Blur­ring the line be­tween creator and au­di­ence

The Washington Post Sunday - - DIVERSIONS - BY CHRISTO­PHER BYRD Byrd is a free­lance writer.

Art has a tra­di­tion of set­ting traps. Un­re­li­able nar­ra­tors have had a ca­reer in mod­ern sto­ry­telling at least since Emily Brontë wrote “Wuther­ing Heights.” Push­ing things a step fur­ther, artists such as the film­maker Fed­erico Fellini or the nov­el­ist Philip Roth have baited au­di­ences into con­flat­ing the lives of their pro­tag­o­nists with the lives of their cre­ators in re­spec­tive works such as “81/2” and “Op­er­a­tion Shy­lock.” Though both tech­niques strive to keep an au­di­ence off-bal­ance, won­der­ing what a story is about car­ries less of an in­ti­mate charge than won­der­ing if the voice of the creator is speak­ing di­rectly to you.

This neb­u­lous re­la­tion­ship be­tween a creator and his au­di­ence is the sub­ject of “The Begin­ner’s Guide,” an ex­tra­or­di­nary game by Davey Wre­den. To my knowl­edge, Wre­den is the first ma­jor game de­signer to place him­self, as a char­ac­ter, at the cen­ter of a game that lures one into mea­sur­ing the dis­tance be­tween it and its creator.

In late 2013, Wre­den and his co-creator Wil­liam Pugh be­came the toast of the video game industry af­ter the com­mer­cial re­lease of “The Stan­ley Para­ble.” Their work, which is funny and pen­sive, is one of the artis­tic peaks of the medium. It’s the rare item, like “The Old City: Leviathan” or “This War of Mine,” that I rec­om­mend to peo­ple with lit­tle or no back­ground in video games.

“The Stan­ley Para­ble” tells the story of an of­fice worker who dis­cov­ers that his co-work­ers have dis­ap­peared. Stan­ley, how­ever, is never truly left on his own since he is shad­owed by a voice-over nar­ra­tor who tries to in­ter­pret and guide his ac­tions. The witty, af­fa­ble nar­ra­tor (ma­jes­ti­cally voiced by Ke­van Bright­ing) tries to coax Stan­ley into per­form­ing a se­ries of tasks. And like a righ­teously dis­grun­tled of­fice worker, it’s up to the player to suss out all of the means of de­fi­ance. One’s de­ci­sions lead to a small set of out­comes that shat­ter the il­lu­sion of free choice in spec­tac­u­lar ways.

In an In­ter­net post called Game of the Year, Wre­den de­scribed the avalanche of at­ten­tion he re­ceived for the game, “the e-mails from fans and jour­nal­ists ask­ing over and over and over and over and over where the idea for the game came from,” as well as the “thou­sands of peo­ple ask­ing you to carry some amount of weight for them, to hear them, to talk to them, to tell them that things are go­ing to be okay, to not turn them away.”

Know­ing this makes Wre­den’s new game, “The Be­gin­ners Guide,” all the more ironic for the way in which it de­picts the re­la­tion­ship be­tween an overea­ger “Davey Wre­den” and a reclu­sive game de­signer, provoca­tively named Coda, the pur­ported creator of the games in­side of the game. At the start, the fic­tional “Wre­den” (voiced by the ac­tual Wre­den) in­forms us that he’ll be act­ing as our guide through Coda’s games. Be­gin­ning with an aus­tere, de­sert­themed map, “Wre­den” chats about the idio­syn­cra­sies of Coda’s first ef­fort: a mod for “Coun­ter­Strike” — the ul­tra com­pet­i­tive first-per­son shooter. Coda’s user­cre­ated level con­tains nei­ther firearms nor en­e­mies. Aside from that, its most no­table fea­tures are ab­stract cubes sus­pended in the air. Con­cen­trat­ing on this de­tail, “Wre­den” re­marks on Coda’s habit of leav­ing quirks through­out his games to sig­nal that it was made by an in­di­vid­ual, not some mind­less cog.

As the lev­els progress, they grow more con­cep­tu­ally rich. In the sec­ond chap­ter, the player is faced with a brick wall that says, “The past was be­hind her.” To reach the exit of the short level, the player must walk back­wards — an ac­tion that cre­ates a vis­ual metaphor for the clar­ity with which we per­ceive of the past as op­posed to our blind grop­ing to­ward the fu­ture.

Over the stretch of “The Begin­ner’s Guide,” which takes about as long as a fea­ture film to com­plete, it be­comes ev­i­dent that “Wre­den” is not only pre­sent­ing and in­ter­pret­ing the work but edit­ing it as well. In the fourth chap­ter, the player comes upon a long stair­case at­tached to a build­ing, at the top of which a door is ajar. Part­way up the stair­case, one’s mo­men­tum is slowed to a crawl. “Wre­den” con­strues this as a sym­bol for the dif­fi­culty of try­ing to draw closer to Coda, and he of­fers a hot fix to re­turn the player to a nor­mal speed. I in­stinc­tively ig­nored his short­cut on my first go-around, though, pre­fer­ring to ex­pe­ri­ence the level as Coda in­tended.

The ten­sion be­tween Coda, who wants his work to speak for it­self, and “Wre­den,” who wants to share that work with the widest au­di­ence pos­si­ble, echoes the co-de­pen­dent re­la­tion­ship be­tween the nar­ra­tor and Stan­ley. But in “The Begin­ner’s Guide,” I be­lieve, the player’s job is not to push against some ex­ter­nal de­mand — what the nar­ra­tor tells you to do — but to push against the in­ter­pre­ta­tions made by “Wre­den” and Coda.

We should be alert to the ways that “Wre­den” col­ors our per­cep­tions of Coda’s work. But we should re­main equally on guard against Coda’s ideal, which finds ex­pres­sion through his games, that art should be re­ceived meekly and ap­pre­ci­ated in si­lence. The truth is that with­out “Wre­den’s” in­ter­fer­ence, much of Coda’s work would ap­pear ob­tuse and un­playable. “Wre­den” spares us, for in­stance, from be­ing locked in a pri­son cell for an hour as per the creator’s orig­i­nal in­tent. All of this is fur­ther mud­died by the fact that Coda — and his sta­tus as a creator — may in fact be wholly fic­tional, an added layer to the real Wre­den’s project.

If all of this sounds a bit heady, that’s be­cause “The Begin­ner’s Guide” is stocked with ideas worth con­tem­plat­ing. It’s also one of the most emo­tion­ally alive games on the mar­ket. Its ab­stract game spa­ces would be much di­min­ished with­out the flawed, vul­ner­a­ble nar­ra­tor des­per­ately try­ing to rec­tify his mis­takes. Wher­ever the real Wre­den stands in re­la­tion to his cre­ation, I don’t know, nor do I know the ex­tent to which Coda is a wholly fic­tional char­ac­ter. But what I do know is that few game de­vel­op­ers have ever ven­tured such an open­hearted project about hu­man frailty — and knocked it out of or­bit.

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