Video Game Structural Aesthetics: Why “The Beginner’s Guide” is Masterfully Confusing.

A little over a month ago, Davey Wreden, famed architect of The Stanley Parable, released a new game, The Beginner’s Guide. The game is interesting and notable for a variety of reasons—Wreden himself narrates it; he develops a storyline rich with traditional pathos; it is a game entirely focused on experience rather than combat; etc.—and there are therefore many things that one could defensibly claim about the game or its value. If you have yet to play this game, then I recommend that you do so—it is available on Steam, and takes only 90 minutes to play.

In part because the game is self-consciously against interpretation and in part because of my own analytic proclivities, I am going to bracket many of these potentially interesting questions about The Beginner’s Guide. Fans of With a Terrible Fate asked me to write an article about this game, and what I intend to give fans in this article is an analysis focusing on how the game using the aesthetics of video game dynamics to achieve a special effect: namely, it leaves players confused about the status of the game in relation to their reality, and precisely how they ought to act as players. In exploring this effect, I will aim to illuminate some of the salient structural features of video games that allow them to produce aesthetic responses in players that are rare or impossible in media like novels or films.

The Beginner’s Guide is about to meet With a Terrible Fate.

The People of the Beginner's Guide

Preliminaries

I will offer a very rough gloss the plot of the game for the benefit of readers who haven’t played it—but again, you would do better to take the hour-and-a-half to simply play the game, and then returning here. Davey Wreden narrates the game, speaking directly to the player; he tells the player that he wants to take her through the games of a developer friend of his, called “Coda.” Wreden says that Coda no longer makes games, and he is hoping that publishing The Beginner’s Guide and making Coda’s work popular will inspire him to start developing games again.

Wreden guides the player through Coda’s various games, offering his own interpretations of the games and what they meant to Coda throughout the process—he even invites players to share their own interpretations of Coda’s games with him at daveywreden@gmail.com. Eventually, however, it becomes clear that it was Wreden who drove Coda to stop making games by obsessively imposing his own interpretations on the games, reading into the games that Coda was depressed, and showing Coda’s games to other people without Coda’s permission in an effort to show Coda that people liked his work. Wreden reveals himself as ashamed of his own problems and inadequacies and eventually “leaves” the world of the game, leaving the player to complete Coda’s last game on her own, which concludes with the player floating upwards through a glitch in a machine intended for suicide; they see an overview of the entire world, which is an apparently infinite maze, and then the game concludes.

The confusion about reality that The Beginner’s Guide brings about in its player is the result of ambiguity as to precisely what role Wreden is filling within the bounds of the game. There exist three such possible roles, two of which are intuitively comprehensible, and one of which will require clarification. The first such role is that of the literal person, Davey Wreden, who designed the game The Beginner’s Guide—I will refer to this role as that of the ‘literal author’. The second such role is that of the game’s ‘narrator’—that is, the entity that speaks to the player, directs them through the games of Coda, and ultimately leaves the player shortly before the conclusion of The Beginner’s Guide.

The third such role, which warrants further explanation, is what I call the role of the ‘implied author’. This is a term that I borrow from the late literary theorist Wayne C. Booth; roughly, it refers to the conceptual author of a particular narrative, which can be inferred from the content of the narrative itself. The implied author is not a real person, like the literal author is, but is rather a semantic complex serving the role of an author, reflected by narrative features such as sequence and duration of events, word choice in literary works, and so on. Speaking loosely, the implied author is what allows us to coherently think about the design of a work of art without being beholden to the intent of whatever the literal author “meant” to say by the work: the implied author, inferred only from the content of the work itself, reflects the fact that a work of art may in reality convey different meaning than what the literal author intended to convey by crafting it.

If you agree with me that there exists such a thing as an implied author that allows us to think about narratives without deferring to whatever their literal author meant to say through them, then please feel free to skip ahead to the section entitled Analysis. However, for those who have yet to be convinced, I offer a much more granular defense of the existence of an implied author concept below, expounding directly from Booth’s seminal work on narrative, The Rhetoric of Fiction (1983—the following citations are from this second edition of the book, except where otherwise noted). This defense takes the form of a paper that claims, in essence, that the concept of an implied author allows us to derive everything from the work that we would want to gain from appeals to the author of a work during analysis, while avoiding undesirable conclusions that come from relying on the literal author for those same analytic resources; the only questions we require the literal author in order to answer, I argue, are questions inherently about the literal author—e.g., “What did the literal author intend to say in this work of art?”

