By Shonté Daniels
This month’s guest post comes to us from games writer and poet Shonté Daniels. Daniels is currently an editorial assistant at RH Reality Check, and her work has appeared in Motherboard, The Hooded Utilitarian, Kill Screen and elsewhere. You can follow her at Twitter @JohnnyxH.
“As is painting, so is poetry: some pieces will strike you more if you stand near, and some, if you are at a greater distance: one loves the dark; another, which is not afraid of the critic’s subtle judgment, chooses to be seen in the light.” – Horace, “Ars Poetica”
The first example of ars poetica was less a poem and more a rambling conversation. While technically a form, ars poetica has no required amount of lines or set rhyme scheme. It is simply a poem that examines the art of poetry and the act of writing. The Roman poet, Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace), wrote “Epistle to the Pisos”—popularly known as “Ars Poetica”—back around 19 BCE to the Piso family, Lucious Piso and his two sons. He intended for the epistle poem to act as a guide for young poets on the craft (ars) of writing poetry (poetica). Rather than mimicking the language from a guide book, “Ars Poetica” moves like an informal and intimate letter. Horace is more interested in asking how poetry might please the reader than asking what poetry is. It avoids literary theory; rather, Horace speaks as if conversing with like-minded people who enjoy poetry as much as he does.
When I played through Davey Wreden’s second game, The Beginner’s Guide, I felt it pulled away from contemporary gaming conventions and closer to Horace’s epistle. For one, Davey uses himself as the game’s narrator and protagonist. The Beginner’s Guide starts by Davey introducing himself and the game’s main objective. “We’re going to look at the games made by a friend of mine named Coda,” he says, in a similar tone to a school teacher asking his students to take their notebooks out. Davey goes so far as to share his own email address, further blurring the line between the game and reality.
Confessional games have been around since before The Beginner’s Guide. The use of the “I”, however, when referring to a game’s creator is a relatively new tendency in a current trend of experimental games that are self-reflective and intimate. Older titles such as Minority Media’s Papo & Yo  and Nina Freeman’s how do you Do It  have helped pioneer the push away from player-centric games. This technique, however, is at least decades old in poetry. Horace, too, uses a first-person perspective when addressing beginner poets in his epistle. Nor is this game the first to comment on the state of gaming through play. Wreden’s first game, The Stanley Parable , took a critical look at game design and the conceptual absurdity of player choice.
But beyond the confessional aspect, The Beginner’s Guide says more about the overall state of making games and loving the people who make them. Like “Ars Poetica”, The Beginner’s Guide feels like a starting point for designers hoping to understand their craft. Both artists teach their respective art through conversation and personal story; both are revolutionary in using themselves as part of their craft in order to teach it. Much like Horace’s letter is used as a manual for poets even today, Wreden’s work feels like a genuine guide to being a game designer and an introduction to the internal struggles artists face. The first step, according to both Horace and Wreden, is recognizing the many choices artists must make. In fact, both The Beginner’s Guide and “Ars Poetica” start by addressing the same theme: unity.
The first of Coda’s games we see is a basic design of a 3D environment taken from a Counter-Strike level. Initially, the level appears to be a standard, small desert town commonly used in war games, but as the player walks around the area, she sees that Coda has placed crates and colorful boxes all over the level. Some are floating where no player can reach. The floating crates “destroy the illusion that this actually is a desert town,” says Davey. Instead, they remind the player that the environment was created by both an artist and human. A small change, like adding colorful boxes, breaks the traditional desert warzone tone and establishes a new and whimsical mystery. The level is no longer a Counter-Strike level; it is unequivocally Coda’s.
Horace begins “Ars Poetica” by addressing the idea of harmony in poetry. “If a painter should wish to unite a horse’s neck to a human head,” he asks, “and spread a variety of plumage over limbs [of different animals] taken from every part [of nature]…could you, my friends, refrain from laughter, were you admitted to such a sight?” He admits artists should be able to create whatever they desire, “but not to such a degree, that the tame should associate with the savage; nor that serpents should be coupled with birds, lambs with tigers.”
Horace most certainly shows his age here; movements like Dadaism and Surrealism did much in the 1900s to normalize the idea of strange creatures and impossible figures in art. But what Horace is speaking of in this circumstance is the importance of restraint and balance. Placing too many things in one poem may ruin its cohesion and sense of flow. The lines begin to clash, and the poem is at war with itself. In many ways, this struggle for harmony is exactly the relationship Davey and Coda represent. They are two game designers with very differing views of what a game should mean to them.
In The Beginner’s Guide, players are encouraged to explore Coda’s original work, but occasionally, Davey will interfere for the player’s convenience. A door that was originally designed to only open after hours of waiting, for example, suddenly unlocks thanks to Davey’s hand. In another example, Davey places a golden bridge over Coda’s invisible maze. The stark contrast between Davey’s bright bridge and Coda’s maze, which lives in a dark, haunting tower, marks an indisputable clashing of both aesthetics and differing ideas of play. Where Coda believes his games are meant for his eyes only, Davey seeks to share his game with his audience and enforces easy accessibility. As Horace states, “one [piece] loves the dark; another, which is not afraid of the critic’s subtle judgment, chooses to be seen in the light.” The important thing to note, though, is that Coda is not afraid of the critic’s judgement simply because his games don’t have mass appeal; perhaps he just doesn’t care about outside approval, and he would not be wrong for feeling that way. Meanwhile, Davey, whose pieces are more accessible, works to meet the player’s expectations in order to ultimately receive praise. Though The Beginner’s Guide sets Davey and Coda up to be polar opposites, the truth is that the two artists are not so mutually exclusive.
