Beginner’s Guide and authorial intent

Previously, I wrote about The Magic Circle, a video game about making video games. Clearly I like this kind of metafiction, or at least I like to talk about it, so let’s talk about The Beginner’s Guide.

The Beginner’s Guide is a solo project by Davey Wreden, the lead designer of The Stanley Parable. Like The Stanley Parable, The Beginner’s Guide is in the walking simulator genre, although more linear and shorter. It’s basically a short story translated to the game medium, although it obviously wouldn’t work in any other medium. The nature of the game is that it is vulnerable to spoilers, so be warned that this discussion is entirely founded in spoilers.

For the spoiler-free version, just watch the trailer and read no further.

The central theme of The Beginner’s Guide is the interpretation of art, which it addresses in the most direct way imaginable. You play through games made by a person named Coda, while Davey Wreden explains his interpretation of the games.

Coda makes experimental walking simulator games, apparently mostly for his own use. Many of the games have elements that make them unplayable, and Wreden uses hacks to get around them. The resulting games feel very private, seemingly giving us a window to Coda’s soul. The games become increasingly blatant in their themes of social anxiety and impostor syndrome, and Coda’s rate of game creation slows down considerably over time. Wreden interprets the games as expressing Coda’s personal difficulties with the act of creation. He interprets them as cries for help.

The critical player, of course, should be immediately suspicious of Wreden’s interpretations. What particularly struck me was Wreden’s focus on authorial intent. Wreden is fixated not on understanding the meaning of the games, but on what they mean for their creator. Games, like all other forms of art, should be allowed to have their own meaning, regardless of what they might mean to their creators.

But Wreden’s interpretation can be rather compelling. And Coda is a real (fictional) person, so it seems heartless to disregard their feelings or ignore them when it seems he needs help.

Eventually, Coda rejects Wreden’s interpretations by incorporating explicit messages hidden in one of his games. Coda is annoyed by Wreden’s interpretations and attempts to “help” Coda. It’s suggested that Wreden’s interpretations are projections of Wreden’s own problems.

And this is where it gets meta. We are to Wreden as Wreden is to Coda. In the game, Wreden seems to be dealing with personal issues, the very same issues that he ascribes to Coda. The real-life subtext is that Wreden has in fact spoken out about his depression surrounding the critical acclaim of The Stanley Parable. But are we, as players, intended to interpret The Beginner’s Guide as a cry for help?

Here’s another obvious possibility: Wreden has, in the past, dealt with depression and creator’s anxiety, and has spoken publicly about it. He made a game which addresses those themes which are personally relevant to him, and inserted himself as a character. He does not necessarily still deal with the same problems at present. And if he does deal with problems, they might be better addressed by close friends rather than consumers of his work.

What’s interesting to me is that The Beginner’s Guide does not outright reject authorial intent. Rather, it seems to struggle with it. Why is Wreden’s interpretation based on authorial intent wrong? It’s not for the reason I would give, that it constrains artistic interpretation. Rather, it’s wrong because the author, Coda, didn’t like it. But if authorial intent truly didn’t matter, why would it matter what the author thought about it?

The Beginner’s Guide has a very humanistic spin on the issue of authorial intent. It’s not about art, it’s about people. Authorial intent is good because there is a real person behind this work, and we can’t ever forget that. Authorial intent is bad because maybe that real person doesn’t want you to probe their feelings. Authorial intent is bad because it prevents us from recognizing that our interpretations often speak to our own problems rather than those of the author.

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