Digression: On the Implied Author as the Didactic and Normative Locus in Narrative[1]

In this paper, I defend the claim that the literal author of a narrative work is superfluous to the appreciator’s act of inferring the didactic content and normative standards of that work – rather, these are fixed by what Booth calls its ‘implied author’, which is a complex semantic unit generated by the narrative itself, and which is not necessarily faithful to the beliefs and commitments of the literal author.[2] I begin by outlining a basic understanding of narrative as ‘the experience of disruption mediated by sympathy that involves rising up to a challenge’, which I derive from Booth; I then show that, within the context of this definition, the concept of an implied author intuitively follows as a vehicle for the appreciator to engage in judgment with respect to narrative, whereas reasoning grounded in reference to the literal author is superfluous to the act of narrative engagement. Lastly, I show that reliance on the literal author for didactic and normative content rather than reliance on the implied author leads to the undesirable conclusion that an author cannot make a mistake when designing the didactic content of his narrative work.

I. A Provisional Definition of Narrative

While Booth takes pains to make clear that the rhetorical devices and standards that are appropriate to different narrative works vary in accordance with the specific nature of the work in question, he does gesture at three elements that are constitutive of ‘narrative’ in the most general sense: disruption on the part of the appreciator; sympathy on the part of the appreciator in directed towards some entity (or multiple entities); and an expectation that the appreciator will rise to the occasion of meeting some kind of challenge. I relate these three elements through a description of ‘narrative’ as ‘the experience of disruption mediated by sympathy that involves rising up to a challenge’. I do not take this to constitute a set of sufficient conditions for narrative (e.g., it seems plausible that such a set would contain some reference to an ‘event’ or set of events), but I do take this description to be a foundational aspect of what it means for something to be a narrative. Upon examining each of the three elements in the description – ‘disruption’, ‘sympathy’, and ‘challenge’ – we will see that the description captures much of the variety and flexibility that we understand narrative to have as a concept.

‘Disruption’ refers to any stable mental state of the appreciator being destabilized through engagement with the material constituting the narrative. The disrupted mental state may be a belief, a desire, an emotional disposition – and so forth, depending on how one wishes to taxonomize mental states. This broadly encompasses the intuition that narrative is didactic: on this analysis, it is didactic in so far as it has the purpose of disrupting at least one preexisting mental state of the appreciator. So, to borrow two examples from Booth, Kafka’s The Trial is didactic in virtue of disrupting the appreciator’s prior moral beliefs, and Shakespeare’s King Lear is didactic in virtue of disrupting the appreciator’s emotional disposition through the emotional complexities of its tragedy.[3] Beyond the intuition of didacticism in narrative, this tracks the idea that narrative in some way changes its appreciator, while also reflecting that the ways in which an appreciator can be changed by narrative are various.

That the appreciator experiences the disruption of a narrative depends on the appreciator’s sympathy as a mediating factor, which she is expected to invest in a particular entity or set of entities within the narrative. This entity, according to Booth, is oftentimes the narrator of a narrative because it is through the mediator of the narrator’s experience that the appreciator engages the narrative (280-281); yet this is not always the case, as we see in The Sound in the Fury when the author has made the narrator, Jason, overtly unsympathetic, and the expectation is that the appreciator will sympathize with the author, judging Jason negatively even as he narrates events (306-307; ‘author’ here means ‘implied author’ as opposed to the literal author, a distinction which is clarified below). Sympathy acts as the mediating factor for disruption because the appreciator requires a means of relating their mental state to the narrative in question before the state can be disrupted. I take this to be what largely constitutes the idea of a ‘narrative arc’: the didactic quality of disruption requires that the appreciator begins from a point of reference to which she can relate, and ends in a place where the grounds by which she relates to that reference (i.e., the relevant mental states) are thrown into question.

