This is a difficult game to write about, but a few hours after playing it, I’m left with several thoughts and feelings still floating around about what I’ve experienced. There’s a lot to process and possibly more than I think I’ll be able to get to here. I’ll be interested in replaying it and seeing where things stand from there, but for now this is what I’ve taken away from the game.
There will be spoilers as I go, but I’ll warn you when they come.
I heard good things about The Beginner’s Guide but not any details about what it was. At first I assumed it was a video game about being a rogue leftover part of a game in the middle of being made (The Magic Circle, I think) so as it turned out I knew even less than I thought about the game. It’s by Davey Wreden who made The Stanley Parable, a fantastic game which my brother introduced me to the demo of by insisting it was entirely different to the game itself. It was and the game is something fantastic to experience. This is a little along those lines as far as using the mechanics of a video game to tell a story.
The game stars one speaking character; Davey Wreden. He narrates the games which make up The Beginner’s Guide, acting as a kind of documentary of the works of a person called Coda. Coda’s a character whose personality and backstory is only provided by the commentary of Davey and the designs you walk through. I guess in a way you are the third character as the audience member walking through Coda’s world, curated by Davey.
To start off with, you’re wandering a Counter Strike map designed by Coda and right away there are things wrong with it, only visible once you start moving within the world. I knew a few people who tinkered with CS back in the day and it places this designer firmly in the era of people modding games that I know of. The errors look like they could be due to a first-timer learning what they’re doing but Davey tells us of recurring themes in the work of Coda. There are floating boxes, strange cubes and dead ends. It’s alienating and within or without the fiction it’s entirely on purpose to set the tone. We are not a person in the world, we’re a witness to a game being designed.
Once you have had a bit of a search and heard what Davey has to say, we skip ahead in time to the next project of Coda’s. It’s a space game with a non-working gun and an actual maze. Again, it’s something an amateur or an artist may have made and Davey has his own insights. The look of the levels are oddly charming in the same way that I find using the old graphics as to see how the original looked back in the day. There’s a moment where you die and Davey talks about Coda’s intent simply be that you die, only he experienced a bug which he replicates. You’re elevated into the air and can see the maze, the ship, all without a ceiling and the edges of the game world. There are sharp corners on the background and space itself is just a box you’re in. This is important, this change of perspective.
The narrative of The Beginner’s Guide is presented through the game’s mechanics, but on several levels. One of the next games is one where you play a character who can only move backwards through a level. This section is something which I could imagine standing on its own easily enough and has messages unique to the game as well as to the greater narrative. It reminded me a little of Passage which was a game asking whether you want freedom with loneliness or companionship with restriction. There was no right answer in that game. This one the restriction’s a little more linear and you switch between the ability to see what’s ahead or the ability to move without seeing to navigate. Again, this is important. All of it is. There are puzzles, but not many, this is more of a journey than anything else, but a ‘walking game’ which uses the minimal mechanics of the game to its’ advantage. In games like Dear Esther, you would be in awe of a heavily detailed world but at a loss of what exactly to do between chunks of narration. Here, the worlds are small and bite-sized, the worlds can be as small as a single room or massive and awe-inspiring.
Davey talks of the grander designs being experimented with and the meaning behind it all, as well as his experiences with Coda in real life. His interpretation of things like the series of small prison games, the domesticity of one game. There are recurring styles presented and some aspects evolve which reflects Coda’s growth as a person. His voice is only really experienced by little floating circles in one level and the dialogue options in a handful of games. Otherwise we’ve got the mechanics and Davey’s accounts as all you have to go on.
It’s fascinating to see and for ninety minutes as a documentary, fake or otherwise, it makes for a great use of the medium. The games themselves are fairly small and definite works in progress, but there’s something which has inspired the narrator and hearing his analysis of it helps drive us through. And this is where we get to the spoilers.
