I am wrapped in pop culture. Literally. In my Doctor Who bedsheets, overlooked by Mad Max and Manhattan posters, I stare at the plush Alien facehugger lurking in the corner of my bedroom. Pop culture is everywhere around me. It has come to define me. I brandish my Netflix queue and crowded Steam library as shields against unwelcome social excursions; I’ve even built pop culture into my career, devoting my day-to-day existence to the discussion of other people’s cultural creations.
But just as pop culture defines me, so do I define it. The Alien I see is not the same as yours, it is unique: shaped by an early exposure and the slow burn of a subsequent life-long obsession, filtered through the lens of its status as my Favorite Film, impervious to critical examination. My Ocarina of Time is different too, along with my Freaks and Geeks, my Please Please Me, and countless other fragments of a life lived through headphones and a screen. I have become absorbed by these works of art. I can’t help it. Yes, someone else makes them, but I appropriate them, corrupt them with my experiences and desires, layer them with meanings and interpretations for which my own life is the sole cipher.
So it is with The Beginner’s Guide, in which The Stanley Parable creator Davey Wreden subjects us to the collected works of his imaginary friend Coda, a developer of the sort of cryptic, fragmented gameplay experiences you might find at an artsy game jam, or by rummaging through the hard drives of an indie development studio. Wreden acts as curator and narrator, both presenting the games and offering insight along the way.
In one, I find that forwards movement is impossible. In others, it’s the only thing I’m able to do. Yet more eliminate movement entirely. One of them questions and challenges online social interaction, another allows me explore the simple, quiet satisfaction of household chores.
But before the games even begin, before I’m even allowed to set foot in any of these virtual worlds, Wreden makes his presence felt, a lone voice in the dark offering constant narration. No matter what I do, he is quick to explain my actions to me, and reluctant to let me explore. A frequent, buzzing irritation, he offers his interpretation of my every experience before I have the chance to form my own, explaining its structure, its deeper meaning, even its relation to games up ahead I’ve yet to lay eyes on. I hate him.
I’m worried I might be him.
I want him to be wrong, I look for signs that his interpretations are flawed, his arguments invalid, but the games seem to support his every conjecture. The more I play, the more his take on Coda’s oeuvre seems unassailable. He knows these games better than I do, understands them better, and won’t let me see them any other way. I know his views before even my own, and as soon as he’s done sharing them, I find myself whisked to the next game with no time to think. I am forced to take him at his word, accept his judgment entirely. Wreden’s versions of these games are filling my head, consuming me, driving me mad.
Wreden is the arch-critic, impervious, objective, armed with a prepared analysis for everything he encounters. Sure, this is bred in part by his intimate familiarity with every game he presents (as he himself admits) but on the other hand, is what he does so different than my job? When I, as a critic, declare some film or game a success or failure, announce with certainty my understanding of its themes and ideas, am I not just another Wreden?
More worryingly, is this how others perceive me? To my friends and family, am I so obnoxiously opinionated on all matters pop culture? As I offer my verdict on the latest film releases, informing them what they should and shouldn’t see, do they want my opinion? Did they even ask for it? Am I forcing my viewpoint onto them, insisting that my perspective, my experience, supersede their own? Am I doing this to you, dear reader, at this very moment?
Wreden even shares with me what some might see as a deeper blasphemy: the desire to wrest a creation from its creator, to claim an understanding, an insight, that surpasses even that of the individual responsible for bringing it into the world. Anyone who’s ever suffered through an interview with an average musician attempting to explain their own compositions should feel some kinship here. Even so, it takes a special sort of arrogance to claim such knowledge, an arrogance Wreden bears proudly. An arrogance I share, but not without some shame.
The game’s final act is a triumphant release: I am granted absolution by a creator unaware of his own actions. Wreden and I are not so alike after all. He has taken ownership of Coda’s games in a more literal sense than I might ever dare, forced his interpretation upon them more directly than I could ever tolerate. He is not me, and I am thrilled to discover it.
We are all shaped by art, and we all shape it in return – every one of us a critic, some more afflicted by the malady than others.
This serves as a reassurance, but also a warning. I am not Wreden, but I could be. I share his impulses, his defects. What would it take for me to put them into practice?
No. His sins run deeper than mine, don’t they? I am not Wreden.
“Not yet,” the lone voice answers.