The final element, ‘challenge’, encapsulates the level of active engagement that narrative requires of its appreciator. As with types of disruption, the types of possible challenges narratives pose to appreciators vary greatly: the challenge may be an inferential one of determining the killer in a detective novel, or an encyclopedic one of tracking references in Ulysses, or an emotional one of “raising [oneself] to the height required to experience the imaginative and emotional complexities of Lear’s tragedy” (304). The element of challenge, requiring the appreciator to struggle in order to fully experience the narrative material, is what differentiates the aesthetic concept of narrative from the more general category of mental disruptions involving sympathetic investment. So, for example, although seeing a football player break his leg during a game might be emotionally disruptive and involve sympathy for the player, we would not admit this as a case of narrative; on this analysis, the basis for drawing that distinction is because this experience involves no expectation of the viewer rising to meet a challenge – the experience is immediate and unmediated by the aesthetic effort narrative demands of its appreciator.[4]

II. The literal author is superfluous to the narrative work itself

The most pressing aspect of narrative that the above analysis fails to explicate is the matter of how a given narrative object came into being, and to what extent this origin story bears upon the meaning of the narrative. It is natural to suppose, given the status of narratives as created objects, that the beliefs, desires, and history of the creator or creators – what I call the ‘literal author’ of a narrative – are crucial to understanding the narrative in question. I show in this section that this is a mistaken supposition. I show this in two ways: first, I show that Booth’s concept of an ‘implied author’ is sufficient to explain those aspects of narrative that we might suppose to be under the jurisdiction of the literal author, and that it tracks more naturally with our provisional definition of narrative to use the implied author in these sorts of explanations than to use the literal author for those explanations; second, I show that relying on the literal author rather than the implied author leads to the implausible conclusion that the author of a narrative is immune to making mistakes when crafting that narrative.

When Booth first introduces the concept of an implied author, he describes it in the following way: “[the] ‘implied author’,” he says, “chooses, consciously or unconsciously, what we read; we infer him as an ideal, literary, created version of the real man; he [i.e., the implied author] is the sum of his own choices” (74-75). This description of the implied author closely mirrors Mieke Bal’s analysis of characters in narrative as “complex semantic units” constituted by the text of a narrative. [5] This comparison is useful for emphasizing the synthetic nature of the implied author, but there are obvious differences that distinguish the implied author conceptually from generic characters in narrative. Most pertinent among these differences is that, whereas a generic character is constituted by particular elements of a narrative’s text (say, descriptions of a person, the person’s actions, the person’s thoughts, etc.), the implied author is derived from the totality of the text – this is what I take Booth to mean when he says that the implied author “is the sum of his own choices” (75). The text itself reflects a certain design, which is the result of the choices made by the storytelling agent (i.e. the implied author) with regards to how to tell the story. These choices include, but are not limited to: word choice; which character within the story acts as its narrator; the order in which events are presented; and the amount of time spent on events. In other words, these are the choices that the literal author must make when designing her narrative – but, crucially, once she has designed the narrative, the content of the narrative vis-à-vis these choices can be used by the appreciator to infer an implied author of the work, irrespective of whether or not the appreciator knows anything about the literal author.

Once we recognize that the artifacts of the literal author’s choices exist within the narrative and can be used to infer an implied author, it becomes apparent that, in a conceptual analysis narrative, the literal author is superfluous to the narrative content. I take the main reason why we would want to appeal to knowledge of an author to be a desire to understand the didacticism and related normative content of a narrative: that is, we want to appeal to the author’s didactic intention as grounding for the didactic and normative content of the narrative itself. Yet, as I discussed in Part I, narrative is inherently didactic by virtue of invoking sympathy through the vehicle of an entity (or entities) with whom the appreciator sympathizes; this inherent didacticism is surely the result of the choices made by the literal author in designing the narrative, but that also means the choices can be recovered from the narrative itself in order to construct an implied author, thereby allowing the appreciator to understand the didactic content of the narrative without ever learning information about the literal author of the work. Return to Booth’s example of The Sound and the Fury, in which he posits that the appreciator sympathizes with the “author” as opposed to with the unsympathetic narrator, Jason: the piece of evidence that Booth uses in defense of this claim is an example of what he calls “secret jokes passing between [the appreciator] and the author”: the relevant passage of The Sound and the Fury, in Jason’s voice, reads, “’I have nothing against jews as an individual,’ I says. ‘It’s just the race’” (306). Booth explains how this secret joke works by saying that, “[when] we see the compound joke of Jason’s not having anything against ‘jews as an individual’ but just against ‘the race,’ we do so only by calling to bear on the passage our logical and moral sense, and our past experience with bigots. When we have seen all that Faulkner packs into the sentence we feel almost as if we had written it ourselves, so effectively has he demanded of us our best creative effort” (308). Booth may refer to the work’s author by name here, but, in his explanation of how the appreciator understands how the narrative prescribes her to feel about Jason, there is no appeal to background knowledge about a man who lived in Oxford, Mississippi in the 20th century and wrote fiction. This is an explanation about how the complex semantic unit called the ‘implied author’ guides the appreciator’s sympathies and inferences while engaging the narrative, from which the didacticism of the narrative emerges.