As the game goes on, it becomes evident that there’s a lot about depression going on in the game. Coda is someone who didn’t bother to release his games, but he did build several of them even if they’re just half-thought-out ideas. In one there’s a simple puzzle which you are given the ability to remove the walls from. Once you do, there’s a massive labyrinth sprawling off into the distance, all of it half-finished, but from your perspective on the platform from where you completed a simple puzzle, it’s beautiful. The ideas aren’t all formed and he’s evidently troubled by him inability to put it all out in a game. He is questioned and tormented by elements of it.
The ‘creator with depression’ is a cliche, but it is one for a reason. As I stood on the platform, looking at the maze with no way of actually getting there, I was struck by the sense of my own work. So many of these games were half-finished and just abandoned until Davey found them. How many of my own works have been left in the filing cabinet I never open. I have notepads stacked up to prop up a broken set of shelves which have yet more notepads resting on it. I don’t remember all of the projects. They’re half-finished and I’m sure several aren’t all that good. These are often like that. Davey’s found context within all of them, even when they’re simply walking forward in a small patch of darkness with a little sign at the end.
Especially once dialogue is introduced, there’s curiosity followed by introspection and frustration with the creative process. A few of the pieces of dialogue seem to refer to previous games in the series which implies that they were meant to be experienced in a group or with this curated experience, or possibly are an error, or possibly something else.
As a writer, the process is often like pulling teeth. Sometimes it can feel thankless and endless, especially if you’re not creating anything that’s actually going out there. Until recently I stalled with my novel as it felt like I would never find a cover artist and never get my act together with it. My situation looks to have changed and I’m spurred on for now, but I still sleep in the same room as the corpses of several creative projects.
WHAT, EVEN MORE SPOILERS?
Examining a creative work changes it, filters it through the eyes of the audience. We’re seeing that here, both through you the audience and from Davey himself. There are optional workarounds and ‘fixes’ to the games to make them playable, inserted by Davey. He adds platforms, hints, skips ahead. We see the cries of help from a depressive and the stunted creativity, but how much of that is Coda, Davey or you? We all bring ourselves to any creativity we experience, but what happens when the analysis overwrites the original book?
The version of Davey who is narrating this series of games is someone who derives meaning from experiencing and passing on someone else’s work. He gets a level of joy and satisfaction from picking it apart and given his close proximity to the work means that the author can see what’s being done. Davey passes out his work and tinkers with it all throughout.
In a way, that labyrinth visible early in the game via a bug is one of the key themes; perspective of a game from a new level. Davey looked at the world and that there was more hidden inside it. He saw a man who went mechanics-first into games and fixated on a making a prison level, but Davey’s interpretation was that this was more than perfecting a prison level. The Coda we see in all the little messages he’s stored in a level doesn’t really imply as much of the tortured artist Davey picks up on. The dialogue referring to other games is no longer trustworthy, nor are a lot of the levels given how many parts had to be ‘fixed’ by Davey.
We interpret art in our own ways, we take it on and love it, but then our readings can be ours instead of the author’s. That’s something forgotten here by Davey. He reads himself into Coda, but in turn we are reading ourselves into Davey. The intent of Coda could be a level of this depression Davey reads into it, but could also be just enjoying mechanics.
I run role-playing games and have always said that as an unpublished author it gives me a hit having an audience who are experiencing and enjoying fiction I’m creating, even if it’s a half-dozen people. I lend out media in all forms to people and I write reviews of games. Maybe they are all done through the same drive. We write reviews for you to see whether the game is enjoyable, whether it’s worth buying and investing time in, but we also do it for us. Davey Wreden dedicated this game to, “R.” This feels like fiction, but then who knows how much truth there is to this. I don’t think the answer matters as much as your interpretation and experience of the game. It twists and turns not in a way which is meant to have you jump and then make all the previous scenes worthless, instead each reveal builds on what you’ve seen and pushes you forwards. It’s about an artist, it’s about how we interact with games, it’s about a reviewer, it’s about their relationship. It’s about all of them and as short as the game is, it felt heartbreaking by the end. You’re brought in for Davey’s ride and the very act of analysis of art is brought into question. It’s beautiful and strange for something so simplistic-looking and so short. The use of game mechanics as narrative make it an experience unique to games and all the better for it.
Reviewed on PC; game was purchased by the reviewer