Horace viewed poetry through a humanistic lens, and understood good poetry did not come from madness or sheer inspiration, but practice and education. Believing a poet is either light or dark would not make sense to Horace, because humans are so multifaceted. He does understand, though, the distinction in art even when it comes from the same artist. In reality, an artist is imbued in both light and dark, and their art will follow suit. Some games will be personal, and greatly distance themselves from a mass audience; others will seek the spotlight. What the in-game Davey must learn is this is not a war between either dark or light, but a marriage between them.
I think it’s possible Coda is based off of a real person, but I also don’t believe that question is relevant. Fact or fiction, Coda represents the part of a game designer that makes games for himself, while Davey enjoys making accessible games that can be enjoyed by many. In her piece about The Beginner’s Guide, writer Cara Ellison suspects that Coda is “the inner game designer, and Wreden takes the persona of the audience, the player base, the side of Wreden who wants to feed the machine.” The two characters each represent a game designer who struggles with wanting to make art for art’s sake, and with creating art for a following and a profit. Horace’s advice for poets hinges on the battle that Davey’s mired in: either follow tradition or invent new rules. Make art that either inspires or profits.
Horace would probably lean toward Davey’s artistic philosophy. Horace, as aforementioned, believed the audience to be an important factor for artists. He also believed publishing and receiving criticism to be a healthy part of being a poet. Yet, when it comes to creating poetry to either instruct or please, Horace says it’s possible to do either, or both simultaneously. Similarly, Horace believes the choice between being profitable and intellectual is not a difficult one to make.
He writes, “Poets wish either to profit or to delight; or to deliver at once both the pleasures and the necessaries of life. Whatever precepts you give, be concise.” Like poetry, games do not need to be either intellectual or simple; it’s possible to live in both realms, so long as the creator deliberately chooses. Wishy-washy behavior causes confusion and weaker art.
Although, it’s important to note that this imbalance is not necessarily a battle between opposing sides as much as it is a fact that experimental titles do not see the same sort of support. Take game development studio Tale of Tales leaving games after releasing their title, Sunset. The studio sought to create evocative pieces, but even when Sunset was released in hopes of finding more lucrative success, the title did not earn them enough to survive. Sunset, with its progressive narrative and simple point-and-click gameplay, still could not garner enough attention to help the devs stay afloat. “Our desire to reach a wider audience was not motivated by a need for money,” say Tale of Tales’ Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey, “but a feeling of moral obligation.” They go on to note that accessibility can mean making a better world, and since funding for experimental videogames has been slowly depleting both in Belgium and all over the world, they saw Sunset as their chance to show the need for such funding in games. Unfortunately, their plan was not successful, and this was only one of the higher profile cases of experimental devs struggling to find stability; these stories are numerous.
Coda did not fail due to indecisiveness. In fact, he did not fail, period. Coda is a part of a community that does not know how to support him. Where Horace states poets have the ability to choose how to move between profit and the personal, games have yet to figure out how to support less conventional titles. Davey’s struggle is in part knowing that Coda, the internal designer, cannot completely exist in gaming today.
This is something game creators—especially those who make popular titles—must negotiate with themselves. Clearly, big-budget titles rely on the demand of their audience to create financial success. While smaller titles, with smaller budgets and less risk, also depend on an audience for success, the lowered risk allows artists more room to experiment with the craft. Yet, that doesn’t mean independent artists don’t yearn for and deserve their own recognition.
Part of Davey’s problem in The Beginner’s Guide is his insecurity in reconciling with his success. Though the question may be whether or not to make art for profit or for personal pleasure, it seems Davey has been able to do both. The Beginner’s Guide feels intimate, as if the player has no business listening in. It instructs the player on the life of a game developer. It’s pleasurable to play. And based off of the multiple reviews published during the game’s release, it’s also successful. It’s multifaceted and complex, much like the life of the artist.
It’s important to recognize that poetry has been around for ages. It’s been tinkered with and written about for centuries. Although it still is not perfect, poetry has come a long way in accepting poems of different forms, and poets from different worlds. Games, however, were created in the mid-1900s and have for years now been embroiled in their own turf wars over who gets to decide what games are allowed to be. These tensions have since become more visible due to the recent online attacks on those (particularly women) who wish to push games beyond the status quo. Much like with Coda and Davey, the rift has not yet mended. But because The Beginner’s Guide exists, perhaps progress is being made.
“Ars Poetica” came out only a few years before Horace died in 8 BCE. His epistle was the product of years of experience and expertise. Davey, while also very skillful, is a young guy coming along with recent success for his two games. It feels both appropriate and necessary that The Beginner’s Guide is a starting conversation on how to make games in the unstable environment they currently inhabit.
There isn’t really a list or convenient book that has all the answers to how to be a skillful game creator. There is no easy way to be a poet, or game designer, or artist at all. Even Horace’s words, which are praised and still followed today, were written in tangents and ramblings. But the conversation Davey brings to games feels reminiscent of any art form that is finally settling itself on its feet, and discovering how to walk.