The positive, ontological account of the implied author shows that this concept can account for the normative and didactic dynamics of a narrative, but it gives little reason to demand we analyze narrative in terms of an implied author as opposed to in terms of the literal author. The only such reason that I see is that of parsimony: by using the implied author in place of the literal author, an analysis of narrative is constrained to include only the narrative object (i.e., the actual book, film, etc.) and its appreciator; if we instead analyze narrative in terms of the literal author, our analysis is availing itself of an extra entity external to the narrative object. This motivation alone may be viewed an insufficient reason to eschew a work’s creator from an analysis of his own work; to that end, I will now show that at least one unintuitive problem inevitably emerges when we privilege a narrative’s literal author over its implied author in an analysis of its didactic quality: namely, this makes it impossible for an author to make a mistake in crafting his own work.

We see this problem most clearly in a case where the intent of the literal author and the normative standards of the implied author appear mutually incompatible: Defoe’s 1702 political pamphlet, “The Shortest Way with the Dissenters.” Although Defoe qua literal author wrote the piece as a Whig parodying Tory extremists, the document itself, according to Booth, appeared perfectly sincere and pro-Tory, the reason being that “Defoe’s mock-Tory [the narrative voice of the document] presents no single argument that might not have been advanced by a real fanatical Tory” (318). Booth observes that an essential problem with Defoe’s method is that “there is no statement within the pamphlet of a positive program which, if read properly, would reveal the true position of the author. Even after we are alerted to irony, we cannot discover from the pamphlet alone what Defoe’s position is” (319, emphasis mine).

It is important to note that, by his own lights, Booth must be referring to the true position of the literal author (Defoe) in the emphasized portion of the above quote – after all, the reason why people took the pamphlet seriously was because the narrative content led them to infer (plausibly, by Booth’s account) an implied author that was a sincere, radical Tory. Yet despite this distinction, Booth uses striking language in his analysis of Defoe that suggests appreciators are somehow responsible for knowing about the literal author’s intent, irrespective of whether that intent is reflected in the commitments of the implied author. For example, he asks how Defoe’s contemporaries could have “failed to recognize the absurdity of [the pamphlet’s] argument” (ibid.); he similarly suggests that, if we read the pamphlet without first knowing Defoe’s ironic intentions, then “we might easily make the mistake made by Defoe’s contemporaries” (320). Booth seems to think that appreciators err by not taking as ironic a work intended to be ironic by its literal author, even if there is no evidence of irony within the narrative itself. To be fair, he also recognizes that the appreciators are not entirely at fault, for he begins his analysis of Defoe by saying that “there is no a priori reason for assuming that the fault [for having trouble with irony] is the reader’s” (318); yet even if he is willing to blame Defoe for the difficulty and unclearness of irony of his pamphlet, he still seems to think that appreciators engaging the pamphlet, even if they read the pamphlet properly, are making a mistake by not taking it ironically.

