’d know I’m smart. And I’m okay with that.