These are unpolished thoughts. I started playing again for sources and to refine these ideas, but the game crashes so often that I’m giving up. Still think some folks might find this interesting. Spoilers everywhere.
In the opening, Davey notes that the CounterStrike level appears to be a desert town, but Coda has scattered these floating boxes and out-of-place, brightly-colored cubes in the level: a reminder that the game is not exactly what it purports to be. “Calling cards”, he calls them. A reminder that the game was created by a real person. “They are all going to give us access to their creator. I want to see past the games themselves. I want to know who the real person is.”
Jump up a level. We’re not just interested in learning about Coda as a person. We’re interested in understanding Davey as a person, too. What were the rough circumstances in Davey’s life? How did Coda’s work help? If each level tells us something about Coda, the purported author, then The Beginner’s Guide tells us something about Davey. And in another sense, the characters of Davey and Coda tells us something about the real Davey, and the people on his team. For instance, regardless of how we interpret the narrative’s characters, it’s likely safe to say that the real Davey is interested in questions of authorial intent.
There are a number of visual and narrative motifs in the game (labyrinths, apparently insolvable puzzles, unreachable domains, geometric floating shards, self-doubt, communication) but three artifacts are especially common–I read them as calling cards. The triple-dot pattern is placed supposedly by Coda, and Davey questions what it means. Davey tells us the door puzzles were placed by Coda, and Davey assigns an interpretation to them. The lamp-posts are inserted by Davey into the levels themselves: a calling card which Coda explicitly rejects.
You know what else feels out of place to me? The Machine levels. Davey interprets the search for The Machine as Coda’s quest to rediscover his own creative drive. Oh yeah. That resonates. I often feel that my best work is behind me, and that my current work is hopeless. But then we interrogate the machine, intimidate it, and denounce it to the public, before destroying our own work and finally the machine itself. I remember clicking through the dialog trees, growing more and more perplexed. Who… who feels this way? Who… attacks their own creative drive in front of the public? It doesn’t ring true at all.
This bugged me, until, late in the night after finishing the game, something flipped. Davey interprets Coda’s games as a conversation with themself. Solipsistic. Writing thousands of “internet comments” alone. Conversing with one’s former self. Playing as student and gifted lecturer. A performance of social anxiety in meeting a talenter person, followed by withdrawal.
The games aren’t that at all. They’re a conversation between Coda and Davey, and Davey’s progressive violation of Coda’s emotional boundaries.
Davey “comes on a little strong” when they first meet. He seeks inspiration and advice from Davey at a dark time in his life. He breaks Coda’s games, skipping labyrinths, hacking past puzzles. When Davey asks for more playable games, Coda responds with hundreds of empty games with nothing to do. And the more Davey searches for–and constructs meaning in Coda’s work, the more explicit Coda’s messages of rejection become. Davey’s desperate search for inspiration in Coda’s work is reflected in the Islands: a search for the creative Machine, Coda themself. As Davey takes on a mediator role, presenting Coda’s work to the world, and seeking validation from the public, Coda produces a Machine level in which Davey captures (again, imprisonment) and interrogates (again, critique) Coda themself. Davey delivers a vengeful speech to the public–and literally blows holes in Coda’s worlds–in progressively more intimate spaces–as Davey has hacked his way past the labyrinths, the jail cells, the staircase slowdown, the tower puzzles.
The machine is Coda, yes, but the player is not, as Davey argues, Coda themself. It’s Davey.
Their conversation becomes most explicit when the conflict between unreliable narrator and absent subject blows to the surface: the Tower level literally spells out Davey’s violation of Coda’s boundaries. And we, the players, through our own damned curiosity, have become not only complicit in this violation, but are now present, uncomfortably, in an intimate conversation between two characters. A conversation that reveals an ugly truth to Davey–but also blows apart any semblance of trust between Davey-as-narrator and us, the audience.
It’s been building for some time, for sure. I read Davey as unreliable and breaching trust somewhere around the Comments level, so the emotional impact of the Tower was somewhat diminished, but… still, it works. On a lot of levels.
And from there, what then? Davey drifts away, sickening justifications blowing in the wind. He mutters something about having to work on himself. Coda is absent altogether. Who built these levels? Coda? Davey? Both, layered? The game team alone–speaking as neither character?
We kill ourselves, and reveal, again, a labyrinth. A calling card. Labyrinths are special: like the game itself, they have no branch points, no choices. We’re there to reflect and experience.
The artifact in the game is not a labyrinth. It’s a maze.