I think that Booth draws an unintuitive and incorrect conclusion here by reliance on the literal author for explanation of narrative didacticism and norms, whereas he could better explain the same situation with his same theory by instead deploying the concept of the implied author in this explanatory relation: rather than blame the appreciators of the narrative for not grasping the literal Defoe’s intended irony, we can simply say that the narrative is not ironic, and that the literal Defoe made a mistake – or, if one prefers, failed – in his effort to make the narrative ironic. Elsewhere Booth explicitly commits himself to the view that authors can fail: he thinks it is especially pertinent in discriminating between fruitful narrative difficulty contributing to challenge on the one hand, and difficulty arising from carelessness or lack of skill on the part of the literal author: “[the] reader’s problem [in appreciating difficulty],” he says, “is that of discriminating between genuinely functional difficulty and obscurities that spring from carelessness, false pride, or plain ineptitude. To praise a difficulty […] that results simply from the [literal] author’s own failure to fully write his work is as fatal to the critic as to condemn a difficulty that is actually a necessary part of the whole” (303). We can say along the same lines that the literal Defoe simply failed to fully write the work he had intended to write; he mistakenly created a narrative with an implied author whose didactic ends differed from Defoe’s own. This seems a much more intuitive and plausible explanation than blaming the appreciator of the narrative for not noticing something that did not appear in that narrative, particularly when, as I have shown, the implied author can provide the same normative and didactic grounding that we would expect of the literal author.

We therefore have reasonable grounds for analyzing narrative not in terms of its literal author, but in terms of the implied author that the literal author designs. This formulation is parsimonious by restraining the analysis only to features intrinsic to the narrative object in combination with its appreciator; it also retains the plausible intuition that a literal author can fail to convey his intended point when crafting a narrative, and that an appreciator in this case would not somehow fail to appreciate the narrative by following the didactic design of the implied author as opposed to that of the literal author.

Analysis

My hope at this point is that readers are onboard with my distinction between literal and implied author, and that it is therefore reasonable for me to claim that, in The Beginner’s Guide, there is a ‘Davey Wreden’ who is the literal author, a ‘Davey Wreden’ that is the implied author, and a ‘Davey Wreden’ that is the narrator. Let me show you how these three Wredens are distinct, and how they interact to rob the player of a stable sense of reality.

We know before we begin the game that Wreden was the game’s literal author. The evidence is apparent, for example, from the fact that he is credited as the game’s author/designer by Steam, and in the game’s credits. We also know that Wreden is the game’s narrator—within the game, the narrator announces himself to be Davey Wreden, and the literal Davey Wreden in fact voices him.

It should be clear that the narrator is a distinct entity from either the literal or implied author, for the narrator is not a designer of the story but merely a character in the story, with the agency to frame how the appreciator of the story engages with it; nevertheless, because the narrator of The Beginner’s Guide has the same name as both the literal author and the implied author, the player is invited to identify the narrator with either the literal author or the implied author. But with which of these two entities does the player identify the narrator?

At the outset of the game, the player is invited to identify the narrator—let’s call him ‘n[Wreden]’—with the literal author—let’s call him ‘l[Wreden]’. Beyond n[Wreden]’s claim that he published this game in order to motivate a friend of his, Coda, to make more games, the player is invited to make this identification by the fact that n[Wreden] offers them an email address to contact him with their own interpretations of Coda’s games. If you look on the About page for Wreden’s game development studio, you will find that the same email address is listed as a method of contacting l[Wreden]. So, even though n[Wreden] is conceptually distinct from l[Wreden], it makes sense for the player to identify the two with one another at the outset of the game.

It follows that, if the player plays along with the narrative in the way she is intended to do, she assumes at this point that ‘Coda’ is a literal person, like l[Wreden]. This is because she has assumed that n[Wreden] faithfully reflects l[Wreden], and there is no prima facie reason why l[Wreden] would be talking about a fictional entity when he talks about his developer friend, Coda. So the player is made to assumed that she really is being walked through games developed by a friend of l[Wreden]—let’s call this friend l[Coda].

