On game design, creativity, agency, and The Beginner’s Guide
I recently played The Beginner’s Guide by Davey Wreden. It left such an impression that I wrote this piece exploring the theories behind game design and playability. The letter below contains spoilers for the game. Please play the game first.
I wasn’t always a writer. Throughout my creative career I have dabbled in game design, illustration, digital manipulation, and audio/visual. I’ve never “mastered” any of these; I absorb the theories and the application enough to be useful should the need arise. Despite this, I have persisted as a creative throughout my life; my knowledge on wide range of creative mediums has led me to be a go-to consult on subjects like design, audio, marketing, and game design.
My first game level was made at age 13 in the 2000 engine Gamestudio A5. It was two rooms, one on top of the other, connected by a spiral staircase. The player had a gun. There was one badguy. He couldn’t be killed, but he could kill the player.
What strikes me as odd is that to my 11-year-old self, this game was really the best thing ever. It was so entertaining to me, and to my friends who played it, for the simple reason that it had been created, rather than bought out of a box at CompUSA (the source of all gaming at the time). The idea that there was no endgame or win-scenario was completely unimportant to us, because “Sam’s game” (as it was so aptly called) was fun to play. We would run up and down the spiral staircase, avoiding the bad guy, as long as we could. There was no scoreboard, no timer. We lived, died, and restarted again and again. We played this for weeks, I tell you. Weeks.
I really identify with the argument about whether or not a game needs to be playable to have meaning. To answer that question, you need to be able to define “playable” and “meaning” in a way that almost makes me sound like a 1st-year philosophy student.
Take for example 4’33”, an experimental multiplayer game made in 2009 by Petri Purho. This game is the epitome of minimalist in execution: you win the game if you are the only person running the game anywhere in the world for a full 4 minutes and 33 seconds. There are no controls. The game is simply a loading bar that resets anytime it determines that no other players are playing at the same time. This opens two major questions: Is it truly a “multiplayer” game, if you can only make progress when you are playing it by yourself? Also: are you actually playing it, if your progress is determined solely by people other than yourself?
The same concept, perhaps, applies to The Button, a reddit social experiment by u/PowerLanguage in which there is a button with a 60 second countdown timer. Any person pressing the button would reset its timer, and any person could only press it once. This also leaves questions: Is the game being “played” when no one presses the button, or only when the button is pressed? And if it’s the latter, then who is “playing” when the button is pressed—the presser or the community as a whole?
I am a huge fan of going behind-the-scenes in games. You, of course, know how often game developers wall-off a section of a level they never finished. Perhaps the worst offender of these is the Legacy of Kain series, which is so well-known for its walled-off-but-still-accessible sections caused by levels of development hell so deep they would probably amuse Dante himself that it has a web site dedicated solely to exploring these areas. Some of these areas include half-finished cutscenes and whole conversations that hit the cutting room floor, some of which included plot threads that were overwritten in later games.
The reason I mention Legacy of Kain is because, when you think about it, these areas, however explorable, are not “playable” without modification to the code. For me, this exploration itself was rewarding and interesting, even though it was disconnected from the main plot of the game and, in some cases, exploring them made further progress in the game impossible. But the sheer fact that they are in ways “unplayable” does not make them non-existent, nor does it make them not part of the game. It simply makes their experience unique.
Part of the commentary of “Beginners Guide” is also about a game being “solvable”. The narrator modifies Coda’s games to give them solutions that otherwise did not exist. Of course, games are not always winnable—from 1982’s Pitfall to Minecraft of today, the idea of a game without a win condition exists as a part of gaming culture. At the same time, these games are rather honest in what they are: their goal is not to meet a win condition, but to be a continual adventure.
The simple fact is that, for the most part, Coda’s games in Beginner’s Guide are all “playable”. They are not all “solvable”, as this would require a win condition which, if left unmodified, would be absent in several of them. But all of this said, each individual game speaks on a singular truth about how we interact with our world.
A better comparison, and I think the most striking in resemblance to Coda’s work, is the work of Ceave Gaming on Youtube, who has built a name on creating the un-creatable in Mario Maker. Among these things is a level which are statistically impossible to complete because of the sheer amount of time it would take to brute-force the “lock” the creator built. This exercise was an interesting analysis of the in-game engine, but the real magic comes in one of Ceave’s later videos where he shows how to create a level which is truly impossible to beat (something which Mario Maker should not allow) and, after succeeding, says:
“I immediately afterwards deleted the levels again because while impossible stages are a ton of fun to theorycraft and I’m incredibly happy that I finally got one online, they really shouldn’t stay online.”
What’s being touched on here, as well as in The Beginner’s Guide, is something I’m not sure if there’s a term for. I would call it “game design ethics” but it’s more than that—it’s more like a gentlemen’s agreement between gamers and players that seems to exist on most games to respect the time and energy of a player by never giving them a situation which makes it impossible to progress. Even in a game with no win condition, there cannot be an impassible obstacle.
I want to repeat that because I think it’s the foundation of the conflict the narrator has with Coda’s games: Even in a game with no win condition, there must not be an impassible obstacle. If the player loses, there is an expectation that this loss is the fault of the player alone, and not of the game. By adding an impossible obstacle, the game—and the developer—have taken agency away from the player. Even when loss is certain, that loss must be the fault of the player, or it is simply not fun.
Agency—the capacity of an actor to act in a given environment—is a foundational point of philosophy and the cornerstone of the great debate on free will. More to the point, Agency is, in my opinion, the main conflict of The Beginner’s Guide.
Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author is often cited as a concept that denies a creator perpetual agency over their work. Those who agree with its concepts often cite the work being a two-way street, where the recipient has as much ability to impact the experience of the world on their own as the author does. They reject the idea that an author can change canon with a tweet making a character LGBT, or that they can retcon works into the future. Meanwhile, the common argument against Barthes is the idea that it, too, strips the agency from the creator, who must suffer the consequences of its misinterpretation. (Misinterpretations like, for example, the narrator’s assumption that Coda was depressed.)
On the other hand—Coda’s games focus on denying the player agency: making stairs that take a long time to ascend, forcing the player to sit in a cell for an hour, offering dialogue whose choices are irrelevant. In essence, Coda makes games which are prisons both physically in design and implementation. Each game, individually, is its own trap.
And then we come to the conflict that silently explodes at the end. By sharing the games against Coda’ wishes, the narrator has stripped Coda of his agency. Coda’s work slips out of his own control to a place where it cannot be recovered. That lack of control is so prevalent in the creative world, where executive meddling and development hell leads to things like Legacy of Kain’s leaving so much on the cutting room floor. Who wouldn’t feel trapped? Who wouldn’t feel poisoned? The narrator’s decision, based in selfish greed and desire for validation stole Coda’s grasp and power over his own work. It was a disrespect that cut deep into the heart of the soul of creativity.
There is one last thing that I find so powerful about The Beginner’s Guide. In the end, in the Tower, when all is revealed, we realize something else. We, the players of these games, are complicit in the narrator’s plan. We had gone through a dozen or so small games, playing and enjoying them, listening to the narrator as he introduced his vision of Coda to us, and feeling guilt and rising horror as we witnessed what we were led to believe was the downward spiral of a developer with debilitating and worrisome self-esteem issues. But now, as we walked down the hallway decorated with Coda’s text, we came to the realization that we, too, had violated Coda’s personal space and, simply by playing the game, had helped to take his agency away. Like 4’33”, the narrator’s plan was only possible through the actions of others. We had played the game for him, and he had won.