Coda's message to Wreden

Eventually, however, the player begins to doubt the veracity of n[Wreden]’s pretense for releasing this game: his dialogue begins to suggest that he is trying to sort through his own problems more than he is trying to reach l[Coda]. Ultimately, this hinting undercurrent comes to the surface when the player encounters messages by “Coda” inside his own worlds telling “Wreden” to stop contacting him, to stop sharing his work with others, and that Wreden is the one with problems. Given these statements, it seems highly implausible that Coda is a real entity that built rejections of Wreden into his games, and that Wreden, in spite of this, compiled and released Coda’s games in an effort to get him to develop games again. This implausibility is solidified when n[Wreden], broken by Coda’s rejection, literally leaves the player alone in the world of the game. Now it is apparent that n[Wreden] is not in any regard identical with l[Wreden]; rather, n[Wreden] now appears as a mere narrative device, part of the larger narrative structure that reflect the implied author ‘Davey Wreden’—let’s call this entity ‘i[Wreden]’. And now that it seems that this story was actually about i[Wreden] and not grounded in reality by l[Wreden], that player no longer has reason to believe that Coda was real—rather, Coda begins to look like a complex semantic unit in much the same way that n[Wreden] and i[Wreden] are complex semantic units: he is merely a character written into the narrative as the designer of the smaller games that constitute the various “levels” of The Beginner’s Guide. We can refer to Coda under this new interpretation as an “embedded author”—that is, a character within a narrative who is stipulated to be the author of some text within that narrative. Let’s call Coda under the embedded author interpretation ‘e[Coda]’, and Coda under the literal person interpretation as ‘l[Coda]’.

The immediate problem the player has upon doubting the import of l[Wreden] to the narrative of the game is that she now must doubt whether l[Coda] exists at all. There is no existential claim at stake when adjudicating between l[Wreden], n[Wreden], i[Wreden], and e[Coda]: the player knows for a fact that l[Wreden] exists and that the other entities mentioned are mere fictional constructs. But if it turns out that there is no l[Coda], then the player has made an existential error: she has assumed the existence of a nonexistent entity.

I should note at this juncture that, thus far, I have described nothing that is uniquely possible in the medium of video games. Edgar Allen Poe, for example, famously played on similar questions of which part of a narrative was real when he wrote Arthur Gordon Pym. Umberto Eco chronicles this case at length in his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods (1994), and it is worth quoting the parallel case at length:

Edgar Allan Poe

“Two installments of [Arthur Gordon Pym] were published in 1837, in the Southern Literary Messenger, more or less in the form that we now read them. The test began with “My name is Arthur Gordon Pym” and thus presented a first-person narrator, but that text appeared with the name of Poe as the empirical author […] In 1838 the whole story was published in book form, but without the author’s name on the title page. Instead, there was a preface signed “A. G. Pym” presenting the adventures as fact, and telling readers that in the Southern Literary Messenger “the name of Mr. Poe was affixed to the articles” because nobody would have believed the story, so it was just as well to present it “under the garb of fiction.”

So we have a Mr. Pym, allegedly an empirical author, who is also the narrator of a true story, and who moreover has written a preface which is part not of the narrative text but of the paratext. Mr. Poe fades into the background, becoming a sort of character of the paratext […] But at the end of the story, just when it is interrupted, a note is added explaining how the final chapters have been lost owing to the “late sudden and distressing death of Mr. Pym,” a death which is supposed to be “well known to the public through the medium of the daily press.” This note, which is unsigned (and which has certainly not been written by Mr. Pym, whose death it speaks of), cannot be attributed to Poe, because it talks about Mr. Poe’s being the first editor, even accusing him of not having known how to grasp the cryptographic nature of the figures Pym had included in the text. At this point the reader is led to believe that Pym is a fictitious character who speaks not only as the narrator but also at the beginning of the preface, which thus becomes part of the story and not of the paratext. The text is certainly the product of a third, anonymous, empirical author—who is the author of the note (a real paratext), in which he speaks of Poe in the same terms as Pym did in his false paratext; so that the reader now wonders whether Mr. Poe is a real person or a character in two different stories, the one told by Pym’s false paratext and the other told by Mr. X’s true but mendacious paratext […] As a last conundrum, this mysterious Mr. Pym begins his story with “My name is Arthur Gordon Pym”—an incipit which not only anticipates Melville’s “Call Me Ishmael” (a connection which is of little significance) but also seems to parody a text in which Poe, before writing Pym, had parodied a certain Morris Mattson, who had started one of his novels with “My name is Paul Ulric.”

Readers would be justified if they started to suspect that the empirical author was Poe, who invented a fictitious real person, Mr. X, who speaks of a false real person, Mr. Pym, who in his turn acts as the narrator of a fictional story. The only embarrassing thing is that these fictitious persons speak of the real Mr. Poe as if he were an inhabitant of their fictitious universe […]

Who is the model author in all this textual tangle? Whoever it is, it is the voice, or the strategy, which confounds the various presumed empirical authors, so that the model reader can’t help becoming enmeshed in such a catoptric trick” (17-20).

I will not attempt to improve upon Eco’s characterization of this narrative; suffice it to say that video games are not the only medium that can tell a story that leads its appreciators to question which of its characters have real-world counterparts, and which are merely fictional. The special aesthetic effect of Arthur Gordon Pym turns in large part on the reader questioning the existence of Pym, much as the player of The Beginner’s Guide questions the existence of Coda.

However, what makes The Beginner’s Guide special is that it goes beyond this effect alone, and leads the player to question her own status in a way that video games are particularly well-equipped to facilitate.

This is not to say that the player questions whether or not she exists; the game never wades into territory as metaphysically daunting as this. Instead what I mean is this: just as The Beginner’s Guide has an implied author and a literal author, so too does it have an implied player and a literal player. The distinction between implied player—hereafter simply ‘i[player]’—and literal player—hereafter ‘l[player]’—is much the same as the distinction between i[Wreden] and l[Wreden]. l[player] is the real human being who is playing The Beginner’s Guide; i[player] is the character of the player, the kind of person that the game implies is playing it, in much the same way as there is a kind of author that the game implies designed it.

Why does this distinction matter? Well, in most narrative-based video games, it doesn’t. The game may directly address l[player] through user interface when teaching the player how to control the game, but in terms of the narrative itself, the player is almost always subsumed within the narrative, acting only as i[player]. But what happens when a game behaves in such a way that the player is unsure whether to act in her capacity as l[player] or in her capacity as i[player]?

This is exactly what The Beginner’s Guide does. At the beginning of the game, the player assumes that l[Wreden] is communicating to her through the proxy of n[Wreden]. As such, the player, counterintuitively, engages the various worlds of l[Coda] qua l[player], seeking to learn things about a real friend of the real Davey Wreden, perhaps thinking that she will later email this real Davey Wreden with her thoughts on l[Coda]’s games. Yet, as the player continues through the game and begins to doubt the existence of l[Coda], she also begins to doubt whether she is justified in acting in her capacity as l[player]. Perhaps this is just another ordinary video game narrative, and, if that’s the case, then she is expected to act in her capacity as i[player]—there is no expectation or onus on her as a literal person to act in her real world on any information presented in the narrative of a fictional game.

The Maze Concluding the Beginner's Guide

This is the crux of The Beginner’s Guide’s special capacity to aesthetically confuse the player: it makes her unsure of the capacity in which she is expected to engage the world of the game. In the case of Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym, it is always clear the reader is not engaging the text in her capacity as a literal person: she is always acting as an implied reader, and is simply unsure as to whether certain characters in the story have real counterparts or not. But Wreden’s game goes beyond this: it makes the player question whether a literal person is literally communicating to them, or if the communication is all within the context of a mere game narrative. What makes this confusion so especially salient and jarring is because of the interactive nature of video games: because the narrative demands actions from the player, and actions demand reasons in favor of which one is acting, the player of a video game must be constantly in touch with the particular way in which they are engaging the narrative of a game in a way that is not s strictly required of the reader of a novel or viewer of a film. Ordinarily, this fact is of little consequence; it takes a game like The Beginner’s Guide, with deliberately ambiguous names (“Which Davey Wreden do we mean?”) and blatantly obscure boundaries between fiction and reality in order to draw out just how impactful this structural dynamic of video games can be.

[1] This paper was original drafted as part of a fall 2015 study on aesthetics and narrative, advised by Bernhard Nickel.

[2] I use the term ‘appreciator’ for the person whom Booth would call the ‘reader’; I make this distinction in order to reflect that a foundational understanding of narrative should be equally applicable to narrative irrespective of medium, whether the work in question is a novel, film, or something else.

[3] See pp. 293-294 for Booth’s relevant discussion of Kafka, and pp. 303-304 for his relevant comments on Lear. Booth stops short of saying outright that Kafka’s novels are didactic, instead leaving the matter an open question; but it seems to me the most reasonable inference with respect to the rest of Booth’s analysis to say that, on the grounds of disruption, they are in fact didactic.

[4] I am indebted to Bernhard Nickel for this example.

[5] From Bal’s Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (1985), p. 113.

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